A Royal Hymnbook
Fundamentally, the Psalms are both by and about the king. The Psalter can be thought of as a royal hymnbook, and its individual psalms have the house of David as its subject matter and point of reference. Obviously, not all the psalms are about the king; many are about Israel without reference to the king. This is especially true in the fourth and fifth books (e.g., Pss. 90; 93; 113; 114; 115). But ideally, Israel is to be ruled by the king. According to David Carr, “The education of scribes in the biblical world was designed to train in them royal values and national culture.”1 But “it was the king, not the scribe, who embodied the fullest ideal of humanity.”2 The royal orientation anticipates David’s greater son promised to him in 2 Samuel 7:8–16 and finally realized in the Lord Jesus Christ. At this point we want to establish that this is indeed the orientation of the Psalter and just how it is so.3
The importance of this discussion is immediately evident: it determines how we ought to read and understand the Psalms. Is the Psalter in fact oriented toward the king? Who is the “I,” the “me,” the “my,” and the “he” who speaks in the Psalms? If these refer to “everyman” or even “every pious man,” that is one thing. But if they refer to David or the Davidic king who represents the kingdom of God and the people of God, quite another understanding arises.
For example, Psalm 4, “A Psalm of David,” is not about personal opposition and interpersonal conflict; opposition to the king is in view. The difference is important and determines how we are to understand the psalm. Or if Psalm 63 was in fact written by David during his flight from Absalom, then his reflections on the sanctuary (Ps. 63:2) take specific significance; the superscript provides this context, and without it we are left with no context.
Hermann Gunkel identified ten or eleven “royal” psalms—Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, 144:1–11, and possibly 89 (cf. Ps. 89:47–52). Gunkel’s determination was based on each psalm’s obvious reference to the king. And indeed, these psalms pertain to some specific aspect of the king’s career: his coronation (Ps. 2; Ps. 110), his marriage (Ps. 45), his leading the nation into battle (Ps. 20) and his victorious return (Ps. 21), the qualities of his person and rule (Ps. 18; Ps. 72; Ps. 144), intercessions that the king would be righteous and prosper (Ps. 72) and that God would remember his covenant with David and his resolve to bring the ark to Jerusalem (Ps. 132). But in most psalms the king serves the national interests, not his own, and in that sense they too are royal. According to the superscripts fully half of the Psalter is Davidic, and therefore royal. Moreover, on the one hand, the somewhat random scattering of these “royal” psalms suggests a royal orientation; on the other hand, when we examine the final arrangement, shape, and message of the Psalter, these uniquely royal psalms were placed strategically to signal just this Davidic/royal perspective. As we have already mentioned, Psalm 2, the psalm in which God’s anointed is commanded to ask for the nations as his inheritance, is placed up front to help introduce the Psalter and establish its leading figure. In Psalm 3 we hear the king in prayer surrounded by his enemies. Similarly, the uniquely royal psalms are placed at the seams of the five “books” of the Psalms to remind us of the same. The entire first book is Davidic (Pss. 3–41), as is most of the second. The editors added more psalms of David in the other three books. The large number of psalms by David and the strategic placing of uniquely royal psalms in the Psalter’s editing seem to justify this understanding of its orientation.
Promises of the Psalms
James Hutchinson argues at length that the Psalter itself is intended by the editors to be understood as an extended reflection on Psalm 2,4 and John Woodhouse argues that “the reader of the Psalms is not allowed to forget” Psalm 2 and its promise of the reign of God’s anointed. Even the exilic Psalm 137 is about David, he argues: “What else does ‘we remembered Zion’ (Ps. 137:1) mean? Psalm 137 is about the city of David, and the promises of God associated with it.”5 Many expressions are found throughout the Psalms that are especially appropriate with reference to the king.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation my vows I will perform before those who fear him (Ps .22:25).
But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil (Ps. 92:10).
All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off (Ps. 118:10).
I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame (Ps. 119:46).
The Davidic covenant, often in view in the Psalms, most prominently in Psalms 89 and 132, indicate that the royal sons remain in view also. Indeed, in light of this promise (2 Sam. 7:12–16), “it would be most surprising if David did not intend his many and varied types of psalms to be used by and for the house of David at the house of the Lord. Almost certainly these royal psalms had a royal significance in Israel’s cultus.” Each next Davidic king inherited the covenant promise and thus, at least in his ideal, inherits the nations (Ps. 2:8) and reigns in righteousness over the world, and also “suffers on behalf of the kingdom of God and wrestles with God in prayer” for that kingdom.6
It is surely significant also that this royal orientation of the Psalter parallels the literature and hymns of the contemporary ancient Near Eastern religions.
