The Reign of the King
The book of Psalms is a book of songs and prayers written at a specific period in time, in a specific context. This period was, for the most part, a period of power and prosperity during which Israel was a monarchy—as such, many of the psalms we find in the book are royal psalms, either praying for the king or recognizing God’s goodness to him.
For someone with no contact with the Bible, living in Paris in the 21st century, it’s possible to come to these psalms with a slightly uncomfortable feeling—they place the king on a very high pedestal, and at first glance they seem to espouse the kind of nationalistic ideology that Donald Trump is known for. But there is more going on in these royal psalms than meets the eye. Without the perspective of the rest of the Bible, it’s hard to see where these psalms are leading; but the beauty of Scripture is that there is a unifying theme, from the beginning to the end—and that theme is Jesus Christ. This is why our summer series is always called “Jesus in the Psalms.” From Genesis to Revelation, every Scripture is either eluding to, or promising, or giving a picture of, or explicitly proclaiming, Jesus Christ—who he is, what he does, and what he will do. This won’t be the first time we’ll have seen this in the psalms—we saw one example of this two weeks ago, when Arnaud preached on Psalm 45—but this is one of my favorites, particularly because its scope is so wide: the scope of this psalm is global.
Psalm 72 is the last psalm in book 2 of the psalter, and as you can see, the title says, “Of Solomon.” This can either mean that Solomon is the author, or that someone wrote this psalm about Solomon. The former is more likely, but in the end it doesn’t matter much, because the goal of this psalm is to pray for the king in the Davidic line—in Israel the kings were expected to be sons or descendants of David, and this prayer is for the ideal king—that God would make him the king he ought to be.
So let’s go through the psalm together. As we’ll see, the song is a prayer, asking God to attribute to the king certain blessings or characteristics. And the first thing the song asks for is that God would grant the king justice.
1) The King’s righteousness (v. 1-4)
1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! 3 Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!
In Scripture, the first and primary characteristic which God expects a leader in government to hold is justice, or righteousness (depending on the translation)—that is, godly character. The people ask God to grant him (v. 1) your justice, and your righteousness: it takes as a given that the ability to govern rightly comes from God himself. And the result of that justice and righteousness of the king is prosperity for his people—this word “prosperity” is the Hebrew word shalom, which is a massively subtle word which is not merely prosperity, but peace and welfare and generally wholeness, as well as the absence of hostility. Shalom is what everyone wants but no one has fully experienced. Under this ideal king, the land prospers (v. 3), the poor are defended, and the children of the poor are set free from anyone who would take advantage of them (v. 4). A righteous leader understands that the people he governs are not his people, but God’s people (v. 2: May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!).
Now, this seems obvious—why does this need to be said at all? Because history has shown us, without fail, that men do not lead rightly. Some have tried, but invariably the power they wield becomes dangerous for them and for others: they take advantage of the poor and needy, the desire for power clouds their judgment, and even when they manage to lead their people toward material prosperity, either that prosperity doesn’t last, or it leaves other kinds of chaos in its wake.
It is normal that they not be successful, because every human leader, since he is human, is a sinner. There is no way a human leader could bring shalom, could lead with righteousness, because he’s never fully experienced that shalom himself; he himself is unrighteous. So if this prayer is fundamentally unanswerable, why is it here?
This prayer is not just a wish which shows people what they want but can’t have; it is there to set up an ideal which no human being could ever reach, an ideal which would ultimately have to be reached by God himself. God did answer this prayer, and he did it in giving us Jesus Christ, the perfectly righteous King.
That’s the big idea. During his ministry, Jesus spend nearly all of his time preaching the kingdom of God, healing the sick and welcoming sinners. He lived a perfect life, was killed on the cross for our sins, and rose again…and thus he proved he had conquered sin and death. But all of that was not the end of the story; it was the beginning, and we are still in the middle. A day will come when Jesus will return to earth, will renew the earth, will destroy sin and all its effects, and will establish perfect peace and prosperity. The poor will no longer be poor; the oppressor will be crushed. So these first verses give us a general and global idea of what the reign of the Messiah will be like. Now, we get to specifics.
2) An Eternal Reign (v. 5-7)
5 May they [the people of the earth] fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! 6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! 7 In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!
So we see a slightly bigger picture of what this shalom is meant to look like: the ideal king is such a blessing presence in the country that just knowing he’s there, knowing he’s the one leading the country, is like a breath of fresh air: May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! Many people felt this way just after Macron was elected, or after Barack Obama was elected for the first time. Everyone knew they weren’t perfect, but just knowing they had made it to power was a relief to many people, like a rain shower in the middle of a heat wave. This is the feeling he’s praying for.
He also prays that the king would cause the righteous to flourish—this can mean material prosperity, but is more than that: it means that those who live like him will be fulfilled under his reign. They will become what they were meant to become, and they will be happy in that becoming.
He prays that the people would esteem the king: that is, they would see the prosperity and peace and flourishing and refreshment in the land, and know that this came from this man. He brought this beauty to us! He gave us this shalom!
