Psalm 21: A Structural Analysis

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Outline of Series

Psalm 21

How cold is the title of this post? Why would anyone want to “structurally analyze” any part of God’s Word, especially the poetry of Psalms?

There are living voices in the psalms–various points of view and various speakers within single psalms. Not everyone hears these voices. Yet Christ after his resurrection cited Psalms to his disciples as one of the areas of Old Testament prophecy that  foretold his sufferings, death, and resurrection.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (Luke 24:44-45).

Verse 45 above says that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” I take this to mean that he spent some time with them going over specific examples and giving them keys to unlock passages. Afterward, they would be able to find and see these things themselves, as the Gospels and letters bear witness.

Psalm 21 is a psalm of resurrection.

Psalm 21 enjoys the agreement of traditional church interpretation both East and West that it is messianic and regards the resurrection and beyond.

Patrick Reardon writes, “Holy Church, both East and West, rather early decided that Psalm 20 (Hebrew 21) is best prayed during the earliest hours of Sunday morning, the Resurrection day of her Lord Jesus Christ” (Reardon, 39).

Andrew Bonar writes of it, “We are at once shewn the King Messiah, already triumphant at the Father’s right hand; and yet, as King, to triumph more ere all be done” (Bonar, 71).

Its positional context in the Psalter corresponds to its messianic nature.

Positioned just before Psalm 21, Psalm 20 is a psalm of prayerful intercession for the salvation of the King in his day of trouble. Undoubtedly the Jewish congregation prayed it through the centuries from David to Christ, and some, such as Anna and Zechariah, most likely knew that when they prayed this psalm, they were indeed praying for the Lord’s Anointed Messiah, not just for King David in retrospect.

Psalm 21 gives God’s answer to the petitions of Psalm 20, and Psalm 22, quoted in the New Testament and widely acknowledged as messianic, gives the details of the struggle prayed for in Psalm 20 and recaps the victory of Psalm 21.

Charles Spurgeon, who is relatively conservative in naming certain psalms as messianic, writes in his forward to Psalm 21, “Probably written by David, sung by David, relating to David, and intended by David to refer in its fullest reach of meaning to David’s Lord. It is evidently the fit companion of Psalm Twenty, and is in its proper position next to it. Psalm Twenty anticipates what this regards as realized. [Notice that Spurgeon here acknowledges reading across the psalms for connected themes]…The next Psalm [Psalm 22] will take us to the foot of the cross, this introduces us to the steps of the throne” (Spurgeon, Vol. 1, 312).

As a note, Psalm 21 is not quoted in the New Testament (Archer, Gleason L. and Gregory Chirichigno). This is apparently the reason why this psalm, widely regarded as being messianic throughout church history, does not appear in “official” lists of prophetic messianic psalms, such as those found in certain popular study Bibles. The author of this blog strongly feels that, as regards the reading of Psalms, current post modern academia has thrown buckets of icy water upon the Holy Spirit of God (1 Thessalonians 5:19), who moves so deeply throughout all of Scripture, breathing the life of Christ everywhere in its pages, and nowhere moreso than in the psalms. Sadly, this atmosphere of strict academia has seeped down into many, if not most, western evangelical churches, so that the power of Psalms as the voice of Christ has been largely lost to the weekly evangelical worshiper.

The Internal Structure of Psalm 21

Psalm 21

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices,
    and in your salvation how greatly he exults!
You have given him his heart’s desire
    and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
For you meet him with rich blessings;
    you set a crown of fine gold upon his head.
He asked life of you; you gave it to him,
    length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great through your salvation;
    splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
For you make him most blessed forever;[a]
    you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord,
    and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.

Your hand will find out all your enemies;
    your right hand will find out those who hate you.
You will make them as a blazing oven
    when you appear.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
    and fire will consume them.
10 You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
    and their offspring from among the children of man.
11 Though they plan evil against you,
    though they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
12 For you will put them to flight;
    you will aim at their faces with your bows.

13 Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength!
    We will sing and praise your power.

–ESV  (Psalm 21)

As much as possible, when reading the ancient poetry of psalms,  it is necessary to observe and identify within single psalms changes of viewpoint and even changes of speakers.

