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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 21

Verses 1-13

Psalms 21:1-13

This psalm is a pendant to the preceding. There the people prayed for the king; here they give thanks for him: there they asked that his desires might be fulfilled; here they bless Jehovah, who has fulfilled them: there the battle was impending; here it has been won, though foes are still in the field: there the victory was prayed for; here it is prophesied. Who is the "king"? The superscription points to David. Conjecture has referred to Hezekiah, principally because of his miraculous recovery, which is supposed to be intended in Psalms 21:4. Cheyne thinks of Simon Maccabaeus, and sees his priestly crown in Psalms 21:3. But there are no individualising features in the royal portrait, and it is so idealised or rather spiritualised, that it is hard to suppose that any single monarch was before the singer’s mind. The remarkable greatness and majesty of the figure will appear as we read. The whole may be cast into two parts, with a closing strain of prayer. In the first part (Psalms 21:1-7), the people praise Jehovah for His gifts to the king; in the second (Psalms 21:8-12) they prophesy to the king complete victory; in Psalms 21:13 they end, as in Psalms 20:1-9, with a short petition, which, however, here is in accordance with the tone of the whole, more jubilant than the former and less shrill.

The former psalm had asked for strength to be given to the king; this begins with thanks for the strength in which the king rejoices. In the former the people had anticipated triumph in the king’s salvation or victory; here they celebrate his exceeding exultation in it. It was his, since he was victor, but it was Jehovah’s, since He was Giver of victory. Loyal subjects share in the king’s triumph, and connect it with him; but he himself traces it to God. The extraordinarily lofty language in which Jehovah’s gifts are described in the subsequent verses has, no doubt. analogies in the Assyrian hymns to which Cheyne refers; but the abject reverence and partial deification which these breathe were foreign to the relations of Israel to its kings, who were not separated from their subjects by such a gulf as divided the great sovereigns of the East from theirs. The mysterious Divinity which hedges "the king" in the royal psalms is in sharp contrast with the democratic familiarity between prince and people exhibited in the history. The phenomena common to these psalms naturally suggest that "the king" whom they celebrate is rather the ideal than the real monarch. The office rather than the individual who partially fulfils its demands and possesses its endowments seems to fill the singer’s canvas. But the ideal of the office is destined to be realised in the Messiah, and the psalm is in a true sense Messianic, inasmuch as, with whatever mixture of conceptions proper to the then stage of revelation, it still ascribes to the ideal king attributes which no king of Judah exhibited. The transcendant character of the gifts of Jehovah enumerated here is obvious, however the language may be pared down. First, we have the striking picture of Jehovah coming forth to meet the conqueror with "blessings of goodness," as Melchizedek met Abraham with refreshments in his hand; and benedictions on his lips. Victory is naturally followed by repose and enjoyment, and all are Jehovah’s gift. The subsequent endowments may possibly be regarded as the details of these blessings, the fruits of the victory. Of these the first is the coronation of the conqueror, not as if he had not been king before, but as now more fully recognised as such. The supporters of the Davidic authorship refer to the crown of gold won at the capture of Rabbath of Ammon, but there is no need to seek historical basis for the representation. Then comes a signal instance of the king’s closeness of intercourse with Jehovah and of his receiving his heart’s desire in that he asked for "life" and received "length of days forever and ever." No doubt the strong expression for perpetuity may be paralleled in such phrases as "O king, live forever." and others which are obviously hyperbolical and mean not perpetual, but indefinitely protracted, duration; but the great emphasis of expression here and its repetition in Psalms 21:6 can scarcely be disposed of as mere hyperbole. If it is the ideal king who is meant, his undying life is substantially synonomous with the continuance of the dynasty which 2 Samuel 7:1-29 represents as the promise underlying the Davidic throne. The figure of the king is then brought still nearer to the light of Jehovah, and words which are consecrated to express Divine attributes are applied to him in Psalms 21:5. "Glory," "honour and majesty," are predicated of him, not as if there were an apotheosis, as would have been possible in Assyrian or Roman flattery, but the royal recipient and the Divine Giver are clearly separated, even while the lustre raying from Jehovah is conceived of as falling in brightness upon the king. These flashing emanations of the Divine glory make their recipient "blessings forever," which seems to include both the possession and the communication of good. An eternal fountain of blessing and himself blessed, he is cheered with joy which comes from Jehovah’s face, so close is his approach and so gracious to him is that countenance. Nothing higher could be thought of than such intimacy and friendliness of access. To dwell in the blaze of that face and to find only joy therein is the crown of human blessedness. {Psalms 16:11} Finally the double foundation of all the king’s gifts is laid in Psalms 21:7: he trusts and Jehovah’s lovingkindness gives, and therefore he stands firm, and his throne endures, whatever may dash against it. These daring anticipations are too exuberant to be realised in any but One, whose victory was achieved in the hour of apparent defeat; whose conquest was both His salvation and God’s; who prays knowing that He is always heard; who is King of men because He endured the cross, -and wears the crown of pure gold because He did not refuse the crown of thorns; who liveth for evermore, having been given by the Father to have life in Himself; who is the outshining of the Father’s glory, and has all power granted unto Him: who is the source of all blessing to all, who dwells in the joy to which He will welcome His servants; and who Himself lived and conquered by the life of faith, and so became the first Leader of the long line of those who have trusted and therefore have stood fast. Whomsoever the psalmist saw in his vision, he has gathered into one many traits which are realised only in Jesus Christ.

