top of page
Search

The Psalms and the Nations -- Psalm 72 (5th Sunday After Pentecost)

Updated: Jul 4, 2023




Today, we are going to start with a quiz. Just one question. One True/False question. I will read the statement. Give you a few moments. I will read it again, and then ask for your answer. You can do this. Are you ready?


TRUE/FALSE: God thinks that kings are a great idea.

God thinks that kings are a great idea.


OK, what’s your answer?


Correct! FALSE. God does NOT in any way shape or form think that kings are a great – or even a good – idea. Do you remember? I think we’ve looked at the story twice since I’ve been here.[1] After they have settled in the land, the people tell the prophet Samuel to go and ask God for a king. And God says, “No way. That’s a horrible idea. Think about what kings do. A king will take your sons and daughters, your children, and press them into labor. He’ll send your sons off to war. A king will take your grain and your livestock. You don’t need a king. You just need me. You and me.” And the people say, “Thanks, but no thanks. Give us a king, so that we can be like all the other nations.” And God says, “OK... Samuel, give them what they ask for.”


And the people get a king – king after king after king – it’s the history that we read for the rest of the Old Testament – and the kings are, with rare exception, pretty lousy. There’s David and Solomon – who are at times lifted up because they at least governed over an undivided nation – but the Bible has plenty to say about their flaws. And there’s Josiah, and maybe Hezekiah, who try to do better, but other than that, the kings do exactly what God says they would. They do what kings do. And the people are left suffering, living a bare subsistence living, the judicial system corrupted by power, constantly under threat of invading armies. It’s into that history – that reality – that the prophets come and speak.


It’s into that history – that reality – that the people sing this morning’s psalm. Psalm 72 is what’s called a Royal Psalm.[2] We’ve talked about how the Psalms speak to the whole of life. Well, this group of psalms speaks into public life – how the people – the nation – orders its economic, judicial, political systems – how it allocates its resources – who thrives, who hungers – who survives, who perishes – who has power and how do they use it. These psalms speak to and about sovereignty and power.


Now, because in their world the king has sovereignty – these Psalms are addressed to the king. They seek the king’s well-being in the hope that he will structure a world that supports and protects the well-being of the people. “May the king live while the sun endures, may he be like rain that falls on the mown grass. In his days, may righteousness flourish and peace abound.”


Now they may feel strange to us – these psalms sung to a king. We don’t hear these royal psalms often in church. But think of it this way: These psalms sing about sovereignty and power and how they are used. In a monarchy, you sing to and about the king – because the king is the one who has sovereignty and power. In a democracy, we say that sovereignty lies in the people – “We the people” – “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” So, if we were to sing these psalms to the Sovereign in our world, in our nation, in our democracy – we would sing them to and about... us.


These royal psalms sing into the national life of a people – first sung long ago to and about a king. We don’t hear them often – but maybe it makes sense to listen to this psalm for a nation on a weekend where we observe our national holiday – to listen to them from the ancient world of kings, into this present moment in this democratic nation, this republic.


Now, before we do all that, maybe we should back up just a bit and say that before this Psalm is about the sovereignty of nations and kings, this Psalm is first and foremost about the sovereignty... of God.[3] Before they say anything to or about the king, these royal psalms stand confident that God is sovereign. Psalm 72 begins: God, give your judgments to the king, your righteousness to the king’s son. And it ends: “God alone does wondrous things.” Standing there – this psalm sings to the king (and the people) the world that God wants – may justice flourish and peace abound – for this nation and for all nations.[4]


We think that this Psalm 72 may have actually been a coronation psalm – a song sung to the king as the king became king.[5] It is both a prayer and a charge[6] – it not only prays a blessing for the king, but it also charges the king with how to be king. It sets God’s standard for the king. And the standard really couldn’t be more clear.


The standard focuses on two things – two ways that kings – or any sovereign – might exercise power.[7] There are right, just judgments – a judicial system that hears the complaints of the people and decides fairly and justly. And then righteousness – the right-structuring of the systems the people inhabit, so that everyone can thrive – the structuring of the world for justice. And the standard for all that – the one that this Psalm articulates – rolls out like this:


May the king govern your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people.

May he deliver the needy, and end all oppression.

May the king deliver the needy when they call.

May he rescue the poor and those who have no helper.

May he have compassion on the weak and the needy.

May he save the lives of the needy.

May he redeem the lives of the vulnerable

from all oppression and violence.

Again and again –

And then that beautiful line –

after all that sung on behalf of the poor, the vulnerable,

the marginalized –

the psalm sings this to the King –

“May their blood be precious in your sight.

May their lives be precious in your sight.”

May the lives and well-being of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized be at the heart of everything you do – O King.


