Poetry, Politics and the Kingdom of the Messiah

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au
Psalm 72

Poetry and Politics in the Psalms

This January, as you’ll know if you’ve been here with us across the month on Sunday mornings, we have been focusing our sermons on the psalms—the ancient Hebrew poems from the Old Testament, handed down to us as Christians from the people of Israel who prayed them and meditated on them and sang them long before we ever did.

The psalms are a beautiful and somewhat unusual part of God’s word. Unlike most of the Bible—the books of Moses and the prophets, for example, the psalms are mostly not comprised of oracles or laws spoken by God and his messengers and addressed to us as his people. They are mostly comprised not of words that God speaks to us but as words that God gives to us to say to him. That doesn’t mean they are any less the Word of God, but it does mean that the form they take is different from, say, a sermon preached by Jesus or a law code handed down from Moses or a prophecy spoken by Isaiah. They’re poetry and prayer, more often that they are prophecy or precept.

That is one of the reasons why the Psalms have historically been so greatly treasured by Christians, so frequently memorised and set to music and imprinted on our hearts. In the psalms God gives us words from him that we can make our own, take into our hearts, and say back to him. And in many cases, as Mark said a couple of weeks ago, their content is deeply personal. We pray Psalm 23 when we are going through the valley of the shadow of death; we pray Psalm 51 when we are tormented and weighed down with guilt; we pray Psalm 121 when we are feeling overwhelmed by the troubles that surround us and we are struggling to cast off our anxieties and lie down to sleep.

The poetry of the psalms is amongst the most deeply personal language that we find in the Bible, and they help us find a voice to speak to God with.

But the Psalms are not just personal. They are frequently also deeply political. They are about not only the troubles and the joys and the longings of the individual believer; they are also about the issues of power and justice and kingship as they play out in the nation as a whole. Without ceasing to be poetry and without ceasing to be prayer, they dive headlong into the kind of issues that are fundamental to political existence, then and now.

And so this morning, because it’s not only a Sunday but also our national day, Australia day, I thought we should turn to one of those psalms, and listen together to what it has to say about the kind of matters that concern us when we thing as Christians about the nation we belong to and the way in which it is governed.

The psalm I want to turn to is Psalm 72, the one that was read for us a few minutes ago. It’s a psalm that functioned within the life of Israel as a kind of “I have a dream” speech, painting a picture of the kind of kingdom that the people of Israel longed for and looked forward to, in inspiring and beautiful poetry. But of course it’s more than that—more than just beautiful poem; more than just the “dream” or the hope of the people of Israel.  It is also the word of God—it’s a hope and a dream that is actually an expression of the promises and plans of God; it’s a vision and a longing that is taken back to God and given to him to bring about its fulfilment.

The way the old version of the NIV used to translate it—the 1984 version that we read from a moment ago—partially obscures that fact. The 1984 translation starts off that way in verse one, but then in verse two, instead of translating it as a prayer—“May he judge your people in righteousness”—it translates the words into English as a statement or a prophecy: “he will judge your people in righteousness.” That was unfortunate, really, because the Hebrew could equally be translated either way, and the psalm clearly begins and ends as a prayer, so I think it’s best to keep it as a prayer all the way through. And thankfully the 2011 NIV, which I have in front of me and from which I will be preaching, has made that change.

Psalm 72: A Prayer for the “Royal Son”

Specifically, Psalm 72 is a prayer for the “royal son.” The first verse says: “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” If we want to understand the psalm, it’s important to figure out who that “royal son” is. If you were listening really carefully to the Bible reading a moment ago, you might have got a bit confused by the apparent contradiction between the heading at the top, that says, “Of Solomon”, and the final words in verse 20, that say that this psalm is “one of the prayers of David son of Jesse.” Whose prayer is it? David’s or Solomon’s?

