Online Bible Commentary
The Superiority of Melchizedek to Abraham and the Priests
Hebrews 7:4 Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5 Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people--that is, their brothers--even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. 6 This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. 8 In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. (NIV)
After introducing Melchizedek in the previous passage, the writer of Hebrews continues in this passage to proclaim the greatness of Melchizedek, the High Priest. God appointed him the first priest in the days of the patriarchs. Abraham received a blessing from Melchizedek and paid him a tenth (a tithe) of his plunder, the amount that God determined that each person should pay to those who minster to His people.
Later, on Mount Sinai, God proclaimed to Moses that all priests should come from the tribe of Levi. The priests from the tribe of Levi were called Levitical priests. The tribe of Levi was not given their own land like the other eleven tribes of Israel. Instead they were distributed throughout the lands of the eleven tribes, each representing an area. God appointed Aaron, the great grandson of Levi, as the first High Priest, with his descendants being the High Priests. The High Priests from the family of Aaron were called Aaronic priests. The priests were given homes, land, and tithes by those whom they served, so that their needs would be met.
This passage begins with the writer proclaiming the greatness of Melchizedek, because Abraham had recognized him as a representative of man to God, giving him a tithe (v. 4). The Mosiac Law required the Levitical priests to “collect a tenth from the people” (v. 5a), the Israelites. The Israelites, “their brothers” (v. 5b) were descendants of Abraham (v. 5c). The greatness of Melchizedek was seen when, even though he was not a Levite, he was allowed to give a blessing to the one who had received God’s promise, Abraham, and, in turn, was given a tithe by the promised one (v. 6).
In the eyes of God the one giving the blessing is greater than the one receiving the blessing (v. 7). So Melchizedek was superior to Abraham!
In one case, the tithe is “collected by men who die” (v.8a), a reference to the Levites. But in the other case, the tithe is collected “by him who is declared to be living” (v. 8b), a reference to Melchizedek. The phrase “by him who is declared to be living” contains a figure of speech called a heterosis of tenses. The writer used a present tense to apply to a passed event. I, myself, use this figure of speech at times in these commentaries. The proper interpretation is that Melchizedek lived in the past, not that he is living at the time of this writing. “This man” (v. 6a), Melchizedek, lived in the time of Abraham, and is dead far before the time of this writing. Both the Levite priests and Melchizedek died. The verse refers to their priesthoods. The priesthood of the Levites died with them. The priesthood of Melchizedek was declared by God to last “forever” (He 7:3).
The writer has already proclaimed that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham. Now, in verses nine and ten, he proclaims that Melchizedek is superior to the Levitical priesthood. “One might even say” (v.9) that Levi was the one who actually paid the tithe to Melchizedek, through his ancestor Abraham. The phrase translated “Levi was still in the body of his ancestor”, in the literal Greek is “for in the loins of the father he was”. The writer contends that “when Melchizedek met Abraham” (v. 10) Levi was already “in the loins” of Abraham. Therefore, if Levi paid the tithe to Melchizedek, Melchizedek was superior to the Levitical priesthood. The one who blesses is greater than the one who receives the blessing.
So the writer has made his point that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham and the priesthood. This is important because he later compares Melchizedek to Christ. The writer, likely Paul, is attempting to demonstrate to the new Hebrew believers, likely of the church in Jerusalem, that Christ is superior to everyone and everything they worshiped in Judaism. He wants them fully convinced of the superiority of Christ so that they will endure in the faith and become mature Christians.