Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2016

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Commentary

I have given invocations at many events over the years—civic dinners with important speakers, the dedication of public and private buildings, the launching of significant social justice initiatives, even the inauguration of a local judge.  But I’ve never given the invocation at the swearing in of a President.  That is essentially what we have in Psalm 72, though it is not a prayer for a leader elected by the people and limited by other branches of government; it is a prayer for an absolute King appointed by God to represent God’s Kingdom on earth.

The superscription identifies it as “Of Solomon,” which could mean “For Solomon.”  The last verse of this Psalm seems to identify it as the prayer of David, though many scholars think that those words are more of a reference to the entire Book II of the Psalter.  But if we take the Psalm at its simplest meaning, it is a prayer by King David for his son, Solomon, as Solomon begins his reign over Israel.  This interpretation is supported I Kings 3:3-14, where God offers Solomon anything he wants as he is about to be inaugurated.  Solomon asks for the wisdom to lead his people with justice, which, obviously, echoes the prayer of Psalm 72.

Indeed, that prayer for justice and righteousness is the heart of Psalm 72.  As the King is about to take his throne, what the Psalm asks for is not power, but justice and righteousness.  And not just any justice and righteousness.  “Endow the King with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.”  The King of Israel was supposed to reign as God’s designated representative, so that Israel could enjoy the Kingdom of God on earth.  Thus, he needed what could only come from God, namely, God’s own justice and righteousness.  If Israel, or any nation for that matter, is to reflect the reign of God on earth, its highest leader needs this gift from God, because no one has it naturally.  Which, of course, is why so many leaders fail and why so many nations fall.  Could there be a more important prayer for this moment is history, when the world is inundated with unrighteousness and injustice?

Some scholars say that what follows in Psalm 72 is a series of wishes for the king.  Others see these verses as a job description for the king.  I want to read it as a lovely dream, a divinely inspired version of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  This is what Israel or any nation would look like if the prayer of verse 1 is answered.  This is every citizen’s dream for his or her nation.  This is God’s dream for his Kingdom on earth, so that it is like God’s Kingdom in heaven.

When the Leader is endowed with God’s justice and righteousness, that Leader “will judge God’s people with righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.”  Such a leader will always do the right thing.  In our current political climate, that’s hard to imagine.  But the Psalmist takes the dream even further.  Not only will this leader do the right thing, he will even do the right thing for the afflicted.  The Hebrew word there refers to the poor, the marginalized, the victims of injustice in any form.  These are the people who get the short end of the stick again and again in most societies.  But the leader who has God’s justice and righteousness will see to it that the least, the last and the lost receive perfect justice.  Those on the margins will be at the center of God’s kingdom, even on earth.

In verses 3 and 4 the Psalmist spells out what that will mean for the nation in very practical terms.  It will mean both prosperity and social justice.  In our current political scene, those are opposites over which politicians argue.  You have to choose one or the other.  You can’t have both.  You are pro-growth or pro-poor, pro-business or pro-equality.  When God’s justice and righteousness rule the heart of the King, it will be both/and, not either/or.

Now, we must be careful here.  The word translated “prosperity” in verse 3 is “shalom,” which refers not first or mainly to material prosperity, but to a wealth of well-being and contentment.  Everything will be right, everyone will have what they need, and everyone will be content.  No one will be left out, because the Leader, imbued with God’s justice and righteousness, “will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy.”  But it will not be well with everyone, because this leader “will crush the oppressors.”

In verses 5 we pray that this King will endure “as long as the Sun, as long as the Moon, through all generations.” That’s a completely understandable prayer.  Who would want such a leader to go out of office?  No one would ask for term limits on his reign.  No one would want this King’s administration to go out of power.  May you reign forever, O King!

In verse 6 we hear a lovely simile describing the effects of the reign of such a king.  He is “like the rain falling a mown field, like showers watering the earth.”  How refreshing it would be to have such a leader.  It would rejuvenate an entire nation.  “In his days the righteous will flourish; prosperity (shalom, again) will abound till the moon is no more.”  Here is a picture of flourishing that is both moral/spiritual and physical/financial.  Who wouldn’t want such a King?  Who wouldn’t want to live in such a land?

But it is an impossible dream, isn’t it, given the current state of our leadership and our country (whatever country you live in).  This is a hopeless prayer.  It was never answered in Israel.  Even wise Solomon who started so well ended up a sinful old fool with a thousand “wives” and a broken family.  No Israelite king ever ruled in such a perfect way.  So the prophets denounced Israel’s failed kings in places like Jeremiah 22:3-3, 13, 18.  The Kingdom of God on earth was divided, splintered, kidnapped, and ruined.  This is a hopeless prayer.

Unless we hear it as an Advent prayer, a prayer of hope that the King, the Son of David, will come one day in righteousness and justice to establish God’s kingdom in all its glory.  The prophets who spoke judgment on Israel’s unrighteous kings also spoke of the hope that one day God would send a King who would be the perfect answer to the prayer of Psalm 72.  (Cf. Isaiah 9:7, 11:4-5, Jeremiah 23:5-6, 33:15-16.)   Those words of hope hung in the air for centuries as God’s earthly kingdom bore no resemblance to its heavenly model.

Then an angel descended to a poor maiden with this impossible dream.  “You will be with child and give birth to a son…. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”  Nine months later, the air over Bethlehem exploded with the light of a heavenly host who announced that a king had been born in the city of David, “Christ the Lord.”  They sang, “Glory, glory, glory” and “Shalom, shalom, shalom.”  Kings came from the East to find the One born King of the Jews.  His constant message was “the Kingdom of God has come; it is near you.”  The Palm Sunday crowd shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  And the sign on his cross said, mockingly, but truly, “The King of the Jews.”  One greater than Solomon had come and he is our wisdom and our righteousness (I Cor. 1:24 and 30).

The King for which Israel prayed (and for which we all pray) has come.  All the things predicated of his reign in Psalm 72 are happening even now.  But not yet completely or perfectly.  Thus, we must pray this prayer daily.  “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.  Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  It will happen.  God will answer.

In the meantime, we must pray this prayer for our human leaders.  The political process alone cannot give us such a King.  Only God can.  Such a king is a pure gift.  So as we struggle along through our present political quagmire, let us pray for “the King and all those in authority (I Tim. 2:1-4).“  And let us be loyal subjects of the King who work for righteousness and justice, for prosperity and for the non-prosperous in our society.  In this season of Advent, let us be workers and prayers who look to God alone for the solution to our world’s ills.

Let us do this working and praying with the last words of Psalm 72 in our hearts and on our lips.  It is easy to get caught up in the political process or to despair of any solution when that process inevitably fails.  So let us remember to sing with ancient Israel, the angels of heaven, and the church of all ages: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds.  Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory.  Amen and Amen.”

Illustration Idea

Now that the elections are now over, the frequency and necessity of “fact checking” after the Presidential debates might be a good counter example of what we need in a “King.”  When you can’t trust the righteousness of a candidate, it is hard to believe that the presidency of such a candidate will be characterized by justice.  Such campaign shenanigans make us long for the Coming King who will rule with righteousness and justice.


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