July 13, 2010

Psalm 21 - The LORD and the King


(Initial note – some English translations do not number the title verse.)

1. For the leader. A psalm. Of David.

2. Through Your strength, O LORD, a king rejoices; in Your victory, how greatly he exults!
3. The desire of his heart You have granted for him; the request of his lips You have not denied.      Selah.

4. Indeed, You have met him with blessings of good things; You have set upon his head a crown of fine gold.
5. Life he asked of You; You granted him length of days, everlasting.
6. Great is his glory through Your victory; splendor and majesty You have bestowed upon him.
7. Indeed You have set for him blessings forever, gladdened him with the joy of Your face.
8. Indeed the king trusts in the LORD; through the faithfulness of the Most High he will not be shaken.
9. Your hand finds all your enemies; Your right hand finds those who hate you.
10. You set them as (in) a fiery furnace when Your face appears. The LORD in anger destroys them, and fire consumes them.
11. You destroy their offspring from the earth, their progeny from among men.
12. Indeed they plotted evil against You; they laid plans, but could not succeed.
13. Indeed, You set them to turning back; You aim at their faces with your bows.
14. Be exalted, O LORD, through Your strength; we will sing and chant the praises of Your mighty acts.


Life knows moments of peace and moments of conflict. Psalm 21 reflects on both in the life of the king, all seen in terms of the gifts he receives from his Lord. Those two situations are dealt with in two separate sections. A first reading attributes all credit to God, though a second reading complicates that picture and leads to a more complex understanding of the relationship between God and the king.

A framing term, "through Your strength," encloses the poem. The psalm's unity is further reflected in a large number of repeated terms, such as the three uses of a poetic Hebrew negative (bal, "not" in 3, 8, 12) spanning the sections. Five uses of "indeed" (verses 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13) lend an assured tone to God's support of the king.


The two situational sections—peace and war—are buttressed by structure.

Verses 2 and 3, followed by the term selah (commonly understood to indicate a now-unknown musical instruction), show signs of being an introduction by way of overview of what is to follow (so Malbim): verse 2 is more military, whereas verse 3 is more general. In this introduction, the generic nature of the contents is clarified – "a king" (not "the king") is the subject.

In verses 4–7 the speaker addresses the LORD concerning His relationship to this imagined king (referred to in third person), in terms of general well-being (though there is already one mention of "victory"). "You set" is used in this section as an act of God toward the king. The section is serene, an account of God’s support of the king.

Verse 8 seems to break the pattern, using third person for both the king and the LORD, and hinting at a degree of conflict through the use of "trust" and "not be shaken," even if the conflict is not yet clearly articulated. As such, the verse seems to span the two sections.

The second section of emphasis, verses 9–13, clearly relates to war and battle. "You set" (twice) in this section is an act of God toward the enemy. The double use of "fire" (once, "fiery") typifies the tone of the section.

Verse 14 is a final request and a declaration of intent to praise. It is also unique in its use of “we,” as the speaker, previously assumed to be an individual, now appears as the collective.

A Second Understanding

Verses 8 and 10 leave open a second possible level of understanding. As both the king and the LORD are referred to in the third person in verse 8, the reader is initially not quite sure as to the identity of the “you” (the second person) in verse 9, although the previous exclusive use for God would seem to make that the more probable assumption. (Note: the translation above chooses that alternative.) However verse 10 again uses third person for the Lord.

This certainly allows for a second reading of verses 9 through 13, as addressed to the earthly king, his victory over his enemies being praised. In the final verse, God is again addressed.

There would thus seem to be two parallel readings for 8–13, one about the king and his enemies and one about the LORD and His enemies. In fact, translations and commentators choose one or the other: Dahood and NJPS understand “You” to mean God; Hacham, Meltzer, RSV, and Schaefer opt for the king. While I have adopted the former approach in the translation (the differentiation between "You" and you in English requires choosing one option), I emphasize that the Hebrew allows for either reading. Herein lies the challenge and strength of the poem.

Well-being is a gift from God to the king. But if we assume (as I suggest we do) that the poet himself was aware of both possible readings and chose to leave the ambiguity, then victory in war seems to be attributed to both.

Here we encounter the dual reading of causality in history, a concept that continued well beyond the psalm (until this day, for many religionists). Israelite and then Jewish tradition markedly detected the hand of God in history, but dividing credit (or blame) between humans and God can be problematic. The poem adopts a position which the reader might consider: the contention that one can be comfortable saying both at the same time.

Indeed, as the speaker becomes "we" in the final verse, this contention becomes that of the collective. "We" attribute victory to both in parallel fashion, and for both His direct and indirect action, the “we” of the psalm praise His mighty deeds.

* * * * * * * *

Additional Note – A Possible Pun

The framing term, as indicated above, is “Your strength.” I suggest a possible double entendre. That Hebrew term (’oz) sometimes takes on the implication of “glory,” as in Psalm 29:11 or Isaiah 52:1 (and probably Isaiah 51:9). This allows the reader to hear both meanings in verse 2: “strength” in terms of war (a reflection of the second half of the poem), and “glory,” more appropriate to the general well-being (of the first half). The enclosure thus reflects the poem in its entirety.

The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at psalmblog@gmail.com.


א לַמְנַצֵּחַ מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד

ב יְהוָה בְּעָזְּךָ יִשְׂמַח-מֶלֶךְ וּבִישׁוּעָתְךָ מַה-יגיל (יָּגֶל) מְאֹד
ג תַּאֲוַת לִבּוֹ נָתַתָּה לּוֹ וַאֲרֶשֶׁת שְׂפָתָיו בַּל-מָנַעְתָּ סֶּלָה
ד כִּי-תְקַדְּמֶנּוּ בִּרְכוֹת טוֹב תָּשִׁית לְרֹאשׁוֹ עֲטֶרֶת פָּז
ה חַיִּים שָׁאַל מִמְּךָ נָתַתָּה לּוֹ אֹרֶךְ יָמִים עוֹלָם וָעֶד
ו גָּדוֹל כְּבוֹדוֹ בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ הוֹד וְהָדָר תְּשַׁוֶּה עָלָיו
ז כִּי-תְשִׁיתֵהוּ בְרָכוֹת לָעַד תְּחַדֵּהוּ בְשִׂמְחָה אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ
ח כִּי-הַמֶּלֶךְ בֹּטֵחַ בַּיהוָה וּבְחֶסֶד עֶלְיוֹן בַּל-יִמּוֹט
ט תִּמְצָא יָדְךָ לְכָל-אֹיְבֶיךָ יְמִינְךָ תִּמְצָא שֹׂנְאֶיךָ
י תְּשִׁיתֵמוֹ כְּתַנּוּר אֵשׁ לְעֵת פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה בְּאַפּוֹ יְבַלְּעֵם וְתֹאכְלֵם אֵשׁ
יא פִּרְיָמוֹ מֵאֶרֶץ תְּאַבֵּד וְזַרְעָם מִבְּנֵי אָדָם
יב כִּי-נָטוּ עָלֶיךָ רָעָה חָשְׁבוּ מְזִמָּה בַּל-יוּכָלוּ
יג כִּי תְּשִׁיתֵמוֹ שֶׁכֶם בְּמֵיתָרֶיךָ תְּכוֹנֵן עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם
יד רוּמָה יְהוָה בְעֻזֶּךָ נָשִׁירָה וּנְזַמְּרָה גְּבוּרָתֶךָ

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