“None Were Greater”: A Restoration View of Melchizedek


Revealed scripture helps us understand the life and role of this prophet-king, who is largely a mystery in the Bible.

“None Were Greater”:

Scriptural texts paint a somber scene of events occurring approximately 4,000 years ago in the land of Salem—a place full of abomination and iniquity. There was little room for faith among a people who “had all gone astray” (Alma 13:17). Yet in that time “of all manner of wickedness” (v. 17), an unusual child came forth. His destiny was to receive in time the same priesthood power manifested earlier by the prophet Enoch (see JST, Gen. 14:30–31).

Known to us as Melchizedek, the child grew and soon demonstrated great trust in the Lord. Relying upon God in events whose details are lost to us, the young boy escaped death by stopping the mouths of lions and quenching the violence of fire (see JST, Gen. 14:26). Because of his righteousness, in time he was ordained after “the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch” (JST, Gen. 14:27). Empowered with the same priesthood and covenants granted Enoch, Melchizedek changed his people and led them into righteousness. Indeed, Alma observed that of all the prophets of his time “none were greater” than the prophet Melchizedek (Alma 13:19). Thus, we hunger to know: who was this Melchizedek who merited such praise and admiration?

The Historical Melchizedek

The names Melchizedek and Salem suggest the uniqueness of the king of Salem and his people. In fact, the very name Melchizedek consists of the two Hebrew words malkî (“king”) and sedeq (“righteousness”), implying the king of Salem’s faith in God—“My king is righteousness.” 1 Similarly, the Apostle Paul interpreted Melchizedek as “King of righteousness” (Heb. 7:2). Salem, the name of Melchizedek’s land or city, may mean “peace” or “peaceful.” The Bible Dictionary in the LDS edition of the Bible identifies Salem as Jerusalem. Biblical text discloses that Melchizedek was the righteous leader of a group of people who earned a reputation for peace and stability. Thus, in the midst of violent and chaotic times dominated by warring tribal factions, Melchizedek and Salem indeed appear unique. 2

But the biblical record provides little historical information about Melchizedek. The few verses in Genesis record his offering Abraham bread and wine and receiving tithes from the spoils of Abraham’s military victory (see Gen. 14:17–24). Apart from a brief verse in Psalms (see Ps. 110:4), the only other biblical mention of Melchizedek is in the Apostle Paul’s instruction to early Christians about the Lord Jesus Christ’s role as the great high priest (see Heb. 5:6–10; Heb. 6:20; Heb. 7:11, 15, 17, 21).

With this limited information it is first helpful to know what those conclude who do not have latter-day revelation to guide them. From the account in Genesis 14:17–24 [Gen. 14:17–24], they note that Melchizedek is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, saying that he served the Most High God, the creator of earth and heaven. 3 They consider the gift of bread and wine to Abraham a demonstration of Melchizedek’s generosity. 4 They view the tithing Abraham paid to Melchizedek as a typical offering of the time, intended to support a king’s sanctuary. 5 A number regard Abraham’s willing submission to Melchizedek, a priest of the Most High God, as a reflection of Abraham’s covenant with God, or in this case reflecting Abraham’s willingness to recognize other righteous men. Some consider the blessing Melchizedek gave Abraham as a type of priesthood ordination. Others speculate that Abraham’s submission to the order of Melchizedek (see Heb. 7) was a recognition of Melchizedek’s greater authority, authority of which Jesus Christ’s power is an example. Many simply view a subsequent historical reference to Melchizedek in Psalms—“thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4)—as King David’s assumption of priestly functions as part of the royal duties. 6

One author summarized this confusion by calling Melchizedek an enigmatic figure “dimly outlined … against a background of immense and mystical remoteness.” 7 This uncertainty has led some to examine apocryphal sources and oral traditions. While interesting, such sources do little to provide reliable information on the identity of Melchizedek and his significance.

In contrast, truths restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith provide the most complete source for understanding this great king of Salem. The Joseph Smith Translation, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Book of Mormon, and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings contain highly important insights and knowledge about Melchizedek as a historical person, giving an accurate perspective on his remarkable story of faith and valor (see accompanying chart).

The Book of Mormon tells us that Melchizedek reigned under his father. It was a difficult time for the kingdom because the people had “waxed strong in iniquity and abominations” (Alma 13:17). From the Joseph Smith Translation text of Genesis 14, we presume that Melchizedek faced great opposition as a youth in his desires to follow righteousness. These trials of Melchizedek resemble those faced at a later time by the prophet Daniel and his companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Melchizedek drew upon the power of faith in God to still savage lions and, when faced with a fiery death, quenched the fire through his faith in the Lord (see JST, Gen. 14:26).

