Psalm 72, when read as a mediation, presents a wonderful sensory activity for the mind to explore. Imagine the realized world in which the king, president, or ruler is just in all of their ways. In this world there is all the time in the world for the ruler to hear each case of injustice, and their judgments are each filled with wisdom, they are never rushed, and they are never vain. Under this reign, ever single marginalized person has an advocate and a voice. Those who oppressed are crushed. There is no threat of usurping the righteous king from their heir, because the child is also one who lives in righteous. There would be stability in the land.
Perhaps more fantastically, even the earth becomes rightly ordered when the king rules justly. The mountains produce the precious metals and ore and the miners gather them safely. The hills are not a place to run to under the threat of danger, but rather they produce more righteousness for the people. The king’s rule is like the perfect provision of rain. There is no more drought, famine, or hunger. What an incredible vision.
The great temptation is to despair when reading this text because of its failure to be realized amongst the kings, princes, rulers, principalities, legislatures and presidents of the world. There are cries of injustice all over the world through movements like Black Lives Matter or the liberation of Hong Kong. Debt is epidemic. An increasing amount of wealth is funneling to the richest of the rich. There are scandals of global political corruption, and policy set forth where children are separated by governments.
For this season of Advent, what many in our congregations may be feeling is akin to a verse in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hymn I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:
And in despair I bowed my head “There is no peace on Earth,” I said For hate is strong, and it mocks the song Of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”
The story of the people of God contains a long list of kings who at times showed flashes of this realized vision, but over and over again they would fall. The king to whom this Psalm is attributed, Solomon, held great promise of functioning as this king would. Recall 1 Kings 3, where Solomon asks the LORD for wisdom and the LORD is so pleased with this request that Solomon is also granted riches and honor like no other king. Immediately, Solomon’s wise judgments are put to work when two prostitutes come to his disputed the parentage of a child. He discerns the true mother by offering to cut the child in half and giving half of the child to each. The true mother is revealed when she pleads the child be spared. People would come from far and wide seeking Solomon’s vast wisdom.
The land flourished and Solomon acquired more riches than anyone else on the face of the earth. But at what cost? 1 Kings 5:13-14a: “13 King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. 14 He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home” (NRSV). The richest of Solomon came on the backs of his own people. Later, he would be seduced by the allure of idols and foreign gods, as well as his own wealth and self-gratification.
The succession plan of Solomon’s reign didn’t go well either. His son Rehoboam promised even harsher policy against the people of Israel: “Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’” (1 Kings 12:11). The kingdom would split and there would be turmoil in the promised land. The rest of the annals of the kings of Israel and Judah contains a few moments of righteousness exhibited by the kings, but on the whole the kingdom has set a course to enter into exile. They failed to realize the vision of Psalm 72 over and over again. Instead, Samuel’s warning of what a monarchy would do to Israel comes to fruition because of the unrighteous ways of the king:
11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18, NRSV).
The doxology at the end of the Psalm 72 can be read a few ways. Both speak of the power of God. First, only God can give the gift of righteousness to the king. This is certainly the case. The gift of righteousness is a gift of the holy God. In no way can we derive our own righteousness. This is certainly true of the kings of Israel, too.
But secondly, a new dimension is added when we read this text Christologically. In Christ, God becomes the righteous king through incarnation. This is the big surprise of the Advent season, that we do not have to wallow in our despair because Christ has come alongside those despairing and crushed the oppressor by making a mockery of death on a cross.
While we anticipate the way Jesus is the future, coming king and righteous judge, we can recall so many of his stories where he judged righteously is his ordinary interaction with people. In John 8, where the woman is caught in adultery, Jesus is asked to judge the woman. He presents a wise judgement where he says, “he who is without sin may cast the first stone.” One by one, each man drops a stone and then walk away. Soon all are gone. He then speaks the woman and does not condemn her but invites her into a life without sin.
On the second Sunday of Advent, the worshipping community has the opportunity to recognize that though the rule and reign of Jesus has not yet been fully realized, it has indeed been inaugurated. The preaching moment is the chance to lead the congregation more fully under the lordship/kingship/rule/reign of Jesus by imagining the ways we are to live in his cruciform pattern in this world. This is how we live as a people of hope. The Psalmist’ vision of the righteous king has been inaugurated by Jesus, and only God could have done this. In our congregations and the within the people of God, may the chorus of songs, praises and doxologies ring like the belfries:
The pealed the bells more loud and deep “God is not dead nor does he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”