Resources » Asbury Bible Commentary » Part II: The Old Testament » PSALMS » Commentary » V. Royal Songs (the ma'as̄ay lemelek) (Pss 2, 20, 21, 45, 61, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144)

V. Royal Songs (the ma'as̄ay lemelek) (Pss 2, 20, 21, 45, 61, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144)

These verses to the king (45:1) span all five books of the Psalter and originally served diverse purposes. Pss 2 and 110 seem to have come from enthronement ceremonies. From David or his court on, they may well have been part of coronations of succeeding kings. If so, they no doubt served multiple purposes, warning vassals compelled to be present on such occasions (2:1-6, 10-12). Ps 20 honored the king by benedictions and prayerful support. Offering praise to Yahweh, Ps 21:1-7 undergirded the king's relationship to God, and concluded by encouraging and supporting the crown with promised and implied divine support (21:8-12). The king and his rule were placed in the hands of Yahweh (21:13; 72:1, 15-17; 110; 132). One song unabashedly celebrates the king and kingship, cementing his marriage and fostering stability in political affairs of the realm (Ps 45). More soberly, Ps 61 prays for the king's life and health and rule in the presence and protection of Yahweh. Similarly, Ps 132 appeals to David's important oath regarding the ark to reinforce its prayer for Yahweh to fulfill his oath to David's descendants, a song undergirding the dynasty. Pss 72 and 101 pledge just rule as an expression of the rule of Yahweh and must have functioned to instruct as well as encourage and exhort the king indirectly. Ps 89 celebrates Yahweh's historic deeds, his blessing of his people, and especially his singular covenant with David his servant, all in the course of agonizing over that covenant's apparent disarray, perhaps a pivotal point in the Psalter as a whole. Ps 144 recalls the idyllic days of David, the warriormusician, but seems to have in mind a situation in which the Davidic son is held captive and David's worst fears have come to pass, a poignant prayer for the king's liberty and preservation.

The language of the crown in these few songs points to the several key relationships focused in the king. The ruler here is, of course, the king (20:9; 21:1; 45:11, 14; 61:6) and thus the chief man (45:2) in the realm, with power virtually unlimited within the bounds of his ability to command loyalty and faithfulness to the historic faith. The king's prowess and vigor were presented well in David's story, a young man, a warrior (89:19), O mighty one (45:3). At best he was the people's best hope beside Yahweh himself, reflected in the ownership and confidence seen in such titles as Our King” and Our Shield” (89:18). The profile of ideal kingship celebrated and pledged in these songs places squarely on his shoulders the maintenance of justice in the realm, the care of the disenfranchised, and defense of the crown and therefore those under it with their property (45:4, 6-7; 72:2-14). To the king fell primary accountability for the character of not only his own affairs, but those of his court, his home, and of his selected associates (Ps 101). Truly such a person would be a horn and a lamp (132:17). Ps 45 addresses the royal groom as God (v. 6), an understanding maintained in the earliest version we have (the Septuagint). Though such language was quite at home in the ancient world, it surprises us in Israel, where Yahweh shares his glory with no one. Yet it stands as an extravagant celebration of the king's honor, and tells us something of the awe in which he was held. Derek Kidner frames it well: “As for divine honours the language . . . was understood, we may suppose, as terminology not to be pressed (until the New Testament insisted that it should be), yet as not entirely inappropriate” (Kidner, 1:19).

But in these verses for the king David's relationship to God receives primary accent. The king is My [i.e., God's] Anointed One,” and therefore set apart to sacred service, endued by God's Spirit. He is my Son” (2:7; “the Son,” v. 12), “my chosen one” (89:3), “my servant” (89:3; 144:10), “my firstborn” (89:27). Each of these registers the unusually honored or intimate relationship the king sustained with Yahweh, a relationship declared at enthronement (2:7; 110:1) and sustained by covenant.

Not only is the king uniquely related to Yahweh, but Yahweh also relates himself to the crown. To plot against the king is to rebel against Yahweh (2:1-2). Yahweh “begets” and installs the king (2:6; 89:27; 110:1-2). He is the source of all royal blessings (21:1-7), the breadth of his rule (2:8-9; 110:2-3, 5-7), victory in battle (20:1-5), his salvation and preservation (61:2-3). He endows with a sense of justice (72:1). He establishes the king's priestly duties, whatever they are (110:4). He founds and perpetuates the Davidic kingship by covenant and pledges to chastise David's successors without destroying the dynasty (89:3, 17-29). In him, as much as in the priesthood, God's people see Yahweh at work and find his word confirmed.

One may ask what significance all of this has in view of the fact that by the time God's servants were putting the Psalter in the form we now have before us, the kingship was no more. Though we have been given works from the coronation hall itself, the entire institution lay in the past, an agony acknowledged by this work itself (Ps 89:38-51). The editors of the Psalter have underscored this fact in the ironic contrast in the songs closing the second and the third books (Ps 72 versus Ps 89)!

One fascinating implication of this fact is that these songs must already have been understood as messianic by the ancient editors. Not the extravagant language (even the “forevers”), but the by-then-past demise of the kingship shows it. The Targum indicates this already by actually inserting “Messiah” with “King” at points (e.g., 72:1). These songs carry the faith that Yahweh will one day keep his covenant to David and fulfill the promises made through his prophets (e.g., Jer 23:1-6; Eze 37:15-28).

The NT declares unequivocally that this hope has been realized in Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 2:1-6; Lk 1:67-79). The totally nationalistic orientation of these Royal Songs as well as the prophetic hopes obscured the identity of Messiah to many, including the disciples (Mk 8:27-9:2). But the non-nationalistic, universal reach of Messiah Jesus was already apparent in his ministry and certainly in his commission (Mt 28:18-20) and risen presence (Acts). This enabled the appropriation of these songs for the worship of the church (cf. Ps 110 in Heb 1 and 2 and elsewhere).

But the Psalter itself had already broached this point in the second major implication of the fallen kingship's songs here preserved. As noted in the introduction (section Ps. 0:12), the Psalter's arrangement proclaims the kingship of Yahweh himself, not simply “over” the king but “without” the king. And Yahweh is King of all the earth, receiving praise from all his creation, calling into question overidentification of his rule with any state and offering his kingdom to all who will love his law and walk in it.