We also see similarities in Melchizedek to the prophet Enoch, who preceded him. As Enoch did, Melchizedek worked with a fallen people and continued to stand firm in his overarching determination to lead his people from their wicked ways. His trials and labors won the Lord’s approval, and at some point Melchizedek was ordained a “high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch” (JST, Gen. 14:27). This priesthood, given “according to [the Lord’s] own will” (JST, Gen. 14:29), enabled Melchizedek to exercise the same priesthood power as had Enoch so that, were it necessary, he could “break mountains,” “divide the seas,” “dry up waters,” and “put at defiance the armies of nations” (JST, Gen. 14:30–31) as he continued his mission to encourage his people to repent. As Enoch before, Melchizedek helped them anchor their faith in Christ, the Son of God. These people drew upon the strength and vision Melchizedek received from being able to “stand in the presence of God” (JST, Gen. 14:31). Consequently, in one of the great untold stories of history, Melchizedek succeeded in establishing righteousness in his land. In scriptural brevity the holy text simply states that his people “did repent” (Alma 13:18).

Enoch labored for many years before his people turned from their wickedness. Likewise, perhaps Melchizedek also persisted for a considerable period in his efforts to bring real peace to the people of Salem. In such a labor and after much struggle, finally his people’s hearts were changed and “Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days” (Alma 13:18; see also JST, Gen. 14:33), becoming known as a “prince of peace” (Alma 13:18).

Melchizedek then encouraged his people to seek the same blessings that had been granted to Enoch’s followers. In time the Lord granted their desires. The text succinctly notes that Melchizedek’s people “obtained heaven” (JST, Gen. 14:34), resulting in their being “translated and taken up into heaven” (JST, Gen. 14:32). 8 To Melchizedek, the trials and difficulties of his youth and his many years of dedicated service to the Lord must have melted into supernal joys. Little wonder that after considering the life and example of Melchizedek Alma concluded, “none were greater” (Alma 13:19).

Melchizedek and Abraham

Latter-day revelation from the Prophet Joseph Smith gives fuller understanding of the association between Melchizedek and Abraham than can be learned from the biblical text.

Whereas the King James Version of Genesis says that “Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was the priest of the most high God” (Gen. 14:18), the Prophet Joseph Smith enlarges our understanding of the biblical text regarding the bread and wine. The Prophet’s translation adds that “he [Melchizedek] brake bread and blest it; and he blest the wine, he being the priest of the most high God” (see JST, Gen. 14:17–18). One can well contemplate that Melchizedek was perhaps not the first ancient prophet to be guided to do so.

The Joseph Smith Translation further enlightens us regarding why Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek. JST, Genesis 14:37–39 [Gen. 14:37–39] states that Melchizedek was the “keeper of the storehouse of God; him whom God had appointed to receive tithes for the poor. Wherefore, Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need.” Because Melchizedek served as the “keeper of the storehouse of God,” he held stewardship over receiving the tithes and offerings of the faithful and in overseeing their use in blessing others. Such a function is the same as that exercised by the person who holds the keys of presidency in the Lord’s contemporary Church—the President of the Church, the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Lord. Thus, in this light, Melchizedek acted as the Lord’s presiding high priest in accepting Abraham’s tithing and in giving him a blessing.

The Joseph Smith Translation also reinforces the biblical information about Melchizedek’s blessing of Abraham: “And he [Melchizedek] lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest. … And it came to pass, that God blessed Abram, and gave unto him riches, and honor, and lands for an everlasting possession; according to the covenant which he had made, and according to the blessing wherewith Melchizedek had blessed him” (JST, Gen. 14:37, 40).

On Sunday, 27 August 1843, the Prophet Joseph Smith discussed this event between these two men in further detail: “Abraham gave a tenth part of all his spoils and then received a blessing under the hands of Melchizedek[,] even the last law or a fulness of the law or priesthood which constituted him a king and priest after the order of Melchizedek or an endless life.” 9

In that same 1843 address, History of the Church records that the Prophet further said about this event:

“The King of Shiloam … (Salem) had power and authority over that of Abraham, holding the key and power of endless life. …

“What was the power of Melchizedek? ’Twas not the Priesthood of Aaron which administers in outward ordinances, and the offering of sacrifices. Those holding the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood are kings and priests of the Most High God, holding the keys of power and blessings. In fact, that priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy, and stands as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam.

“Abraham says to Melchizedek, I believe all that thou has taught me concerning the priesthood and the coming of the Son of Man; so Melchizedek ordained Abraham and sent him away. Abraham rejoiced, saying, Now I have a priesthood.” 10 In reference to this priesthood, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: “And Esaias received it under the hand of God. Esaias also lived in the days of Abraham, and was blessed of him—which Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek” (D&C 84:12–14).

Thus, it was with this blessing and ordination that Abraham became, like Melchizedek and holy brethren before him, a king of peace and righteousness. In the pattern of Melchizedek, Abraham also had sought “to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, … a prince of peace” (Abr. 1:2).

