Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
On the festival of the Epiphany, the church celebrates the coming of all nations to God’s light, now shining forth in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, the kingdom of God is thrown open to all!
We need not, and probably should not, claim that the writer of Isaiah 60 already had in mind the wise men of the Gospel; but Matthew surely had Isaiah 60 in mind when he wrote of the coming of these wise men “from the East.” We learn in Matthew that they came seeking the child who had been born the “king of the Jews.” For Herod, that notion was bad enough, but the vision of the wise men, broad as it was, was not broad enough. The news would get worse for coming generations of would-be monarchs and emperors. This child, this Jesus, was not to be just king of the Jews, but, like God, “king of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7). Psalm 72, celebrating Solomon’s kingship, doesn’t quite get to that point, but the church’s confession will do so.
Significant as that confession is, it has its problems, and those are evident in Psalm 72 — and, to a lesser degree, in Matthew 2.
The problem with the role of king is not only its male imagery (imagery and language that are, alas, unavoidable as we discuss this psalm), but also its vision of the ruler as a kind of overlord to which all must bring tribute. In Matthew’s account, the gifts of the wise men seem to be just that: gifts, freely given. But in Psalm 72, those gifts are “tribute,” as that which comes from a “vassal” (for example, 2 Kings 17:3), or something “imposed” (2 Kings 23:33). Is the “gold of Sheba” (Psalm 72:15) given willingly, or is this an example of how the enemies of Israel must “lick the dust” (Psalm 72:10), as the psalm’s parallelism suggests? The coming of the nations in Psalm 72, and to some degree in Isaiah 60, is at least slightly ambiguous. Yes, they come, but do they like it? The preacher will want to avoid any sense of requiring the “nations” (like us) to bow down (you better!), moving instead to inviting them to join all believers in bowing down because of the overwhelming graciousness of this new ruler.
Despite its ambiguity, the psalm at least hints at this positive aspect of the worship of the nations. Finally, all nations pronounce the king “happy” (or blessed) because they find themselves “blessed” in him (Psalm 72:17; carrying forward the promise of the blessing of the nations through Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:3). Nevertheless, the king of the psalm remains Israel’s king, not really their own. There will still be a way to go.
And how will they or we get there? We will need to consider other aspects of the psalm and of its king — aspects that are more compelling to the hearer (and hopefully to the nations), leading them to bless the king just because they will, not because they must. It is not really good news for the preacher merely to point out the phenomenon that nations come to the king (or to Jesus). That is just information. Tell me why, that I may come as well.
And how does the psalm tell us this? The logic (or theo-logic) is found in the grammar and structure of the psalm, formal elements that amplify the crucial content of the righteous monarch’s rule:
- judging rightly (indeed, with God’s own justice)
- prosperity for all
- the flourishing of creation
- care for the poor, the weak, and the needy
- freedom from oppression
These are familiar biblical themes, often urged by the prophets. Interestingly, here they are seen as the tasks of the king, the one whom the prophets often accuse of failing in these very duties. Here, the roles of monarch and prophet are not at odds, rather they become one — as the church confesses they do in Jesus (along with the role of priest).
Normally, I do not favor attempts to “fix” Old Testament texts by too quickly finding Jesus behind every figurative bush, but for Psalm 72 little fixing is needed. The psalm itself proclaims the prophetic work of liberation, justice, and care for the oppressed that Jesus took upon himself in his first sermon (Luke 4:16-21).
So, those are the themes. How are they amplified by the psalm’s structure and grammar? We see that clearly in the verses that go beyond today’s assigned text. As a reminder, the lectionary verses are chosen (and others omitted) for liturgical reasons. Properly to turn a liturgical text into a preaching text will almost always require looking at and often including its larger context. That brings us to Psalm 72:12-15a, where, following all the jussive “may he’s” of verses 1-11 (continuing in vv. 15b-17), we get this significant breakthrough:
May, may, may …
For! (Hebrew ki; 12a) — because he delivers and cares for the needy and saves them from oppression
So! (Hebrew waw; 15a) — therefore, may he (like Spock?) live long and prosper1
May, may, may …
The ki (Hebrew) is the “key” (English) to the text. Bad pun, but the point is important. May all these things happen to the king, not just because he is king, certainly not because he can enforce subservience, but because he does the Messiah’s work of caring for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). To this, at last, we can come not because we should or must, but because we want to, because we are called to, because we can, because we can’t not. This is where we belong.