Psalm 21 is another psalm almost certainly not written by David, but rather written in his honor, unless we can imagine King David speaking of himself in the third person. But why would he, when in other places (like Psalm 51) he speaks in the first person?
The first part of this psalm is all right, as it speaks of the king rejoicing in God’s strength. We all need to find our strength in the Lord.
The problem comes in the second half of the psalm….
Your 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.
It is understandable that those who reject God, those who are his “enemies,” will one day be utterly separated from him if they persist in their rejection. But does God really want to burn them in a fiery furnace and swallow them in his wrath? Even if we can imagine the need for God to do this with someone like a Hitler, why would God want to destroy the offspring of the wicked from the earth? Why this vengeance against children?
I can only conclude that this is the attitude of the psalmist, not of God, for I cannot square this picture of God with the picture we have been given of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Here the psalmist exults in God’s power alone; there is nothing of God’s love for the entire world (John 3:16).
In fact, the contrast to this picture of God is given in the very next psalm. We all know that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross. But what a difference it makes when one views Psalm 22 in contrast to Psalm 21. In Psalm 21, we have a God who kills his enemies. In Psalm 22, as taken upon the lips of Jesus, we have a picture of a God who dies for his enemies. Personally, I choose to follow the one who spoke the words of Psalm 22 from the cross, and not the God depicted in Psalm 21. (I have a sermon on Psalm 22 here: http://willvaus.com/psalms.)
When most people think of the Psalms, the words of Psalm 23 are probably the first thing that comes to their minds, and deservedly so, for it is, for the most part, a beautiful psalm. One thing that always strikes me about this psalm is that the psalmist walks through the valley of the shadow of death. God does not dump us in the valley. He always leads us through.
But even so beautiful a psalm as this one is not without its disagreeable bit. We are so overly familiar with this psalm that we probably miss it. But the ugly part is in verse five. C. S. Lewis explains….
Worst of all in “The Lord is my shepherd” (23), after the green pasture, the waters of comfort, the sure confidence in the valley of the shadow, we suddenly run across (5) “Thou shalt prepare a table for me against them that trouble me”—or, as Dr. Moffatt translates it, “Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me while my enemies have to look on.” The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it. This may not be so diabolical as the passages I have quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure.
So what do we do with bits of the psalms like this one? Do we just set it to one side and forget about it, or is there some way it can still act upon us as “the word of God”? I opt for the latter approach, though it is sometimes difficult to see our way through to it. In this case, I take such bits of the Psalms as 23:5 as a reminder of the same rotten attitude that sometimes appears in my own heart. What am I to do when I have this vengeful type of attitude toward “my enemies”? One thing I can do is remember that the Jesus who quoted Psalm 22 on the cross also died for these enemies of mine. Furthermore, my own sins for which Jesus died are certainly no better and possibly worse than some of my enemies’ sins. In fact, I need to allow this vengeful, unforgiving attitude toward my enemies to be crucified.
In practical terms you may ask: “How is this done?” I can only tell you what has worked for me. At times when I find this wrong attitude in my heart toward my enemies, I pray the Lord’s Prayer. And when I come to the part, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I say to the Lord, “I forgive so and so.” At first, I do this with no feeling whatsoever. It is done merely as an exercise, by force of will, realizing that if I do not forgive my enemies, my Lord will not, cannot, forgive me. In some cases, after going through this exercise day after day, perhaps for months, eventually my hatred dissipates, and I am able, actually, to let go of the offense, and even pray for my enemies’ redemption. Forgiveness is a process, sometimes a lifelong one. And sometimes that process begins by seeing in the Psalms as in a mirror the same awful hatred that I hold in my own heart.
Psalm 24 is, I think, a wholly beautiful psalm, and is in fact one of my favorites. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” When we lived in Ireland, Merrie Gresham had this verse posted in her greenhouse. I always think of that, and the sheer goodness of God’s creation, when I think of this verse.
Once again, the psalmist asks an important question here: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” The answer is: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” I am reminded once again that the Lord Jesus is the only one with clean hands and a pure heart. In fact, I cannot help but think of Jesus when I read verses seven through ten. I think of Jesus triumphantly entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through the Beautiful Gate. I think of Jesus going to the Temple and cleansing it. Then I think of how Jesus needs to come in and cleanse the Temple of my heart.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors!
That the King of glory may come in.