It is easy to see why this poem was chosen for the Day of Epiphany: it’s all about foreign kings and dignitaries bowing before the King of Israel. Think Magi and all that. The Bible I used for Psalm 72 says up top that this poem is “Of Solomon,” even though at the end of the psalm we are told this is the last psalm “of David” in the Hebrew Psalter’s collection. Whatever. One ought not make too much of those superscriptions and such in any event. It seems as unlikely that David wrote every psalm attributed to him as Solomon spoke every proverb ascribed to him in Proverbs. Still, it’s a royal psalm and if it were written by someone who had been King of Israel, you could almost read it as wishful thinking, as a wonderful daydream or fantasy. “I sure would love it if all the kings and rulers of other countries came and bowed down to ME!” Well, who wouldn’t?
But within the poem itself we see that it is not finally the splendor of the human king that would make this all happen (if it ever happened at all). This would be the result of God’s endowing that king with justice and righteousness—a rectitude that can only come from above, one would assume. It would be the king’s transparency to Yahweh, to the God of all righteousness and justice, that would make the king great. What’s more, a natural extension of that would be the king’s paying extra special attention to the poor, to the marginalized, to the “anawim,” that traditional triplet all throughout the Old Testament of the widow, the orphan, and the alien within your gates. The king would be worthy of honor—and worthy of the respect of also foreign dignitaries—not for how well he propped up his own power, not for the splendor of his royal palace, not for how well the economy was working for the top 1% of the populace but for how well God’s Law was being followed, chiefly in regard to the lowest of the low, the invisible people, the folks who seem to be the apple of the divine eye.
It goes without saying that the King in question never arrived for Israel until one night in Bethlehem when an infant got laid in a goat’s feed trough. Even David and Solomon in all their splendor did not approach heroic levels of justice and righteousness in Israel. David got sufficiently self-infatuated that he figured he could literally get away with murder one day if that’s what it took to get the right woman into his bed. Solomon became so enamored of his own riches that it was this—and not Israel’s laudable programs to help out the poor—that he showcased to the folks from Sheba and elsewhere who actually did visit him while he occupied Israel’s throne.
And THOSE two were the top of the historic heap. Things went downhill like a runaway freight train after the kingdom split into two following Solomon’s death. With exceedingly rare exceptions in both Judah and Israel, most kings were not only not caring for the poor, they actually trampled on them along with pretty much the entirety of the rest of God’s Law. Had you asked any one of the Minor Prophets if they’d lately seen a king in the mode of Psalm 72, you might have induced a rollicking fit of uncontrollable laughter—followed by bitter tears of lament—from such prophets. Psalm 72 ultimately described almost none of Israel’s/Judah’s subsequent rulers.
Only the ultimate King of kings would do that in some fashion for Israel and now for the New Israel that just is the Church of Jesus Christ. And perhaps that is the point for us as Christians today were we to read or preach on Psalm 72 for Epiphany or at any time. This is not just some historical curio, some window into the ancient past. For the Church today—its pastors, leaders, and really its every member—embodying something of this kind of focus on righteousness and justice in the divine model of Yahweh is what we are supposed to be all about.
The Jesus whose epiphany into this world we celebrate on January 6 came here to usher in God’s kingdom of shalom, of justice, of righteousness. It is a kingdom where everything is upside down, as Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, blessing the meek, celebrating the peacemakers, extolling the weepers, touting the low in spirit: that all just looks upside down by this fallen world’s standards. Truth is, that kingdom and those kingdom citizens whom Jesus described and blessed are the ones flying right-side-up to begin with, at least if we want to take our cues from God’s original design and intent for this creation.
Of late there seems to be a divide that grows ever wider in the larger church. Those who like to talk about justice and reaching out to the poor and the vulnerable and the strangers at the border are regarded as doctrinally suspect by those who think the institutional church should not mix it up in the socio-political sphere. Weirdly enough, it sometimes seems like the more conservative and traditional a given Christian or whole congregation is, the less it seems interested in conversations about social justice, public righteousness, and the care of the poorest of the poor among us. But Psalm 72 on this Epiphany Day and Sunday reminds us that actually, that kind of concern has always been at the core of things for Israel, for its King, and now for its ultimate King in Christ Jesus the Lord.
True, doing things for the poor and seeking out a wider justice in the world is not the whole of the Gospel the Church is called upon to proclaim. And it’s also true the Church of Christ ought to stand against many different forms of immorality in the world and in any given society. The Gospel is more than just a focus on such things. But it is not less.
The Lectionary would have us not read the final couple verses of Psalm 72 but we need to pay attention to those lines. Because in the end we are told that the whole earth needs to be filled with the glory of the one true King. Surely that includes all the people we encounter and all the situations of injustice and corruption and wanton need the Church encounters also today.
“Poverty” by Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 69-70.
“In a sense we are all hungry and in need, but most of us don’t recognize it. With plenty to eat in the deepfreeze, with a roof over our heads and a car in the garage, we assume that the empty feeling inside must just be a case of the blues that can be cured by a weekend in the country or an extra martini at lunch or the purchase of a color TV. The poor, on the other hand, are under no such delusion. When Jesus says ‘Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,’ the poor stand a better chance than most of knowing what he’s talking about and knowing that he’s talking to them. In desperation they may even be willing to consider the possibility of accepting his offer. This is perhaps why Jesus on several occasions called the poor peculiarly blessed.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 6, 2019
Psalm 72:1-4, 10-14 Commentary