Royal psalms remind us the biblical ideal is not democracy, but kingship.

king david

Pure democracy is fragile and rare. Most institutions are largely non-democratic: business, school, the home, the church, and the military.

Not surprisingly, most people find themselves either blessed or “cursed” by authority that is outside their control. Ancient Israel experienced such authority magnified and centered in a Davidic king. Kingship in Israel had a rocky start, originating in the politics of countering the Philistine threat, displacing Yahweh as owner of firstfruits and leader into battle, but eventually becoming a central motif in salvation history. In the end, Israel’s king was understood to be . . .

  • God’s anointed– “Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek (Ps 2:2, 6-7; 45:7; 89:26-28)
  • a “vicar” of God on earth (Ps 72:2; 101:8; 110:1)
  • the representative Israelite (Isa 53; Ps 89:41)
  • a channel of blessing via His “lovingkindness” to David (Ps 2:12; 72:6-7)
  • a special priest (Ps 110:4; 2Ki 19:14ff; 2Chron 30:18-20)
  • ruler of the king’s of the earth (Ps 2:8-9; 18:43; 72:11; 110:5-6; 144:2)
  • the focus of community (20:4-5; 72:15; 89:18)

Royal psalms cut across the genres of wisdom, laments, thanksgivings, and praise. Psalm 89, for example, is both royal psalm and lament (“I will sing of God’s covenant loyalty [to the king]…” but where is it?). Highlights from royal psalms include . . .

  • 2 Sam 23:1-7: praise of Davidic kingship. Note echoes of Ps 19 (v 4) and “covenant” (v 5)
  • Ps 2: coronation of the king (see 2Ki 22-23). Note four stages of the ceremony: (1) preparation– vv.1-3, (2) installation– vv. 4-6, (3) legitimation– vv. 7-9, and (4) ultimatum– vv. 10-11. Also, “anointed” (v 2), “their fetters” (v 3), “My King” (v 6), “My Son” (v 7), “rod of iron” (v 9)
  • Ps 18: thanksgiving for rescue of the king (see 2 Sam 22). Note Temple, Exodus, Creation imagery
  • Ps 20: worship of the king before battle. Note the community’s interest and dependence on the king
  • Ps 21: thanksgiving of the king before battle. Note relation of “lovingkindness” to kingship
  • Ps 45: wedding of the king. Note the servant-to-king speech typical of the ancient Near East
  • Ps 72: righteousness of the king. Note the connection of righteous rule with material prosperity
  • Ps 89: a lament over absence of Davidic rule. Note the remembrance (vv 1-37), complaint (vv 38-45), petition (vv 46-51), and response (v 52) typical of laments
  • Ps 101: oath of the king upon his ascension. Note vows of praise, personal integrity, righteous rule
  • Ps 110: coronation of the king. Note the reuse of this psalm from David to Jesus
  • Ps 132: heritage of the king. Note the recounting of David’s installation of the ark in Jerusalem.
  • Ps 144: peace and prosperity of the king. Note the frequency of being saved “out of the waters” and its parallelism with enemies

The royal psalms reflect both the high expectations and the deep disappointments of ancient Israel with kingship. The latter climaxed in the Babylonian exile and the associated demise of Davidic kingship in the 6th century BC. In light of that event, the Jews gradually understood the royal psalms in terms of a coming “king of kings” who would fulfill psalmic visions of righteousness, justice, “shalom,” not in history, but at the end of the ages. Thus, the stage was set for the NT interpretation of royal psalms in terms of Jesus– God’s anointed, the representative Israelite, and ruler of the kings of the earth.


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