Psalm 21- A Blessing for the King

Statue of David by Nicolar Cordier in the Borghese Chapel of  the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Statue of David by Nicolar Cordier in the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Psalm 21

<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 In your strength the king rejoices, O LORD, and in your help how greatly he exults!
2 You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
3 For you meet him with rich blessings; you set a crown of fine gold on his head.
4 He asked you for life; you gave it to him– length of days forever and ever.
5 His glory is great through your help; splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
6 You bestow on him blessings forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
7 For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.
8 Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you.
9 You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.
10 You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind.
11 If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
12 For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows.
13 Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power.

At first glance we may wonder if this royal Psalm which is all about the relationship between the king’s trust and the steadfast love has to say to our time when we no longer have kings and, other than politically conservative Christians, we are reluctant to declare God’s blessing upon a political candidate. In a world with a flourishing royal establishment, which is the world of the Psalm, it does qualify the king’s leadership. Everything the king, and by extension the people, has received is an extension of God’s rich blessings from the physical crown the king wears to the long life and glory the king receives. It does place the king as the vessel of the Lord’s blessing and not the cause of the blessing itself and perhaps here is a place where some humility, which is easily lost for those tempted with power, can indeed remain. The gifts lifted up here for the king are similar to the gifts that Solomon is said to receive after his request for wisdom in 1 Kings 3. Yet, these gifts are not merely for the king but for the people by extension.

Perhaps one could impertinently state that the Psalm reflects a type of divine trickle-down economics where the king is blessed so that the nation as a whole may be blessed. The people of Israel could not imagine a representative democracy or any other modern system of government. Their frame of reference was that of a monarchy and with its nobles and officials. To pray for the life of the king may seem strange to us but it is a frequent stock petition of the time and as Rolf Jacobson can remind us, “and this blessing was not just for the king but for the nation. Short royal reigns are often symptomatic of nation turmoil, and the common folk were just as likely to suffer in such times as the nobility.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 224) Much of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible about the people of Israel and Judah directly links the health of the nation to the faithfulness of the king in power. It is a strange thought to us who are used to our individuality but in a nation where access to biblical texts as well as literacy would have resided with the priests and the nobles the leadership of the king often set the course for the nation. When the king trusts in the LORD the nation is blessed, when the king (and by extension the people) turn to other gods they also turn away the blessings of their LORD.

The world of Israel and Judah was a dangerous and violent world and conflict was a part of life. Here, like in Deuteronomy 20 it is the LORD who is the primary force when Israel triumphs and not their military prowess or strength. I have discussed in other places the ways in which the use of God as a divine warrior can be a powerful but also a dangerous way of talking about God. Yet in the world of the Psalms it is one of the central ways of referring to God. God is the divine warrior, the shield, the fortress, the rock and many other metaphors of strength that provide comfort for the Psalmist and people of many times and places.

Those called into positions of leadership in our time could benefit from remembering that their calling does not exist to serve their benefits but instead their position is for the sake of the community. As Rolf Jacobson says well:

And the blessings that come with leadership do not exist for the advantage of the leader, but for the sake of the community and for the sake of the world. The kings of Israel and Judah never learned this lesson. And the leaders of today seem to do no better. One is reminded of the old saw that people get elected to Congress in order to do good, but end up doing well. So perhaps Jesus’ warning is still apt: From those to whom much has been given much will be expected. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 226)

In our time the final axiom of the quote could almost be revered, that to those whom much has been given little will be expected. There has been a loss of faith in those elected to political office in our society. At the same time humility seems to be an undervalued trait in those who we tend to elect to positions of authority. Perhaps we have sought the wrong traits in our leaders. Perhaps a leader who is able to understand that the position given to him or her is indeed a gift of God, not in the sense of entitlement but instead in the sense of vocation, could have enough humility, compassion, and gratitude to use their position for the sake of the community, the people and the world. Unfortunately, it often seems that those leaders who claim their Christianity most vociferously seem to be those who view their calling as entitlement to do well instead of doing good.

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