The Royal Psalms

This is an essay I wrote on The Royal Psalms, it was part of a Macquarie University course on Ancient Israel.

The Royal Psalms

Author Cheryl Mason (2014)

What can the royal psalms teach us about the Judean monarchy? Relying principally on a reading of Psalms 2, 18, 20,21,45,72,101,110,132 and 144.

The Psalms are some of the most loved passages in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. They have long been the focus of study for scholars from religious and secular backgrounds. In modern times, however (1930 to 1985), the Psalms have undergone intense scrutiny by critical Biblical scholars such as Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) and Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965). Gunkel, classified the Psalms based on their content, he deemed (Pss. 2, 18,21,45,72,101,110,132 and 144), to be Royal, in relation to the Judean Monarchy. They were Royal (specifically, Ps.101 and 110) because they listed the duties of a king and because they contained priestly rule imagery of a king.[1] Gunkel, classified the rest of the Psalms as: Hymns; communal laments; individual laments; individual songs and thanksgiving[2].

Mowinckel, added a more complex argument to Gunkel’s theory, asserting that the Royal Psalms contained Ideology and terminology that was in harmony with other ANE civilizations. That the Royal Psalms were based on the concept of the Divine Sonship of the Monarch and that the Ideal King theory was prevalent throughout the ancient near east[3]. And, that the Royal psalms (Ps. 2, 101 and 110), all have a central figure (the king and his cultic representative), and were used in festivals and enthronement[4].

The aim of this paper then, is to identify those aspects of The Royal Psalms that teach us about the Judean monarchy. Firstly, who or what exactly was the Judean monarchy? This will be discussed briefly. Secondly, the Sonship of the Judean monarchy and the Royal Ideology behind (Pss. 2 and 110) will be examined. Thirdly, this paper will deal with Mowinckel’s concept of enthronement, did (Pss. 2,110,132) speak of an enthronement festival or something else? And, lastly, From a Biblical perspective, does the Psalter perceive the Judean monarchy to be a temporal or a permanent establishment; local or universal. By examining the above questions the author believes that much can be learnt from the royal psalms about the Judean monarchy.

Much of what we know about the Judean monarchy comes to us from the Biblical texts of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and the Psalms, and much of it focuses on David who united the monarchy. There is debate as to the historicity of the monarchy because there is little archaeological evidence to suggest that it even existed. Most scholars like Finkelstein agree that David and the texts listed above were a seventh century BCE construct of the Deuteronomistic (D Source) historians[5]. But, even though the texts are more suited to a later date, and that most scholars agree they were edited[6], that does not mean the portrayal of the Davidic monarchy in the Bible is untrue. As Na’áman states; “there is nothing impossible about the Biblical description of the extent of David’s kingdom, even applying modern concepts of political control[7].

So, assuming the Davidic monarchy existed, what then are the origins of these hotly contested kings? In First Samuel 8:5 we are told that the Israelites wanted a king to rule (judge) over them[8], because they wanted to be like the other nations. In view of this we have to accept then that the ‘others’ already had reigning monarchs. After some warnings from the Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 8:8), Saul was instated as King (1 Samuel 9:1). Saul was succeeded by David, the chosen one of God (1 Samuel 16:1) he was anointed from a horn, as opposed to Saul who was anointed from a flask (1 Samuel 10:1). The reign continued with Solomon (1 Kings 1:35) after whose death the kingdom was divided. In total the House of David ruled for over four centuries[9].

Which leads us to our next topic: Did the Davidic monarchy view themselves as the Sons of God in a literal sense? This concept was first introduced by Mowinckel, who stated that royal ideology behind the biblical text (Pss.2, 110), parallels that of ANE (Egypt and Mesopotamia) kings who were perceived as sons of deity; physically and metaphysically; conceived of a physical act[10]. To understand, “You are my son, today I have become your father” (Ps.2:7), in a literal rendering of the text, would imply that on that day the king was born, but the Judean monarch was already born[11]. Therefore it is fair to say that the adoption formula is more suited to the Judean monarchy, that the election is not metaphysical but rather by divine election; and that YHWH was the father of the king just like he was the father of Israel[12]; and father-son may not be the only premise for the relationship but also a master-servant[13].