One writer puts it like this: “[In this psalm], the only stated responsibility of the king is to establish justice for the oppressed and to rescue the poor and the needy.”[8]

This is a psalm for the king and for the people – it is a psalm that sings the world God wants. They sang it at coronations, and then they sang it again and again in their life together – a reminder of the one standard for kings – for any sovereign – the one standard for how we live and structure our lives together in nations and communities:


How are you doing with regard to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized?In the judgments rendered in your courts – in your systems that allocate resources, that establish rights and responsibilities: How are you doing with regard to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized? It is the standard for kings – and for everyone entrusted with power in our public life – entrusted with power for the public good – for the well-being of all people.


And if you think about it – that standard has some resonance with what was articulated at the founding of this nation. In the Declaration of Independence, as they broke from a King who too often did those things that Kings do – they wrote this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[9]


Now we know that when the founders articulated those truths – they weren’t a reality for all people – the founders protected slavery. The Declaration actually reads “all men are created equal” – and these rights and freedoms were slow coming to women. Our national work has been, in large part, struggling to make those truths more real.


So, as we celebrate that this weekend – the truths we claimed back then – and as we think about this psalm – it might be good to ask: So how are we doing?


Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a decision in a case brought by the Navajo nation.[10] The history of this nation’s relationship with indigenous tribes and nations is a history of treaties made and broken, again and again. This case involved the treaty that established the Navajo reservation. As Robin explained to us in last week’s Sunday Seminar, among other things under that treaty, the US holds in trust the water rights of the Navajo nation. That water is now scarce, and the Navajo people asked for an accounting of those water rights – “Where do we stand?” The federal government said that it had no obligation to do that. And the majority of the Supreme Court agreed.


How are we doing with regard to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in our midst?


Just a few weeks ago, as we observed Juneteenth, we talked again about the continuing harm that persists through American systems of racial injustice.[11] This past week, the Supreme Court took away one tool for addressing continuing racial disparities in colleges and universities – the consideration of race and the impacts of racism as one factor among others in college admissions.[12]


How are we doing with regard to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in our midst?


There are millions of folks who are hurting following the Court’s decision on student-loan forgiveness.[13] Now, that case was ultimately about Presidential power, and the Court may actually have had a point about the limits of that power. But what does it say about our nation – where so many – if not most – lower-income and middle-class families can only send their kids to college by taking on the burden of crushing debt?


How are we doing with regard to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in our midst?


And of course, there’s the decision Friday that gave a business owner an exception to generally applicable civil rights laws so that she could refuse service to LGBTQ couples, because she believes our marriages to be – as she says, “false.”[14]


How are we doing with regard to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in our midst?


The people sang this psalm for the nations at the coronation of the king, and they kept on singing it long after the kings were gone – long after the kings’ regimes had collapsed and the next empire had rolled in with its power-over. They kept singing this psalm, persisting in the hope for the world God wants – a world that comes alongside the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized – a world where righteousness might flourish and peace abound – a world where everyone thrives.


We receive this psalm from them, and hear it today in our world. We hear it in a faith tradition that sees Jesus as sovereign not through power- over, but – as the Philippians text says – by coming alongside humanity – entering into humanity fully and completely – and particularly coming alongside the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. And, when we hear this psalm today, we hear it in our world.. in the systems and structures that we inhabit... and that we shape – this government of the people, by the people, for the people.


And so as people of faith, living in this nation, as we hear this psalm for the nations, we could – with just a subtle shift in pronouns – make its prayer and its charge our own:


O God, in our life together,

May we defend the cause of the poor.

May we deliver the needy, and end all oppression.

May we help the needy when they call.

May we rescue the poor and those who have no helper.

May we have compassion on the weak and the needy.

May we save the lives of the needy.

May we redeem the lives of the vulnerable

from all oppression and violence.

The poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized –

may their lives be precious in our eyes.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


May we find the work that is ours to do to make these truths more true every day in the life we live – and the world we shape – together.



© 2023 Scott Clark



[1] See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/what-kings-do-why-every-vote-matters-1-samuel-8-19th-sunday-after-pentecost [2] For general background on Psalm 72 and royal psalms generally, see For general background on the Psalms generally and Psalms 23 and 121, see J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iv (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 641-72, 961-65; Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, David T. Shannon & David T. Adamo, “Psalms” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 220-234; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007); W. David. O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020). [3] Murrell, p. 222; McCann, p.650. [4] See McCann, p.670 (“God wills political and economic systems that exclude no one from access to provision for life and a future.”). [5] See James Howell, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-psalm-721-7-10-14 [6] See McCann, p.963. [7] See McCann, p.963. [8] McCann, p.963; see also Brueggemann, pp.313-14. [9] For full text of the Declaration of Independence: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript [10] State of Arizona v. Navajo Nation, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/21-1484_aplc.pdf [11] See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/psalms-of-liberation-psalms-137-and-126-juneteenth-the-3rd-sunday-after-pentecost [12] Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard University, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/20-1199_hgdj.pdf [13] See Department of Education v. Brown, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/22-535_i3kn.pdf [14] See Creative LLC v. Elenis, https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/21-476_c185.pdf



Photo Credit: Nick Fewings, used with permission via Unsplash

17 views0 comments
bottom of page