Psalm 72 – A Messianic Psalm?

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The header does not explicitly refer to a historic event in the life of David or Solomon, although it seems clear that the Psalm refers to the Davidic Covenant.  But the language of the Psalm is grand and universal – the King will rule the whole world and the prosperity of the King rivals the Garden of Eden.  Since the details go beyond Solomon (or any other king of Israel or Judah), it is assumed by many Jewish and Christian writers that this Psalm is Messianic, referring to a future restoration of Israel when the land will be expanded and peace and prosperity will finally come to Israel.

As one of the  ten “royal” psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, and 144:1-11), this psalm is usually interpreted as messianic.  It is not surprising to find that early Christians saw this psalm as referring to the coming Kingdom of God.  Of interest, however, is the use ease at which this psalm can be used as a description of the coming kingdom.  The Messiah is a son of David who will reign in glory; all of the nations will honor him, the extent of his kingdom is worldwide; the duration of his kingdom is eternal.   The Targum on this psalm clearly interprets it as messianic:  “O God, give Thy regulations of right to the King Messiah” (cited by Keil and Delitzsch, 5:479).

But this same sort of hyperbolic language would be said about any Ancient Near East king.  For this reason, W. E. Oesterley declared that this Psalm was not at all messianic, but merely a coronation Psalm using the language of ancient Oriental royal courts (The Psalms, 337).

I say all this to point out a methodological problem when approaching the Psalms.  There are several “horizons” which may color my reading of the text.  First, Psalm 72 may read completely within the world of the psalm itself, in this case as a coronation hymn used by the kings of Israel and Judah.  At this level, I might be concerned with the words and syntax of the psalm as well as other Ancient Near East parallel hymns.

Second, the psalm can be read as a part of a developing theology in the Hebrew Bible.  At this point I may choose to read other texts which use similar language in a sort of intertextual strategy to connect Psalm 72 to the overall themes of the Hebrew Bible, in this case, messianic themes.

Third, the psalm can be read in the light of later interpretation, either the Targumim or Christian interpretation.  Since I am a Christian, I may read this psalm in the light of the New Testament fulfillment in Jesus. The basis of the  kingdom in Psalm 72 is compassion toward the poor and afflicted.  Clearly this is something that the ministry of Jesus sought to emphasize as he preached the Kingdom of God.

Which is the right method?  My approach is to read the psalm, as much as possible, within the world of the Psalm, but then begin to draw lines from that world to the larger world of the Hebrew Bible, then finally to potential Christian interpretations.  The intended point of the Psalm was a coronation hymn, but within the context of the whole canon of Scripture, than coronation hymn takes on messianic implications.  Within the context of the Christian canon, it takes on implications which include a specific messiah, Jesus.

Here is what I mean:  This psalm takes the ideas of the Davidic Covenant and places it in a worship setting, possibly for a coronation ceremony or covenant renewal ceremony.  There are reminders of the terms covenant, the blessings for obedience, and some basic duties listed.  Perhaps the king heard this psalm at his coronation in order to encourage him to keep the covenant with a whole heart.  But the language would be hyperbolic even if it is applied to Solomon.  While many nations honored him and he ruled a large territory, the Psalm is universal – all the nations will honor this son of David.  It is possible, contra Oesterley, that the Psalm influences other Messianic texts (or vice versa), such as Isaiah 11, Micah 5:3, 6; Zech 9:9ff.  What is more, the language of the Psalm may be echoed by the presentation of Jesus in the synoptic gospels.  Jesus has compassion on the poor (Matt 9:35-36, for example).  As Marvin Tate suggested,  “. . .this psalm is not in the strict sense messianic. It deals with an earthly king. It was at least in part the frustration of these hopes that led to the development of the messianic idea in Israel” (Psalms 50-100, 226).

This seems to me to be a balanced approach to the Royal Psalms which allows for a serious engagement of the Psalm, but also for a reflection on the theology of the Hebrew Bible and late Christian use of the Hebrew Bible.