Well, the answer is probably “both”, in different ways. When it says at the top of a psalm, “Of David”, or “Of Solomon”, or “Of Asaph”, or “Of the Sabbath”, it doesn’t always mean “written by David,” or “written by Solomon”, or “written by the Sabbath.” Sometimes it can mean, “a psalm that is about Solomon”, or “a psalm to be sung on the Sabbath”. In the case of Psalm 72, it was probably written in the first instance as a prayer prayed by David for Solomon. The translators of the Greek Old Testament recognised that fact, and translated the superscript of this psalm “a psalm for Solomon,” not “a Psalm by Solomon.” You can see why they drew that conclusion, and I think they were correct to do so. King David was the first king of Israel to found a dynasty – to have his son follow on after him; and Solomon was David’s son – the one who took the throne after David died.

And this is a prayer for the son of the king; a prayer for the new king of Israel; a prayer for Solomon the son of David. But it is also the kind of prayer that could be prayed for every new “son of David”; every new heir to the throne of Judah, who gets born and comes to power; for every new king that God raises up, as he comes to the throne. What kind of kingdom does it pray for?

The kingdom that is prayed for…

– A kingdom of justice

First and foremost, it is a prayer that the new king’s reign may be a reign of justice. That is the very first thing that the prayer asks God for – that God would give the king his justice. That is to say, that the new king would act like God in the way that he ruled; that he would have God’s justice and God’s righteousness. And the next few verses expand on that theme. Verse 2: “May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.” Verse 4: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.”

It is a prayer that the new king would recognise that the people are not ultimately his people but God’s people, and so he would observe God’s justice as he rules over them. It is a prayer that in his judgments he would use his power and authority on the side of the poor and the needy, and against the people who oppress them. That he would stamp out the extortion and the exploitation and the injustice in the nation; that he would be free from corruption; that he would rule not just on behalf of himself and his family and his friends, but on behalf of all the people, and especially the poor and the oppressed; and that he would rule on behalf of God. It’s a prayer for a kingdom of justice.

– A kingdom of prosperity

Secondly, it’s a prayer for a kingdom of prosperity. Verse 3: “May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, and the hills the fruit of righteousness.” Verse 6: “May he be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth. In his days may the righteous flourish, and may prosperity abound till the moon is no more.” It’s there again in verse 16: “Let corn abound throughout the land; on the tops of the hills may it sway. Let its fruit flourish like Lebanon; let it thrive like the grass of the field.”

You may think it sounds a little selfish or materialistic to pray for “prosperity” for the nation. I felt almost embarassed to put it there on the outline, in between those other fine-sounding things things like justice and compassion. But the fact that I feel that way is probably just because I have never experienced anything but prosperity, and I just think of prosperity as normality. But anyone who has ever lived through real poverty or famine is not ashamed to pray for prosperity.

And the concept of prosperity that this psalm speaks of is not the concept we often have when we think of a prosperous nation. It’s not the sort of prosperity where the rich get richer and the poor get forgotten; it’s not the sort of prosperity you get through selfishness and greed and ignoring the needs of others – the sort of prosperity that you should feel guilty and ashamed about. The word ‘prosperity’ in verse 3 and verse 7 is actually the Hebrew word “shalom”, which also means “peace”, or “wholeness”, or “harmony”. It’s a fruitfulness and an abundance that is experienced by all of the land and all of the people. It’s about having plenty for everyone and everyone getting their share. And so the psalmist is not embarassed to pray for a kingdom of prosperity.

– A kingdom of compassion

And along with that prosperity, thirdly, the psalm paints a picture of a kingdom of compassion. Verse 12: “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, and the afflicted who have no-one to help. He will take pity on the week and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.”

The consistent teaching of the Bible is that those who rule and have authority have a special responsibility to look after the poor and the needy. That is a central task of government. Not just to step back and leave it to someone else; not just to try and achieve the smallest government and the lowest taxes; but to be actively involved on the side of the weak and the poor and the oppressed.

Prov 31:8 is a word of instruction from the king’s mother to the king, about what his task is, and she says to him: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Those who have authority in government should be the advocates and defenders of those who do not have the power to defend themselves. Ethnic minorities; unborn children; victims of domestic violence; asylum seekers seeking refuge from persecution—all those within his sphere of responsibility who do not have the access to justice or the economic power or the education to be their own defenders.

