Literary Analysis of Psalm 21

Both the structure of the praisesong and its themes are complements. Each describes the singer’s feeling of certainty; his sureness of God’s protection and his gratitude for it. No wonder, then, that the most striking repetition in the song is the word “Indeed”, that begins verses 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13, for it denotes certainty.
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The king, David, is both the singer and the subject of the song. He is sure enough of God’s bounty that he describes how God has appointed him king, how God has “set upon his head a crown of fine gold” (v. 4). His kingship becomes, accordingly, the mark of God’s favour. And yet, God’s beneficence to him causes him not to boast but to rejoice: the glory and majesty that God has bestowed upon him reflects, the singer emphasizes, God’s own strength and splendour. So proclaim verses 1 through 7.

Verse 7 is somewhat problematic:
                                                             Indeed You set for him blessings forever,
                                                             gladden him with the joy of Your face.
The “forever” echoes the “everlasting” of verse 5:
                                                             Life he asked of You;
                                                             You have granted him length of days, everlasting.
The singer may be referring to his faith having rewarded him a portion of eternity, but the song’s sphere is this world, not the possibility of the next; and if his descendants are to secure his immortality in human memory, they too have no mention in his song. “The joy of Your face” is even more puzzling. Does the singer mean that God, in blessing the king, looks upon him with joy? Or is the joy the singer’s own, as he declares his gladness for having been blessed? Or is he acknowledging that all the blessings that he, the king, has received, are due to the joyful face God has turned towards him? Probably all are valid. But the Hebrew adds a dimension the English translation lacks: it omits the preposition “of”, so that the line reads, “gladdens him with the joy, Your face”. The blessings transform, in this description, into the revealing –so much more than merely reflecting– of God’s face.

The most powerful stanza of the poem, the very centre of it both in placement (verse 8 out of 14) and statement, declares,
                                                              Indeed the king trusts in Adonai,
                                                              and through the faithfulness of the Most High, he is not shaken.

Having expressed his gratitude for God’s beneficence in verses 1 to 7, the singer describes, in verses 9 to 13, God’s defeat of the king’s enemies. If the king has been granted days everlasting, blessings forever, his enemies, in contrast, have not only been defeated, but have, in effect, been obliterated:
                                                             You destroy their offspring from the earth,
                                                              their progeny from among men.
                                                                                                                        (v. 11)
But it is in the juxtaposition of the word “face” that the awfulness of the enemies’ fate is exposed: verse 7 describes the “joy, God’s face”; verse 10 imagines the “fiery furnace when Your face appears” as, in anger, God destroys those who hate the king, “and fire consumes them”. Moreover, the very faces of the enemies are, in verse 13, the object of God’s attack: “You aim at their faces with Your bows”.
The peacefulness of the song’s first half has given way to violence, in the second half. But it is an assault their own hatred of God has brought upon the enemies.

Verse 14 is the resolution, the calm restored:
                                                              Be exalted, Adonai, through Your strength;
                                                              we sing and chant the praises of Your mighty acts.
The opening of the verse, “Be exalted”, recalls the beseeching “Arise” in Psalms 9 and 10. The Hebrew for “arise” is “kumah”; for “exalt”, “rumah”. The near exactness of the two words indicates their connectedness. The singer, as though recognizing the connection, gives the name “Most High” to God (v. 8). God has, David believes, raised him to kingship (v. 4); he, in turn, acknowledges and exalts God’s kingship. Now, however, the king’s voice is joined by those of his people. The pronoun “we” is used for the first and only time in the song. What they together praise are God’s “mighty acts”: the adjective “might” echoes the phrase “through Your strength”, the phrase that ends the song as it begins it. Might, the song realizes, is God’s; it is God’s strength that David identifies as the defeater of his enemies. But it is “we”, the people Israel, who, in sounding allegiance to God, exalt the “Most High”.

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