David the King

Part 3 in a 6 part series. View series intro and index.

As we continue to consider Israel’s theology of kingship in the Psalms, I’ll encourage you to get out your Bible and follow along for this post. We are going to do some moderate-to-heavy lifting in this post!

Israel’s theology of kingship in the Psalms is demonstrated through its content and structure. Certain royal psalms are strategically placed at the “seams” of three out of the first four books (Ps. 2, beginning of Book I; Ps. 72, end of Book II/beginning of Book III; and Ps. 89, end of Book III/beginning of Book IV).[1] The absence of a royal psalm at the end of Book I/beginning of Book II probably means that Books I and II were commonly recognized as a single Davidic collection prior to the final editing. How do we know? One piece of evidence is found in the postscript at the end of Book II (Ps. 72:20). Thus Pss. 2-72 and 73-89 probably make up two, not three, blocks of material.[2]

Again, let’s remember we are thinking about kingship in Hebrew theology. We must remember two things here: 1) the Israelite king is the reflection of the kingship of Yahweh, and 2) the Israelite king rules because Yahweh established him as a ruler.[3] One scholar put it this way: “Israel’s kingdom was a symbol of Yahweh’s reign on earth; [Israel’s] king was Yahweh’s vice regent.”[4] Furthermore, the concept and hope of an ideal king who would rule Israel in the eschaton (the new age) finds its foundation in the Davidic covenant.[5] Throughout the book of Psalms, this Davidic ruler is portrayed as a type of “superhuman” king, yet one who is not exactly equated to Yahweh.[6] These expectations are both celebrated and longed for in the Psalms in what are called “royal psalms.”Now, let’s check out these “seam psalms” and the “royal psalms” that surround them.

Psalm 1 is often thought of as an introduction to the whole book of Psalms, with Ps. 2 beginning Book I.[7] As mentioned above, Books I and II may have been considered as one collection in the Hebrew mind, and an obvious characteristic of Books I-II is its distinct Davidic flavor.[8] As a seam psalm, Ps. 2 is vital to understanding the rest of the Psalter, for it is the first royal psalm and it introduces the principal subject of the whole book: the king in prayer.[9] Psalm 2 depicts the coronation of the Davidic king and presents a poetic recitation of the Davidic covenant (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14): “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (v. 8). “This commitment represents a form of fulfillment of [Yahweh’s] promise to Abraham…The nation is destined to rule the world on [Yahweh’s] behalf.”[10] Therefore, Ps. 2 introduces the king as the centerpiece of Yahweh’s rule over the nations who foolishly plot, rage, and set themselves against Yahweh’s anointed (vv. 1-3).

In Ps. 18, David reflects on Yahweh’s rescuing him from the hands of Saul. In short, the psalm meditates on Yahweh’s faithfulness “to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever” (v. 50). Not only is personal deliverance in mind, but also deliverance for David’s future offspring. Furthermore, the fact that David will rule the nations is also significant: “You made me the head of nations; people whom I had not known served me” (v. 43). The important element to note is this: Yahweh is committed to continuing David’s line; Yahweh has not forgotten his covenant to Abraham or David.

Psalm 20 is linked to chapters 18 and 21, and all three Psalms deal with one main theme: military activity of Israel’s king.[11] Psalm 20 is a cry for Yahweh to save “his anointed” (v. 6) in battle while the people “trust in the name of the LORD our God” (v. 7). Psalm 21 glories in Yahweh’s salvation which he has worked for the king. In Yahweh “the king rejoices,” in his salvation the king “greatly…exults” (v. 1). The psalm continues to revel in Yahweh’s protection of the Davidic king. As in Ps. 20, so Ps. 21 illustrates the importance of corporate solidarity, for the people’s prosperity lies hand-in-hand with the king’s.[12] In Ps. 20, the people plead, “O LORD, save the king!” (v. 9). In Ps. 21, the people cried, “Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength.” It’s vital for us to remember: as David goes, so goes Israel!

