04 June 2009

'Of a Man, a Beautiful Example'—Righteous Melchizedek, King of Salem

Today, 22 May on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate the Righteous Melchizedek, King of Salem. The Prologue summarises what little is known about him from the Scriptures: ‘He was a contemporary of our forefather Abraham. According to the Apostle Paul, he was, as king and priest, a type of the Lord Jesus (Heb. 7)’ (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Part 2: April, May, June, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham, UK: Lazarica, 1986], p. 209). But here is the exact description of his encounter with the Patriarch Abraham in Genesis 14 (NETS):

18 And Melchisedek king of Salem brought out bread loaves and wine; now he was priest of God Most High. 19 And he blessed Abram and said,

‘Blessed be Abram to God Most High,
who created the heaven and the earth,
20 and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered up your enemies as subjects to you!’

And he [Abram] gave him one tenth of everything.

Of course, the other famous Scriptural reference, to which St Nicholas alludes, is in Hebrews 7:1-3, when St Paul is interpreting Ps. 109:4 (LXX) in reference to Christ (The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 2: Acts, Epistles, and Revelation, trans. and ed. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1999], p. 392):

1 For this Melchisedek, king of Salem, priest of God the Most High,—who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, 2 to whom also Abraham divided a tenth of all,—which indeed is first interpreted ‘king of righteousness’, and then also ‘king of Salem’, which is, ‘king of peace’, 3 without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but having been made like the Son of God, remaineth a priest in perpetuity.

It is a passage that has received a bold and astonishing interpretation from St Maximus the Confessor in his tenth Difficulty, section 20a (Fr Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor [London: Routledge, 1999], pp. 115-6):

This [possession of ‘the form of the whole God the Word’], I think, that wonderful and great man, Melchisedec, knew and experienced, about whom the divine Word in the Scriptures declares great and wonderful things, that he had transcended time and nature, and was worthy to be likened to the Son of God. For, as far as is possible, he had become such by grace and habit, as the Giver of grace is himself believed to be by essence. For it is said of him that he is without father or mother or genealogy (Heb. 7:3): what else can be understood from this except that, by the very highest pitch of grace in accordance with virtue, he has perfectly put off natural characteristics. And when it is said that he has neither beginning of days nor end of life (ibid.), it bears witness to a knowledge embracing the properties of all time and eternity, and to a contemplation transcending existence of all material and immaterial being. And when it says that resembling the Son of God he remains a priest for ever (ibid.), it perhaps declares that he is able in accordance with his unchangeable habit of the most god-like virtue and a divine reaching out after God to keep his mental eye attentive until the end. For virtue naturally fights against nature, and true contemplation against time and eternity, in order that it may remain unenslaved to anything else that is believed to exist under God, and unconquered, knowing God alone the begetter, and uncircumscribed, remaining in none of those beings that have beginning or end, in itself manifesting the image of God, who defines every beginning and end and draws up to His ineffable self every thought of intellectual beings in ecstasy.

Although it may appear to express a less lofty view of this righteous figure of the Old Testament, it seems to me that John Henry Newman’s poem is saying something very similar (‘Melchizedek’, The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, ed. D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee [Lakewood, CO: Acropolis, 1997], p. 133):

Without father, without mother, without descent; having neither beginning of days, nor end of life.

THRICE bless’d are they, who feel their loneliness;
To whom nor voice of friends nor pleasant scene
Brings that on which the sadden’d heart can lean;
Yea, the rich earth, garb’d in her daintiest dress
Of light and joy, doth but the more oppress,
Claiming responsive smiles and rapture high;
Till, sick at heart, beyond the veil they fly,
Seeking His Presence, who alone can bless.
Such, in strange days, the weapons of Heaven’s grace;
When, passing o’er the high-born Hebrew line,
He forms the vessel of His vast design;
Fatherless, homeless, reft of age and place,
Sever’d from earth, and careless of its wreck,
Born through long woe His rare Melchizedek.

In this way, as St Nicholas writes in his ‘Hymn of Praise’ for Righteous Melchizedek today in the Prologue (Sebastian Press edition):

Of a man, a beautiful example,
King, saint, righteous one,
That, Melchisedek became
A prophet of Christ and proto-type.
A prophet he is, without a word,
But with a most beautiful personality;
A prophet he is, without a word,
A prophet, with righteousness and mercy.

Furthermore, I find most encouraging St Maximus’s words in section 20b of the same Difficulty (Fr Louth, p. 118):

Do not think that no-one can have a share in this grace, since the words defines it only in relation to the great Melchisedec. For God provides equally to all the power that naturally leads to salvation, so that each one who wishes can be transformed by divine grace. And nothing prevents anyone from willing to become Melchisedec, and Abraham, and Moses, and simply transferring all these Saints to himself, not by changing names and places, but by imitating their forms and way of life.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post [as all of them!]: I was particularly moved when I found Orthodoxy, or rather it found me!, to see in Orthodox [and Catholic] thought the role Melchizedek plays in the liturgical life and theology of the Church. Two single mentions in the Bible, yet a most important person.

A blessed Feast Day!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

It's good to recall the meaning of this Hebrew name:

My King is Righteous.

Rather fitting!

logos said...

can you please tell us where is this mosaic from? and what is Melchizedek holding?what is this round shaped thing on his hands?thanks a lot for the wonderful post.

Aaron Taylor said...

logos> Sorry for the delay in responding! I get a lot of spam comments, and I put off sorting through them because it's such a boring job.

Anyway, the image is a 6th-c. mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. It shows Melchisedek holding the bread that he offered to Abraham. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_wUI6qYkH1wk/Sidn19LYOAI/AAAAAAAAAzE/xZ_qoiuZAK4/s1600/Righteous+Melchizedek+(San+Vitale,+Ravenna).jpg