The Kingdom Theology of the Psalter - A Challenging Lesson for the Church in America

T. David Gordon
The language of royalty is pervasive in the Psalms. "Rule," "king" and their cognates appear 98 times in the Psalms (and the figurative words "throne," "rod," or "scepter" appear 26 times).  Kings govern their kingdoms via statutes or laws, and such language appears 110 times.  Kings also defend their people militarily, and such language appears 297 times. Just in these word-groups alone, we have 531 examples of royal language in the 150 canonical Psalms. This is not at all surprising, because the psalter is the hymnal of a religious people whose faith was essentially royal. The biblical narrative that we ordinarily designate as "Creation--Fall--Redemption" could equally truthfully be designated as "Rule of God--Revolt against God's Rule--Restoration of God's Rule."  

What we call "creation" is, in fact, the creation of an order ruled by God. So ordered was it that He commanded some parts of creation to be the agents of His rule  "And God made the two great lights--the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night--and the stars.  And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness" (Gen. 1:16-18, celebrated hymnically in Psalm 136:8-9). To the human, as Imago Dei, God unsurprisingly gave the comprehensive duty of governing the entirety of the created order on His behalf:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth...And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen. 1:26-28).
As we know, Adam and Eve did not fulfill their creational mandate. Rather than rule over "every creeeping thing," they permitted the creeping thing (the serpent) effectively to be their deity; it ruled them, rather than the other way around. They abdicated their duty to exercise dominion over God's creation, and became ruled by that creation themselves. So what we call "the Fall" could as easily be called the human Revolt against God's Rule; and, as the biblical narrative unfolds further, what we ordinarily call "Redemption" is, in fact, God's insurrection against our insurrection, His revolt against our revolt, His restoring His good rule and order in His created realm. Note how casually and comprehensively, for instance, Matthew summarizes the public proclamation of Jesus: "From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mat. 4:17). The various human kingdoms, from Saul to the Maccabees, had been unable to defeat human insurrection against God; only a rule from heaven, from God Himself (beginning in the form of His incarnate Son) could overthrow human resistance to His good rule and order.

The "major key," as it were, in which the entire biblical narrative is written is the key of God's Reign--established in creation, resisted by rebellious creatures, and restored by the last Adam. This is why the Psalms are so royal--because the biblical narrative itself is so royal. The psalms of praise, for instance, praise God for His rule in creation, and for His ruling over the unruly kingdoms of the earth, from whom He often delivered His people. The psalms of lament feel the weight of human rebellion (and God's just curse-banishment thereon), and they lament the lamentable circumstances that flow from that human rebellion, whether that of Israel's enemies, of Israel herself, or even of Israel's king (Psa. 51). The psalms of thanksgiving express thanks to Israel's divine King, who has defended her and provided for her needs. The wisdom psalms commend those who assent to God's reign and His statutes, laws, and ordinances, while they warn those ("the kings of the earth" of Psalm 2, for instance) who rise in defiance of God's rule. That is to say, beneath all of the particulars, and behind all of the lovely poetry and behind all of the remarkably memorable images, there is this substratum in the Psalms of God's rule, later resisted, and even later restored.

To my knowledge, virtually all students of the Psalms today concede that the 150 canonical psalms are a compilation of five other compilations, that consist of 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. Even these compilations themselves show a remarkable royal/monarchical interest (though we have just begun the task of understanding these five collections theologically and it will be years or generations before our results will be confident).  

Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the psalter, but immediately after this, in Psalm 3, the Davidic monarchy is threatened by Absolom's rebellion, and that Davidic rule remains threatened throughout this section of the Psalms.  

Psalms 42-72 focus more on Solomon's reign (indeed, the last of them, 72, is entitled "Of Solomon"). Solomon here replaces David as the hoped-for King who rules over the nations in Psalm 2. These Psalms long for his to be the perfect reign: "May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!" ( 72:11).  

Psalms 73-89 reflect a growing despair over the Davidic reign. While the concluding Psalm remembers the pledge of 2 Sam. 7 in verse 28--"I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens"--by the end of the Psalm there is despair over the apparent rejection of the anointed ruler: "But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins. All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors" (Psa. 89:38-41). You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice (Psa. 89:42)...

Psalms 90-106 contain 8 of the 9 references to Moses in the psalter, and these Psalms celebrate the reality that God ruled over His people through Moses even before there was a human monarchy (which was requested as a matter of rebellion against God's rule, cf. 1 Sam. 8).  Even before there was a standing monarchy, a standing army, or a court, God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage via Moses, and led them through their rebellious wandering into the promised land without any human monarch (Joshua and the judges had none of the ordinary trappings of a standing monarchy).

Psalms 107-150, not surprisingly therefore, look to a future more like Israel's past, where a coming Anointed one will rule in a way that her imperfect monarchs had not, in which day a blessed one will "come in the name of the Lord" (Psa. 118:26), a descendant of David who will do what Saul, David, and Solomon could not.  

The American Challenge

Few scholars deny the royal themes in the Psalms or even the rule--revolt--restored-rule emphasis of the biblical narrative. But in the United States, a republic founded in rebellion against George III, we have a hard time noticing these matters, because we are a little tone-deaf to kings and kingdoms. Despite the frequent biblical testimony to God as King and to Christ as His Anointed, we Americans continue to try to make sense of the Scriptures in other terms. We try to have a "personal relationship to Christ," but who has a personal relationship with his or her King or Queen? We like our own private interpretations of Scripture, but who is permitted a private interpretation of a King's decree? Even when we affirm Christ as "Lord and Savior," I think the term is probably hyphenated in our minds ("Lord-and-Savior"), and that we largely mean "Savior." I don't think we mean the perfectly synonymous "Sovereign and Savior." So if Americans continue to find the Psalms a little foreign, it will likely be due to the fundamentally different worldview of the Bible and of the United States. The Bible objects to bad kings and to bad rule, but not to sovereigns or rule per se. The Psalms candidly lament imperfect rule, but long for a better rule; to understand and appreciate them, we may have to do something similar.

T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, PA. His most recent book is entitled, Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (P&R, 2010)