Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 6, 2013

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

One possible exercise for those who preach and teach the psalms is to ask what an “anti” Psalm 72 might look like.  Psalm 72 is the poet’s prayer for an (unidentified) king.  So like what might its opposite prayer look?  For what sorts of things do we naturally ask on behalf of our leaders?

“Endow our president with victories over our enemies”?  “Help our prime minister to lead us to unprecedented prosperity”?  “Make our president smart enough to do things that will help our country and hurt our enemies”?  “Equip our prime minister’s term in office to be marked by peace and prosperity”?

Those are not the sorts of things for which the psalmist asks on behalf of the king.  She prays that her monarch will be characterized not by the power for which we often praise our leaders, but by justice and righteousness.  As James Mays notes, these two characteristics are the foundation of the other royal characteristics for which the poet asks in Psalm 72.  The poet prays that God will endow the king not with the king’s sense of justice or righteousness, but God’s.  So as Beth LaNeel Tanner notes, these characteristics come not from human ability or insight, but are gifts from God.

The psalmist asks God to endow the king with such righteousness and justice so that he can, in turn, judge and lead his people with righteousness and justice.  Such characteristics and leadership, of course, reflect both God’s character and the nature of God’s reign over everything that God makes.  So the poet essentially begs God to fill the king with both a godly nature and godly leadership.

Such leadership keeps a special eye out, has a special place in one’s heart for “afflicted ones,” for those on society’s margins.  Here the poet may be referring to people who are economically disadvantaged.  Or, as Tanner points out, she may also be speaking of people whom the community falsely accuses or attacks.  The psalmist returns to this theme of care for society’s vulnerable in verse 4, as verses 12-14.  There, after all, he again refers to the “afflicted.”

Of course, many flawed human rulers don’t have a heart for people on society’s margins.  This reality may offer those who preach and teach Psalm 72 an opportunity for honest dialogue with worshipers about what shape such care might take in the 21st century.  While any such talk may be politically volatile, Psalm 72 certainly offers worship leaders an opportunity to speak prophetically about human leaders’ responsibilities towards those on society’s margins.

Tanner refers to Psalm 72 as Israel’s king’s “job description.”  Yet it’s a pretty idealistic job description.  Kings have never, after all, been any less flawed than any other human beings.  Jeremiah 22 is particularly vivid in its account of Israel’s kings’ unrighteousness.  Perhaps, in fact, David was God’s only “yes!” to this prayer, though he too was only a qualified “yes.”

Those who originally edited the psalter referred to this psalm as “of Solomon.”  Perhaps they saw in verse 15’s reference to “gold from Sheba” an allusion to Sheba’s queen’s gift of gold to David’s son.  James Mays sees a more compelling connection between Psalm 72 and Solomon’s prayer for wisdom so that he might judge his people with justice (1 Kings 3:3-14).

Yet Solomon was perhaps even more flawed than he was wise.  The Scriptures ultimately portray him as a faulty example of a king.  So this psalm’s idealism seems to point beyond human kings to a More Perfect King, One about whom the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah talked.

However, Psalm 72 also alludes to a kingdom unlike any other in the history of the world.  In this kingdom, says Tanner, it’s not power but justice that is mighty.  In this Kingdom special treatment is afforded not the rich and powerful, but the world’s most vulnerable people.

Yet perhaps this psalm also points us beyond kings and kingdoms and back to ourselves.  God’s adopted sons and daughters are, after all, servants of God and God’s kingdom.  Tanner suggests that the king and some of the Messiah’s job descriptions now belong to all who profess Jesus as Lord.  In John 14:12 Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Psalm 72 models a structure for our lives and relationships by which God can do those greater things through us.

Of course, the poet speaks only verse 1 in the imperative.  So one might assume that the only thing for which she prays on behalf of the king is justice and righteousness.  Yet though the psalm’s other verses seem descriptive, they probably also reflect the psalmist’s prayer on behalf of the king.  We might, in other words, interpret a verse like 3 to mean something like, “May the king judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with righteousness.”

Such an approach makes verse 3 a bit more palatable.  Taken on its face, it seems to insist that if the king is just and righteous, God will bless God’s children with abundance.   But taken as a prayer, it’s the poet’s plea for God to work in creation for the good of God’s sons and daughters.

Along those lines, the poet prays that God will empower the king to serve a long time, thereby living out the full life that Israel thought of as part of God’s kingdom (Isaiah 65:17-25).  She also prays that God will cause the king to both help his people flourish and rule over the whole earth.

Tanner makes an interesting observation about the scope of the king’s rule as described in verses 8-11.  It offers the prospect of a kingdom that stretches over the full land of promise that Israel, in her unfaithfulness, never completely possessed.  In that way, the poet is begging God to make the king faithful in a way earlier Israelites never were.  Yet the psalmist also goes on to ask God to extend the king’s kingdom across the whole known world.

Why will the world’s rulers then honor this king?  Because he’s so economically, politically or militarily powerful?  Will they bring him their tribute as a way of protecting themselves from this king’s onslaught?  No, the psalmist suggests that other rulers will honor Israel’s king precisely because of his care for the poor.  So while modern rulers generally form alliances in order to protect themselves, Psalm 72’s poet suggests that Israel’s neighbors will honor her king precisely because he’s so just and righteous.

Both later Judaism and the early Christian church saw Psalm 72 as a description of the Messiah.  Christians see strong allusions to Jesus Christ in this text.  He alone was, after all, perfectly wise and just.  He defended those on society’s margins.  Jesus’ reign, inaugurated at his ascension, will endure forever.

On top of that, in the season of Epiphany during which Psalm 72 is appointed, Christians can hardly read it without thinking of the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus and his parents.  These “kings” from distant shores, in fact, brought tribute to him.  And someday, Christians profess, all kings will willingly bow down to King Jesus.

Illustration Idea

Some people heard in Rev. Rick Warren’s prayer at President Obama’s inauguration echoes of Psalm 72 for Israel’s king.  He prayed, after all, “Give to our new President, Barack Obama, the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity. “

Yet is it in any way instructive that Warren made no overt mention of the “afflicted” and “needy” in his prayer?  While he alluded elsewhere to people on society’s margins, he spoke of all Americans’ need to care for them.  Was he worried about the political ramifications of a prayer for the President to lead Americans in the ways of such care?


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