Concerning the ideal king, Mowinckel had this to say: “The Royal Psalms as we have seen have risen out of the prevailing concept of the ideal king which was fundamentally the same throughout the whole of the east”[14]. Firstly as mentioned earlier, YHWH warned the Israelites about asking for king like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:8). So any king idea was a borrowed idea in the first place. However, the concept of YHWH as king was manifested in the prophets Isaiah and Zephaniah[15]. But the ideal kingship discourse did not eventuate for Judean monarchy, Psalm 89:38-52, stating the Davidic line was rejected by YHWH because it did not follow his ways[16]. YHWH had His own ideals for kingship, based on curtailing excesses (1 Samuel 8:12, Deuteronomy 17:14-20), do not acquire too many horses; wives or wealth, do not self-appoint and live by the law as set out in the Torah. Although Dutcher-Walls claims that the excesses could relate to YHWH but equally so, it could relate to the neo-Assyrians[17].

It is now appropriate to deal with Enthronement and search out whether the Psalms teach us that the Judean monarchy practiced this festival. Mowinckel claims that the Judean monarchy was like other oriental monarchies because of ‘enthronement’. Pss.2, 110,132 he says involved rituals of a central figure, in this case the king and his god. Some of the aspects of this ritual involved a procession, anointing, a new name, a covenant, robeing etc[18]. Mowinckel believed the enthronement ritual occurred during the New Year Festival (1st of Tishri)[19]. But this cannot be possible as Kruse points out that the feasts of Israel were historical; pre-exilic, that they centred on agriculture and salvation. And that the New Year, Hanukkah and Purim originated after 165 BCE. So if any celebration occurred it would have most likely been the Feast of Tabernacles[20].

It appears that the biblical text agrees with Kruse, (Leviticus 23:29-43) and (Deuteronomy 16:16, 17) tell us when the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) was celebrated, it was celebrated on 15th Tishri. The Israelites were encouraged to live in booths to replicate their wilderness experience. Sukkoth is still practiced today even when there is no reigning monarch and if Zechariah is correct it will be celebrated well into the future (Zechariah 14:16-17).

Although, Mowinckel is correct when he says that the language of the Psalms has cultic origins, Walter also agreeing with this, mentioning the similarities between the Ras Shamra from Ugarit as an example[21]. Having said that; Walter says there is no enthronement anywhere in the Old Testament and that just tracing origins through words is not enough, we have to rather understand the meaning they invoked when they came into existence[22]. Weinfeld, also stating there are similarities to neo-Assyrian vocabulary, but the language may be older and dated to the late Bronze Age[23] Laato, advices caution, stating no full blown conclusion can be reached by phrases alone[24]it’s not uncommon for old themes/motifs to resurface, he refers to Ashurbanipal as an example of this[25]. This idea is not too farfetched when you consider that in our day trends, e.g. the fifties and eighties are rehashed. Everything old is new again!

Lastly, in order to further understand the Judean Monarchy, we have to consider whether they perceived themselves as temporal or permanent, local or universal. Psalm 45; 72 provides us with a clear indication that the Judean monarchy was perceived as being both permanent and universal. “Your throne Oh God, will last forever and forever (v.6) and “Therefore the nations will praise you forever and ever (v.17b). Also, “May His name endure forever, May it continue as long as the sun. Then all nations will be blessed through him (Psalm 72:v17 a,b).

But in light of a failed monarchy, that only lasted four centuries before it not only collapsed but it’s kings taken into exile, it’s difficult to perceive this as forever, everlasting and lasting as long as the sun. However, we are left with metaphor that supports both a literal and a metaphoric understanding[26]. After all there are other Psalms also, for example Psalm 22:16 b, could not be referring to the reigning monarch having his hands and feet pierced. Therefore it has become accepted in Jewish and later in Christian circles that there is a Messianic expectation to the royal psalms. That they speak of another, identical in divine nature to God the Father[27]. In the Christian Testament, such as the book of Acts, the Royal Psalms are a source of Messianic hope and expectation[28]. Although this belief is not without its critics, Mowinckel arguing that the Royal Psalms were never used for a Messiah, Messiah was a late Judean concept, and that the Royal Psalms were meant to only speak to us of the reigning king[29].

