When David becomes Israel’s king, he moves the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the city where Melchizedek once ruled as priest-king (Genesis 14:18). In this story, David is dressed like a high priest, wearing a linen ephod. And he is functioning like a priest, officiating over the ceremony, offering sacrifices, and setting up the tabernacle (2 Samuel 6:13-17).
But wait. Wasn’t David a king, not a priest?
David is the first fulfillment of God’s promise to send Israel an anointed ruler. David is a king and a priest. So why does the biblical author portray David as both a king and priest? Why is this important? To answer these questions, we need to look at how David’s story ties into the way the priestly role was established in the overarching story of the Hebrew Bible. Let’s go back to the very beginning pages of the Bible.
The Creation Temple
The story of the Bible begins with a temple.
The first creation narrative depicts God as a cosmic temple builder (Genesis 1:1-2:3). All of creation is God’s temple. And in the middle of this cosmic temple, God created another temple—a garden. God orders the world out of a chaotic wilderness and places humans in a garden-temple as his priestly representatives (Genesis 2:4-3:24).
As priests, Adam and Eve were tasked with caring for this sacred space. They were commissioned to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). They were to work and serve by participating with God in the ongoing task of upholding and sustaining the order God had established in the cosmos. And humans were to use their own creative power and imagination to spread the order and beauty of the garden-temple into the rest of creation. This commission was intended for all of humanity—all humans are meant to be priests.
But Adam and Eve failed to fulfill their priestly roles, so their priestly commission (i.e. to be fruitful, subdue, etc.) was passed on to Noah, to Abraham, and to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 1:28; 9:1,7; 12:2-3; 17:2, 6, 8; 22:17-18; 26:3; 26:4; 26:24; 28:3-4; 28:13-14; 35:11-12; 47:27).
And then at Mount Sinai, God invited the entire nation of Israel into a new Eden opportunity where they would live and work as a kingdom of priests in his presence (Exodus 19:6). They were to represent God to the people and the people to God, as well as represent God to the surrounding nations.
Priests and the Building of Sanctuaries
To understand how and why David is being portrayed as a priest, we need to take a look at the story as it continues throughout the Genesis narrative. This priestly commission is often repeated in connection with what appears to be the building of small sanctuaries, or mini Edens.
When humanity is first commissioned as royal priests, their sanctuary is Eden. And as the priestly commission is passed to Noah, Abraham, and his descendants, we often find them “pitching a tent” (i.e. tabernacle) on a mountain. They also build altars and worship God (which likely included sacrificial offerings and prayer). And the place where these activities occur is often located at Bethel (which means "House of God"). Trees are also often present at these sites, deepening the Eden imagery.
When Abraham journeys into Canaan, he ascends to a high hill (Shechem) where there is a tree called “vision,” and God appears to him in a vision. Then he goes to a mountain next to Bethel and builds an altar where he worships Yahweh (Genesis 12:6-9).
Kingdom of Priests and Mini Edens
In Beersheba, God appears to Isaac, and Isaac builds an altar, worships Yahweh, and “pitches his tent” (Genesis 26:25). Later, Jacob builds an altar at Bethel where God appeared to him (Genesis 35:7).
Although Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t construct buildings, these sacred spaces can all be considered sanctuaries modeled after the first sanctuary, Eden. And all of these informal temples acted as mini Edens—sacred spaces where God’s space and humanity’s space overlapped.
When God commissions all Israel to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, the people build a sanctuary. Directly following Israel’s priestly commission, God gives instructions for building the tabernacle, a portable mini Eden where his presence would dwell with his people.
David the Priest King
Years later, David is anointed king. And not long after becoming king, he goes up into the high hills at the center of Israel’s tribes and establishes a capital city, Jerusalem, otherwise known as Zion or the city of David. By drawing attention to this event, the author seems to be associating David with the ancient priest king Melchizedek. This high hill is the same place where Abraham visited and met Melchizedek, the royal priest king of Salem, and where God provided a substitute sacrifice for Abraham’s failures (Genesis 14:18, Genesis 22). This hilltop is also the place where God would one day provide a royal priest as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:14).
As the ark is carried into Jerusalem, David steps into his priestly authority over Israel. He and all of the tribes of Israel come together in Yahweh’s presence in a recreated Eden with David as Israel’s priest and king.
Since the inauguration of the Levitical priesthood, we’ve been expecting a priest from a different ancestral line. And God chooses David to step into a Melchizedek-type role as priest king of Jerusalem.
David and a New Eden
As the newly anointed priest king, David makes clear his desire to build a temple for God—a new Eden sanctuary where God can dwell with his people. Sound familiar?
In 1 Chronicles, the biblical authors describe David’s preparations for building the temple. David’s plans include the same elements found in the temple-building activities of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David begins the preparations on a mountain (Mount Moriah), and he builds an altar to the Lord. He offers burnt offerings and calls out to Yahweh (1 Chronicles 21:26). David calls the place the House of the Lord God (1 Chronicles 22:1) because this is the site of Israel’s future temple to be prepared by David and built by Solomon (1 Chronicles 22; 2 Chronicles 3:1).
The temple was to be a symbolic model pointing to the new Heaven and Earth, a place permeated with God’s presence where humanity would once again live as God’s priestly representatives. This is why the land of Israel is repeatedly called the garden of Eden (Isaiah 51:3; Joel 2:3; Ezekiel 36:35). The temple also acted as a symbol of the task that God wanted Israel to carry out—the same task that Adam should have carried out but did not. Israel was to spread God’s presence throughout the whole world and bring blessing to all nations. The temple was a reminder for Israel to be a kingdom of priests, bearing God’s name to the nations.
Jesus and the Ultimate New Eden
Directly after David established Jerusalem as the new cosmic mountain, we find the high point of the David narrative: God’s promise to David of future seed, land, and a house for God (2 Samuel 7). In Psalm 110, David speaks of someone else that receives the covenant oath of Yahweh, and David calls this person “lord,” a common term when addressing a king. Here, David is portrayed as speaking of his future seed who will receive the messianic inheritance.
The future seed of David receives two promises from Yahweh in Psalm 110. First, he will share in the rule of Yahweh and exercise Yahweh’s justice against his enemies. Second, he will be a priest-king like Melchizedek, ruling in Jerusalem.
Jesus saw himself as the lord and priest-king who David spoke about, and as the fully realized image of God who would usher in the new creation (Matthew 22:42-44). Jesus does what David never fully accomplished; he builds a dwelling place for God on the high place of Jerusalem (Mark 15:21-22). Through his atoning death, Jesus created a true house and a new family of priests (1 Peter 2:9). And one day, he will establish the ultimate new Eden.
The story of the Bible ends with a temple, but this temple is not an architectural structure. In the new Heaven and Earth, Yahweh himself and Jesus are the temple (Revelation 21:22). And here, humanity will rule once again as God’s priests in the new Eden sanctuary, all because of Jesus, the ultimate priest king.
Continue learning about the royal priesthood in our other posts from the blog series, The Royal Priest. To start, learn about the creation of God’s temple, explore the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek, and discover the role of priestly clothing and how it points to Jesus.