Lectionary Commentaries for October 21, 2012
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:35-45

Rolf Jacobson

Location, Location, Location

The old realtor’s saw about the three most important factors in real estate also applies to the understanding this week’s Gospel reading.  An interpreter would be wise to pay attention to the pericope’s location, location, location.  The word “pericope” literally means “a cutting out” — as in, “taken out of context.” Re-placing the pericope into its literary context sheds a bit of light on this story.

Location (Part 1)
First, note that this reading — in which James and John put their feet in their mouths by asking a stupid question (more on that below) — occurs immediately after the third of Jesus’ so-called passion predictions. 

These announcements are often called “passion prediction.”  But that title may not be very helpful.  The titles that an interpreter affixes to any given passage can powerfully influence the meaning that the interpreter makes out of that passage.  If we call these passages “predictions,” how does it shape our reading of these passages? 

For many readers, the first question that they will ask about a “prediction” is whether or not it will (or did) come true.  Is that the most interesting or fruitful question that an interpreter might ask?  What if we renamed these so-called predictions and titled them as “Interpretations of Messianic Identity” or “Announcements of Messianic Mission”?  Might these titles foster more interesting conversations about the meaning of these passages? 

For the sake argument, and for the duration of this essay, let’s rename these passages “Interpretations of the Messiah’s Servant Mission.”

Location (Part 2) 
Second, note that after the other two Interpretations of the Messiah’s Servant Mission, the disciples also put their feet in their mouths.  After the first Interpretation of the Messiah’s Servant Mission (8:31-32), which is the only time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus teaches something “openly,” Peter rebukes Jesus and then in turn is rebuked by Jesus.  After the second Interpretation of Messianic Identity (9:30-32), the disciples ask Jesus which one of them is the greatest, to which Jesus responds by saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Location (Part 3) 
Third, note that immediately before the first Interpretation of the Messiah’s Servant Mission, Jesus healed a blind man — but that the healing didn’t take right away (8:22-26).  That is the only miracle of Jesus’ that didn’t turn out right the first time.  And notice that immediately after this week’s passage, Jesus also heals a blind man (10:46-52).

That is to say, the three Interpretations of the Messiah’s Servant Mission are framed by the two stories about giving sight to the sightless.  A chart might help:

  • Jesus Heals a Blind Man

First Interpretation of the Messiah’s Servant Mission

  • Peter puts his foot in his mouth

Second Interpretation of the Messiah’s Servant Mission

  • The Disciples put their feet in their mouths

Third Interpretation of the Messiah’s Servant Mission

  • James and John put their feet in their mouths
  • Jesus Heals a Blind Man

I Once Was Blind, But Now I See. . . . In Part
The two blind-men-who-gain-sight stories bracket the central chapters of the Gospel. And in those same chapters, the disciples three times show that they have ears, but do not hear what Jesus is really saying.  Taken together, this chunk of Mark shows a picture of only partial disclosure.

In the central chapters (8-10) of the Gospel of Mark, the evangelist is painting a picture of the disciples as only partially understanding exactly who it is they are following.  Peter is the first one to put a name on the matter — Jesus is the Messiah of God.  Peter knows this.  But Peter doesn’t know what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.  The Disciples are the first followers of Jesus.  They see him for who he is — the Christ.  But they don’t see what it means for him to be the Christ.  James and John get that Jesus is the real deal.  But they do not understand the nature of the deal.

Most American students are convinced by their grade school teachers that there is no such thing as a stupid question.  Well, James and John put the lie to that fairy tale.  They ask a really bad question.  Having just been told by Jesus that his messianic identity is about suffering, death, and resurrection, they ask if they can sit on his right and left side “in your glory.” 

Wow. Talk about not getting it. 

Perhaps James and John had a banquet in mind, sitting on the right and left of Jesus at the banquet celebrating his rise to power.  The fact that Jesus responds with a reference to drinking the cup that he is to drink points in this direction; if so, there is painful irony later in the story, as Jesus on the cross is to offered “a sponge with sour wine” to drink (15:36).  Similarly, James and John may have had a coronation or throne-room scene in mind with their request to sit on his right and left.  Again, if so, there is irony later in the story as two bandits are crucified with Jesus, “one on his right and one on his left” (15:27).