In concluding, this paper set out to identify those aspects of the Psalms that teach us about the Judean monarchy. This was done by critiquing the Biblical text, prominent scholars such as Mowinckel and others who hold views that are contrary to those held by Mowinckel. In order to understand the Judean monarchy, we had to first understand who they were and what their origins were. This paper gave a brief outline of their origins based on the Biblical text, as extra Biblical evidence for the Judean monarchy is scarce and controversial.

The second aspect of the paper dealt with the Son of God theory and the Ideology behind the Royal Psalms. The current writer understood that while aspects of the Judean monarchy were borrowed, that the Son of God was not viewed as literal but metaphoric, and that YHWH also stipulated His own agenda for the Judean Kings. There were similarities and differences. The paper also considered whether Enthronement as set out Mowinckel was something that the Judean monarchy would have celebrated. While it quite conceivable that other ANE cultures may have celebrated their New Year with Enthronement, it is not likely that Ancient Judah did, because New Year was a later addition.

Lastly the paper considered the everlasting and universal terminology used by the Psalter. And concluded that here again there was both a literal and a metaphoric meaning. That, a Judean king did sit on the throne, but there was an eternal hope held by Jews and later by Christians that an eternal King would come, a Messiah, who would sit on the throne of David and rule forever. As a metaphor is subjective, it’s difficult to argue this point.

Gunkel and Mowinckel have brought new elements of interest, to an already intriguing field of study, and for that the present writer will always be grateful. There is something quite surreal about studying the Royal Psalms.


Bridge, Edward J. ‘Loyalty, Dependency And Status With YHWH: The Use Of ‘bd In The Psalms”. Vetus Testamentum 59 (2009): 360-378.

Cohen, Ted. ‘Metaphor, Feeling And Narrative’. Philosophy And Literature 212 (1997): 223-244.

Cooke, Gerald. ‘The Israelite King And The Son Of God’. Zeitschrift Fur Altestamentum Wissenschaft 73 (1961): 202-205.

Dutcher-Walls, Patricia. ‘The Circumscription Of The King: Deuteronomy 17:16-17 In Its Ancient Social Context’. Journal Of Biblical Literature 121 (2002): 601-616.

Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed. 1st ed. New York: Free Press, 2001.

Grant, Jamie A. ‘The Psalms And The King’. Interpreting The Psalms: Issues And Approaches Eds,P.S.Johnson,D.G.Firth;Leicester:Apollos, 2005, 101-118.

Gray, John. ‘The Kingship Of God In The Prophets And Psalms’. Vetus Testamentum 11, 1 (1961): 1-29. doi: 10.2307/1515749.

Knoppers, Gary. ‘Ancient Near Eastern Royal Grants And The Davidic Covenant: A Parallel?’. Journal Of American Oriental Society, 1996, 670-697. doi:10.2307/605439.

Kruse, Heinz. ‘Psalm CXXX11 And The Royal Zion Festival’. Vetus Testamentum 33 (1983): 279-297. doi:10.2307/1517539.

Laato, Antti. ‘Psalm 132 And The Development Of The Jerusalemite/Israelite Royal Ideology’. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 (1992): 49-66.

Laato, Antti. ‘Second Samuel 7 And Ancient Near Eastern Ideology’. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (1997): 244-269.

Miller, Maxwell J, and John H Hayes. A History Of Ancient Israel And Judah. 2nd ed. London: SCM Press, 2006.

Mowinkel, Sigmund. ‘The Psalms In Israel’s Worship (Trans.D.R.Ap-Thomas;Oxford:Basil Blackwell’, 1962, Ch3.

Provan, Iain W, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman. A Biblical History Of Israel. 1st ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

Roberts, J.J.M. ‘The Enthronement Of YHWH And David: The Abiding Theological Significance Of The Kingship Language Of The Psalms’. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64 (2002): 675-686.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. 1st ed. Zondervon Bible Publishers, 1984.

Ward, James M. ‘The Literary Form And Liturgical Background Of Ps 89’. Vetus Testamentum 11 (1961): 321-339 (esp.pp.321-339. doi:10.2307/1516226.

Whitelam, K.W. ‘The Symbols Of Power: Aspects Of Propaganda In The United Monarchy’. Biblical Archaeologist 493 (1986): 166-173. doi:10.2307/3209997.

