Psalm 21

Part of the issue with looking through the psalms is that not all of them are suited to this format. Psalm 18 is 11 stanzas long, and one of those stanzas is at least 20 lines. It just wouldn’t work for a thousand word article. It also means I need to shorten my preamble – we don’t have time for me to fluff around and chat. Here’s Psalm 21:

In your strength the king rejoices, O Lord,
and in your help how greatly he exults!
You have given him his heart’s desire,
and have not withheld the request of his lips.
For you meet him with rich blessings;
you set a crown of fine gold on his head.
He asked you for life; you gave it to him –
length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great through your help;
splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
You bestow on him blessings forever;
you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord,
and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.

Your right hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.
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.
You will destroy their offspring from the earth,
and their children from among humankind.
If they plan evil against you,
if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
For you will put them to flight;
you will aim at their faces with your bows.

Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength!
We will sing and praise your power. 

In some ways the structure is more immediately simple than Psalm 13. There are two main stanzas: the first focuses on God uplifting the Jewish king (possibly David) to victory, and the second on God kicking the shit out of the bad guys. Then there’s a final little coda bit at the end – quite a few psalms have these (eg 2, 8, 61, 146), and I’m not really sure what the significance is. Is it a summary of the poem? A conclusion? We might call this poem declarative: where Psalm 13 was about the anxiety and dread of the individual speaker, this poem is perhaps less personal: it proclaims or declares the good deeds of God within that community more generally. God has done good things for the king, the head of the community – He has given the king blessings, glory, long life. There’s a clear distinction here: some of the psalms are personal, while others (like this one) are more focused on the life of the community.

There’s also a continued division between the Jewish community and what we might call the Gentiles. God has treated the Jewish king with favour and love – the king is made glad in the joy of God’s presence. There’s this continued idea that the Jews are set apart, made special. On the other hand, there’s the enemies: those who are against God. Note that it’s never those who are against the Jewish people. Sometimes it is specifically about those who oppose the people (again, see Psalm 13), but here it’s about those who oppose God. The speaker talks to God about “your enemies”, those who “plan evil against you” and “devise mischief”. We can kind of infer that the enemies are non-Jews though. That seems to be the pattern throughout.

We’ve talked briefly about this pattern before, but to reiterate briefly, there seems to be a very strict binary. Either you are a Jew, in which case you care for God and God cares for you and you are one of the righteous, or you are a Gentile, in which case you “hate God” and all the other aforementioned naughty things. As Christians we tend to hijack the meaning of the Psalms, inferring that we are on the path of the righteous and non-Christians are enemies of God. For myself, I’m not quite sure what to do with this logic. I think it’s an obnoxious attitude – even just the assumption that people who aren’t Christian don’t love God I think is ridiculous.

We can take a very basic line of argument here: we know that people who aren’t Christian believe in justice, right – perhaps not all of them, fine, but hypothetically there are people who exist who a) are not Christian and b) still believe in doing the right thing, yes? If that’s the case (which it fucking is), then those people who love justice love God’s justice, because that’s what justice is. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are familiar with God personally – as soon as somebody decides that they want to do what’s right, they’re acting in accordance with God’s will. Therefore, one does not have to be Christian to act in accordance with God’s will or to do what is right. Therefore, finally, the split between ‘Christians’ and ‘non-Christians-who-all-hate-God-and-plan-evil-against-Him’ is redundant. This is the sort of petty shit you have to explain to Christians – take any other reasonable human being on the planet and they’re quite comfortable with the idea that non-Christians can be good and decent people – that is, that non-Christians can genuinely display and care about God’s goodness and grace (regardless of how they phrase it, that’s how we as Christians would understand it). It’s only once you meet the Christians that it becomes a point of contention.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what to do with this psalm. I like the part where the success of the king is entirely dependent on God’s strength and blessing. I like the part where the enemies of God will self-destruct – that’s the sort of thing we were talking about in regards to Augustine. Sin as an un-becoming. I’m a little less certain about the rabid nationalism and the belief that God will destroy the children of all the quote-unquote evil people (otherwise known as ‘non-Christians’). I’m not quite sure what to do with that. On the one hand I think it’s important to respect the integrity of the original context, but on the other hand, I find that original context to be distasteful – or, more specifically, I find it immoral, un-Godly, and perverse. I’m sure that’ll upset a large number of Christians, but it doesn’t have to.

All I’m really saying is this: the Bible tells us things about God, right, but it’s not transparent. It’s God in terms of a bunch of Jews from 2000+ years ago – which doesn’t make it any less authoritative, necessarily. It just means that the self-revelation of God is mediated through a particular cultural lens, and that we have to get past that lens and try and dig towards what’s actually being revealed about God’s nature. It might be that the whole ‘non-Christians are shit’ thing is part of God’s actual nature – but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s part of the cultural lens. Why? Well, because as a Christian I’m actively seeking after the face of God, allowing Him to speak on His own terms, and this doesn’t seem like Him.

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