Psalm 45 was written as a “poem to the King” on the occasion of a royal marriage, but it goes much further than mere panegyric. Indeed, in the opening line, the writer confesses that “My heart overflows...” In a modern paraphrase, “My heart bursts its banks.” It’s almost too much to express, as he shapes the river of his ideas into words. He paints an amazing picture of the ideal king -a king of kings- not in the sense of puffing up something ordinary into something overblown (like a monstrous balloon), but in the sense of discovering the substance of kingship for which its contemporary expression was just a shadow.
It’s ike a child examining the long shadow of a lovely sundial on the morning grass, and tracing it back, with growing excitement, to discover the substance, solid and sure and real.
And that’s precisely how the writers of the New Testament understood this Psalm (looking back from the “substance” of King Jesus to its prelude, in the shadow of this ancient song, written perhaps a thousand years before. One can imagine this being sung by the early church in honour of the King who had triumphed over all his enemies, whose words rang true, whose character was blameless and noble, who was anointed and powerful ,and who was coming now for his beautiful bride…
Here’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the first half:
“My heart bursts its banks, spilling beauty and goodness.
I pour it out in a poem to the king, shaping the river into words:
You’re the handsomest of men; every word from your lips is sheer grace,
and God has blessed you, blessed you so much.
Strap your sword to your side, warrior! Accept praise! Accept due honor! Ride majestically! Ride triumphantly! Ride on the side of truth! Ride for the righteous meek!
Your instructions are glow-in-the-dark; ou shoot sharp arrows
Into enemy hearts; the king’s foes lie down in the dust, beaten.
Your throne is God’s throne, ever and always;
The scepter of your royal rule measures right living.
You love the right and hate the wrong.
And that is why God, your very own God, poured fragrant oil on your head,
Marking you out as king from among your dear companions.”
There are five kingly qualities on display. They flow into each other to describe one larger-than-life Person.
First, the king is gorgeous (“fairer than the sons of men“) and his words are gracious (“Grace is poured upon Thy lips”).
When Jesus spoke, people listened. Even his enemies acknowledged that! “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” There was something compelling about the words of Jesus. It was the way He spoke with authority and with truth, but there was also something more. It was also the way in which He spoke with grace. That is the particular quality that is mentioned in this Psalm.
Do you recall the incident in which Jesus went into the synagogue of His hometown in Nazareth and opened the scroll of Isaiah and read to the people? Then He rolled up the scroll and proceeded to tell the people how that very prophecy was being fulfilled in their hearing. Their initial response was that all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at “the gracious words which were falling from His lips.” There was something wonderfully winsome about the words of Jesus.
Second, the king is indomitable. The strength of the King is described in terms of military prowess. He is seen strapping on His sword and riding off to victory in the cause of truth and righteousness and -interestingly- meekness. The book of Revelation presents this same picture of King Jesus. The only difference there is that the sword is no longer sheathed. Instead it is pictured as going out of His mouth as He rides a white horse into victory.
This is a straightforward symbolism for the power of His Word- the Gospel goes forth and strikes at the very heart of men and changes their lives forever. And that is the message of Revelation and it is the message of this Psalm. It is the message that JESUS WINS.
Third, the king acts with rugged integrity. It is one thing to act with power and intentionality, but -according to Abraham Lincoln- the use of force requires two important elements: the justice of the cause and the patient persistence of its advocacy. If something is right then you have to keep at it, no matter what, until the very end. That perception forms the grit in integrity.
Just do it. And don’t give up.
Fourth, the king is anointed. The Hebrew word for anointing in this passage is Meshcha. It is from this verb that we derive our word Messiah, literally “anointed one.” Anointing was a normative process in the ancient world. There were three different types of anointing described in the Old Testament.
Priests were anointed:”And you shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him; and you shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve Me as priests.” (Exodus 28)
Kings were anointed: “Then Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; now therefore, listen to the words of the LORD” (I Sam 15)
Prophets were anointed: We read of this in the Lord’s instructions to Elijah: “And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, and when you have arrived, you shall anoint Hazael king over Aram; 16 and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place.” (1 Kings 19)
There are three anointings described in that last passage. The first two are the kings of Aram and Israel. But the third anointing is not for a king at all. It is for a prophet.
Jesus was anointed. His anointing was not with mere oil. He was anointed by the very Spirit of God. Isaiah prophesied: “And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11) And in the book of Acts, it is made explicit: “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power.” (Acts 10)
And fifth, the king was filled with joy. Jesus was known as the “Man of sorrows.” But He was also a man who was imbued with joy. Hebrews 12 speaks of how He endured the cross “for the joy that was set before Him.” And on the night of the Last Supper, He said to His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full”.
And -in a favourite quote of mine – “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” Wherever Jesus was, you can be certain, there will have been seriousness of purpose, but
also the most radiant joy.
In his attractiveness, his strength and purpose, his goodness and determination to put wrongs to right, in the overflow of laughter and grace around him…. These are the qualities that the psalmist saw as characterising the ideal king.
As a morning prayer, why not ponder this short piece from Christian Larson. In a sense, it reads like one of those inspirational “You can do it if you try!” blogs, but today it struck me just how like Jesus it is, and how our King journeyed through his days:
To be so strong that nothing
can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness, and prosperity
to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel
that there is something in them
To look at the sunny side of everything
and make your optimism come true.
To think only the best, to work only for the best,
and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others
as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past
and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times
and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself
that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear,
and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world,
not in loud words but great deeds.
To live in faith that the whole world is on your side
so long as you are true to the best that is in you.”
And the “best that is in you” is Christ Himself, our king.