Melchizedek as a Type

The Prophet Joseph Smith described the full power of the Melchizedek Priesthood as having the power of “endless lives” and said that they who possess it can become “kings and priests of the Most High God, holding the keys of power and blessings.” 11 Thus, the Melchizedek Priesthood differs from the Aaronic or Levitical, which is limited to the lesser, or preparatory, ordinances and the outward commandments of the Mosaic law (see D&C 84:25–27). The Melchizedek Priesthood administers the “key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” (D&C 84:19). Hence, from the foundation of the world God has caused that faithful brethren like Melchizedek be ordained to the fulness of the priesthood.

The main undergirding responsibilities of such priesthood brethren always have included teaching the Lord’s gospel plan so that God’s children would have the opportunity to “enter into his rest” (Alma 13:6). Those receiving such priesthood are “called after this holy order, and [are] sanctified, and their garments [are] washed white through the blood of the Lamb” (Alma 13:11). Such a description requires that all Melchizedek Priesthood holders who would earn such a blessing earnestly seek to be free from sin and look to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Master.

Truly, Melchizedek stands as a mortal example of one who nobly fulfilled the responsibilities associated with the higher priesthood. He became a type or example of what the priesthood represents. For this reason people anciently, surely under direction from the Lord himself, referred to the “Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God” as “the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:3–4). They did this “out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name”; thus, “because Melchizedek was such a great high priest” they “called that priesthood after Melchizedek” (D&C 107:2, 4).

It is almost impossible to imagine a greater tribute that the Lord could bestow upon another than to lovingly direct that the very order of the Son of God’s own priesthood be known by the name of one of his cherished servants. What a model, what an example the Lord has said is in Melchizedek! He stands as a type or example to all who accept the priesthood or who seek the peace and blessings it offers. All who honor the priesthood of God can join this ancient follower of Christ in declaring—as Melchizedek’s name indicates—“My king is righteousness.”

A Latter-day Saint View of Melchizedek

The left column lists the Bible’s teachings about Melchizedek; the right column lists additional information restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

What the Bible Teaches

What Latter-day Revelation Adds

Early Years

Early Years

[no items]

• The people of Salem were full of all manner of wickedness (see Alma 13:17).

• Melchizedek was a child of faith who participated in miracles (see JST, Gen. 14:26).

• He learned by the things he suffered (see JST, Heb. 5:6–8).

• He was approved of the Lord and ordained a high priest (see JST, Gen. 14:27; Alma 13:18).

Ministry

Ministry

• He was the king of Salem (see Gen. 14:18).

• He was known as a “prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father” (Alma 13:18; see also JST, Gen. 14:33).

• He was the priest of the Most High God (see Gen. 14:18).

• As the Lord’s high priest, he preached repentance to his people and brought them to repentance (see Alma 13:18).

 

• The people of Salem continued in righteousness and sought to become like the people of the city of Enoch (see JST, Gen. 14:34).

• Melchizedek succeeded in establishing righteousness and was called the king of peace (see JST, Gen. 14:36).

• He and his people “obtained heaven” (see JST, Gen. 14:34) as did Enoch.

• Alma said of Melchizedek, “None were greater” (Alma 13:19).

Association between Melchizedek and Abraham

Association between Melchizedek and Abraham

• Melchizedek offered Abraham bread and wine (see Gen. 14:18).

• He served the sacrament to Abraham (see Gen. 14:18 and the related JST text).

• He blessed Abraham in the name of the Most High God (see Gen. 14:19).

• He blessed and ordained Abraham with the fulness of the priesthood and taught him more of the gospel (see D&C 84:14; The Words of Joseph Smith, 246; History of the Church, 5:555).

• He received Abraham’s tithing (see Gen. 14:20).

• As the Lord’s high priest, he kept the storehouse of God and was appointed to receive the tithes (see JST, Gen. 14:37–38).

[illustration] Detail from engraving by Gustave Doré

[illustration] Melchizedek worked with a fallen people and continued with an overarching determination to lead his people away from their wicked ways. (Painting by Del Parson.)

[illustration] Painting by Clark Kelley Price

[illustration] Painting by Gary L. Kapp

Dennis A. Wright is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1986), 3:312–13.

  2.   2.

    C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (n.d.), 1:208.

  3.   3.

    Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1–15 (1987), 1:316–17.

  4.   4.

    Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (1990), 408.

  5.   5.

    Word Biblical Commentary, 1:317.

  6.   6.

    Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV [New International Version] Study Bible, 907.

  7.   7.

    George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible (1952), 1:596.

  8.   8.

    See also Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (1973), 3:202–3.

  9.   9.

    The Words of Joseph Smith, comp. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (1980), 246; spelling corrected.

  10.   10.

    History of the Church, 5:554–55.

  11.   11.

    History of the Church, 5:554–55.