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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 21


Psalms 21

The people testify their joy at the rich benefits which the Lord has bestowed upon His king, Psalms 21:1-6; express the hope, that through God he will destroy all his enemies, Psalms 21:8-12: and conclude by praising the Lord, Psalms 21:13.

The speakers rise first to the Lord: O Lord, what hast Thou done to the king? Psalms 21:1 ss.; then come down to the king, first speaking of him, Psalms 21:7, then to him, “O king, what wilt thou do in the Lord?” Psalms 21:8-12; finally, again ascend to the Lord, Psalms 21:13, “Praise to Thee, O Lord, for what Thou hast done to the king, and what the king has done in Thee.”

In the address to God, the benefits are more comprehensively and generally described: perpetual continuance of dominion, salvation, strength, honour; on the other hand, in the address to the king, a particular point is specially brought out, namely, how through God’s help he will be superior to all his enemies.

Various expositors—most recently, Kaiser, Hitzig, Koester—suppose that our Psalm stands in a closer relation to Psalms 20 than the mere circumstance that the people in both present themselves before God on the business of their king; that Psalms 20 was composed when the king went forth to war, the present one on his return home. What is there wished, is here thankfully acknowledged; the salvation desired in the one, is spoken of as having been found in the other, Psalms 21:1; and the wish here mentioned in Psalms 21:2 as obtained, is that which was uttered there. But this supposition is quite inadmissible. Our Psalm does not give thanks for any particular victory granted to the king, but for strength and salvation in general, for dominion received; compare the words, “Thou settest a crown of gold upon his head,” and, what is perfectly decisive, for “length of days for ever and ever,” Psalms 21:4.

According to De Wette, the Psalm is a wish for the success of the king in an impending campaign, with an introduction in Psalms 21:1-7; in it the deliverance just about to be afforded to the king, is celebrated. But then we cannot explain the conclusion in Psalms 21:13, where the Lord is thanked for what has already been obtained, as appears alone from the circumstance, that De Wette feels himself obliged, in favour of his hypothesis, to change thanks and praise into “a prayer for Jehovah’s help.”

The only correct view is this: The Psalm expresses the thanksgivings of the people for the promises given to David in 2 Samuel 7, and for the joyful hope in regard to their fulfilment. Only on this view can we explain Psalms 21:4, according to which an eternal duration of life is guaranteed to the king, and Psalms 21:6, according to which he has been set for an eternal blessing—passages which exclude all reference to any single royal individual as such. The supposition of a hyperbolical mode of speech, which is necessarily to be rejected, appears the more objectionable when we compare the promise in 2 Samuel 7, and the other Psalms which have their foundation in it, Psalms 89, Psalms 132, Psalms 110.

This Psalm forms a side-piece to Psalms 18, from which it is separated only by Psalms 19 and Psalms 20, which with this is united into a pair. In Psalms 18 David presents to the Lord, in presence of the Church, thanks for the glorious promise which had been vouchsafed to him; here he utters, in the name of the people, grateful joy for the same promise. His aim is to call forth and quicken in the mind of the Church a feeling of gratitude toward the Lord, of love toward His anointed, of immoveable confidence in the prospect of danger.

Precisely as here, David, in his last words, as recorded in 2 Samuel 23, finds in the promise of the Lord, 1. The pledge of salvation for his house, 2 Samuel 23:5; 2 Samuel , 2. The pledge of destruction in regard to his enemies, the sons of Belial, 2 Samuel 23:6-7.

The exclusively Messianic exposition, which has been defended by many of the older commentators, and latterly by Rosenmüller, in his 2d ed., is deprived by our view of the foundation which it was conceived to have in Psalms 21:4 and Psalms 21:7. It is opposed even by the undeniable reference which the Psalm has to 2 Samuel 7. This admits of the application to Christ only in so far as the promise found its last and highest fulfilment in Him, in whom the royal stem of David culminated, but at the same time imperiously demands the reference to Christ in this sense. Apart from Christ, the words, “Thou givest him length of days for ever and ever,” and, “Thou settest him for blessing for ever,” are nothing but an empty dream.

The testimony of the superscription in behalf of the Davidic authorship is confirmed by characteristic coincidences with the Davidic Psalms, many of which have been noticed by Hitzig. Then the exultant, confident tone of the Psalm points to the times of David, showing that the idea had as yet come into no conflict with the reality, as it did latterly in so important a manner through the degeneracy of the line of David. How entirely otherwise does Psalms 89 sound, which was composed after the beginning of this conflict!

