PSALMS: Psalm 21 by W. Robert Godfrey

Psalm 21 by W. Robert Godfrey

From Learning to Love the Psalms

Although Book Two of the Psalter focuses in important ways on Israel’s king in his kingdom, we have already seen that the subject of the king is by no means absent from Book One.  Psalm 21 is obvious proof of the importance of the king in this first part of the Psalter.  Here is a psalm that glorifies Israel’s king while always recognizing that all that he has comes from his God.

This psalm again gives us insight into its meaning through its form.  At the center of the psalm stands the faith of the king: “For the king trusts in the Lord,” (v. 7).  The calling of the king is to rest in God, confident of his love and good purpose.  The king of this psalm is a man of faith who relies on God utterly for every blessing and every success.  This central verse reminds us that our essential link with God is our faith or trust in him.

The king’s confidence in God expressed in Psalm 21 is an answer to the prayers offered for the king in Psalm 20.  Psalm 20 ends with a prayer for the king: “O Lord, save the king!  May he answer us when we call,” (v. 9).  This petition is the last of several for the king.  The psalmist prays for the king to have his “heart’s desires,” (v. 4; cf. Psalm 21:2).  It prays for “salvation” for the king, (v. 5; cf. Psalm 21:5).  Like Psalm 21, it confesses trust in the Lord: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God,” (v. 7).  Psalm 20 teaches us how to pray, and Psalm 21 shows us how our God is faithful to answer prayer.

All the verses of Psalm 21 revolve around the central point of faith in verse 7.  At the center is the trusting king.  Before this center, the psalm reflects on the blessed king, given rich gifts by his God.  After the center, the psalm testifies to the victorious king, given success against his enemies by God.  As a chiasm, the psalm draws strong lines between the blessings given to the king in the first part and the judgments visited on the enemies of God in the second part.  The second part contrasts the destruction of the king’s enemies with the blessings of the king in the first part.  And all of these statements about the king are bracketed by a confession that it is the strength of God that provides everything for the king, (vv. 1, 13).  The two columns below show that correspondence between God’s blessings on the king and his curses on the king’s enemies:

A. the strength of God (v. 1a)
A’. the strength of God (v. 13)
B. king given desires of his heart, (vv. 1b-2)
B’. enemies given complete defeat, (v. 12)
C. king given a rich crown, (v. 3)
C’. enemies’ schemes fail, (v. 11)
D. king given length of days, (v. 4)
D’. enemies’ descendants die, (v. 10)
E. king given victory and glory, (v. 5)
E’. enemies destroyed, (v. 9)
F. king given eternal blessings in God’s presence, (v. 6)
F’. enemies seized by God’s hand, (v. 8)

By seeing that these sections of the psalm mirror each other, we are helped in seeing the meaning of each.  For example, we read how the king is given salvation as the desire of his heart: “In your salvation how greatly he exults!  You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips,” (vv. 1b-2).  This salvation, however, is in part a victory over his enemies.  We see the character of this victory when we read of the king in the parallel verse, “You will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows,” (v. 12).  The might of the king and his archers forces the retreat of the enemy, and so the king’s might is his salvation.

Or consider the wonderful statement, “He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever and ever,” (v. 4).  Here is a beautiful promise of eternal life as the gift of God.  Then compare this with the mirror image of verse 10: “You will destroy their descendants from the Earth, and their offspring from among the children of man.”  Here is a terrible curse pronounced on the wicked and their generations.  At this point, the psalm stops us from a sentimental reflection on Heaven and eternal life.  This vision of eternal life is not saccharine and effete.  The psalm reminds us that as those who trust God will enjoy eternal life, so those who make war on God suffer everlasting destruction.  It reminds us that the God who is a God of unfailing love to his people is a God of absolute justice to his enemies.

In our world, many want to affirm the love of God and deny his justice.  They maintain that God cannot be both loving and just.  But those who think in this way have not understood the very heart and center of Christianity.  It is only in the person and work of Jesus Christ that the love and justice of God are brought together.  On the cross, Jesus becomes in a sense the enemy of God that he might satisfy the full justice of God for all who belong to him.  Because justice is satisfied in Christ, the ultimate king of Psalm 21, love abounds to all those who trust in Christ.  Jesus on the cross suffers the curse of verse 10 just as Isaiah prophesied that he would: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isaiah 53:8)  Yet, it is also true that Jesus is the victorious king.  Of whom else could it so truly be said that God gave to him length of days for ever and ever?  Here is the triumph and resurrection of Jesus.  Isaiah saw that too: “When his soul makes an offering for sin, he will see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand,” (Isaiah 53:10)

Again, some today may wonder how relevant a psalm that speaks of kings and wars is to Christians who live in a largely peaceful democracy.  But the psalm helps us remember that Jesus is not a president whose authority rests on public opinion.  He is precisely a king under whom we are subjects.  Our king has great enemies, and we must recognize our responsibility to stand with him in the battle.  Jesus calls us to have clear priorities for our lives.  He said, “But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” (Matthew 6:33).  This psalm helps us celebrate our king and reminds us that we are part of his royal family, part of his work.

Psalm 21 is one of eight psalms that seem to hang together in a striking way.  Psalms 19–26 bear a remarkable relationship to redemptive history and the life of Jesus Christ.  That is no doubt most clear in Psalm 22 with its amazing prophecies of the death of Jesus.  But as we think of these other psalms, we see their strong connections to other aspects of that history.  Psalm 19 is primarily a song of creation, but it also recognizes the problem of sin in the world.  Psalm 20 is appropriate to mark the desire for the coming of the Messiah.  Psalm 21 is a psalm of a victorious king, very appropriate for Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Psalm 22 is the great crucifixion psalm from which Jesus quoted as he hung on the cross.  Psalm 24 is a great song to accompany the ascension of Jesus into his Heavenly Jerusalem.  Psalm 25 is appropriate to Pentecost as an appeal for God’s leading of his people.  Psalm 26 appeals for the final judgment of God.

Psalm 23 may not be quite so obviously a resurrection psalm between the crucifixion and ascension psalms, but I think it does fit the pattern.  It is a psalm that emphasizes that God is always with us, that we are never forsaken, and that God will take us through the valley of the shadow of death.  It is indeed a psalm of life and resurrection.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • What is the significance of Israel’s king?  How does this psalm provide insight into its meaning through its form?
  • How does this psalm show the correspondence between God’s blessings on the king and his curses on the king’s enemies?  How does the psalm’s chiastic structure help in seeing the meaning of these blessings and curses?
  • How do those in today’s world affirm the love of God and deny his justice?  Why is this type of thinking a misunderstanding of the very heart and center of Christianity?  How are the love and justice of God brought together in Jesus Christ, the ultimate king of Psalm 21?

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