“Sit at My Right Hand” – Royal Messianic Psalms 

Not only a king but also a priest forever; this is the surprising promise God makes to his Anointed in this messianic psalm. God’s people will be ruled by a mighty champion who will be both king and high priest.

Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey

Many of the psalms of ancient Israel were composed to be recited by the king or as prayers, thanksgivings, or blessings for the king. Some of these “royal” or “kingship” psalms (among them, 18, 20, 21, 45) celebrate events in the lives of Israel’s kings, who were considered God’s representatives on earth. (Such events might be a coronation ceremony, a ritual anointing,  an enthronement ceremony, a marriage, or a victory over enemies.)

Other psalms recall the promises God had made to King David – promises of an eternal dynasty and of a kingdom that would last forever. Because they were faced with the disasters and sins of the monarchy that unfolded after the reign of David, the people of Israel came to hope that these promises would be fulfilled in a “hero-king” yet to come. This anointed leader or “Messiah” (in Hebrew, mashiah means “anointed one”) would be descended from David and would throw off the oppressor’s yoke, restore the kingdom, and carry on the glorious reign of David forever.

Thus, Jews and Christians alike consider those royal psalms referring to the idea of the anointing of the king as “messianic” psalms (among them, 2, 72, 89, 110, and 132).

Christians also recognize as messianic several psalms of lament – 22, 31, 69, and 118. These laments have overtones of hope, victory, praise, and thanksgiving in them, as they refer to a figure that is scorned and humiliated yet ultimately vindicated, prefiguring Christ. (Christos is Greek for “anointed one.”) Consequently, Christians recite and pray both groups of messianic psalms as prophecies about Jesus, God’s anointed king and Messiah, who is also the crucified Lord, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father.

Psalm 110:1–7

1 The LORD says to my lord,
    “Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2 The LORD sends out from Zion
    your mighty scepter.
    Rule in the midst of your foes.
3 Your people will offer themselves willingly
    on the day you lead your forces
    on the holy mountains.
From the womb of the morning,
    like dew, your youth will come to you.
4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind,
    “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
5 The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
6 He will execute judgment among the nations,
    filling them with corpses;
he will shatter heads
    over the wide earth.
7 He will drink from the stream by the path;
    therefore he will lift up his head.

Jewish tradition interprets Psalm 110 as referring directly to the Davidic monarchy and to the Messiah-king-to-come, the son of David. Christians see in it a foreshadowing of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, true Son of God, the messianic king and eternal priest.

Originally, Psalm 110 was prayed – or delivered as an oracle by a prophet – at a new king’s coronation and enthronement ceremony. Verse 1 – “The Lord said to my lord, /’Sit at my right hand’” – means that the Lord God is speaking to the king and installs the king at his right hand, a place of prestige and honor. The New Testament writers see this as referring to Jesus and quote Psalm 110 more often than any other psalm. In particular, its first verse alone is quoted or alluded to at least ten times in the New Testament (Matthew 26:64; Mark 12:35-37; 14:61-62; 16:19; Luke 20:42-43; 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:13; 10:13).

Psalm 110 begins with the declaration that it is God who establishes the new king in his authority  over his people (signified by the “mighty scepter”) and brings him victory over his enemies, putting them under his feet (verses 1–2). Verse 4 speaks of the king inheriting a priestly role: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Like Melchizedek, who was both priest and king of Salem at the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20), the newly enthroned king of Jerusalem is also a priest.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews cites Psalm 110:4 to explain Christ’s priesthood and connect it to Melchizedek (5:5-6; 7:17, 21). The psalm’s prophecy is accomplished and the priesthood of Melchizedek is completed in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Moreover, as Pope Benedict XVI has noted, “the offering of bread and wine, made by Melchizedek in Abraham’s time” is fulfilled  by Jesus,  “who offers himself in the bread and in the wine and, having conquered death, brings life to all believers” (General Audience, November 16, 2011).

The final verses of Psalm 110 depict a triumphant sovereign. Supported by the Lord, who has given him power and glory, the king opposes his foes, crushing his adversaries and judging the nations. Verses 5–6 prophetically point to the Christian truth that in the ongoing battle between good and evil, Christ, our true King and Priest, prevails, victorious over Satan, sin, and evil. However, the New Testament refrains from applying the ancient mentality and gruesome imagery of verse 6 to Jesus in its literal sense: Christian theology understands that Jesus did not come to “shatter heads” and “heap up corpses” but rather to overthrow Satan so that mankind might be freed from bondage to sin and the power of darkness.