First, in Psalms 21:1-6 we have the blesser in relation to the blessed; the general principle in Psalms 21:1, the expansion of it in Psalms 21:2-6.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. O Lord, the king rejoices at Thy strength, and how greatly does he rejoice at Thy salvation! Properly, in Thy strength, in Thy salvation. The in stands for our at, concerning, in accordance with another mode of contemplation. There the joy rests in, here upon its object. The strength, the salvation of the Lord, are the things promised by the Lord, and, in consequence of the promise, to be granted by Him. For יָ גִ יל , the Masorites would without ground ready יָ גֶ ל , the Fut. apoc. with abbr. vowels on account of the transference of the tone to the first syllable. Ew., p. 415.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Thou gavest him the wish of his heart, and the desire of his lips Thou didst not withhold from him. The wish does not simply denote here the wished-for thing—this is opposed by the parallel words, “the desire of his lips”—it is rather, “to give the wish,” equivalent to, “to grant or fulfil it.” The silent wish, and the spoken prayer, stand in contrast. Luther: “The arrangement is certainly fine here, namely, that the prayer of the heart must go before, without which the prayer of the lips is an unprofitable bawling.” By the connection with the preceding context, whose further expansion here begins, the nature of the desire is more exactly defined to be one after deliverance and strength; but it is still more exactly determined, by connecting, it with what follows, as one after the continuance of dominion in his line, of honour and glory in his posterity. De Wette’s affirmation, that it is “general, and not to be understood of any determinate wish,” is clearly refuted by Psalms 21:4, which is linked to our verse by the words, “he desired life of Thee.”

That the promise in 2 Samuel 7 was a hearing of prayer for David, is not expressly stated there, but it may be regarded as self-evident, inasmuch as certainly no king is without thought for the future lot of his offspring; and especially under the Old Testament was the interest taken in the offspring peculiarly lively. The fate of David’s race must, moreover, have lain all the nearer to his heart, having constantly before his eyes the mournful fate of the family of Saul. If the promise had not met the ardent wishes and prayers of David, it could scarcely have made so deep an impression upon him, or filled him with such triumphant joy and inward gratitude.

The Preterites of this verse are falsely taken by many expositors aoristically, with reference to the following Futures. David’s desire for the perpetuity of his kingdom, and the salvation of his seed, was already satisfied by the promise. The discourse is here of a fact already past and concluded.

The Selah stands suitably between the indication and the further expansion, admonishing us before the latter to consider the grace of God, which brought satisfaction to the wish of His servant.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. For Thou surprisest him with the blessings of prosperity, Thou settest upon his head a crown of gold. In reference to the connection with what precedes, Luther says excellently “But what has the heart desired? What have the lips wished? This comes next.” קדם , “to surprise,” comp. on Psalms 17:12, Psalms 18:5. The character of joyful surprise appears throughout the whole of that prayer of David, which he made after receiving the promise, in 2 Samuel 7. The “blessings of the good,” equivalent to, “consisting in good, or prosperity,” denote the entire sum of the benefits which the Lord promised to give to David’s stem. A closer description of these benefits is given in what follows. The setting on of the crown marks the bestowment of dominion. David was crowned, as it were, anew,—or even for the first time, for the earlier crowning did not come, in this respect, into consideration,--when he received that great promise of the everlasting supremacy of his offspring. He then, for the first time, became king in the true and proper sense. The kings of the Philistines, to distinguish themselves from the poor elective kings, took the name of Abimelech, king’s-father, and here was unspeakably more than there! That we are not to suppose David’s first crowning, or the conferring on him of the kingly office in general, to be referred to, is evident from the following context, which is to be regarded as a further enlargement of the words before us.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. He asked of Thee life, Thou gavest him long life for ever and ever. God has so far placed a golden crown on David’s head, as He gives him to reign perpetually in his posterity. Calvin and many other expositors think that a comparison is here made between David’s earlier time, when, surrounded as he was by pressing dangers, he must have regarded it as a special favour to be delivered from the moment’s danger of death, and the later time, when, so far beyond his boldest wishes, he obtained from God the promise that he should live and reign for ever in his posterity. But it is better to refer the words. “for life he asked of Thee,” to the wish of David to have his life continued in his posterity,—a wish which, as is said in the second clause, was more than fulfilled by God. Then the words, “ he asked life of Thee,” perfectly correspond to the wish of the heart and the desire of the lips in Psalms 21:2; and the life which David asks for himself, stands on the same footing as the length of days which is granted to him. With the “length of days for ever and ever,” is to be compared 2 Samuel 7:13, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever,” and 2 Samuel 7:16, “and thy house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee, thy throne shall be established for ever;” Psalms 89:4, “Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations.”

Verses 5-6

Ver. 5. Great is his honour through Thy salvation; glory and majesty Thou layest upon him. In his seed, David will possess the full enjoyment of the kingly honour and glory. Ver. 6. For Thou settest him for blessing for ever, Thou makest him bright with joy before Thy countenance. “Thou settest him for blessing”—the plural points to the rich fatness of the blessing—for “Thou blessest him, so that he seems to be blessing itself;” comp. Genesis 12:2. The joy with the Lord’s countenance (the very peculiar expression, with Thy countenance, is used in the very same connection also in Psalms 16:11), is the joy which arises from David’s being in fellowship with the Lord’s countenance, from this countenance being graciously directed toward him; therefore, in substance, the same as “through Thy favour.” He does not mean the joy which arises from “consciousness of the Divine favour,” but which the enjoyment thereof gives.

