What is a royal psalm anyway? And why should we care?
Just as today we hear many types of songs—love songs, anthems, lullabies, ballads, odes, rap and more—so the ancient Hebrews heard many types of psalms—royal psalms, wisdom songs, laments, thanksgiving songs, hymns, confidence songs, and more. Knowing a psalm’s type helps us know how to interpret it.
About ten psalms are categorized as royal psalms because they’re about the Davidic monarchy; for example, a coronation song, a royal wedding song, and prayers for the king.
Since ancient Israel was a type of the heavenly kingdom, and King David was a type of King Jesus, royal psalms often have elements that apply to the kingdom of heaven and to Jesus’ reign. When they do, they’re also called Messianic psalms. Messiah means “anointed one”; Messianic psalms are about the One anointed to rule forever: Jesus. Sometimes an entire psalm can apply to Messiah Jesus, while other times just portions suit him.
Why is that important? The ten royal psalms help us celebrate our future and how God intends to end evil. They partially answer those big questions that stab our hearts when jihadists gloat over beheadings; when a friend’s spouse abandons her for a new love; and when pancreatic cancer threatens a young father.The 10 royal psalms help us celebrate our future and how God intends to end evil Click To Tweet
Let’s look at which psalms are royal and then see how to interpret them.
Ten Royal Psalms
Here are ten psalms scholars commonly classify as royal.
|Psalm 2||David||King’s coronation|
|Psalm 18||David||King’s battle victory|
|Psalm 20||David||Prayer for king for battle victory|
|Psalm 21||David||Praise by king for battle victory|
|Psalm 45||Sons of Korah||King’s wedding|
|Psalm 72||Solomon||Prayer for king’s dominion|
|Psalm 89||Ethan the Ezrahite||Davidic covenant|
|Psalm 101||David||King’s charter|
|Psalm 110||David||Priestly kingdom|
|Psalm 144||David||Peace by king’s victory|
How to Interpret Royal Psalms
When we read royal psalms, we should consider first what they meant in their original context because that clues us in to what they mean when applied to King Jesus. Then we should look at any New Testament citations; to do this, check out your Bible’s text notes or cross references. Next, reflect on how the psalm might illuminate Jesus’ second coming and eternal reign. Finally, read the psalm with all of these contexts in mind.
Here’s a step-by-step example of how to interpret Psalm 2. Its verses are in the images so you can follow along.
Consider the Royal Psalms’ Original Purpose
How was the royal psalm originally used? For example, Psalm 2 doesn’t list an author, but Acts 4:25 tells us the Holy Spirit spoke Psalm 2 through David’s mouth. Psalm 2:7 speaks about God’s decree to David that his throne would be established forever, so Psalm 2 was probably written by David for Solomon’s coronation. After Solomon’s crowning, the kings descended from David most likely continued to use the song at their coronations since the decree was the authority by which all the sons of David ruled.Psalm 2 was probably written by David for Solomon’s coronation Click To Tweet
Notice Psalm 2:7 says the Lord calls the king his “son.” God called these kings “sons” because in those days, lesser kings (vassals) who served greater kings (suzerains) were referred to as “sons” of the greater king (1 Chronicles 28:5); God was the greater King whom these earthly kings served.
Still, coronations weren’t the psalm’s only use since it could inspire hope and purpose whenever the choirs sang it at the temple.
Look at New Testament Citations of Royal Psalms
How the New Testament cites the psalm tells us its current and future significance. Here are the New Testament citations of Psalm 2 (see the psalm’s text in the images).
- Psalm 2:1-2
- Acts 4:25-26—Identifies all the people in Psalm 2:1-2: Jesus is the Anointed One; the Gentiles are the raging nations; the people of Israel are the peoples plotting in vain; and Herod and Pontius Pilate are the kings and rulers who set themselves against the Lord.
- Psalm 2:7
- Acts 13:33—Jesus is the promised Son through whom God fulfills his promises
- Hebrews 1:5—Jesus sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high; he is superior to angels, for to no angel has God said, “You are my Son”; the Son’s inheritance in Psalm 2:8 is more excellent than angels’ inheritance
- Hebrews 5:5—God appointed Jesus, his begotten Son, to be high priest to offer sacrifices for sin
- Psalm 2:9
- Revelation 2:27—Jesus declares saints who conquer on earth will have authority like he has to rule with a “rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken”
- Revelation 12:5—Symbolically, a woman gives birth to a male child who will rule all nations with a “rod of iron”; a dragon tries to devour the child, but the child is caught up to God and his throne
- Revelation 19:15—Jesus as The Word of God riding on a white horse leads the armies of heaven; he will rule with a “rod of iron”; he defeats the beast, the false prophet, and the earthly armies gathered against him; the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire; the armies perish
From these we see that Psalm 2 is ultimately about Jesus. This is why most Bible translations capitalize “Anointed” in verse 2, “King” in verse 6, and “Son” in verse 7 so readers don’t miss the application to Jesus. Psalm 2 was partly fulfilled on earth when those against him crucified him. But now he sits at the right hand of God, enthroned on the heavenly Zion. Some still rebel against his rule. One day, though, he will return and end all rebellion.
Reflect on Messianic Elements in Royal Psalms
Other New Testament passages shed light on Psalm 2 even though they don’t directly cite it.The final fulfillment of royal psalms is Jesus' reign Click To Tweet
Remember how in verse 7 God called the kings descended from David “sons”? The relationship between the Davidic kings and the Lord God foreshadowed the greater, unique relationship between Jesus and his Father, for Jesus was born of God literally (Luke 1:32-35). When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Revelation 21 tells the final fulfillment of royal psalms: a new heaven and new earth where God’s Son Jesus will reign forever.
Read Royal Psalms with All their Contexts in Mind
To really gain a rich understanding of and appreciation for the psalm, consider all of its contexts. Here are some suggestions for reading Psalm 2.
- Original Context: Read the decree that Psalm 2 has as its central theme: 2 Samuel 7:12-16. Here God decrees that he will raise up one of David’s sons (Solomon) to build a temple, and he’ll establish David’s throne forever. Also consider the story of Solomon’s coronation and his brother’s two attempts to seize the throne; that’ll give you an idea of the revolt newly crowned kings often faced (1 Kings 1:5-53; 2:13-25). Then read Psalm 2 while paying attention to how it fit Solomon’s situation.
- Jesus’ First Coming: Consider the rebellion Jesus faced from Jewish and Roman rulers (Acts 4:24-29) as well as Satan’s forces (symbolized in Revelation 12). Think about how that rebellion causes the stuff that fills the newspaper—evil, injustice, violence, betrayal, death, pain. Think about the Christians in other nations who are persecuted and slaughtered. Read Psalm 2 in the context of the rebellion against Jesus on earth then and now.
- Jesus’ Eternal Reign: Ponder Jesus’ future reign (the White Rider in Revelation 19:11-16; the Judgment in Revelation 20:11-14; the new heaven and earth in Revelation 22:1-8). Follow that by reading Psalm 2 with the kingdom of heaven in mind.
Royal Psalms: The Hope of Messiah’s Reign
What is the hope of royal psalms like Psalm 2? It’s the hope of Messiah Jesus’ reign.
Yes, all around us we see rebellion, rejection of God and his commands, great evils, violence, death, and tears. But that is coming to an end. King Jesus is coming. “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”What is the hope of royal psalms like Psalm 2? It's the hope of Messiah Jesus' reign. Click To Tweet