What is clear to the reader of this story — but is not clear to the disciples, who are characters in Mark’s story — is that the disciples think they know who Jesus is and why he has come.  But they really don’t get it.  Not fully. 

And because of that, they do not know what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus is, as he tells James and John after their request, a servant Messiah.  And to follow a servant Messiah means, well, to be a servant:  “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45).

Taken in the context of the Gospel of Mark as a whole, there is only one event that will finally pull the curtain all of the way back so that Jesus’ followers will finally understand that he is a servant king — the kind of king that God had always wanted Israel’s kings to be.  That event is the resurrection.  But even then — and this is a warning for all of us who live on this side of the resurrection — we see, as St Paul says, only in part, as in a mirror dimly.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12

Amy Erickson

“Who is the suffering servant?”

I ask my masters students in the Introduction to the Hebrew Bible course. By the time we get to Second Isaiah, we have been together for almost a full quarter, so they know me by now. They know that as a teacher of — and advocate for — the Hebrew Bible, I get a little huffy when they jump too quickly to resolve all the problems in the Hebrew Bible with “Jesus” or “the New Testament.” A few chuckling voices from the back row shout out, “It’s Jesus!” expecting an eye roll from their professor. They look up in surprise, checking to make sure I’m not joking back when I say, “Yes. It is Jesus.”

Christians know Jesus — they know his essence, his mission, his pain — in part, through this text. They know Jesus more deeply and more richly, thanks to the prophet Isaiah’s poetic and transcendent sketch of the nameless suffering servant.

That said, the suffering servant is not just Jesus; and he is not just for Christians. To the poet Isaiah’s credit, the servant has handily and deftly defied all scholarly attempts to say anything definitive about his identity. Second Isaiah’s legendary figure overflows all the boundaries we try to draw around him and bursts out of all the boxes we try to stuff him into.

For Isaiah’s original audience, likely living in exile in Babylon, the suffering servant may have carried, metaphorically, Israel’s suffering. The designation servant is attributed to Israel several times in the book (Isaiah 41:9; 44:21; 49:3). The servant embodied the exiles’ hope that, though they are broken and rejected now, they would someday be exalted (52:13). He exemplifies their desire — a desire many of us may share – that their suffering will serve some larger purpose (to make many righteous, 53:11; to bear the sin of many, 53:12).

That original audience may also have recognized in the suffering servant a savior, rising up from their midst. Perhaps through the voice of the anonymous prophet we call Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), they imagined an individual like a prophet, like Jeremiah, who often spoke of his humiliation and of his attempts to intervene with God on Israel’s behalf.  Moses also likely served as a touchstone for the original audience, as one who stayed God’s judgment against Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 9:25-29) and was ultimately not allowed to enter the Promised Land (4:21-24).

Or perhaps Isaiah’s poetry led the original readers to envision a royal figure or a messiah along the lines of a great king of old. Or even of a radically new kind of king, a non-Israelite ruler. Isaiah’s descriptions of Cyrus of Persia, the emperor who decreed that Israel could return to its land, resonate with some of the chords intoned in the poem of the suffering servant (see Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13).

Recently, Jeremy Schipper has made the argument that the description of the suffering servant evokes the language and imagery associated with disability in the ancient world (marred, 52:14; no form or majesty, 53:2; plagued, 53:4 and 8; stricken by God, 53:4; despised and rejected, 53:3; cut off from the land of the living, 53:8).1 Rejected and judged because of his physical condition, the servant’s isolation captures the social experience of many people with disabilities. In terms of preaching, it could be incredibly powerful to hold up a Scripture-mirror that, at one angle, reflects the faces of people who do not normally see themselves (in a positive light) in the Bible.

Another intriguing aspect of this poem is the plurality — and ambiguity — of the speaking voices in the poem. Who are the “we” speaking of the suffering one, groping to make sense of his life and his fate? Based on its designation as one of the servant songs, scholars have argued that the voice belongs to the nations, the followers of the servant, even Israel. However again, the open-ended designation of the speaker(s) allows the contemporary reader (as it has allowed generations of readers) to enter into the text, easily imagining her or himself as being among the “we” who are stunned to find our convictions overturned and our certainties dismantled.

