Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Kelvin St. John | Professor of Practical Theology, MidAmerica Nazarene University
I am writing this the week that Donald Trump became president elect of the United States. This was the most acrimonious presidential election in the history of the United States. Hopefully, we will never experience another one like this. However, as culture continues its sad trajectory, I am more cynical for future elections. Both candidates, this election cycle, are deeply flawed. I have been telling students, family, and friends that I did not vote for the president; rather, I voted for the party platform and the vice presidential candidate I preferred. A poor excuse, I realize.
While there has been much complaint and commiseration concerning the candidates and the process that allowed them to rise to the top of their parties, there has been little, if any, commentary offered as to what the attributes and personal character of an ideal president would look like. I have been in conversations bemoaning the ethical and moral downhill slide of the presidency. Perhaps we should consider what an ideal president would be.
Israel knew what the perfect or ideal king would look like. Psalm 72 is one of ten royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132 and 144:1-11). Some of the royal psalms offer praise for the king, some include lament, but all feature the person and the office of God’s chosen (anointed) king. In this royal psalm, we have a prayer God’s people can pray for God’s ideal king. There are several points covered in the prayer: “justice, prosperity, long life, universal dominion with power over his enemies and submission for other kings and their nations, the prayers of his people, fame and admiration” (Mays 236).
This psalm may have been written for the coronation of a king or for an anniversary of the king’s ascendancy to the throne. It’s important to note that this psalm focuses on the relationship of God’s chosen king with God’s chosen people. This differs from Psalm 2, where the relationship featured is that of the king and God (Tate 222).
One of my favorite commentators and Old Testament scholars, Derek Kidner, who is now with the Lord, noted: “As a royal psalm it prayed for the reigning king, and was a strong reminder of his high calling; yet it exalted this so beyond the humanly attainable (e.g. in speaking of his reign as endless) as to suggest for its fulfilment no less a person than the Messiah, not only to Christian thinking but to Jewish” (254). This means that, as we study this psalm, we will consider how to apply its prayer to an ideal human ruler, but we will also push past the earthly rulers to consider our spiritual leader, King Jesus himself. He is the King of the “already, not yet” Kingdom of God with us. While some verses and phrases of Psalm 72 may be prayed for our pastors, we surely can pray this psalm for our King Jesus.
The prayer of this psalm expresses David’s hopes and expectations for his descendants who will follow him to the throne. Read Psalm 72 through one time as if you are standing in David’s sandals. See how it might have sounded to him.
Summary of this Sunday’s passage:
Psalm 72 casts a vision of the ideal king who lives in “righteousness.” “Righteousness” may be a familiar word for your congregation, but a hard one for them to define. Consider that “righteousness” refers to a person who lives in ‘right relationship’ with God, with God’s people, and with himself. As Christians, we need to live lives of ‘right relationship.’ That means that we live in right relationship with God, with all others, be they Christians or non-Christians, and we also need to live in right relationship with ourselves. This may mean that we will need to forgive one or several people in our lives, whether they ask for forgiveness or not. It may also mean that we need to forgive ourselves. For some strange reason, some people accept God’s forgiveness, but then are unable to forgive themselves of things God has forgiven in their lives.
Verses 1 and 2 call for the king to be “endowed” with justice and righteousness for the poor. This is a call that God extends throughout the Bible for all who would follow him (Isaiah 1:12-17; Amos 5:14-15, 24).
Verse 3 is a petition for the land to “prosper” and “be fruitful” as a result of the presence of the righteous king. The Hebrew word, translated here as “prosper,” is ‘shalom.’ The principle meaning is peace, but included in the concept of peace is the larger dimension of “well-being.” The Tree of Life version translates this verse this way:
Let the mountains bring shalom to the people, and the hills righteousness.
Verse 4, in the words of the NIV, requests that the king stand up for the “afflicted.” The majority of English translations opt instead for either “the poor of the people” or simply “the poor.” The second line of this verse asks that the king “rescue” or “save the children of the needy.” One day during Christ’s earthly ministry, the disciples blocked children from bothering Christ. He chided them for that behavior. Perhaps the disciples would have benefited that day had they opened their morning prayers by reading this psalm.
Verses 5 and 6 finds the king’s subjects shouldering their responsibilities by asking God to bless their king with long life and prosperity.
As noted in the introduction of this article, the United States has been through a difficult election. People are protesting the result in the streets. Some are declaring that we have moved backward decades in hatred. Others are saying that life in our nation is over. While this is all hyperbole, Paul told us that it is the duty of all Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We need to follow Paul’s advice and not just read it.
Verse 7 continues the thought of verse 6 where, in effect, the righteous king is like the sun and the rain for his subjects. Those two environmental factors cause all things fresh and good to “flourish.” A righteous ruler will cause his people to “flourish.” A righteous pastor can similarly be a spiritually healthy catalyst for the growth of his or her parishioners. And what then should we make of Christians who are righteous in their homes and work environments? Understand that this is not a guarantee. Rather, it is a petition, and it is a petition we can individually and corporately direct to God.
As in verse 3, the Tree of Life version simply uses the Hebrew word, ‘shalom,’ in its translation of verse 7:
Let the righteous flourish in his days. Let shalom abound till the moon is no more.
Imagine living a life of well-being and peace until “the moon is no more.” There is a full moon as I am writing these comments. I went out and enjoyed its bright light for some time as I tried to imagine a world of well-being and peace. All I could really imagine is it finally happening in heaven.
Verse 10 considers the extent of the righteous king’s influence. Tarshish may have been a reference to Tartessus in Spain, land that would be about the farthest that the Israelites of David’s day could imagine. The “coastlands” (some translations render “isles”) were also another way to simply express “the ends of the earth.” The righteous king’s influence reached to the ends of the earth.
Verse 11 mentions “the kings of Sheba and Seba.” This may be a reference to somewhere in the Arabian nations of David’s day.
Verses 12, 13, and 14: Here, the king stands up for those who have no one to stand up for them. James Limburg explains, “The quality of the king’s rule will be judged by the quality of life of the poorest citizens” (242).
First, the king “delivers the needy who cry out as well as the afflicted who have no one to help” (v. 12) Next, the king “will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death” (v. 13). Finally, the king “will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (v. 14). The next time you read Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus explains that the sheep and goats are distinguished by how they treat “the least of these,” consider how God views their blood as “precious in his sight.”
In these verses, the king functions as the family’s go’el’, or “kinsman redeemer.’ The NIV terms this “guardian-redeemer.” If family property had to be sold due to hardship, a go’el, who was the nearest relative, was responsible for buying back (redeeming) the land. The go’el’s role included marrying the widow of a childless brother. Boaz became Ruth’s go’el by receiving a sandal from Naomi’s nearest kinsman/relative, who had the first right to redeem Naomi’s land and marry her daughter-in-law. In effect, Boaz took on the responsibility of Naomi’s dead husband, Elimelek, to care for the land and bear descendants (Ruth 4:1-12). In the same way, the king became responsible for “the needy,” “the afflicted,” and “the weak” (vv. 12-14).
“When the prophet from Nazareth put the question to his followers ‘Who do you say that I am?’ These royal psalms provided the clue to answering that question, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ [Matt. 16:16]” (Limburg 243)
Marvin E. Tate gets the last word: “Like the citizens of the Davidic monarchy, we pray that the relationship between our King and ourselves may be dynamic enough to change the world” (226).
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham, England, Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
Limburg, James. Psalms: Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
Mays, James Luther. Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, John Knox Press, 1994.
Tate, Marvin Embry. Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100. Dallas, TX, Word Books, 1990.