Williams, Walter G. ‘Liturgical Aspects In The Enthronement Psalm’. Journal Of Bible And Religion 25, iss 118-122 (1957).

[1] Jamie A Grant, ‘The Psalms And The King’, Interpreting The Psalms: Issues And Approaches (Eds,P.S.Johnson,D.G.Firth;Leicester:Apollos, 2005), pp.102-104.

[2] William G Walter, ‘Liturgical Aspects in the Enthronement Psalm’, Journal of Bible and Religion 25 (1957):p.118,

[3] Sigmund Mowinckel, ‘The Psalms In Israel’s Worship (Trans.D.R.Ap-Thomas;Oxford:Basil Blackwell’, 1962), pp.54,74.

[4] Ibid, p.62.

[5] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 1st ed. (New York: Free Press, 2001), pp.46-47.

[6] James M Ward, ‘The Literary Form and Liturgical Background of Ps 89’, Vetus Testamentum 11 (1961): 321-339 (esp.p.321, doi: 10.2307/1516226.

[7] Iain W Provan, V. Philips Long and Tremper Longman, A Biblical History of Israel, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p.231.

[8] The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1st ed. (Zondervon Bible Publishers, 1984).

[9] Maxwell J Miller and John H Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. (London: SCM Press, 2006), p.148.

[10] Sigmund Mowinkel, ‘The Psalms In Israel’s Worship (Trans.D.R.Ap-Thomas;Oxford:Basil Blackwell’, (1962), pp.53,54.

[11] Gerald Cooke, ‘The Israelite King and the Son Of God’, Zeitschrift Fur Altestamentum Wissenschaft 73 (1961): p.209.

[12] Cooke, Ibid, pp.210, 217.

[13] Edward J Bridge, ‘Loyalty, Dependency and Status with YHWH: The Use Of ‘bd In the Psalms”, Vetus Testamentum 59 (2009): p.376.

[14] Mowinckel, Ibid, p.74.

[15] John Gray, ‘The Kingship of God in the Prophets and Psalms’, Vetus Testamentum 11, 1 (1961): pp.11, 12, 17, and 18, doi: 10.2307/1515749.

[16] Jamie A Grant, ‘The Psalms And The King’, Interpreting The Psalms: Issues And Approaches (Eds,P.S.Johnson,D.G.Firth;Leicester:Apollos, 2005), p.114.

[17] Patricia Dutcher-Walls, ‘The Circumscription of the King: Deuteronomy 17:16-17 In Its Ancient Social Context’, Journal of Biblical Literature 121 (2002): p.604.

[18] Mowinckel, Ibid, pp.61-64.

[19] Heinz Kruse, ‘Psalm CXXX11 and the Royal Zion Festival’, Vetus Testamentum 33 (1983), p.280, doi: 10.2307/1517539.

[20] Kruse, Ibid, p. 296.

[21] William G Walter, ‘Liturgical Aspects in the Enthronement Psalm’, Journal of Bible and Religion 25 (1957): p.119,

[22] Walter, Ibid, pp.120, 121.

[23] Gary Knoppers, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Royal Grants And The Davidic Covenant: A Parallel?’, Journal Of American Oriental Society, (1996), pp.678,680,681, doi:10.2307/605439.

[24] Antti Laato, ‘Second Samuel 7 and Ancient Near Eastern Ideology’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (1997): 244-269, (e-reserve html version).

[25] Antti Laato, ‘Psalm 132 and the Development of the Jerusalemite/Israelite Royal Ideology’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 (1992): pp.49-66 (e-reserve html version).

[26] Ted Cohen, ‘Metaphor, Feeling and Narrative’, Philosophy and Literature 212 (1997):p.244.

[27] J.J.M Roberts, ‘the Enthronement of YHWH and David: The Abiding Theological Significance of the Kingship Language Of The Psalms’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64 (2002): p. 684.

[28] Jamie A Grant, ‘The Psalms And The King’, Interpreting The Psalms: Issues And Approaches (Eds,P.S.Johnson,D.G.Firth;Leicester:Apollos, 2005):p.112.

[29] Sigmund Mowinkel, ‘The Psalms In Israel’s Worship (Trans.D.R.Ap-Thomas;Oxford:Basil Blackwell’, 1962): p.49.