One might argue that a central feature of this text, along with the depiction of servant, is the radical shift in perception that takes place among the speakers. Beginning in 52:13, the voices track over and over again the reversal of the speakers’ interpretation of a tragic but everyday reality — a person suffering. It reads like a confession of sin. We thought he was “of no account” (53:3); because he was so acquainted with infirmity (verse 3), his suffering did not move us. Like the homeless person or the famine victim in Africa, we look away, assuring ourselves that he or she is surely used to suffering, that our perception or our action does not matter.

For the poem, however, how we interpret suffering does matter. The poet lingers over the difference between the speakers’ past perception and their current changed one. It is not clear how they came to change their minds so radically about the meaning of this one’s suffering, but in the end, in the final verse (verse 12), God’s first person voice joins the chorus of the “we.” And together they stand nearly dumbfounded before the co-existence of these opposing realities: the servant’s suffering and exaltation and the movement of the speakers from judgment to praise.

Because there are numerous “right” answers to the question of the servant’s identity, we look at each one who suffers with new eyes and new attention. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in Isaiah’s poetry, each suffering person we might be tempted to discount suddenly looks different. And if we keep looking with God’s eyes, we may even see that the suffering individual carries within her or him the seeds of our own redemption.

This poem of vaguely defined “we” and “he” also has the capacity to draw us in with its communal language of confession and awe. The poem confronts us with a world that up-ends our expectations. And it takes the time to linger over how amazing it is to be surprised, to be changed, even transformed — even if that means we need to confess publically and communally how wrong we were before.

1 Jeremy Schipper, Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Job responds to his troubles by wishing he had never been born (Job 3).

But Job doesn’t get a visit from the portly, comforting Clarence the angel. Instead, at the end of the book, the One who appears to Job is none other than the Creator of the cosmos, the LORD God Almighty!1 And God doesn’t come to comfort Job. Instead, God lays into Job, lecturing him from the center of a cyclone:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements– surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

God does not address Job’s situation or Job’s questions about justice. God does not even acknowledge Job’s suffering. Instead, God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, beginning with the foundation of the earth, and the birth of the Sea. God spends a lot of time “where the wild things are,” describing all kinds of fierce and untamed creatures — lions, mountain goats, deer, wild donkeys and oxen, ostriches, eagles — and two primordial chaos monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan.

These speeches of God at the end of the book of Job leave many readers dissatisfied. We want God to tell Job about the wager with the Satan. We want God to apologize for all of Job’s suffering. We want God to be at least, well, comforting. Instead, in the words of William Safire: “It’s as if God appears in a tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Because I’m God, That’s Why.'”2

This is not the answer that Job (or we) expected from God. And yet, these speeches of YHWH cannot easily be dismissed. Like a fierce summer thunderstorm, they are beautiful, fascinating, and more than a little terrifying. The images and creatures described in the divine speeches grip our imaginations and introduce us to a world much, much bigger than ourselves.

What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is
scattered upon the earth?
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? (38:24-27)

In this long catalog of creatures terrestrial and celestial, there is one glaring omission: human beings have almost no place in the divine speeches. In fact, as the above passage makes clear, God sends rain on the wilderness, devoid of human beings. In the arid climate of the Near East, God is profligate with that most precious of resources, sending rain on a land where no person will see it, no person benefit from it.

In the divine speeches, God paints a picture of a world that is wild and beautiful and free. The wild donkey scorns the tumult of the city, that quintessential human habitation (39:5-8). The wild ox, unlike its domestic cousins, will not plow Job’s fields or bring in his harvest (39:9-12; cf. 1:3). And that fiercest of creatures, the sea monster Leviathan, laughs scornfully at any human effort to tame it or capture it (41:29).

The world, as God describes it in the divine speeches, is not made for human beings; neither is it entirely safe for human beings. In it are creatures wild and free, and God takes special delight in those creatures that are outside the boundaries of human existence, outside the control of human beings.

Freedom does not equal chaos, however. God gives a place in creation to the Sea, that ancient symbol of chaos, but God also sets limits for it: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (38:11 ESV). God establishes the dawn, and sets limits for human wickedness (38:12-13). God provides for all God’s creatures (38:39-41). In his anguish, Job had tried to un-create the world (3:1-10). In the divine speeches, God re-establishes order and celebrates the beauty and freedom of creation: stars and sea monsters, lion and raven, antelope and ostrich, horse and hawk.

