Psalm 72 is helping us bridge the thousand-plus year gap between our study in Ruth, and next week when we start the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. Today, we’re focusing on three more the ideals of Israel’s king – and how Jesus “fulfils” or “completes” them. Make sure you’ve read Psalm 72 first, if you haven’t already.
God’s champion of justice
An overriding theme of this psalm is that the king is to be the means by which God executes justice in the world. Firstly, within Israel’s borders:72:1-2, 4 Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. 2 May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice… May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.
But it’s not just Israel the king is to be concerned about – the rest of the world gets a look-in, too:72:11-14 May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him. 12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. 13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. 14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
Israel’s king is to be recognised by the surrounding nations of the world as a just king. And this will earn him their respect and submission. Justice was to be one of Israel’s major export commodities: justice in Israel, and justice in the world.
Did they live up to it? Let’s look at Solomon’s scorecard. He prayed for judicial wisdom – and God gave it to him.1 Ki 3:28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.
And he became famous for it outside of Israel, too:1 Ki 4:30-34 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else… And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five… From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
Yet for all his wisdom, by the end of his life, was Israel a just place in which to live? Certainly there was prosperity, as he conquered other nations and taxed them in order to build his palaces and the temple. And if you were in his home tribe in Judah, life was pretty good.
But he started to burden everyday Israelites with the cost of his building projects, supporting his court, his army, along with his 700 wives! (That’s an average of two anniversary presents per day. Not to mention the shoes.)
And he played favourites: could you imagine the outcry if Tony Abbott decided that people in his home state of New South Wales were the only ones that didn’t have to pay tax? Yet this is what Solomon did, exempting his home tribe from tax and from being part of his conscripted labour force. And the foreign nations he conquered were treated even worse!
Not exactly a great record in social justice (although not too bad when you compare him with most of his descendants!) In fact, one of the main themes of the Old Testament prophets was taking Israel’s kings and leaders to task over their neglect of social justice.
Enter Jesus. Where Israel’s kings had failed to administer justice, God’s perfect king came to turn everything upside down. The first thing Luke records about Jesus’ public ministry is his claim to fulfil this prophecy from Isaiah:Lk 4:18-21 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus’ preaching ministry was intimately connected with righting the injustices in the world. He paid special attention to the marginalised, the poor, those whom society had rejected. We know all this…
But there’s also an implication for us. As the church’s Head of State, Jesus embodies the values that we should aspire to, and that we should seek to live out in the world. Indeed, if we are sons of God – his representatives, as we saw yesterday – then we should be active in working for justice in the world. How does Jesus exercise his rule in world today? Through his church! Through us!
Now, we’re not a nation. We’re not an earthly king. We can’t force society to be just at the point of a sword or through imposing legislation. But we can – like Israel’s king – ensure justice within the church, as an example to the rest of the world. And we can seek to win people to the cause of justice by our example and by our arguments.
If one of Israel’s chief national exports was to be justice, how much more should it be what the church is known for?
Yet are we know for that? Or are we known for perpetuating the struggle for power and individual glory – for having things the way I like them – that exists everywhere else?
Do we treat every person who comes into our church justly and fairly? Or do we play favourites with the people who are easier to get along with, easier to talk to, more like us?
Are we known in the community for standing up against what is unjust and unfair in the world? Or are we too afraid to say something in case it offends the powerful? Or in case we convict ourselves and find that we might have to make changes in our lifestyle?
Here are some things Christians are known for achieving in the past (not that we get much credit for it in the media):
- Abolition of slave trade by a group of Evangelical Christians in the English parliament.
- A more humane prison system, through the work of Quaker, Elizabeth Fry.
- Schools. There was nothing like it was when it began in the 1780’s. A group of English Protestants were concerned to give kids who worked 6 days week in mines and factories access to basic schooling. So they began “Sunday School”, not initially to teach kids how to make bible character masks with paper plates and paddle-pop sticks, but to read and write.
- Missionaries and missionary organisations brought things like agricultural know-how, clean drinking water, vaccinations for smallpox, malaria, leprosy.
And the list could go on. That’s our heritage. That’s what happens when God’s representatives have gotten it right. Is this inspiring? What is God putting on your heart to be his champion of justice?
There are two more themes about kingship found in this Psalm which we don’t have time to look into in detail. So just briefly, they are:
God’s universal ruler
The king is described as ruling over the whole earth:72:8-11, 15 May he rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. 9 May the desert tribes bow before him and his enemies lick the dust. 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. 11 May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him… Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long.
At the height of Solomon’s reign, he did rule a large section of the Ancient Near East. But not all of it. And not for long. For most of Israel’s history, their territory progressively decreased, living under constant threat of invasion and destruction, until by the time of Jesus they were an outpost of the Roman Empire.
Ironically, it’s at this point that Matthew depicts this as being fulfilled. God’s king, as a small child in Bethlehem, is visited by the Magi – representative of kings from ‘all the nations’, bowing down before Jesus and bringing him gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’ll see this in our series in Matthew, starting next week.
And we will see it one day in the future, too, when everyone on earth will bow their knee to acknowledge him as king – whether willingly or unwillingly.
God’s blessing to the nations
Of course, God would rather it be willingly, and that leads to the final role of the king from this Psalm:
72:17b: Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.
Echoing God’s promise to Abraham, the king was to be the means by which God’s rescue plan was to be made known. In Israel, that meant ruling with justice and peace, so that all nations would see what it was like to be God’s chosen people.
Jesus fulfilled this on the cross, bearing the sins of all the nations, and rising again to new life, making it possible for everyone – not just Israel – to live in a restored relationship with God.
And that is what we – as God’s sons – are called to proclaim.