For example, at times a psalm may include one or more direct quotations and identify the speaker. One example is the well-known Psalm 110:1.

Psalm 110:1 A Psalm of David. The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 

While Psalm 110:1 itself identifies both the speaker, LORD, and the addressee, my Lord, the reader is further helped to recognize who is speaking by Christ’s use of this psalm in verses such as Mark 12:35-37.

Mark 12:35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?
36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”‘
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. 

Even beyond this, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, by means of the context and grammar of the paragraph containing the quotation, explains that Psalm 110:1 was God speaking directly to his Son Christ (Hebrews 1).

From the above example alone, readers learn that 1) God speaks directly within the poetry of psalms, 2) sometimes Scripture identifies to whom he is speaking, 3) at times the addressee is his Son, 4) that Father and Son both appear in certain Old Testament psalms, and  5) that a single psalm may contain more than one speaking voice or speaking point of view.

Who is speaking in Psalm 21?

First, the superscription identifies Psalm 21 as a psalm of David.

Next, we notice that verse one begins in both second (you) and third person (he, the king) and continues this way through the first twelve verses. Verse thirteen alone uses one first person plural (we).

The speaker of the psalm is not identified.


  1. Perhaps King David is speaking. In this scenario he would be referring to himself in third person (he, the king).
  2. However, when the reader arrives at verse 8, it stretches plain literary common sense to continue thinking that David is the speaker.
    1. It is clear that the speaker is addressing God throughout verses 8-12.
    2. If David is the speaker, then God as addressee is the actor in the prophecies spoken throughout these verses.
    3. While it is true that God does act and that his will directs all, Scripture teaches that God himself does not appear; he remains invisible–

John 4:12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

4. Yet verse 9 says, “when you appear.

5. Therefore, it seems unlikely that David is the speaker in the block of verses 8 through 12.

3. Likewise, it seems clear without explanation that God is not speaking in any portion of Psalm 21.

4. Who is left? None but a narrative voice, a chorus, a body of speakers, given that the final verse is plural first person.

5. It does appear possible that David the King might be speaking in the first block from 1 through 7, and a chorus speaking from verses 8 through 13.

6. As mentioned in the first point, if David is the speaker in verses 1 through 7, then he would be referring to himself in third person.

7. More likely, the narrative chorus, which steps forward to identify itself in verse 13, is singing the entire psalm.

What structural blocks are identifiable?

There are three.

1. The first block–verses 1 through 7 

A. Verse 1 is a couplet:

O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices,

and in your salvation how greatly he exults! (ESV)

1. The first line of the couplet identifies the second person addressee: the Lord.

2. The first line also identifies the third person referent: the king.

3. The first and second lines together identify the theme of the first block: the king’s joy in the victories of strength God gave.

B . Verse 2 announces answered prayer.

You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah 

The answered prayer of 21:1-6, and especially the phrasing in verse 2, responds to the prayer spoken in Psalm 20, and especially in 20:4–May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans! 

C. Verses  3-6 give details of the answered prayer.

D. Verse 7 calls back to verse 1.

For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.

1. In verse 7 is the first appearance of the word “king” since verse 1.

2. Both verses 1 and 7 describe the emotional responses of the king to God’s favorable actions on his behalf, while verses 2 through 6 describe the actions of God.

3. Therefore, verses 1 and 7 form an inclusio. This is a frame, or bracket, around a literary block or section. It’s like the two pieces of bread enclosing the ingredients of a sandwich.

E. It is clear that the chorus of speakers is addressing God in the first block about his actions on behalf of the king.

2. Verses 8 through 12

A. There is a noticeably abrupt switch of topic and addressee immediately in verse 8 and the change continues through verse 12.

What has changed? Not the speaker, as shown above, but the addressee, the topic, and the time frame.

B. Concerning the addressee, as developed in point 2 above in the section called “Possibilities,” the chorus turns from addressing God to addressing the King. This is clear according to the guidelines of plain, everyday speech.

C. The topic has changed from the king’s responses of joy and trust for what God has already done in answering a prior prayer to naming and describing what the king, and the Lord in verse 9, will do to the king’s enemies at a future time of judgment.

