Psalm 72 is a royal psalm, possibly originally part of a coronation liturgy. It has the added function of closing Book II of the book of Psalms. The psalm is an intercessory prayer for the king. The prayers offered for the king reflect the broad areas of royal responsibility (justice, vv. 1-4 and 12-14; fertility, vv. 5-7 and 15-17; and authority, vv. 8-11). The psalm has similarities to Egyptian and Neo-Assyrian prayers.
The lectionary writers have selected only the first two prayers, those for justice and fertility, omitting the verses on military authority, vv. 8-11, and the later sections on justice and fertility. As is often the case we need to give attention to the whole psalm to get a full understanding of it. Moreover, a full understanding needs to appreciate the placement of this psalm in the total collection of psalms.
The superscription of the psalm associates it with Solomon (cf. Psalm 127). Many features suggest this association: the reference to the son of the king, the desire to judge wisely with justice and righteousness, and gifts from foreign places especially gold from Sheba (cf. 1 Kgs 3.3-14; 10.1-12). The nature of the psalm as intercession for the king, and its inclusion within the ‘psalms of David’, which are said to end in Ps 72:20, suggest that we read this psalm as David’s prayer for the son who takes his place on the throne, a fitting sequel to the prayer of an aging man in Psalm 71.
In Ps 72:1-4, there is particular concern for ‘the poor’ (cf. vv. 12-14). The king’s reign is seen as an avenue of God’s blessing, especially on those who are in most need. This is the first request for the king. Such blessing is in the context of a three way relationship: king-people and king-Yahweh. The king receives justice from Yahweh which he then exercises in his reign with the people. The continuity of order in the world is set up by Yahweh and conveyed through the political structures.
The second request for the king is that he may live long and be like the rain that falls on mown grass and the showers that water earth (v. 6), i.e. bring prosperity and peace in his reign. This section of the psalm (vv. 5-7; cf. vv. 15-17) develops the fertility language of the ancient Near East. What the king establishes here is made possible first by God’s eternal authority in the cosmos.
The third section, vv. 8-11, omitted from our reading, extends the dominion of the king to all other nations. Kings from remote places, Tarshish, the isles, Sheba and Seba, will bring gifts also implying tribute and subjugation. Verses 12-14 follow this scene of military and political domination returning to the theme of the poor. Verse 12 introduces the reason for what has been stated. It is because of the king’s deliverance of the needy etc. that David can pray for such dominion. But the sentiment of this section is more intense than in vv. 2-4. The king hears the cries of the needy, cares for those without a helper, has pity on the weak, and their blood, i.e. their life, is precious to him. Such cries, help, and pity are what David himself sought from God in his laments. Finally, the king ‘redeems’ their life from oppression and violence (v. 14a). This image of the kin-redeemer has an economic base, but in Psalm 72, redemption of the poor also becomes the duty of the king. He is called to act rightly like family and, ultimately, like God.
In the final section, vv. 15-17, David again takes up the language of fertility (v. 16). The section begins with the bold statement ‘Long may he live!’ probably referring to the king. This would be appropriate as we think of the reign of Solomon. The great king and psalmist, David, blesses those who follow him.
Thoughts of wealth, continual prayer and blessing follow. While the verbs in the NRSV are passive, in the Hebrew it is not clear who gives and who receives, who prays, and who blesses whom in v. 15. However, it is reasonable to assume that the king distributes the wealth he receives to the needy and they continually pray for him. David continues his prayer in v. 16 seeking ‘abundant’ grain and praying that the people in the cities might also ‘blossom’ like the grass (v. 16). He concludes with a prayer that the king’s name might endure forever with further comparison to the sun (v. 17a; cf. Ps. 45.17). Verse 17b is reminiscent of Gen. 12.2-3 but what, in Genesis, takes place through Abraham and the covenant with him, is here established through the king. Even the enemies (v. 9) and others who are possibly subjugated will find the possibility of blessing.
It is important to note in this psalm that all three elements in this prayer: justice, prosperity and military security are tied closely together. So often in our own political context there can be sharp divisions between these aspects of government. Economic prosperity is often isolated and highlighted. Justice is lost in talk of law and order, frequently a thin disguise for retribution. And national security is promoted through fear of the ‘other’. What might it look like if justice and national security were seen as the outworking of prosperity? Or if prosperity was measured in terms of the exercise of justice? Or if justice, prosperity and national security were seen by our governments as part of a greater responsibility rather than the basis for policies to maintain power?
The psalm ends in vv. 18-19 with the final blessing on Yahweh. These verses are included in today’s reading. This doxology functions like the others in the book of Psalms (Pss 41:13; 89:52; and 106:48) concluding their respective books. But this doxology has several additions which link it closely with Psalms 71 and 72. The wondrous deeds and Yahweh’s glory have recently been mentioned by the psalmist (Ps 71:8, 17) and the blessing of Yahweh’s name matches the prayer for Solomon in Ps 72:17a. The doxology in Ps 72:18-19 has been expanded to fit the context of David’s reign and prayer for his successor(s). His last words, so to speak (see v. 20), reinforce the point at the start of this psalm, that from God alone comes all that gives life. These words bear close similarity to David’s prayer at Solomon’s coronation in 1 Kgs 1:47-48. The double ‘amen’ draws the larger congregation who will read or hear this psalm, into David’s blessing of Yahweh.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
The beginning of the psalm, (vv. 1-4) could be adapted for inclusion as part of the prayers of the people, as a prayer for our national and state leaders:
Give our leaders your justice, O God,The final blessing of the psalm, vv. 18-19, could also be used in the final blessing for the service:
and your righteousness to those who govern us.
May they rule your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May our land yield prosperity for all the people,
and may we care for it in righteousness.
May our leaders defend the cause of the poor of the people,
deliverance the needy from hardship,
and bring the oppressor to account.
Blessed be the LORD,Old Testament reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be God’s glorious name forever;
may God’s glory fill the whole earth.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Spirit
be upon you all,
now and forever.
Amen and Amen.
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