God keeps an eye on those with power

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 21, 2023
Psalm 21

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, May 19, 2023

During this season of Easter, we’ve explored upbeat Psalms. After all, this is the season of hope. The resurrection of Jesus provides hope. And today, as we look at Psalm 21, it won’t be any different. We have hope because we’re in God’s hands.

But I’ve only scratched the surface of the Psalms. There wonderful thing about this book is that you find all kinds of emotions on display. The Psalmists don’t mind getting angry with God when things do not go their way. And that’s okay. Because even in the harsh Psalms of lament,[1] where the Psalmist expresses anger to God, he continues to engage God. The Psalmists even moves toward God where there is no evidence of God.[2] Such is his trust. Can we so trust God?

Before the reading of scripture:

Psalm 21, which we’re considering today, is one of a sequence of Psalms reminding the Hebrew people of their king’s dependence on God.[3] The king derives his strength from the Lord, which is also a reminder that human kings are always subordinate to Almighty God. When those in power think they earned it or have no one to which they’re to be accountable, we find ourselves heading down the wrong path. That’s more of a dictatorial or totalitarian system of government. According to this passage, the king is reminded not to get too big for his britches. He might have power, but there’s a limit to it, for he is not the source of his power. That comes from God. And God keeps his eyes on those with power.

Read Psalm 21:

Who here got up early on Saturday a few weeks ago to watch the coronation of Charles III?  I couldn’t watch it because I had a presbytery meeting that Saturday, north of Roanoke. I was up early, but on the road… However, I’ve seen the photos. Did you see the one of Charles all decked out on the throne, wearing the crown, and holding the scepter. Beside him was Prince William, the heir apparent, and his son, whom I assume is third in line to the throne. It’s quite a sight to see. They must have worn 25 pounds of metals each, and their clothes and robes must weigh almost as much as they do.  

I’m not sure what to make of Americans who seem to be more interested in the royal family that my friends in the UK. We declared our freedom from kings in the Revolutionary War. While their ceremonies are colorful and can be a pleasure to watch, I prefer our presidential inaugurations. There, everyone wears a dark suit and there are no crowns to be seen unless there happens to be a kid in the crowd who’d just came from Burger King. 

But I do like the fact that the British coronation includes a worship service. The leaders of the Church of England preach before and pray over the new king. However, in a parliamentary monarchy like the United Kingdom, the king or queen have little power. 

Some ancient cultures understood the limit of human power. I’ve shared with you before how, on a hill behind the Forbidden City in Beijing, is a temple. There, where the emperor and family lived for centuries, one of the more elaborate estates ever built for a royalty, is a temple. While we may understand God differently than those in Buddhist tradition, the idea is the same. The emperor needed to be reminded when he looked up on the hill that there was a higher authority. 

The same is true for the building of steeples in small towns and even large cities in North America and Europe. As such structures rose into the sky, they reminded people of a higher power. Throughout the nineteenth century, this was true for most cities in America. But with the development of steel technology and elevators, buildings started rising higher and higher. 

In cities like New York and Chicago commercial buildings began to cast a shadow on the church steeples. In Pittsburgh, you even have the Cathedral of Learning, which rises high above any church. And later someone had the idea to build a Cathedral of Glass, the headquarters of PPG. This building resembles a medieval cathedral but is covered in glass. 

I don’t think the answer to our problems is to go back to where the church steeples were the tallest thing around. Sadly, for too many Christians, competition to building the tallest or the most ornate structure was intense. This, by the way, is very un-Presbyterian (but I must confess there are even some Presbyterian Churches that strove to be the biggest or the more ornate).[4]

In this Psalm, which is written as a prayer, the people are reminded that the “splendor of the royal prom” only reflects the power and glory of God. The shouts of joy from the crowd comes, not just on the king, but on the joy which comes from knowing God.[5]

This Psalm, attributed to David, may have been used at a coronation for a new king. Maybe he wrote it for his son, Solomon. What the Psalm makes it clear that the king is totally under the authority of the divine king. Everything the earthly king is, has, and does comes from God.[6]

While we might think this Psalm doesn’t apply to us since we none of us are a king and we don’t have kings in our form of government, that’s not the case. We can apply this Psalm to ourselves whenever we find ourselves in position of authority. And we can also apply it to others who are in authority over us. This Psalm reminds us that we’re all subject to God’s authority.

But there is also a positive side to the Psalm. When we realize our dependance upon God, we open ourselves up to be blessed by the Almighty… God is gracious. The king is not just a puppet, doing God’s bidding. God blesses him beyond his prayers, giving him “his heart’s desire.” David, the king was said to have sought after the Lord’s heart, has it right.[7] He desires God’s heart and God gives him the desires of his own heart. 