But what does all this have to do with Job’s situation or with Job’s suffering?

In the world of the prologue (the world Job describes in chapter 29), Job was the center of his universe, sitting in judgment at the city gate, surrounded by family and possessions and admired by one and all. Job thought that the world ran by a strict system of retributive justice: the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished. And Job was the most righteous person of all, as God himself acknowledges (1:8).

After all the troubles come on Job, his friends continue to hold to the doctrine of retributive justice: because Job suffers, he must have done something to deserve it. Job himself knows that this isn’t true. His world has descended into chaos, but he still holds to his integrity and calls on God to answer him.

God’s answer breaks open Job’s world and expands his vision to include places and creatures Job never imagined in his former life. God speaks of freedom and grace rather than reward and retribution. God gives his creatures the freedom to be who they’re created to be, wild and beautiful. God also maintains order by placing limits on forces that could plunge the world into chaos: the Sea, Leviathan, even human wickedness.3

The world is not centered on human beings, according to the divine speeches. It is not an entirely safe or predictable world, but it is beautiful and good nonetheless. And God invites Job to live in that wild and beautiful world.

There’s one more thing to note, you see, about the divine speeches. For all God’s silence concerning human beings, God gives humanity, in Job, a singular place in creation. Job is the only passenger on this grand tour of the cosmos, and through it, God invites him (and us) to see the world from a God’s-eye point of view and to delight in its beauty and freedom as God does.

Is this an adequate response to Job’s suffering? It is not, in a conventional sense, very comforting. God would probably fail a present-day pastoral care class. Nonetheless, these speeches of God at the end of the book of Job accomplish something profound. They move Job out of his endless cycle of grief into life again. They enable him to live freely in a world full of heartbreaking suffering and heart-stopping beauty, and to do so in a way that reflects God’s own care for the world. We will read about this response of Job and the end of his story next week.

1 Note that the name YHWH is used of God in the prologue (chapters 1-2), epilogue (chapter 42), and divine speeches (chapters 38-41) of Job. This book that never refers to Israelite history or the land of Israel nevertheless identifies the God of Israel as the God with whom Job is in relationship.
2 William Safire, The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics (New York: Random House, 1992), 22.
3 For more discussion of these themes of freedom and boundaries in the book of Job, see my book, Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), or my article “Of Stars and Sea Monsters,” in Word & World 31/4 (Fall 2011): 357-366.


Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Although it is not entirely unique in the Psalter, the most striking thing about Psalm 91 is that it ends with a divine speech in verses 14-16.

Usually when God speaks in the Psalms, it is to express divine displeasure and to call people to account. See, for instance, Psalms 50:7-23; 81:6-16; and 95:8-11, although it is interesting that 50:15, 23 and 81:16 suggest that God “will deliver,” “will show . . . salvation,” and “would satisfy,” if the people will listen and respond faithfully. It is perhaps not coincidental that the very things that Psalms 50:15, 23 and 81:16 anticipate are what God explicitly promises in 91:14-16 (the Hebrew verb translated “deliver” in 50:15 is rendered as “rescued” in 91:15).

Indeed, the exact verbal links among these three psalms that contain divine address —  Psalms 50, 81, and 91 — are striking enough to suggest that Psalms 50 and 81 intentionally anticipate Psalm 91; or perhaps more precisely, they anticipate Psalms 90-91 at the beginning of Book IV of the Psalter.

Psalm 89 at the end of Book III has articulated the crisis of exile by relating the failure of the Davidic covenant (see verses 38-51). In what seems to be an intentional response, Book IV begins with a prayer attributed to Moses, as if Moses were interceding for the people in exile as he did for the wilderness generation when the covenant was in jeopardy (see Exodus 32:1-14, and see the commentary on Psalm 90:12-17, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost).

Following upon Psalm 90, Psalm 91:14-16 seems to suggest that the prayer of Moses has been answered. Verse 16a — “With long life I will satisfy them” — is an especially appropriate response to the petition of 90:14, repeating the verb “satisfy” and offering “long life” to people who in Psalm 90 were acutely aware of human transience. In response to Moses’ intercession, God promises to do the things that Psalms 50 and 81 have said that God had been wanting to do all along, but that God apparently was unable to effect among an inattentive and uncooperative people.