And so here in Ps 72 the prayer is that the king may be the sort of ruler who delivers the needy and has compassion for the weak.

– An everlasting kingdom

So far, in these first three things that are prayed for, we have been concerned with the quality of the kingdom – a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of prosperity, a kingdom of compassion. The last two things that are prayed for are more to do with the quantity or the extent of the kingdom – how big it is and how long it lasts.

First of all, there is the prayer that this may be an everlasting kingdom. Verse 5: “May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.” Verse 17: “May his name endure for ever; may it continue as long as the sun.” “As long as the sun” is a pretty long time, isn’t it. It’s really a poetic way of saying for ever. That’s how long we pray that his kingdom will last for.

I grew up in the days when the national anthem was “God save the Queen”, and we used to sing: “God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen”, but we didn’t mean for ever. But “for ever” is what this psalm prays for. It is a prayer for an eternal kingdom.

– A universal kingdom

And it’s a prayer for a universal kingdom. Verse 8: “May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Verse 11: “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” The picture is of an empire that extends to the furthest corners of the earth. All the other kings and rulers bow down to him; verse 10, they bring tribute to him, of gold and precious gifts. His enemies prostrate themselves before him, verse 9, so that they lick the dust at his feet.

But the prayer is not just that all the pagan nations will be defeated and bow dowe before him and lick the dust. The prayer is that the nations will actually be enriched and blessed by coming under his rule. Verse 17: “May all nations be blessed through him; may they call him blessed.” The reference is to the promise God gave to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants, and so the prayer is: May that promise come true for this king.

The fulfilment of Psalm 72

It’s a good prayer isn’t it. They are wonderful things to long for and pray for. But the question of course is: is it ever fulfilled? Is the prayer ever answered?

Well if you look to the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, starting with Solomon, you’d have to say that it doesn’t really come close to being answered. Time and time again, the history of the kings of Israel is a history of injustice not justice; disaster and defeat, not peace and prosperity; ruthlessness and not compassion. U2 sang back in the 90s about the way that “hope and history don’t rhyme,” and you’d have to say that most of the time, when you read the Old Testament, that judgement is borne out by the history of Israel. They had big hopes, big promises, big prayers; and yet their history—even at its most blest, even at its most splendid, even under Solomon in all his glory—their history falls so far short of what they prayed and sang and hoped for.

If you wanted to describe what the typical king of Israel was like you wouldn’t go to this prayer; you’d go to the prophecy that Samuel makes in 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel first ask for a king. Samuel says to them: “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants… He will take a tenth of your flocks , and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” That is the kind of kings that Israel had, Solomon included.

And as for the extent of the kingdoms that they ruled over – how big they were and how long they lasted – it was a series of fairly short reigns that often ended in violence, over a country that was really pathetically small and insignificant – it was hardly an everlasting and universal empire. And yet they kept Psalm 72 in the collection of their songs and their prayers, and the godly Israelites would have kept praying for each new king: “Lord, may this be the one!”. And when the kingdom was destroyed completely, and there were no more kings sitting on David’s throne at all, they kept on praying: “Lord, send us a king like that.” And they clung onto the promise of a messiah, a son of David who would come and rescue Israel and rule over the nations, and bring prosperity and peace for ever.

As Christians we believe that the messiah has come, and that his name was Jesus of Nazareth, and that the kingdom that this psalm prays for is the same Kingdom of God that Jesus came to earth proclaiming; the same Kingdom of God that he opened up through his death and resurrection. We believe that Jesus is that Messiah, and that he is one day coming again, and that his kingdom will be for ever. So we know how it is that Psalm 72 is fulfilled – we know who the king is who is the answer to this prayer; and yet we also know that Psalm 72 hasn’t yet been fulfilled – we still wait for Jesus to come again and bring in his kingdom.