 Verse 7 – “He will drink from the stream by the path; / therefore he will lift up his head” – offers us an enigmatic image of the king. At a moment of respite during battle, he quenches his thirst at a stream, finding in it refreshment and fresh strength to continue on his triumphant way, holding his head high in the confidence and assurance of victory. This verse may be an allusion to a particular quasi-sacramental rite – drinking from the spring of Gihon, south of the city of Jerusalem, where the royal anointing ceremony took place (1 Kings 1:33, 8-40). It also calls to mind Gideon’s army, composed of those who had lapped water from the stream before battle with the Midianites (Judges 7:5-6).

In the Spotlight: Shedding Light on Scripture’s Obscurities

Countless variations exist between the many manuscripts containing portions of Scripture that were copied by hand and passed down during more than two millennia. For example, several verses in the Hebrew manuscripts from the tenth century A.D. differ from the Greek translation of the Hebrew found in the manuscripts of the fourth century A.D.

Occasionally, parts of the original texts were lost or badly corrupted. Consequently, translations into English and other vernaculars also differ in their renderings of difficult texts. Adding to the challenging task of translation is the fact that biblical Hebrew is written only with consonants. Thus, vowels, though sometimes indicated by diacritic marks, are unclear or ambiguous, so the meaning of many ancient Hebrew words can only be surmised.

Scholars recognize Psalm 110 as one of the oldest psalms. It’s also considered one of the most difficult to understand. In the Septuagint, a Greek translation made in the third to second centuries B.C. of the available Hebrew texts, verse 3 reads (though somewhat obscurely) as a description of the divine sonship of the king and his birth or “begetting” on the part of the Lord: “Yours is princely power from the day of your birth. / In holy splendor before the daystar, like the dew I begot you” (New American Bible). This is the interpretation that the Church accepted, and this reading of Psalm 110 has had a place in Sunday Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours from its beginning. Verse 3 has also been associated with the lucernarium (the ancient blessing of evening lights), referring as it does to the brightness of the daystar.

However, in some Hebrew texts, verse 3 seems to describe, also without much clarity, the “mustering” of an army and the nation’s people willingly responding and gathering around their sovereign on the day of his coronation. This meaning is reflected in the New Revised Standard Version: “Your people will offer themselves willingly / on the day you lead your forces /on the holy mountains. /From the womb of the morning, / like dew, your youth will come to you.”

Many uncertainties about how to best translate certain words and portions of the Hebrew Scriptures may never be resolved. Nonetheless, today’s biblical scholars and experts in the study of ancient languages continue to devote their skills and energies to shedding light on Scripture’s obscurities and bringing God’s inspired word to us as accurately as possible.


  1. How have you experienced Jesus’ kingship over your life? How does your life give concrete witness to others that Jesus is your Lord and Messiah? How do you show honor to the Lord in your life?
  2. What manifestations of Jesus kingly authority do you see in the world? In what ways might God be calling you to manifest his authority over heaven and earth? Are you willing to join the “forces on the holy mountain” (Psalm 110:3) to win the battle against sin and death?
  3. Recall an occasion when Christ delivered you from a difficulty that was overwhelming you. Are there any “enemies”—for example, sinful habits, negative attitudes or emotions, anxieties, false accusations against you—that are currently threatening to undermine your life or relationship with the Lord? How confident are you that God can (and will!) “put these enemies under your feet’? What might you do to grow in a deeper trust in God?
  4. Jewish authorities were hard-hearted in their view of Jesus and refused to consider that he might truly be the Messiah because they had false assumptions about what this promised one would be like and do. Think of a time when you failed to recognize God’s presence and action in your life because you were expecting something else. How did you finally become aware that the Lord was at work in those circumstances?
  5. As Christians, we are anointed as “priest, prophet, and king” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1546) to participate in the mission of Christ in the world. In what ways do you see yourself fulfilling these roles? How can you be a prophetic voice to your family, friends, and neighbors?

In the Spotlight: Messianic Psalms of Lament

As an observant Jew, Jesus prayed the psalms throughout his life, and words from them were on his lips during his agony on the cross. His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) comes from the opening of Psalm 22, a lament that ends in profound trust in God. And with his dying breath, Jesus cried, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:5).

Psalms 22, 31, 69, and 118 contain many images that correspond to details that the evangelists recorded about Jesus’ passion—for example, casting lots for Jesus’ garments (Psalm 22:9; Matthew 27:35) and giving vinegar to Jesus in his thirst (Psalm 69:21, John 19:29).

Psalm 118 in particular helped early Jewish believers who accepted Jesus as the Messiah understand his horrific death a part of his messianic identity and role. It serves as a link between the more purely messianic psalms about an anointed king to come, the glorious descendant of David, and psalms about a suffering figure, because it depicts one who is hard-pressed and under mortal threat (118:11-13) but then saved by God (118:14, 17).

