Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Psalm 72:1-17, a prayer of well-being for the king, was employed as a part of a royal coronation or on the anniversary of the king’s accession.
Verses 18 and 19 are not part of the psalm proper. Instead, they constitute a later doxology that marks the end of Book II of the Psalter.1 Verse 20 appears to be yet another editorial commentary by a post-exilic redactor.
The king and the king’s son mentioned in Psalm 72:1 are the same individual. The Royal Zion theology that undergirded the Davidic dynastic monarchy included the notion that the king’s relationship to God was as intimate as that of a son to a father (see 2 Samuel 7:8-16, especially verse 14; Psalm 2:7).
Psalm 72:1 establishes the themes of much of what follows. The petitioner asks that God imbue the king with God’s own justice (mispateka, “your justice”) and righteousness (sidqteka, “your righteousness”). Yes, petitions for the king’s long life also appear in the psalm (verses 5-6, 16). That concern, however, pales in importance when compared to the urgency that this king—and thus his reign—reflect God’s own regency. In other words, the king is to rule with the self-same justice and righteousness as would God if God sat on the palace throne.
In particular, Psalm 72:2 includes a petition that the king should judge “your people” with righteousness. The verb translated “May he judge” is din. The term suggests that the king might redress the wrong done to God’s people and thus obtain justice for them by means of a righteous judgment.2 The parallelism with verse 2b makes it clear that “your people” are Yahweh’s afflicted poor who stand in need of judgment:
May he judge your people with righteousness (besedeq),
and your poor with justice (bemispat)
The plea behind Psalm 72:2 reappears in verse 4. Once again, the anticipation is that the king might “defend” the cause of the poor, the needy, while eliminating their oppressor. The NRSV translation, while correct, disguises the presence of the verbal root of justice, spt. The NJB helpfully translates “he will judge,” thus clarifying the verb albeit missing the jussive force of the petition.
The psalm is not done with the theme of the king’s just treatment of the oppressed. The king will be successful and victorious (Psalm 72:9-10) and foreign regents will do obeisance to this king (verses 10-11) precisely because of his compassionate care to the needy, the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed (verses 12-14).
Because of the king’s righteous judgment and justice, the creation will persist and flourish, as will his subjects (Psalm 72:5-6, 16). The unspoken threat, of course, is that injustice for the poor and needy lead to the success of the king’s opponents (see Jeremiah 5:15-17) and to even the undoing of creation (see Hosea 4:2-3).
For most nations, the power of regents—if they exist at all—is extraordinarily limited. At first blush, therefore, it may seem that this psalm is irrelevant in our contemporary context. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Those living in representative democracies such as the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, elect to office persons who will legislate on their behalf. This means that Christians have an opportunity and an obligation to elect representatives who will champion laws and policies that are consistent with faith and the values of the kingdom of God.
That last claim, of course, was the assertion of the so-called Moral Majority, a loud action group on the American political landscape during the 1980s. Therein, however, lies a cautionary tale. The Moral Majority’s agenda revolved around a narrowly defined understanding of what constitutes the Christian faith, e.g., opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and opposition to legal acceptance of LGBTQ people. The group’s leaders erroneously insisted that America was founded as a Christian nation and therefore Christians (again as they defined Christians!) ought to control the government.
Should the preacher take up this psalm, she ought to be clear that this prayer for the king—like our prayers for our elected representatives— has nothing to do with a petition for Christian hegemony. Instead, the psalm centers on the hope that God will bestow upon leaders a measure of God’s justice and righteousness.
A leader’s integrity, of course, is weighed on the scale of justice and righteousness, especially with regard to the poor, the needy and the oppressed. Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners magazine writes, “the Bible insists that the best test of a nation’s righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.3” Wallis could easily point to Psalm 72 as evidence. The regent (and our leaders) are to exercise authority on behalf of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed in the stead of God. In other words, leaders ought to be elected based on whether or not they give signs of helping those marginalized people about whom God is manifestly and particularly concerned.
In the psalm, the success of the king and the durability of his reign depend entirely upon his saving the lives of the needy (Psalm 72:11-15). The biblical witness is that no regent, no empire, and no nation will long persist if God is mocked by a lack of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.
For Christians who pray weekly, if not daily, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” it is surely not too much to insist that our elected leaders extend God’s justice and righteousness to the needy on our behalf.
Failure to do so, it seems, puts us in opposition to God.
1 See similar expressions at the close of Book I (Psalm 41:13), Book III (Psalm 89:52), and Book IV (Psalm 106:48). Psalm 150—or the entire collection of doxological psalms contained in Psalms 146-150—mark the end of the Psalter’s Book V.
2 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, v. I, 220.
3 Jim Wallis. Who Speaks for God? (New York: Delacourt, 1996), 42.