Sunday, November 9, 2014

Psalm 21

(vv. 1-7)—This psalm, by virtue of its placement in the psalter, follows Psalm 20 as a joyful and thankful response to an answered prayer. Where Psalm 20 consists of a series of petitions for the king and expressions of confidence that they will be granted by the LORD, the verb tenses that predominate in Psalm 21 laud the LORD both for what he has done for the king and for what he is doing in the present tense.
            The king rejoices in the LORD’s strength and exults greatly for the help he has received (v. 1). The LORD has “not withheld the request” of the king (v. 2), but has granted him life—“length of days forever and ever” (v. 4). Such phrases, in a merely historical-literary sense, may no doubt be attributable to the hyperbolic nature of royal liturgy of ancient near eastern culture; but taken in light of the Davidic covenant, they ring with Messianic promise and assurance. Further, this Christological covenant best illumines the alternating use of present tense verbs that describe the relationship between the LORD and the Messianic king:
you meet him with rich blessings;
you set a crown of fine gold on his head (v. 3). … 
His glory is great through your help;
splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
You bestow on him blessings forever; 
you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD … (vv. 5-7a)
The use of the present tense to describe what we might otherwise consider “one off,” punctiliar events (blessing, coronation, meeting, etc.) is clearly meant to assert and establish ongoing, enduring, even eternal relationship that corresponds to a divinely instituted and “kept” covenant.

(vv. 8-13)—In the latter portion of the psalm, the future tense emerges with a strong sense of prophetic promise, each promise declaring the absolute victory of the king over his enemies, with the LORD himself sure to “swallow them up in his wrath” (v. 9). Granted, the strong imprecations against the enemies in this section are difficult to reconcile in light of Christ’s instruction that we should pray for, bless, and love our enemies. Two verses in particular give us pause.
(v. 9)—“you will make (your enemies) like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.” A couple of features of this passage need to be considered. First, the psalmist in this section is clearly speaking to the king when he says “your” enemies; the psalmist is not offering a merely self-serving prayer against “my” enemies. Second, the Davidic king and the LORD are so closely allied in this Messianic psalm that the uses of the second person “you” and “your” should in no instance be stripped of their sense of theological and Christological agency. In fact, the fiery end of the LORD’s enemies at the appearance of the LORD’s anointed bears considerable proleptic, even apocalyptic thrust. It concerns what God will do with his enemies in the end, not what Christ has commanded his followers to do in the interim between his two advents.
(v. 10)—The other troublesome verse concerns the doom pronounced upon the children and offspring of the LORD’s and the king’s enemies. The difficulty here is similar to that presented by the psalmist’s outburst in Psalm 137, or by the ban pronounced by Samuel on the Amalekites. Admittedly, this is a concept or image that begs for a more symbolic than literal interpretation; e.g., “offspring” are seeds, and in biblical literature so too may many other things be sown: words, deeds, etc. Patterns of behavior and attitudes, especially toward the Jews, can also be passed from generation to generation, and regarding these too we should not hesitate to pray for a crop failure. Certainly, this verse should not be used as a rationale for genocide, which mishandling of the text would also miss another important mitigating factor, namely, the moderating sense of progression in these verses from discovery (v. 8), to revealing (v. 9) [NB: fire is illuminating as well as consuming], to restraint (v. 9) [swallowing is akin to surrounding], to containing the spread of enmity (v. 10), to a failure of the enemies’ plots (v. 11), and finally, to flight (v. 12). If the enemies can flee at the end of this process, we can be assured that some mercy has been extended, more than would appear at first glance. Moreover, their flight is mentioned in response to bows aimed at their faces. Nothing is said of the arrows being launched. Thus, we are left with an image of evident and considerable restraint.
            The psalm ends (v. 13) as it began (v. 1), with direct address to the LORD. It is a promise of song and praise that shall ever be lifted up as a tribute to God’s blessed use of strength and power on behalf of his anointed king.

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