As early Christians came to understand it, “the stone that the builders rejected,” who is Jesus, “has become the chief cornerstone” (118:22; Matthew 21:42; Mark 8:31; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7). Thus, the Church added these psalms of lament with their descriptions of suffering, shame, reproaches, mockery, and humiliation (and ultimately, deliverance as well) to the psalms they considered “messianic ” in their prophecies about Jesus. As the Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote:

When we recite the Psalms we must learn to recognize in them the suffering and triumphant Messiah, confessing Him with our mouth and believing in our heart that God has raised Him from the dead. Then we reap the abundant fruits of His Redemption. (Bread in the Wilderness)


1. Reflect on this observation from John Paul II:

The Fathers [of the Church] were firmly convinced that the Psalms speak of Christ. The risen Jesus, in fact, applied the Psalms to himself when he said to the disciples: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The Fathers add that in the Psalms, Christ is spoken to or it is even Christ who speaks. In saying this, they were thinking not only of the individual person of Christ, but of the Christus totus, the total Christ, composed of Christ the Head and his members. (General Audience, March 28, 2001)

Now read one of your favorite psalms as if it is Christ speaking to you. What difference does this make in how you pray the psalm? What might Jesus want to tell you? What might the “total Christ,” the Church, be saying?

2. Read and meditate on these words of the prophet Nathan regarding King David’s dynasty and the Gospel texts referring to how this is fulfilled in Jesus:

The word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: . . . the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. . . . Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
    Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord GOD; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. . . . And now, O Lord GOD, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord GOD, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.” 

2 Samuel 7:4-5, 11-14, 16-19, 28-29

The angel [Gabriel] said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Luke 1:30-35

When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
    because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21; see also Isaiah 61:1-2


Exercise your trust in Jesus, the Messiah, and his power to transform you. Look back at Question 3 in the Grow! section above. In light of your reflections on “enemies,” ask the Lord to “rescue” you. During the coming week, bring your needs before the Lord in prayer each day. Then cooperate with his work in you. Don’t forget to thank him for his saving action.

In the Spotlight: David’s Enduring Throne

Counted among the royal and messianic psalms, Psalm 89 joyously celebrates the unconditional promise that God made to establish King David’s dynasty. Although David and his descendants failed to keep God’s commands and were to be justly punished as a consequence (Psalm 89:31-33), God nevertheless declared,

I will not violate my covenant,
    or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
    I will not lie to David.
His line shall continue forever,
    and his throne endure before me like the sun.


However, in events that seemed to belie God’s word, Israel fell into disgrace at the hands of a foreign nation. Her king was brought down, and it appeared that David’s line had been cut off (Psalm 89:38-45). How could Israel reconcile this destruction with God’s promises? The situation required that God’s promise to David be understood in a new sense—as a description of an ideal king who would one day inherit David’s throne.

Psalm 89 ends with a great cry wrenched from the heart of a disappointed yet hopeful people (89:46-52). In anguish, the psalmist implores God to remember his promise and restore his people by sending a righteous king to reign over them again: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, /which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (89:49).

The people of Israel were mistaken in their understanding and expectation of a political ruler, yet their faith would finally be vindicated. God would answer their pleas not by restoring the ancient monarchy but by raising up, in the words of one hymn writer, “great David’s greater son.” Ultimately, Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, would rule over all as king, savior, and Messiah.

In the Spotlight: Vengeance and Curses in the Psalms

How do Christians pray psalms that contain vindictive curses and calls for God to take vengeance on the enemies of the psalmists? At least thirty such outbursts are included in the Book of Psalms. Here are just a few:

He will repay my enemies for their evil. / In your faithfulness, put an end to them.

Psalm 54:5

Let death come upon them; / let them go down alive to Sheol.

Psalm 55:15

So repay them for their crime; / in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

Psalm 56:7

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; / let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

Psalm 69:8

Such verses, called “imprecatory prayer,” “vent the rage of saints who recognize that vengeance is exclusively God’s territory, but who at the same time feel the injustices of this world very deeply and who desperately want God to correct the inequities that always seem to leave the righteous/weak at the mercy (or mercilessness) of the wicked/powerful,” according to Scripture scholar Kevin J. Youngblood. “Throughout church history, Christians have wrestled with the tension created by the presence of such prayers alongside Jesus’ ethic of love and forgiveness.”

As Christians, however, our true “enemies” are sin and death. We can read these prayers with that idea in mind, recognizing that we are all involved in a spiritual battle against evil. We can also feel the same outrage as the psalmist at the evil that we see, even while retaining an attitude of forgiveness. Finally, these prayers help us to release our desire of vengeance to God. We can trust in God’s justice. This frees us from the need to take revenge upon ourselves, allowing us instead to be merciful to our enemies.

This article is excerpted from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer, by Jeanne Kun (Copyright © 2013 by The Word Among Us Press). Used with permission. 

Top image credit:  Risen Christ Seated on the Throne as Ruler Over All – mosaic, 1300 AD, in San Giovanni church baptistry in Florence, Italy. Image in public domain.

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