Verse 7

Ver. 7. For the king trusts in the Lord; and through the favour of the Highest, he shall not be moved. This verse, which speaks of the king and of the Lord, forms the transition from the first part, the address to God, to the second, the address to the king. The connection with the preceding is falsely given by De Wette thus: “The king deserves it through his confidence in God.” Confidence is here considered not as an affection, but in respect to its object. This is shown by the parallel, “he shall not be moved.” The expression, “he trusts in the Lord,” is as much as, “the Lord is his ground of hope, his Saviour.” Calvin: “Though the world turns round like a wheel, whence it happens that those who were elevated to the highest point are suddenly brought down again, yet the kingdom of Judah, and its antitype, the kingdom of Christ, form an exception.”

The people now tell the king what he has to hope for himself and his posterity, in consequence of the Divine promise.

Ver. 8. Thy hand shall find out all thine enemies, thy right hand shall find out thy haters. Ver. 9. Thou wilt make them like a fiery oven, when thou lookest on them; the Lord in His anger will destroy them, and the fire will devour them. In the words, “ like a fiery oven,” the comparison, as often happens, is merely indicated, q. d. “Thou wilt put them in such a condition that they shall be as if they were in a fiery oven.” We reject the supposition of a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah; we must rather compare such passages as Malachi 4:1, “Behold, the day comes that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble, and the day that cometh shall burn them.” Hupfeld’s exposition, “Thou wilt treat them as a fiery oven,” is inadmissible. For שית does not signify, to treat. The expression, “at the time of thy countenance,” equivalent to, “as soon as thou turnest to them thy countenance, lookest on them,” has reference to, “with thy countenance,” in Psalms 21:6. Because the Lord’s countenance is turned toward the king, the king’s countenance is terrible to the enemies. That what has hitherto been spoken of is ascribed to the king only as an instrument of God, and is to be referred to God in the king, and to the king in God, is put beyond a doubt by the two last clauses.

Verses 10-11

Ver. 10. Their fruit thou wilt extirpate from the earth, and their seed from the children of men. The sense is: Thou wilt entirely uproot them. “Fruit and seed,” denote posterity, ver. 11. For they intended evil against thee, they conceived designs, yet they are not able for it. According to many expositors, the wickedness of the godless is here announced as the cause of their destruction. But then it would be unsuitable to say, “they are not able for it.” We must rather view the connection thus, “For though they threaten thee with destruction, yet they cannot execute their designs; these shall rather turn out to their own destruction, as certainly as God has promised perpetuity to the kingdom of David.” The relation of the Pret. and Fut. here refers to the distinction of earlier and later in the future. The attempt is expressed by the Pret., the result by the Fut. Several expound, “they span against thee evil,” supposing the image to be taken from the spreading out of the net. But נטה is never thus used. We must rather expound, “they incline, bend evil upon thee, in order to throw it down on thee.” נטה , in this sense in Psalms 62:3, and in the same kind of connection in 1 Chronicles 21:10, “three things I bend over thee,” where in the parallel passage, 2 Samuel 24:12, the corresponding, נוטל , “I lift up,” is used.

In the expression, “they cannot, are not able,”— what they are unable to work or accomplish, must be supplied from the context.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. For thou wilt make them for shoulder, fill thy strings against their countenance. The first member, “Thou wilt put them into a condition, that they shall be altogether shoulder, thou wilt put them to flight,” comp. on Psalms 18:40, where, instead of shoulder, there is neck. The “for” refers to the last words of the preceding verse, “they are not able,” which contain the leading idea thereof. כונן signifies, not “to aim,” but, “to load;” comp. on Psalms 7:12, Psalms 11:2. Luther: “The troubles stimulate them to flight; and the bow, meeting them in the face, compels them to retreat; so that they find themselves in a strait, and in seeking to escape the rain, go under the spout.”

Verse 13

Ver. 13. Praise to Thee, O Lord, for Thy strength: we will sing and extol Thy might. The Psalm is not, according to the common supposition, closed with a prayer, but with the praise of the Lord, for the great, grace which He manifests to His king and people, through the promise and its fulfilment. רומה , not, “raise Thyself,” or “show Thyself exalted,”—this were against usage, comp. Psalms 57:5-11, against the parallelism, and against the analogy of the conclusion of Psalms 18:46 ss.;—but, “be exalted in our consciousness,” equivalent to, “praise be to Thee.” God’s power and strength are what He unfolds when He gives power and strength to His anointed; comp. on Psalms 21:1.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 21". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.