Monday, 20 February 2017

The King and his Enemies

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.
How great is his joy in the victories you give! ...
Surely you have granted him unending blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord;
through the unfailing love of the Most High
he will not be shaken.
Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies;
your right hand will seize your foes...
Be exalted in your strength, Lord;
we will sing and praise your might.
Psalm 21:1, 6-8, 13

Psalm 20 prays for victory for the king. Psalm 21 celebrates when that victory comes. It’s a handy prompt to note the value of reading the psalms consecutively, looking out for any links between them. It’s also a helpful reminder not just to pray but to give thanks for answered prayer: are we specific enough in our requests to be specific enough in our gratitude?

So it is that the first half of Psalm 21 reviews the ‘unending blessings’ God has given the king – his heart’s desire, long life, glory, majesty, and the joy of God’s presence.

But the psalm invites us to look two ways – not just backwards but forwards. Past victories are no guarantee that future troubles won’t arise, but God will act as he has done and will put down his enemies. God is portrayed here, as he is elsewhere in the Bible, as a warrior waging war against his foes. Such language is never an excuse to start an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ game. The apostle Paul is clear that we would all be God’s enemies were it not for his love (Romans 5:10). We all receive treatment from God that we don’t deserve.

It’s no surprise, then, that the ‘unfailing love of the Most High’ stands at the centre of this psalm. Such committed love is at the heart of the covenant God made with David and his descendants, which would never be taken away (2 Samuel 7:15). His love will keep us through life and death and beyond, so the confidence that we ‘will not be shaken’ belongs to us as much as it does to the king.

Of course, it’s one thing to be confident during a time of joy. It’s something else in a season of drought, when a sense of God’s absence feels stronger than his presence, when God’s enemies do seem to get their way. Yet, Psalm 21 continued to be prayed and sung even following Israel’s exile and the demise of the monarchy, reflecting an expectation that David’s throne would one day be restored.

We don’t just pray the psalms when they match our experience. We pray them when they don’t match our experience; we pray them as vehicles of hope and trust in God’s unfailing love. We pray now in the light of the final day, ‘Be exalted in your strength, LORD; we will sing and praise your might’.

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