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Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Psalm 72 is included in every year’s lectionary reading for Epiphany. Most biblical commentators speak of Psalm 72 as the biblical vison of the ideal world. As a messianic psalm, the psalmist’s longing is that human society and creation function as a whole. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis puts it this way: “The well-being of humans and the enduring fruitfulness of the earth are inseparable elements of a harmony sometimes imaged as a ‘covenant’ encompassing all creatures”[1]

In light of the holistic focus of this psalm, the preacher may want to focus on the church’s mission to spread God’s shalom (God’s holistic well-being) to the nations. We also use the language of flourishing (see v. 7a) to describe God’s reign among us. The psalmist speaks of such life in terms of justice and righteousness. It’s worth noting that the word “righteousness” occurs four times in our psalm lectionary passage and the word “justice” occurs two times.

The psalmist fleshes out what is meant by righteousness and justice throughout Psalm 72. For example, the psalm speaks of physical manifestations of righteousness and justice with vivid imagery from creation: “the mountains bring prosperity to the people” (4a, NIV).

The king in this psalm (fulfilled by Jesus in the new covenant) is called to establish righteous and justice by “defend[ing] the afflicted” and “sav[ing] the children of the needy” (v. 4).

The psalm also calls for the king to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable by “crush[ing] the oppressor” (v. 4b). As followers of Christ, how do we in the church advocate for the most vulnerable in our communities? Who are examples of advocacy for the oppressed that we can lift up to our churches to emulate in our time and context? John Wesley, Mother Teresa, Sojourner Truth, William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others come to mind.

Psalm 72 speaks of “prosperity” (vv. 3a and 7b) and “flourish[ing]” (v. 7a). In their book For the Flourishing of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference, Miroslav Volff and Matthew Croasmun (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019) suggest that our chief calling as Christ-followers is to give ourselves “for the flourishing of the world.” This includes evangelism, good “newsing” people, preaching, worship, and discipling with our eyes, ears, hands, and feet to bring about the love, peace, and joy of the reign of God.

When considering the broader implications of this passage for our current cultural moment, it may also be appropriate for the preacher to reflect on the psalmist’s connection of righteous, justice, and flourishing with the well-being of God’s good creation. As mentioned above, verse 3 speaks of “the mountains bringing prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness.” Interestingly, the psalmist concludes the psalm with an agricultural image (v. 18) when he prays that “the whole earth be filled with [God’s] glory.” The preacher may want to consider why the psalmist moves from the political sphere to the agricultural sphere here (see Davis, 11).

In light of current eco-theological concerns about climate change, how might Christian discipleship play out in relation to working with and caring for God’s good creation? How might we take verse 18 seriously by considering how God’s good creation may indeed be filled with the glory of God? The Christian poet and advocate for creation justice, Wendell Berry, prophetically addresses this when he speaks of the plundering rather than the flourishing that characterizes the approach of many toward God’s precious creation in our day:

It is the destruction of the world In our own lives that drives us half insane, and more than half. To destroy that which we were given in trust: how will we bear it? [2]

Berry recognizes that loving God, neighbor, and God’s beautiful creation are inextricably interrelated. For those who are interested in the relationship of theology to creation care and how to preach about it, I encourage you to check out Barbara Rossing’s chapter, “The World is About to Turn: Preaching Apocalyptic Texts for a Planet in Peril,” in Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril, Lisa E Dahill and James B. Martin-Schramm, eds., Eugene: Cascade Books, 2016.

In verses 10-11 we see most clearly this psalm’s connection with Matthew’s narrative of the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child: “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”

The remaining verses of our lectionary passage, verses 12-14, express the vocation of God’s true king: to “deliver the needy . . . the afflicted” (v. 12). In verses 13 and 14, God’s true king—exemplified in Jesus for Christians—will express compassion toward “the weak and the needy” and save them from death (v. 13). The mission of God’s king is a rescue operation, for the king is to “rescue them [the weak, needy, afflicted] from oppression and violence” (v. 14).

Jesus fulfilled the vision of the psalmist. He loved and lifted up the poor and the needy. He healed the sick and preached the presence of the Kingdom of God. What are ways we can do the same in our context? What historical or contemporary examples come to your mind of Christ-followers who have done just this in their time and place that you can share with your church?

We join Christ in imagining how we can contribute to the psalmist’s vision of a flourishing society where the reign of God is manifested in righteousness and justice, where the marginalized, weak, afflicted, and vulnerable are advocated for, and offered hospitality, as the very presence of Jesus among us (Matt. 25:40).

The flourishing life referenced in Psalm 72 is a life of love, joy, peace, health, happiness, and wholeness. May we so partner with God that God’s kingdom may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Questions for Reflection and Response

  1. How can we intentionally nurture this flourishing kind of life in our churches and the communities in which we live, work, and play?

  2. What are ways you and your church can reach out to and advocate on behalf of the hurting and those needing protection in your community?

  3. How can we advocate for the weak and vulnerable in our midst? Take food to a local shelter? Volunteer or write a check to our local Salvation Army? Reach out to single mothers, homeless youth, immigrants, refugees, or the sick? [1] Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bib