The second part (Psalms 21:8-12) is, by Hupfeld and others, taken as addressed to Jehovah; and that idea has much to recommend it, but it seems to go to wreck on the separate reference to Jehovah in Psalms 21:9, on the harshness of applying "evil against thee" and "a mischievous device" (Psalms 21:11) to Him, and on the absence of a sufficient link of connection between the parts if it is adopted. If, on the other hand, we suppose that the king is addressed in these verses, there is the same dramatic structure as in Psalms 20:1-9; and the victory which has been won is now taken as a pledge of future ones. The expectation is couched in terms adapted to the horizon of the singer, and on his lips probably meant stern extermination of hostile nations. The picture is that of a fierce conqueror, and we must not seek to soften the features, nor, on the other hand, to deny the prophetic inspiration of the psalmist. The task of the ideal king was to crush and root out opposition to his monarchy, which was Jehovah’s. Very terrible are the judgments of his hand, which sound liker those of Jehovah than those inflicted by a man, as Hupfeld and others have felt. In Psalms 21:8 the construction is slightly varied in the two clauses, the verb "reach" having a preposition attached in the former, and not in the latter, which difference may be reproduced by the distinction between "reach towards" and "reach." The seeking hand is stretched out after, and then it grasps, its victims. The comparison of the "fiery oven" is inexact in form, but the very negligence helps the impression of agitation and terribleness. The enemy are not likened to a furnace, but to the fuel cast into it. But the phrase rendered in A.V. "in the time of thine anger" is very remarkable, being literally "in the time of thy face." The destructive effect of Jehovah’s countenance {Psalms 34:17} is here transferred to His king’s, into whose face has passed, as he gazed, in joy on the face of Jehovah, some of the lustre which kills where it does not gladden. Compare "everlasting destruction from the face of the Lord." {2 Thessalonians 1:9} The king is so completely representative of Jehovah that the destruction of the enemy is the work of the one fire of wrath common to both. The destruction extends to the whole generation of enemies, as in the ferocious warfare of old days, when a nation was wiped off the earth. The psalmist sees in the extremest vengeance the righteous and inevitable consequence of hostility condemned by the nature of the case to be futile, and yet criminal: "They cause evil to hang over thee: they meditate mischief; they will achieve nothing." Then, in Psalms 21:12, the dread scene is completed by the picture of the flying foe and the overtaking pursuer, who first puts them to flight, and then, getting in front of them, sends his arrows full in their faces. The ideal of the king has a side of terror; and while his chosen weapon is patient love, he has other arrows in his quiver. The pictures of the destroying conqueror are taken up and surpassed in the New Testament. They do not see the whole Christ who do not see the Warrior Christ, nor have they realised all His work who slur over the solemn expectation that one day ‘men’ shall call on rocks and hills to cover them from "the steady whole of the Judge’s face."

As in Psalms 20:1-9, the close is a brief petition, which asks the fulfilment of the anticipations in Psalms 21:8-12, and traces, as in Psalms 21:1, the king’s triumph to Jehovah’s strength. The loyal love of the nation will take its monarch’s victory as its own joy and be glad in the manifestation thereby of Jehovah’s power. That is the true voice of devotion which recognises God, not man, in all victories, and answers the forth flashing of His delivering: power by the thunder of praise.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 21". "Expositor's Bible Commentary".