Carl Edwin Armerding discusses the evidence for non-Levitical priests in the pre-exilic era.

Carl Edwin Armerding

Carl Edwin Armerding, “Were David’s Sons Really Priests?” Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation: Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney Presented by His Former Students, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1975), 75-86

Carl Edwin Armerding
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This brings us to the matter of David’s two lists of officials. In the first one (2 Sam 8:18) David’s two lists of officials. In the first one (2 Sam 8:18) David’s two sons are listed as priests, along with Zadok and Abiathar, while in the second list (2 Sam 20;:26) Ira the Jairite is listed, again with Zadok and Abiathar, as David’s priest. Since there is no indication that either David’s sons or Ira were Levites. I can only surmise that they were part of another order, perhaps partaking of the royal order connected with the Jerusalem shrine, which David himself served as a monarch under Yahweh in his country. This could be argued more conclusively with the sons of David, because of the nature of the relationship, but it may have been true of Ira as well.

At the close of David’s life we see the same sacrificial role being undertaken by his son Adonijah (1 Kgs 1:9, 18), the latter activity with the assistance of Abiathar. The sacrificial act of Adonijah, moreover, is most significant, as it was conducted before all of the important men of Israel by the Serpent’s Stone by the spring Rogel (En-Rogel, 1 Kgs 1:9). It seem highly suggestive of the fact that Adonijah was proclaiming himself the new “priest-king” in place of his father, or at least it was interpreted as such by Bathsheba, Nathan, and eventually David. Later the same day Solomon is anointed at another spring, this time by the priest Zadok (1 Kgs 1:38-40), but there is no mention of sacrifice in the hastily prepared ceremony. It is only from Solomon’s later activities that we may conclude that he too considered himself the chief intermediary between his people and Yahweh.

Solomon’s priestly activities parallel those of his father David. He prays at Gibeon (1 Kgs 3:15), after which a major effort is given to the construction of the temple the priests are involved (1 Kgs 8:3-4), but it is Solomon himself who leads the procession, sacrificing (1 Kgs 8:5, 62-64), blessing the assembly (1 Kgs 8:12-21, 55-61), interceding before God (1 Kgs 8:22-53), and making covenant with Yahweh (1 Kgs 9).

In a summary of his activities, the author of Kings (1 Kgs 9:25) notes that Solomon would offer burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar three times a year. The following chapter (1 Kgs 10:5) cites the number and splendor of Solomon’s burnt offerings as part of that which amazed the Queen of Sheba.

Finally, Solomon, like David, had a list of court officials. Together with the usual reference to Zadok and Abiathar (though the latter is ultimately deposed), there is reference mentioned above, to one Zabud ben Nathan, who was the King’s Friend. The textual problem has already been discussed, but either Zabud or his father Nathan is called a priest (kōhēn), and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that we have here the same order of priesthood noted earlier in David’s time. If the father of Zabud is the same Nathan the prophet who was David’s adviser (1 Kgs 1:10, etc.) there is no indication that he had a Levitical background. Again, it is difficult to know whether such men as Ira and Zabud had any connection with the royal priesthood, but obviously both served in a special way in the Jerusalem court.

Throughout the time of the monarchy various examples of royal-priestly activities could be given, but the examples noted should be sufficient. They hold special significance in light of Ps 110, an enthronement hymn, which ties together the old Canaanite Melchizedek royal priesthood with the Judean monarchy of David, Solomon and their successors. Although some evangelical Christians through the years have shown a notable reticence to apply Messianic Psalm terminology to OT individuals, it seems obvious to me that there was a strong sense of royal-priestly ideology that existed in early Israel, and a psalm like Ps 110 simply shows us the chain of thinking by which this ideology was expressed. Melchizedek provides the prototype, and it is after his “order” (‘al dibrātî) that David and Solomon are to be thought of as priests. This order is different from the Aaronic one, and it would require a full exegesis of the Ps 10 elucidate the matter. The royal priest is not such by human investiture, and his commission is irrevocable. He sits (figuratively) at God’s right hand, unlike Levitical priests who are not so directly in God’s presence, and he rules in the midst of all his foes. His scepter, coming forth from Zion, will ultimately judge all nations.

It is easy to see why later interpreters have been loath to see in these so-called “enthronement” Pss any reference to a human king. But I am convinced that we need not accept popular ideas about annual re-enthronement feasts or excessive conclusions of the myth and ritual school to appreciate the valid growth and development of this idea in the ongoing history of Israel. I submit that he concept of royal priesthood, which began with Melchizedek, continued to grow, though unconsciously, in the non-royal figures of Moses and Samuel, and came to full flower when the monarchy was established in Zion under the covenant God gave to David (2 Sam 7). If such hymns as Pss 2 and 110 were indeed used in the enthronement of Judea monarchs, it was with the continued hope that each subsequent king would be “the one who would come.” That none of the Judean kings ever fully lived up to the expectations made the longing for one who would do so all the more intense. Thus, when John the Baptist puts his very poignant question to our Lord (Matt 11:3), it is with these years of expectation and longing, and constant frustration, in mind.

Returning to the history and royal priesthood, it is my belief that Ps 110 was used in early times, and that both David and Solomon were conscious of holding a priestly investiture that was different from that of the Levitical order. After their time the picture of an ideal priest-king becomes less, rather than more, credible, until finally in the course of history the line of David seems to have disappeared completely in Babylonian exile. But even then, a few sparks of hope (e.g. the Jehoiachin survival and restoration, 2 Kgs 25:27-30) appeared, and after the exile the priest-king ideology is clearly a part of the prophetic message of Zechariah (especially Zech 6:9-14) and possibly Haggai. Again, hopes were dashed, and no ideal priest-king appeared. In the Hasmonean line of Judas Maccabeus, the priest-king ideology becomes a reality, but by the time of the actual investiture of Simon Maccabeus or more properly his son John Hyrcanus with the dual office, many pious observers had lost their hopes for any truly messianic figure to come form the line. It is in light of this long history of the idea that the NT writer of the letter to the Hebrews has developed the concept of our Lord’s priestly ministry “after the order of Melchizedek.” To deny that David and Solomon were priests, or that David’s sons could have been priests, is to break one of the important links in this chain.

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