The contrast between the divine address in 90:14-16 and the earlier divine speech in Psalms 50 and 81 suggests that the people’s response to God is crucial, in terms of whether or not they experience the deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction that God wills for them. This does not mean that God will deliver the people only when they obey and thus deserve God’s favor.

Rather, it suggests that the favor God always offers will be ineffective among an unreceptive, untrusting people. Thus, it is crucial that the divine promises in Psalm 91:14-16 are preceded in verses 1-13 by an eloquent profession of trust. Again, it is as if the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 has been answered — that is, the people have been able to “gain a wise heart” (90:12), which means they have renounced autonomy and thus have fully entrusted themselves and their future to God. Indeed, it is precisely such trust that constitutes deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction (see Psalm 9:9-10).

To be sure, readers and interpreters of Psalm 91 have not always understood this. Rather, the promises expressed in verses 1-13 and reinforced by the divine address in verses 14-16 have often been understood as something like a magical guarantee against any form of opposition or distress. Granted, several of the promises seem to point in this direction, including verses 9-13 that begin the lection for the day; however, we are dealing here with poetic hyperbole.

The keyword in Psalm 91 is “refuge” (see verses 2, 4, 9; see also 2:12; 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 16:1, and often in the prayers for help), which assumes the need for protection and help.  And the protection and help that God promises assumes the existence of all manner of trouble and opposition, especially in verses 3-13 — enemies, illness, and ferocious attack by people and animals (although the animals in verse 13 may be metaphors for human opponents).

As for verses 14-16, it is to be noted that the divine promises are stated primarily by seven finite verbs. Since the number seven often symbolizes fullness or completion, this is probably not coincidental — that is, God promises complete assurance. But there is an eighth element in verses 14-16; and it stands out by virtue of being near the center of the sequence, as well as by being the one promise stated in a verbless clause.

It is the middle element of verse 15; and a literal translation is as follows: “with him [am] I in trouble” (emphasis added). As the added emphasis indicates, the divine promise assumes the existence of trouble and opposition. In short, the deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction that God promises do not mean a care-free, unopposed life. Rather, those who fully entrust themselves to God experience deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction in the midst of opposition and trouble.

The context of the Psalter reinforces this conclusion. The righteous prayers of the psalmist are never without opposition or trouble (which, of course, is why the prayers for help are generally known as laments, complaints, or protests). Then too, this conclusion is reinforced by the way verses 11-12 show up in the New Testament.

In Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12, the devil cites verses 11-12 in an attempt to entice Jesus to throw himself down from the top of the Temple. While it is interesting to see that the devil knows the Psalms, his misappropriation of verses 11-12 is instructive. Jesus’ refusal to embrace the devil’s interpretation suggests that to claim the promises of verses 11-12 for self-serving purposes is unfaithful. It amounts to testing God rather than trusting God. Jesus will not claim the promises of Psalm 91 as a way to avoid suffering.  Rather, when Jesus claims the promise of divine protection and help, it is from the cross (see Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:5).

In conclusion, it should be noted that the promise at the heart of the divine address —  “with him [am] I in trouble” (verse 15) — is the same promise that lies at the heart of another of the Psalter’s most eloquent psalms of assurance/trust: “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

This promise comes, of course, in the midst of “the darkest valley.” As the psalmists knew, and as Jesus revealed as well, the delivering, saving, satisfying presence of God does not prevent trouble, opposition, and suffering. Rather, it promises the strength to persevere, endure, and overcome (see Romans 8:31-39).

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10

Scott Shauf

Hebrews 5:1-10 establishes the basic identity of Jesus as the heavenly high priest, an important and unique contribution Hebrews makes to our understanding of Christ.

Christ was first identified as high priest in 2:17, and 4:14-16, part of last week’s lectionary text, presented the basic idea and implications of Jesus being high priest.

But it is not until today’s passage that Hebrews begins to really make the case for Jesus being high priest. After a brief digression, the argument is picked up again in chapter 7 and continues from there through chapter 10. Our passage has two sections to it: Verses 1-4 give the definition of and criteria for being a priest and verses 5-10 show how Christ meets these criteria.