Seeking the Kingdom

And so in the meantime, what do we do with a psalm like Psalm 72?

In the first place, we take those longings and we make them our own. Psalm 72 teaches us to be the kind of people who long for justice in our world and who know it is God, not us, who determines what is just and righteous; the kind of people who long for peace and prosperity – the kind of prosperity where the land is cared for and the crops flourish and there is enough for everyone and everyone gets their share; the kind of people who long for a more compassionate society, where the poor and needy and the defenceless are cared for and protected. Those are the kind of basic values that the this psalm teaches us, and if we take its message to heart then we will be the kind of people who long for these things and live for these things. One of the tragedies of history is that far too often it has been the people who called themselves Christians who have been on the side of the powerful and the rich against the poor and the helpless. Or it has been the Christians who have stood back on the sidelines and watched, and done nothing to stop oppression and injustice taking place.

There’s an old hymn, based on Psalm 72, called “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” which we hardly ever sing in churches these days and probably should sing more often. It was written by a man called James Montgomery, a poet and newspaper editor, the son of Moravian missionaries, who lived about two centuries ago. The thing that I like about that hymn, almost as much as the words, is the fact that the guy who wrote it seems to have been deeply convicted about their truth and importance. He was a man who longed to see oppression broken and the captives set free; to see equity and justice and peace; and the things that he prayed for in prayers like the words of this psalm he also lived for and worked toward in the opportunities that God gave him.

How do I know that? One way that I know that is because of what he did in his day job as a newspaper editor, and how again and again he used the newspaper that he published, the Sheffield Iris, to argue for an end to slavery, and fair conditions for factory workers, and how on at least two occasions he was arrested by the authorities and thrown into prison for sedition because of the causes that he championed. If we have the kind of vision that Psalm 72 encourages us to have for our society, then we will not live our lives in a selfish little bubble, looking after our own interests and ignoring the injustices and the suffering and the poverty around us. We will be people who long for justice and peace; people who long for a more compassionate society, and who do what we can, in the opportunities that God gives us, to bring it about.

And yet, secondly, if we take note of Psalm 72, we will be people who know that our most powerful weapon in achieving those things is not party politics or revolution or violence. The great mistake that has been made over and over again in history is the assumption that if you overturn the structures of society and put new people in power then all the problems of the world will be solved. But you only have to look back at the history of the last century to know that revolution and violence and regime change, in and of themselves, are not enough to save the world. The politics that we have and the way that we vote should most definitely be determined by the kind of vision and values that Psalm 72 and the rest of the Bible teaches us, but we should never think that political and military weapons are the most powerful way of enacting that vision and bringing those values to bear in the world.

The most powerful weapon that we have, as this psalm reminds us, is prayer. If you want to change the world, then the most important thing that you can do is pray for it; because if there is anything worthwhile that is going to happen as a result of our efforts or anyone else’s, it will be because of the power of God working through them. And the Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for rulers and those in authority – specifically, to pray that they will rule in away that brings peace, and gives opportunity for us to live godly and holy lives and for the gospel to grow and reach more and more people. We need to pray not just for our selves and our little circle of friends and family but for our rulers and for our world.

And thirdly, this psalm encourages us to look to Jesus as the perfect and ultimate answer to the prayers that we pray for justice and peace in our world. It is when God puts his king on the throne of this world, and people bow the knee to him, that there will be genuine peace and lasting justice. It is right to be a peace maker; it is right to be someone who works and prays for peace and justice in this world in the mean time. It was right for the people of Israel to pray for each new king that came to the throne that he might be the Messiah that God had promised. They are godly desires and godly priorities. But if we understand what the Bible teaches, then we will know that those desires will never be fully satisfied until the return of Jesus, and so most of all we will long for the coming of Jesus, and we will long to see people bow the knee to him. Jesus said to his disciples: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Make those things the passions that have the central place in your heart. Long for them. Work for them. Campaign for them. Pray for them. And ask that God would make us, and our own lives, a foretaste of his answer to our prayers.