But God’s blessings extend through the king to all in his kingdom. Their enemies, who are also God’s enemies, are kept at bay. With a king who trust the Lord, the kingdom can enjoy peace. Much of this Psalm has aspects that sound like a prayer given when a new king is crowned, during a coronation, or at a royal feast. 

There are two items here that I’d like to explore further. At such a time, those in presence of the king would have asked his life to be extended. The forever and ever in verse 4 doesn’t imply eternal life as we’d think.[8] Instead, it’s a way of saying “we want our king around a long time.” 

The second item deals with the king’s enemies. Verses 8 through 12 all deal with our enemies being subdued. Here we learn that within the covenant God created with Israel, the king’s enemies are God’s enemies.[9] Those who oppose God’s king will experience God’s wrath. To our ears, this sounds harsh. But then, as Americans, we’re a superpower. We think of ourselves as powerful. 

Israel was always just a small country with the superpowers of its day on the opposite ends of the Fertile Crescent: the Nile to their south, and the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers to the east. Israel never had the military might of her distant neighbors. She lived in fear and depended on alliances. In some way, we can think about Israel as the Ukraine of the ancient world, living in no-man’s land between superpowers. But according to the Psalm, if the king trusted God (which not all the kings did), then things would be okay.

Now let us go back to the idea of how we might apply this text to our lives. While we don’t have kings, we do have people in authority and at times, we find ourselves in positions of authority. This Psalm teaches us the need to trust God and to strive to live under God’s authority.  Such a life means we’re to be humble, for we know that we are not the source of our blessings. 

And while we don’t have an earthly king, we do have a King, Jesus Christ, to whom we belong and to whom we depend. We are called to trust his loving-kindness in this life and in the life to come.[10] A life of faith is a life of trust in the man from Galilee, who died at the hands of Roman soldiers, but rose from the grave and lives and rules for us. As the Israelites were called to trust their king, we’re called to trust ours. And unlike their kings, who were often sinful and made bad decisions, Jesus is sinless and deserving of our trust. Amen. 

[1] There are two types of Psalms of Lament: Personal and Communal. Personal lament examples: 13, 22, 35, 44, 86. Communal lament Psalms examples: 12, 74, 79, 88, 137. 

[2] Peter Ennis, The Sin of Certainty (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 70. 

[3] See Psalm 18 and 20.  James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 104. 

[4] Bullinger, in the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XXII (Book of Confession, 5.216), encourages churches to avoid “luxurious attire, all pride, and everything unbecoming to Christian humility, discipline and modesty” to be “banished for the sanctuaries and places of prayer for Christians.” An example of an antithetical Presbyterian Church architecture is East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

[5] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1958 (German publication), Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 213.

[6] Mays, 103.

[7] 1 Samuel 13:14. 

[8] The Old Testament, in general, doesn’t speak of immortality or eternal life like the New Testament.  See Weiser, 213.

[9] Weiser, 216.

[10] May, 104. 

The Forbidden City with the temple on a hill behind it.
The Forbidden City in Beijing with a temple on the hill behind it.

9 Replies to “God keeps an eye on those with power”

  1. We all should be keeping our eyes on those with power. The deeper problem in the earthly realm: extreme wealth bestows power to many who are beyond any sort of public watch or control.

  2. I didn’t watch the coronation of King Charles. It just wasn’t something that interested me. I hope you have a good rest of your week and into the weekend.

  3. Thanks, Jeff. A quite thought-provoking sermon especially in this day and age. It still feel like those in power and privilege that abuse those rights are not facing too much punishment because they have too much power and privilege.

  4. Hi, Jeff! Another thought-provoking sermon! I found the analogy you made between Israel and Ukraine eyeopening. I still struggle with the idea that God keeps an eye on those with power. Dictators like Putin, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, and Kim Jong Un have caused so much horror, pain, and suffering in our world. I have trouble reconciling an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God with so much evil present on Earth. Do you have a suggestion for an enlightening book about this? Have a less busy week! Having a big addition added to your home must be stressful. Take care!

    1. Until God’s kingdom has fully been realized, there will be tension between the evil deeds of humanity and the hope in a God who watches over all. I think the answer to your struggle is found in eschatology, what will happen at the end of history when we must give an accounting of our actions and all evils are stripped away before we can move into the new realm. I am pondering a book and will get back to you.

    1. Thanks, Kelly. I will likely do other set of sermons. Years ago, I preached a lenten series on the Penitential Psalms, which I enjoyed and seemed to go well with the season. Certainly a series of lament psalms would be a good series. We’ll see. My plan is to start working through 2nd Corinthians in a few weeks.

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