D. The time frame has shifted from past–actions that God has already taken–to future–actions that the king will take. Notice that verse 7 does contain a small bit of transition in the phrase, “he shall not be moved.

E. It is the changes in addressee (point B), topic (point C), and time frame (point D) which signal to the reader that indeed verses 8-12 form a poetic block within Psalm 21 that is distinct from the block occupying the first seven verses.

3. Verse 13 

A. Verse 13 stands alone as the only verse in which the voice of the psalm changes in one place from second and third persons singular (you, he) to first person plural (we).

Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength!
    We will sing and praise your power.

B. This change in grammar signals both a new block, if one verse alone can be so considered, and the end of the poem itself.

1. A new block

a. This final verse introduces the third player in the poem–the chorus itself. The other two players have been the Lord and the king, while the chorus-narrator has remained offstage, so to speak.

b. In the final verse, the chorus reveals itself, having stepped into the action of the poem, by describing their own responses of singing and praising the Lord, apparently for an undefined amount of time into the future, most likely corresponding to the eternal life specified in verse 4.

2. The end of the poem.

a. The final verse narrows the theme of the poem to a celebration of song and praise to the Lord for his strength.

b. The first line of the final couplet references the Lord.

c. The second line of the final couplet references the chorus-narrator.

d. The chorus-narrator ends the poem with a personal description of its own response.

Who is the chorus-narrator?

The introduction in the last verse of the chorus as actors in the poetic drama of God and King is a large, extremely important theological step for readers of the poem. Who are these people? Who is the speaker of the entire psalm?

1. We know it’s a group.

2. We know that these people love both the Lord and the King.

3. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the chorus is both the congregation of Israelites in King David’s day and the congregation of the church in Greater King David’s day, the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Final Thoughts from a Personal Point of View

1. I find the psalms to be highly interactive. There’s lots of lively drama happening in them.

One example is point 3 in the above section. God, who designed and wrote all Scripture by his Holy Spirit, intends the reader to be pulled into the action and to have personal responses. Theologically, there is tremendous hope and promise to the church for an eternal future with Christ and God, evidenced by its presence in Psalm 21. The Lord, King Jesus, and the believing reader, who is part of the “we” of the narrator-chorus in Psalm 21, comprise the characters in this psalm. God, his Son, us! If that doesn’t amaze and speak of the tremendous love of the Lord (“the steadfast love of the Most High”–vs 7), then what will?

2. Through reading and rereading this psalm, its intent becomes clearer. Although the Lord and the King are distinguishable throughout, they are closely intertwined, reflecting what we know about Christ and the Father’s unity. Verse 9 perhaps references two distinct characters. Or, it might reference one character, the King, under two names.

9 You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear.

The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. 

3. Jesus throughout his ministry directed everyone’s eyes to God the Father. Just so, while this psalm glorifies both the Lord and the King, its verses make clear that it is God the Lord who is the source of the King’s strength, and ultimately it is God the Lord whom the chorus praises in verse 13.

So is it cold or not cold?

This was lots of work for me as a writer!

As a reader, however, I want to say that since the Lord many years ago gave me the key of Christ to open the door of Psalms, it hasn’t been as difficult as this step-by-step analysis may indicate. When reading the psalms, the reality of the interactions between God and Son break through rapidly, as in a great tidal wave of wonder and awe.

It is God the Holy Spirit who anoints each believing reader to perceive the gorgeous interplay between the various speakers and content blocks of Psalms. The perception comes quickly and whole, fed by the Spirit while reading and rereading a particular psalm. Yes, fine points need to be cleared up through analysis and by consulting other sources. For me, as regards this psalm, the fine point was whether or not the king was the speaker in the first block referring to himself in third person. As cited above, Andrew Bonar helped me with that one. Later analysis convinced me that the speaker is what I have termed the chorus-narrator throughout.

My personal testimony is that the discovery of two God-beings in Psalms is not cold, but very hot! While the king is not presented as the Lord in Psalm 21, he has been crowned with gold by God (verse 3), he has been given eternal life (verses 4 and 6), and he has been given glory, splendor, and majesty (verse 5). All this is true of Jesus Christ God’s Son, while not all is true of King David. For God the Holy Spirit to reveal this inside a believing reader’s heart is exciting life indeed.




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