And the psalmist prays that all of this might be eternal—while the sun endures, and as long as the moon. (These are expressions which mean, simply, forever.) On a human level, there are several problems here—firstly, that no human leader is that good. Even Obama, for many the unofficial savior of the United States, wasn’t able to bring the kind of flourishing he’s talking about here, and neither will Macron, or any other political leader. No matter who’s in power, some problems will remain. Secondly, the reign of every human king, every human dynasty, will come to an end. Even the Roman Empire fell, though most of the world believed that impossible for centuries.
Our King Jesus is the only King who will make good on these promises. He will cause the righteous to flourish: first, by making them righteous through his death on the cross. We say it every Sunday: Jesus lived the perfect life we should have lived, and he exchanged it for our sin—he took our sin, and gave us his righteousness. In Christ the unrighteous (us) are declared righteous. And that “borrowed righteousness” is what allows us to be with him in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will be refreshed at his presence, like rain that falls on the grass. He will not only renew the earth, but us as well; he will make us into what he created us to be. And we will esteem him and love him for what he has done, forever. His reign will never come to an end.
3) Absolute Power and Authority (v. 8-11)
8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! 9 May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! 10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!
The psalmist prays that God would grant the king absolute power and authority over all the nations of the world: from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth… May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! Of course that didn’t happen—the kingdom of Israel had limited power for a time, and then the kingdom split, the people were led into exile, and by the time Jesus came around they were under Roman occupation.
So again, the prayer will be answered in Jesus, the promise fulfilled in Jesus. Upon Christ’s return, the entire earth will be renewed, and Jesus will be king over the entire earth. All nations, all peoples, now freed from sin, will worship and serve him and enjoy him forever.
Now, can we just be honest for a minute? This kind of thing makes a lot of people uncomfortable—the psalmist prays that God would grant the king absolute power and authority over all the nations of the world: from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth… May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! The reason this makes us uncomfortable, obviously, is because this kind of power is what James Bond villains are after. It seems egomaniacal to the extreme.
But we need to understand that some things which would be sinful for us are not sinful for God. If a man desired to rule the whole world, he’d be a dictator. Christ’s ruling the whole world shows his love for the world, because he’s the only person who can rule the world rightly. And that’s where the psalmist will go next: he’s going to give us two reasons why the coming King’s absolute power is not dictatorial or oppressive.
4) Power That Benefits the Needy (v. 12-14)
12 For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. 13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. The first reason why the King’s absolute power over the whole earth is not dictatorial or dangerous is because he will unfailingly put that power to use for the benefit of those who need help.
Think of the marginalized, in every society—the homeless, the foreigner, the sick, those under the thumb of an oppressive regime. The psalmist prays that Israel’s king will not only not oppress those who are weak, but will actively use his power for their good: that he would shelter the homeless; that he would welcome the foreigner; that he would care for the weak; that he would rescue those under oppression and bring them back to a full, abundant life.
There are leaders who have attempted this kind of care, but none have succeeded completely; there are always those who are marginalized and cast aside, and even if the king wanted to do something about it, he is simply unable to see everyone who needs help; under human rule, there is always someone who goes needy, someone who remains oppressed.
But under the Messiah’s reign, this prayer will actually come true. Because he has absolute power, he will have infinite resources at his disposal; and because he is God himself, he will forget no one—no one will go unseen. And it goes a lot further than simply providing for the poor and caring for the sick and needy. There will be no more poor; there will be no more sick or needy. His authority and power will be ultimate and global, and he will use that power to benefit his people.
5) All Peoples Will Be Blessed in Him (v. 15-19)
15 Long may he live; may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! 16 May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field! 17 May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!
The second reason the ideal king’s reign is not tyrannical is because through his power, he does not only help those who need help; he blesses all peoples—every individual living in his kingdom benefits from his reign. The psalmist prays that the resources of Israel’s king would be endless; that Israel’s people would multiply and flourish; and that the other nations around Israel might join in the celebration and the blessing.
Israel failed in this regard. No king of Israel even came close to this kind of global blessing. But the Messiah will. He will bless every individual in his kingdom; he will shower every person, every nation, from every ethnic background, speaking every language, with his abundant blessings. And every individual, every nation, will respond in kind: they will worship him for the good, righteous, perfect king he is. People will be blessed in him, and all nations will call him blessed.
So the psalmist ends on this doxology, which celebrates the God who can make all of these things come to pass: 18 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. 19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!
6) The World to Come
Now, what are we to do with all of this information? It paints a pretty picture, but what good does it do us concretely now? We’re clearly not there yet; we have yet to see this kingdom come to fruition. So what do we do with all of this where we are, right now? This psalm isn’t just here to paint us an unattainable picture. There are three main things which we are meant to take away from this picture the Holy Spirit paints us through the psalm.
Firstly, we must pray to see the beauty of the King.
We have a hard time imagining what a good king looks like, because history shows us monarchies often either turn corrupt, or they’re just placeholders and symbols. So the psalmist is helping us imagine what such a King is like.
