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.

Royal psalms tell us how God intends to destroy evil

Acts 4 identifies all the people in Acts 2:1-3

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 Author Royal Topic
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

Royal psalms tell us how God intends to destroy evil

God set Jesus on the throne of the heavenly Zion

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

Royal psalms tell us how God intends to destroy evil

The theme of Psalm 2 is in the center

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
New Testament citations tell us Psalm 2 is ultimately about Jesus Click To Tweet
  • 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.

Royal psalms tell us how God intends to destroy evil

The King is coming so be wise

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Terrorists murder and maim. Con artists bilk the elderly. The rich exploit the poor. Abusers scar children. The promiscuous mock the chaste. Liars lock the innocent behind bars. Those who’ve sworn to uphold justice overturn it.

What is our hope in the midst of injustice? Psalm 2 tells us.

It’s a psalm originally composed for singing at the coronations of kings descended from David. It’s one of about ten psalms categorized as royal psalms because they’re about the Davidic monarchy.

Psalm 2:1-3 The root of injustice

Psalm 2:1-3 shows us from where injustice comes

A good, effective king was a cause for rejoicing. Such a king fought wickedness, judged righteously, executed justice, defended the poor, and crushed oppressors. A godly king brought the hope of justice and righteousness to the kingdom.

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. Psalm 2 is no exception, and the New Testament quotes it frequently, applying its words to Jesus, the Son of David. It foretells the crowning of Jesus the Anointed One—the Messiah—so it is also a Messianic psalm.

So what does Psalm 2 tell us?

God Decreed His Son King

Psalm 2:7a is the psalm’s center and tells us the psalm’s theme:

I will tell of the decree:

The rest of the verse explains the decree:

The Lord said to me,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.”

This refers to the decree God made regarding King David. When David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, he asked the prophet Nathan to ask God if that would be acceptable.

That night the Lord spoke to Nathan and told him to tell David no, David would not build a house (that is, a temple) for God, but rather God would build a house (that is, a dynasty) for David. God decreed that he would establish the throne of David’s son’s kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:13). These sons of David would be called sons of God—a political term in those days because lesser kings (vassals) were called “sons” of the greater king (suzerain) whom they served. David and his sons were to be vassals of God.

The first son of David to reign would be Solomon. Most Bible translations capitalize “Son” so you don’t miss that the last Son is Jesus, not son in the same political sense as David’s other sons—that was mere foreshadowing of the Son of God born of a virgin. It is Jesus’ throne that will last forever.

Well and good, but what does that have to do with the evil we see around us? For that we look back to the beginning of the psalm.

Many Rebel Against the Decree

Psalm 2:1-2 (see figure) tells of a rebellion of those who don’t want to submit to the newly crowned king. Newly crowned kings often faced rebellion from those ready to test their strength. In Jesus’ case, the religious leaders rebelled and turned Jesus over to Rome to be crucified on trumped-up charges. They celebrated, thinking the threat to their authority demolished. They didn’t know God had raised Jesus from the dead and anointed him king on the heavenly Mount Zion.

Psalm 2:10-12 the final answer to injustice

Psalm 2:10-12 Those who refuse God’s Son’s rule will perish, but those who embrace it will be blessed

When Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah who had sat down at the Father’s right hand. They offered the grace found in Psalm 2’s close: Be wise and warned, serve the Lord God, and “kiss the Son” (that is, pay homage to him as ruler) so that you will not perish, but have eternal life.

Today, Christians continue to spread this message in a world in which most still rebel.

For one day, trumpets will sound and the Lord will return (Matthew 24:31). On that day, it will be seen that all the plotting to reject his rule will be in vain (Psalm 2:1), and every knee will bow. Some will bow as the conquered bow, yielding to the inevitable before perishing. But those who willingly bowed on earth will bow then in gladness and joy, the hope of Jesus’ reign finally come.

“Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12). Yes, truly blessed: They will be in Jesus’ kingdom where there will be no injustice, no tears, no pain. All will be made right.

That is our hope in the midst of injustice today.

His Kingdom Comes!

Until that day, we pray, “Maranatha!” There in one word is the cry, “Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22). It encapsulates what Jesus teaches us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we express our yearning for that kingdom in which our Lord rules with righteousness and justice. We offer ourselves as obedient servants longing to dwell under his reign. We agree that God’s commands are right and holy, and that justice demands sin’s wages be paid. We give thanks for Jesus paying the penalty for our sins through his death on the cross in order that we might live. We trust that as he rose from the dead, so shall we.


Adapted from Discovering Hope in the Psalms (Harvest House, 2017)