<To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.>
1 My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
2 You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
3 Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.
4 In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
5 Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.
6 Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
7 you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house,
11 and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12 the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people
13 with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14 in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.
16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons; you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.
Psalm forty-five is a love song, probably originally composed for a royal wedding between the King of Israel and their new bride. So, what do we do with an old love song that finds itself amid the psalms? It is a psalm composed for a specific time and a specific occasion and yet the fact that it was preserved means that it was likely used multiple times and that the community that had to preserve their scriptures by hand copying them felt that this psalm was worthy of inclusion and that this love song had something to speak to the people who would read it generations later. There are several ways to read the psalm that I will address at the end but before we place various frames of reference around the psalm itself let’s listen to the words spoken.
This psalm is the only instance in the book of Psalms where we have the author referencing their presence in the psalm itself. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 419) The poet speaks of their heart bubbling over with these words they want to share for their king on this occasion. The king and his bride are the recipients of the words of praise spoken by the freely flowing tongue of the psalmist. Although we now have the psalms preserved as written poems they originated as oral performances often within the space of a communal worship or celebration. What would originally be written by the tongue like a pen of a ready scribe would later be recorded by the ready pen to be uttered by the tongue of a later singer.
The description of the king in verses two through eight point to what the vision of an ideal king (and by extension the ideal man) is for the speaker and those who would continue to use this psalm in future weddings. This bridegroom is handsome and eloquent, and their looks and charm are viewed as a bestowal of God’s blessing. They are also depicted as a warrior: girded with a sword for battle, pictured mounted victoriously upon a war steed after a battle, their right hand (their fighting arm) is capable of fearful things, and they shoot sharp arrows (metaphorically) into the hearts of their enemies. They are depicted in a way that parallels the divine warrior imagery of God; it parallels this imagery so closely that one of the possible readings of verse six is that rather than referring to the God of Israel the king, as the divine representative on earth, is referred to as a god. The term translated God is the general term which can be either the God of Israel or a god worshipped by others. The language within the Hebrew tradition is scandalous if taken to literally since the deification of a king would be one of the concepts that the Jewish people would not adopt form the other nations of the Near East. The king could be the ‘son of God’ as in Psalm 2:7 but because of the prohibition of ‘having other gods’ many have understood verse six breaking up the first eight verses with an acclamation to the God of Israel. Ultimately, we will never know the original intent of the poet, they may be attempting to compliment the king in a way we would compliment someone today by saying, “you look divine” or “you are a goddess.” There is also a sensual nature to the description of the king that mirrors the sexual language of the Song of Songs as the robes are perfumed with alluring fragrances. The king is pictured as strong, desirable, handsome and charming but they are also pictured as being wise and just. The bridegroom is described as one who, in the poet’ language, is everything a king, man, warrior, and partner should be.
In verse 9-15 the focus turns to the bride and her bridal party which includes either daughters of kings, other royalty, or daughters of the king, the family of the king she is about to marry, and the queen, presumably the queen mother, dressed in gold in addition to the virgin companions who go with her. Far less attention is paid to the description of the bride and more time is spent giving her advice as she approaches. She is told to forget her people and family since she is now being joined to the family of the king, she is leaving behind one identity for another. She is also, presumably, leaving behind the gods that her people and family would have worshipped since her people are now the king’s people and her gods have been exchanged for the God of the king. The bride is also described as beautiful and desirable and her many-colored robes have gold woven into them. She has been dressed in the finest clothing for this occasion and she is entering a place where other royalty will present her with gifts to attempt to win her favor and by extension the favor of her groom.
The psalm ends with a blessing for the future. The king and the new queen will have children and those children will increase the influence of the kingdom throughout the earth. The psalmist gives their own gift, the gift of the name of the king being celebrated throughout generations. The irony is that within the psalm the king is never named and so the praise of the king and his new bride endured but the king’s name was forgotten. Yet, if the king were named the psalm may have never been passed on through the succeeding generations.
My initial reaction to reading Psalm forty-five was to wonder if I had ever read it before. I have read through the bible several times, but this psalm must have passed through my consciousness in previous times and not made an impression. It would be easy to dismiss the psalm as a remnant of a long-passed time and to place it among the stories of childhood, a story of a fairy tale wedding. It does reflect a world where society was structured more strictly along gender lines and a woman’s body and freedom relied upon her husband and while we never learn the feelings of the bride the psalmist wants us to assume that she too finds the king she approaches as desirable. I approach each of these reflections from the belief that there is something that, because they have been collected and placed within the scriptures, that we can learn from them.
So, what do we do with an old love song? Here are a couple possibilities: as early as the Aramaic Targum (a translation with additional comments on the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic once that became the spoken language in the Persian empire after 515 BCE) reads this as a psalm referring to the messiah. The psalm became a part of the texts that pointed to the hope of what the promised messiah. In the New Testament the book of Hebrews picks up this line of interpretation when it uses Psalm 45: 6-7 as a part of the litany of quoted psalms that attempt to point to who Christ is (Hebrews 1: 8-9). Christians have also used this language to metaphorically be addressed to the church as the bride of Christ. As Nancy DeClassé-Walford can state:
The Hebrew Bible certainly provides many analogies of the relationship between God and the Israelites as that of husband and wife (see Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 16 and 23; and Isa. 62: 1-5). The Christian Scriptures continue the analogy (see Matt. 9:15; John 3: 29; Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19: 7-9). (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, pp. 416-417)
Both the ‘messianic’ and ‘bride of Christ’ require a non-literal reading of the psalm and while they have been the traditional way the church has read the psalm, I also think that the words themselves being placed in the psalter can speak on their own. This psalm and the Song of Songs also can reflect the joy of sexuality that has often been suppressed in churches. There is a reason that even in our age we dream of royal weddings, of dashing kings and beautiful queens. There is a reason that God allowed there to be a love song in the center of the bible and a love song amidst the psalms, we were created for relationships and for love. One of the gifts of the psalms, and I am discovering in the rest of the bible as well, is the way they speak not only to the rational part of us but to the emotional part of our minds as well. We are people who dream of love and the scriptures remind us love, both emotional and physical, is a part of the lives of the faithful ones.