All these themes and more indicate that pervasively it is the king who is in view throughout the Psalter. It is abundantly evident that the subject of the Psalms is not the common man or even the outstandingly pious man. And the many about Israel are about the kingdom of God over which the Lord set the house of David. More basic to an understanding of the Psalms than a recognition of the various psalm types is the recognition that the king is the subject in view throughout—not just in the praise psalms but in the laments and acknowledgment (traditionally, “thanksgiving”) psalms also. And after the fall of the house of David the eschatological dimension of the royal psalms took even sharper focus.
Christians, as sons of God and as royal priests, can rightly pray these prayers along with their representative head.
Some (particularly older) commentators were so convinced of the specifically Davidic orientation that they would labor to reconstruct historical background to psalms where none is provided in the superscript. Such a task should be considered tentative at best. There are exceptions to the Davidic orientation, of course, but even in psalms written after the collapse of the Davidic kingship, the Davidic orientation is not necessarily absent, as Psalm 137. The royal orientation of the Psalter is pervasive. It is essentially a royal hymnbook with all the people of God gathered around the king at the temple.
The Significance of the Psalter’s Royal Orientation
The significance of this point is readily apparent. Apart from this royal orientation many of the psalms would lack unity and coherence, as we have seen in Psalm 4. Without a recognition of the Davidic authorship of the psalms attributed to him this royal orientation would be less apparent, and the exposition of those psalms would go astray, as happened after historical criticism hit academics like a tsunami.
The significance of this goes further as we seek to understand the Psalms in canonical perspective. Here we can note already that the Davidic king is prospective of David’s greater son. And often the Psalms present the king in his ideal, in which case Christ comes into view more directly. Moreover, the king represents the people, Israel—the two were inseparable. And just as the king is prospective of the greater King, so also Israel is prospective of the church. This royal orientation of the Psalter defines its place in the canon and gives us the right to sing the Psalms with reference to Christ. As we understand that the Psalms concern the king, and when we observe that David delivers his psalms “to the choirmaster” to sing about the king, he gives us warrant to sing of the King also. If we miss this, we will individualize the Psalms and read them as though they are talking about us—an interpretive mistake that would rob Christ of his glory and us of their original and canonical significance.
The Psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He alone is worthy to pray the ideal vision of a king suffering for righteousness and emerging victorious over the hosts of evil. As the corporate head of the church he represents believers in these prayers. Moreover, Christians, as sons of God and as royal priests, can rightly pray these prayers along with their representative head. Dietrich Bonhoeffer also reached the conclusion that Jesus Christ is the one praying in the psalter. “The Psalter,” he wrote, “is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word.”7
With this royal understanding we lay a firm foundation for a Christological interpretation of the Psalms. Jesus said the Psalms speak of him, and here we see just how that is so—they speak of the king, and he, the son of David, is the King par excellence. The experiences and emotions of the king in the Psalms—his passions, his sufferings, his struggles, his heartaches—foreshadow the experiences and emotions of the Lord Jesus, the messianic King, the Christ who in fact has taken on all of our sufferings and emotions. Even he, on the cross, felt abandoned by God. He was tempted. And yet he triumphed and in doing so both accomplished our redemption and showed us how we may triumph also. With this historical approach and royal orientation in mind we see our Savior more clearly.
- David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origin of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), cited in Gordon J. Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 45.
- Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, 31, cited in Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 42.
- See Bruce K. Waltke, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms,” originally published in John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), 3–18; republished in Waltke, The Dance between God and Humanity: Reading the Bible Today as the People of God(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 58–74.
- James Hely Hutchinson, “The Psalter as a Book,” in Stirred by a Noble Theme: The Book of Psalms in the Life of The Church, ed. Andrew Shead (Nottingham, UK: Apollos, 2013), chap. 2.
- John Woodhouse, “Reading the Psalms as Christian Scripture,” in Shead, Stirred, 54–55.
- Waltke, “Canonical Process,” 13–14
- Waltke, “Canonical Process,” 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954), 46.
This article is adapted from How to Read and Understand the Psalms by Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel.
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