The first verse gives the defining function of a high priest, offering sacrifices for sin. While the Jewish high priest played other roles, too, this function is the only one of real concern in Hebrews. Hebrews especially focuses throughout on the high priestly activities on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the annual ritual where the high priest would atone for the sins of the Jewish people (see Leviticus 16).

Verses 2-3 emphasize a high priest’s solidarity with sinners. Verse 2 gives the positive side that a high priest can sympathize with sinners because he himself has experienced weakness. This aspect of Jesus’ character was presented in 2:9-18 (especially verses 17-18), revisited in 4:15-16, and will be elaborated later in our passage, verses 7-9. Verse 3 gives the negative side, that because a high priest is himself a sinner he must atone “for his own sins as well as for those of the people” (Leviticus 16:6 covers this requirement). This negative side will provide a key contrast with the sinless Jesus, a point already mentioned in 4:15 and to be elaborated in 7:26-28.

Verse 4 specifies an important prerequisite for anyone to take on the role of high priest: The high priest must be called by God. The original high priest Aaron is the quintessential example, whose calling is recounted in detail in the Old Testament (see Exodus 28:1, 40:12-15; Leviticus 8:1-12; Numbers 18:1-20), and to whom the story of the false claimant Korah and company provides a key counter-example (Numbers 16:1-35).

In actuality, the history of the high priesthood was an inglorious one, the office having become highly politicized, especially in the Maccabean and Roman periods that led into the time of Jesus. Opposition to the corrupt priesthood was one of the factors that led to the formation of the dissident Qumran community, locus of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Christ’s divine appointment to the high priesthood is explained briefly in verses 5-6 (and at much greater length in chapter 7). To twenty-first century readers, the passage’s explanation will likely be baffling. The author simply quotes verses from the middle of two different psalms and viola — we have Jesus as high priest!

The key for the original audience was that both psalms, Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, were widely recognized as messianic prophecies, so it would have been natural for the audience to apply these two verses to Jesus (see Mark 12:35-37 for an important application of Psalm 110; in Hebrews Psalm 110 has been used already in 1:13). The first quote (Psalm 2:7) establishes the Messiah as God’s Son; Hebrews already quoted the verse for this very purpose in 1:5. The second quote (Psalm 110:4) is where the priesthood comes in explicitly.

To fully explain how Hebrews applies Psalm 110:4 to Jesus’ status as high priest would require a full study of chapter 7, but to summarize briefly: Jesus could not be a regular Jewish priest because, as the Messiah, he is from the tribe of Judah, whereas priests must come from the tribe of Levi. The character of Melchizedek, however, provides an alternative priesthood.

Melchizedek is an obscure figure who appears in the story of Abraham in Genesis 14:17-20. He is said to be both a king and a “priest of God Most High.” He appears nowhere else in scripture until his name shows up in this psalm, where the addressee of the psalm — understood by Jews of this period to be the Messiah — is said to be a priest in his order. Hence we have the basis for the Messiah to be identified as a high priest, despite the non-Levite ancestry. Particularly important for Hebrews is that he is said in the verse to be a priest “forever,” which connects nicely to Christ’s immortal post-resurrection status, and which provides a contrast with the mortality of the Levitical priests.

Verses 7-9 move on to address how Jesus met the requirement of the high priest to be able to empathize with those he represents, mentioned in verses 1-2. Jesus’ anguish described in verse 7 puts him in solidarity with those he represents by sharing their own experiences of weakness and suffering. The prayers, cries, and tears of verse 7 are usually understood to be a reference to Gethsemane, though it is possible the author is referring to a tradition about Jesus not contained in our Gospels (tears not being mentioned in our Gospel accounts).

That Jesus’ cries to be saved from death were “heard” refers to the resurrection — he was saved, but only after experiencing death first! Language about Jesus learning obedience and being made perfect (verse 9) often surprises readers today, but the author clearly does not see this as compromising Jesus’ sinlessness (see 4:15).

Rather, his being “made perfect” refers to the fact that in order for Jesus to be a high priest, he had to share in the experiences of those he represented — hence he had to suffer. Being perfected means being fitted properly to the role of high priest, and this required suffering. This was described in 2:5-11. The ultimate purpose of Jesus becoming high priest is given at the end of verse 9: “He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” It takes an eternal high priest to bestow eternal salvation!