Psalm 72 – The Ultimate King

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for the king to rule with justice and righteousness (verses 1-2).  This is a good connection to the life of Solomon, since when he began his reign he requested “wisdom to rule the nation.”  Here the king is to be endowed with justice and righteousness, corollaries of Solomon’s wisdom.  The way a king demonstrates justice and righteousness is by defending the cause of the “afflicted ones,” verse 2 and verse 4.  The needy will be saved, but the oppressor will be destroyed.   The king is to function as the “redeemer” and defender for those people within the society who have no natural defender.

A king that reigns in righteousness will bring prosperity to the nation (verse 3).  This is a function of the Deuteronomic covenant.  God has established his law, and if the nation does that Law, they will find that they are blessed with prosperity; if they do not they will be cursed.  The psalmist does not mention the sacrificial law here – the king does righteousness by taking care of the outcasts of society, not by properly performing sacrifices.

The word translated by the NIV as “prosperity” is the Hebrew שלוֹם, shalom. While typically this word means “peace,” there is far more to the biblical idea of shalom than no war.”  Shalom is the state of the world as God created it. This which function correctly, the way that God designed them to function, are in a state of shalom.  This is an allusion to a future, eschatological age when the whole of creation functions once again as God created it.  This is a case where the Psalm goes beyond David and Solomon and looks for a future, ideal “son of David” who will bring true peace to the world, the messiah.

Is there an application of this Psalm to modern nations?  Does God really give prosperity to modern nations if they are godly?   It is important to interpret this Psalm for what it is and avoid the application of the language of this psalm to America.  It is not appropriate to cite this psalm as evidence for the idea that God will bless America if our government is godly.  This is a promise for Israel’s king and evokes the deuteronomic covenant.  If Israel keeps the covenant they will be blessed, if they do not, they will be cursed.

It is wrong to make a transfer of this promise to the Church, or to any “Christian society” since it is a promise made to a historical Israel and serves as a foundation for the hope of restoration for Israel in the future.  America does not “take over” this covenant because we are allegedly a Christian country.

On the other hand, God does require the nations to conduct themselves morally and ethically.  The king is responsible for the ethical behavior of a nation, and God will judge a nation if they abuse the widow and the orphan, or the alien who lives in their land.  In fact, if there is a “blessing” offered to the nations, it is based on wisdom and the created order rather than the Covenant with Israel.  Nations which treat people properly tend to be more prosperous than those who oppress the poor.  That is the natural way God has designed human relationships rather than a function of Law.

Drawing an application to the messianic age, the rule of the Messiah will be one that is perfectly just and righteous.  There will be no one who “falls through the cracks” because the messiah will always give justice to those who deserve it.   It is important to observe that Jesus does this even in his earthly ministry, focusing his attention on the poor and oppressed, politically, physically, and religiously,

The future kingdom is usually described as a society which cares for the needs of the poor and oppressed.  It is a kingdom which does the heart of the Law perfectly.  This time of justice and peace is a common description of the messianic age (Isa 2:4, 11:6-9). As verse 4 says, the eschatological age will be the time when the poor and needy receive justice because the oppressor has been crushed  (verse 4).  The verb translated as “oppressor” (עשק) in verse four has violent connotations.  While it is used to describe the exploitation of the poor, such as “a debtor unable to pay” or “the weaker party in a business contract,” it is sometimes used for the “the (politically or socially) oppressed” (HALOT).   Usually the oppressor crushes the needy, but this is reversed in the coming kingdom.  The verb “crush” (דכא) is applied to the poor in Isa 3:15, here the oppressor is the one who will be ground to dust.

Once again, the description points to a future age when the oppressors will be judged and the oppressed find themselves vindicated before a righteous God.

Psalm 72 – A Messianic Psalm?

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.