People don’t like to think of Jesus as a King, because kings are imposing and intimidating; they prefer to think of Jesus as a shepherd, or as a baby, or as a teacher, because these all imply tenderness. And indeed, he was all of these things (and still is, with the exception of the baby). But this is not an “either/or” situation. He is our good Shepherd; but he is also our sovereign Lord. He is our teacher; but he is also our Ruler. He is meek and gentle; but he is also fiercely opposed to sin, and fiercely driven to care for his own.
Jesus is not like earthly kings. He is a King who is not corrupt, but who is perfectly just and righteous, and who fosters justice and righteousness in others. He’s a King who is not passive, who doesn’t simply represent power, but who incarnates power for us, and who uses that power not for his own self-interests, but for the good of the people he has been empowered to serve. But because of the sin in us, part of us will always fight against being ruled by anyone, even if it is such a good King as Jesus.
So we need to pray that we might see the beauty of our King; that we may see him for who he is, in all his power and in all his love; that we might be thankful and happy to be ruled by him.
Secondly, if we pray to see the beauty of our King, we must pray to see the beauty of his kingdom.
My mother-in-law was not a Christian; quite the contrary, she was fiercely opposed to all religions. Once she told me that she hated the idea of heaven because in heaven there is no conflict or challenges. In her mind, the idea of heaven was painfully boring.
She is by no means the only person to feel this way. And I understand why they do. Heaven as most people understand it wouldn’t make a very good story. Every good story has a handful of elements in common: there is a setting in which the protagonists live; there are characters who progress or change over the course of the narrative; there is a conflict to overcome; and there is a resolution to that conflict (either positive or negative). This is why the story the Bible tells is such an amazing story—it tells the Story, the story which every other story echoes or reflects in some way or another. Our setting is this world; the characters are God and his people—God who reveals himself progressively, and his people who are transformed by that revelation; the conflict to overcome is sin and its effects; and the resolution comes in the form of Jesus Christ who defeats sin and who will one day eradicate all of its effects.
But after that… We have a hard time getting into that story. This is why stories like The Lord of the Rings so often end with a paradisiacal new world; the story ends with Frodo on the boat to the Grey Havens because there’s simply not much more to say after that. Or to bring it down to earth, this is why so many people get antsy and bored when everything’s going great in their lives; this is why we always need to set ourselves new challenges, to push ourselves further. We don’t do well with the absence of obstacles.
The problem here is that when we imagine heaven, we imagine something that is as far as possible from the reality of what heaven will actually be. What life of the new heavens and the new earth will actually be like is so far beyond our imaginations that the best way to describe it in human language is by describing the absence of anything that makes us miserable, and the presence of that which eternally satisfies us. The Bible says a lot about heaven, so there are aspects of eternal life with Jesus which we can know truly; but what it says is just the tip of the iceberg. If heaven seems boring or unreal to us, it is because of our imaginations are deeply limited—not because heaven is.
C. S. Lewis ended his Narnia series with a picture of heaven, and he ends his book like this: “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Brothers and sisters, we need to pray to believe this—to not just love our King, but to look forward to living in his kingdom. The shalom he will bring will not be the end, but rather the setting in which we will flourish and discover this renewed world forever.
Lastly, we need to live like our King.
I always hesitate to say this, because so many people talk about imitating Jesus as if that were all we were called to do, and it’s not: anyone, saved or not, can imitate Jesus. But while the Christian life is much more than the imitation of Christ, it is not less.
What have we seen? The psalmist prays that the king would be righteous; that he would care for the needy; that he would actively use all of his resources to bless those under his rule. This is who Jesus was, and this is what Jesus did while on this earth; and because we are his disciples, these are all things we are called to do as well. 1 John 2.5 says, By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. We will do it imperfectly, but we are called to do it. Any Christian witness which isn’t accompanied by the desire and initiative to bless our neighbors, to care for our poor, to welcome the marginalized, is faulty. If we know God, we will hate sin, and we will fight against its effects.
Now, I know what some of you will say. Our primary mission as the church is to make disciples of all nations, not engage in social justice; and that’s correct. But any disciple-making which does not bear fruit in caring for those around us who are need is sorely unbalanced, for we are disciples of Christ; we are following Christ; and during his life Christ spent a vast portion of his time preaching to and caring for the marginalized, the poor and the sick. A disciple follows and learns from and imitates his master. If we really are disciples of Jesus, we will do as he did.
So look around you. See the need where it exists, and do whatever you can to meet that need. If your relationship with God is only benefiting you, then that relationship is not as healthy as you may think it is. Our resources are limited, as individuals and as a church; but there are multiple organizations in Paris that exist to care for the poor and the marginalized, organizations anyone can partner with. And in the meantime, you have neighbors—you have people in your buildings and in your neighborhood who need help, or care, or simply someone to talk to. For many of them, you are literally the only chance they have to see the light of the gospel lived out in a real and practical way.
Look at this prayer; realize all your Messiah will do for his people; and begin that work as he has called you to. This is the world he is building; and he calls us to join him in the work of building that world.