Psalm 45 is a royal wedding song.[13] It is intriguing because the psalm principally focuses on humans (the king and his bride) then interjects and addresses God (v. 6).  Some theologians understand this to be addressing the ruler as a divine figure.[14] While there certainly may be grounds for this, it seems best to understand this reference to the king’s status as a divinely authorized king who rules Israel on Yahweh’s behalf.[15] The messianic overtones of this chapter, particularly vv. 16-17, point to Israel’s continuing hopes of a Davidic descendant who would usher in the kingdom of Yahweh.[16]

Now let’s tackle the last two royal psalms in Book II and Book III, Pss. 72 and 89, both of which are seam psalms. Psalm 72 is looking ahead in the future toward David’s descendants. The psalmist pleads for Yahweh to “give the king your justice…and righteousness” (v. 1) so he might judge accordingly (v. 2). The psalmist asks Yahweh that the Davidic son be a refreshing ruler, not a burdensome one (v. 6). Even more, he asks that his son’s reign would be from “sea to sea” (v. 8) so that “all the nations [may] serve him” (v. 11). Ultimately, the blessing of the nations is the end goal: “May his name endure forever…may people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (v. 17). A significant progression in the first two Books comes to a head at the end of Ps. 72. “The covenant which [Yahweh] made with David (Ps. 2) and which serves as the source of David’s assurance (Ps. 41) is now passed on to his descendants in this series of petitions in behalf of ‘the king’s son’ (Ps. 72).”[17]

Psalm 89 ends Book III and its royal segment (vv. 47-52) provide a dim outlook for the Davidic covenant. Indeed, it not only views the covenant as fractured, but one that has come to nothing![18] If we examine vv. 38-52, we’ll see an almost certain response to vv. 29-37, a passage clearly dependent on 2 Sam. 7:14f.[19] The psalmist laments the fact that Yahweh’s promise to David seems to have been in vain. “You have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust…Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (vv. 38-39, 49). If we are honest, it seems as if Yahweh has abandoned the king and his people. Still, later psalms affirm Yahweh reigns despite the demise of the monarchy and others affirm his commitment to David.[20]

Books I-II focus on David’s kingship and the preservation of his line so that Yahweh’s promises might come to fruition. Book III ends with a lament, for Yahweh seems to have rejected his anointed and the hope of a Davidic kings seems all but forgotten. Yet these elements foreshadow Yahweh’s kingship which dominates Books IV-V! We’ll focus on Yahweh’s kingship in the next post.

[1] Gerald H. Wilson, “The Use of Royal Psalms at the ‘Seams’ of the Hebrew Psalter,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 35 (1986): 87. Walton, “Psalms,” 27, also underscores the importance of the “seam” psalms, particularly Ps. 72.
[2] Ibid. Ps. 72:20 says, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.”
[3] Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 234.
[4] David M. Howard, Jr., “A Case for Kingship in the Old Testament Narratives and the Psalms,” Trinity Journal 9, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 34.
[5] Bruce K. Waltke, with Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 888.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 88; Gerald H. Wilson, “The Shape of the Book of Psalms,” Interpretation 46 (1992): 132. John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 1: Psalms 1-41, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), states that Pss. 1-2 were treated as one psalm in at least one Jewish tradition. He notes that the first two psalms have several points of connection. Whatever the case, the idea that Ps. 2 functions as a “seam” psalm is not nullified if Ps. 2 is not the actual beginning of Book I. Moreover, it would be a moot point if Pss. 1-2 were originally one psalm.
[8] Gerald H. Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms—Volume I (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 89. Walton, “A Cantata,” 25, notes that some psalms seem out of place at times (e.g. Pss. 23-24). This will be dealt with in the next section.
[9] Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 885.
[10] Goldingay, Psalms: Vol. 1, 95.
[11] Ibid., 303; Wilson, Psalms—Vol. 1, 381.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 127; John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 2: Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 54.
[14] Kaiser, The Messiah, 128.
[15] Wilson, Psalms—Vol. 1, 704; Goldingay, Psalms: Vol. 2, 58.
[16] Wilson, Psalms—Vol. 1, 700.
[17] Wilson, “The Use of Royal Psalms,” 89.
[18] Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 886.
[19] Wilson, “The Use of Royal Psalms,” 91.
[20] Goldingay, Psalms: Vol. 2, 691.