Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Psalm 72 is a royal psalm — a psalm about the earthly kings of Israel.1
Psalm 72 is an odd psalm. And Psalm 72 an important psalm.
Or, for the purpose of considering Psalm 72 on the occasion of the day of Epiphany, we might call it an oddly important royal psalm.
For starters, some basics.
The psalm is unique in that is portrays the role of the king in stunningly positive language. So much of the Old Testament’s commentary on Israel’s kings is negative. But here, note the extraordinarily positive tone — especially the tone of how the king is to do justice and establish a reign of peace and righteousness:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
Even more, note how the king — responsible in the ancient world for judging the cries for justice of those oppressed — listens and judges wisely on behalf of those oppressed by the powerful:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
An oddly placed psalm
Psalm 72 is the only Psalm “of Solomon” in the Psalter — the only psalm that bears the superscription (lishelomoh). Oddly, however, there are two “editorial additions” at the end of the psalm. By “editorial additions,” I mean phrases that most psalms scholars believe were added to the psalm proper by scribes who were compiling the psalms.
The first of these editorial additions is the “doxology” in vv. 18-19. This doxology closes “Book II” of the Psalter. (Doxologies similar to this also appear at the end of Books I, III, and IV of the Psalter == see Ps 41:13, 89:52, and 106:48). The doxology reads:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.
This doxology marks Psalm 72 as the final psalm in Book II of the Psalter. Some scholars have argued that the transition from Psalm 72 to Psalm 73 is the major “hinge” of the Book of Psalms.
The second of these two editorial additions is the postscript: “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” The important psalms scholar Gerald Wilson, who did more than anyone else to spark modern scholarly research into the final editing and shape of the Psalter, was emphatic that this scribal postscript to Psalm 72 “is the only explicit indicator of editorial shaping of the Psalter.”
Two things are odd about this postscript.
First, the postscript follows a psalm “of Solomon,” not a psalm of David. Odd. Second, there are many more “psalms of David” that occur later in the Psalter. Odd.
What does this mean?
So, to ask favorite catechetical question, “What does this mean?”
Without boring into pages of scholarly argumentation (you see what I did there I am sure), allow me to cut to the chase.
There are two main lines of interpretation.
A criticism of Israel’s kings
A first line of interpretation would hold that this royal psalm of Solomon was placed at this point in the Psalter as a criticism of Israel’s kings.
This line of argument has much merit. So much of the Old Testament is harshly condemning about the self-aggrandizing, self-serving reigns of Israel’s kings. The prophets Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel come to mind. As does the entire Deuteronomistic History, which chronicles the failures of Israel’s and Judah’s kings and essentially blames of the falls of both kingdoms and the Babylonian Exile on those kings.
A promise of the ideal Davidic king (The Messiah)
A second line of interpretation would hold that this royal psalm — along with other royal psalms that are placed at key points in the book of Psalms — was placed at the key hinge of the Psalter because Israel believed that God would keep the promises embedded in this psalm.
One thing that is truly amazing about the Psalter is that any royal psalms whatsoever were included in the final Psalter. After all, the last time Judah had a reigning king was c. 587 BCE. The Psalter was clearly collected and then edited many centuries later — long after the post-exilic community had had kings. So why were these psalms retained? Because they bear God’s promises about what a descendant would be like and do.
Note that other key voices in the Old Testament anticipated an ideal Davidic King — The Messiah — who was expected to come. See here Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and others.
My final answer: Jesus
So, put it all together:
- the extremely positive view of the king in the psalm (justice and righteousness)
- the key canonical placement at the hinge of the Psalter,
- the odd historical retention of the royal psalms after Judah’s kings had disappeared,
- the liturgical placement of this Psalm on the Day of Epiphany,
- the canonical criticism of Israel and Judah’s kings, and
- the Old Testament promise of an ideal king to come.
And what do you get?
That’s my final answer.
As John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one to come? Or should we expect another?”
And how did Jesus respond? Tell people what you see. The lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them.
In a word: Jesus.
In a phrase: Jesus the Christ.
- Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2016.