My purpose in wring this brief piece is to invite you to dwell for a time with Psalm 72, to listen to it closely for a day or for this week. At the outset, we may recognize two matters concerning the Psalm.
First, you will notice that the Psalm stands in the final position in Book II of the Psalter, as though it were the finale and grand conclusion of this set of Psalms. As a “royal Psalm” (one pertaining to the life of the king), it may be strategically placed as an assurance of viable governance. Book II begins with Psalm 42 and includes a number of lament Psalms. But by Psalm 72, the collection has moved beyond grief to responsible governance.
Second, the Psalm by tradition (fictively!) is addressed to King Solomon. This is important because its advocacy of restorative justice is addressed to the king who, in the tradition, most fully participates in predatory covetousness. Thus the Psalm proposes an ethic and an economic practice that is to counter the excesses of royal greed.
The pattern of the Psalm is an alteration between two themes. On the one hand, the Psalm, in a repeated optative cadence, hopes and expects that royal governance will prosper. Thus in verses 5-7 it is hoped and expected that the king and his realm will be as generative as rain showers, so that peace (shalom) may abound. In verses 8-11, it is anticipated that the king will govern the entire known world from Spain (Tarshish) to Arabia, so that kings will serve him, and bring their wealth to him as tribute. See the case of the queen of Sheba in I Kings 10:1-10:
Then she gave the king one hundred twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon (v. 10).
The same anticipatory sentiment is voiced in the more familiar words of the prophet Isaiah:
His authority will grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom (Isaiah 9:7).
The older, more familiar translation concerns “the increase of his government,” that is, the extent of his rule will continue to expand, assuring luxurious wellbeing.
The theme is reiterated in verse 15-17. Again there is “the gold of Sheba” plus abundant grain and durable fame. This theme that dominates the Psalm is a liturgic assurance (guarantee?) that concerns the longevity, wellbeing, and prosperity of the ruling house. It is not difficult to imagine this Psalm being voiced in the Jerusalem temple in the presence of the royal house. It was perhaps on an occasion when the claims of the dynasty were renewed and reiterated amid the glad celebrative mood of those admitted to the liturgy and to the generosity of the regime.
But this glad affirmation has as its counterpoint a second theme that brings royal attention back to the facts on the ground, namely, the economic reality of poor people who lack resources for life. Thus in verses 2 and 4, this royal liturgy places the poor and needy before the king, and assigns to the king the role of advocate against the power of aggressive accumulation:
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice…
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
and give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor (vv. 2, 4).
It is as though the Psalm not only recognized the reality of an aggressive economic system, but also noticed that the king himself might be a party to that oppressive system. But no, not this king! This king belongs on the side of the poor and vulnerable. The theme is reiterated in verses 12-14:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight (vv. 12-14).
The king is assigned the role of advocate when the vulnerable have “no helper.” The roster of those who rely on the king’s help includes the weak, the poor, and the needy. Royal power is to be invested against violent systems of oppression. It is the real work of a “redeemer” to rescue and restore those exploited by a predatory economic system. The liturgic articulation is of course poetic. It does not specify the concrete economic actions to be undertaken, but clearly the king is summoned to do something like reparations in order to restore the dignity, security, and viability of those lost in the shuffle of systemic greed.
The Psalm moves easily back and forth from one theme to the other. It does not in any specific way indicate how the two themes are related to each other. It is surely credible, nonetheless, to conclude that these rich scenarios of royal prosperity are related to care for the economically vulnerable as effect to cause. It is exactly royal engagement with the poor, weak, and needy that makes possible the flourishing that the Psalm anticipates. The reason the two parts are so linked, moreover, is that the creator God has intended, in every season, that social power should be devoted to and invested in a community of neighbors who are all together in one network of wellbeing. No one can opt out of the network, certainly not the king. No one can for long monopolize resources against the needs and requirements of the community. Thus this liturgic piece maps out for the royal entourage and its adherents the insistent connections that are engrained in the very structure of creation.
In the long recital of kings in the Old Testament, it is King Josiah, near the end of the dynastic line, who seems to have most understood this ingrained connection that helps to curb, direct, and propel royal responsibility. In the narrative report on King Josiah and his reform, it is stated that he destroyed all the iconography of the foreign gods (II Kings 23:4-15). That is all. In context, however, we may recognize that it is the religious icons that gave legitimacy to systemic policies and practices of greed. Thus Josiah’s actions worked to destroy the legitimating power that propelled the greed that victimized the weak, poor, and needy. It is reported, moreover, that King Josiah reinstituted the Passover, as though to make his domain an Exodus-remembering, Exodus-practicing enterprise. Josiah, beyond that, reinstituted the covenant that helped to bind all together, rich and poor, weak and strong, needy and well-positioned, all as neighbors:
The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant (II Kings 23:2-3).
Josiah did nothing less than redefine and reorder the public life of Israel according to the old covenantal traditions of the book of Deuteronomy with its accent on care for the widow, orphan, and immigrant. In this way the king bound together the biggest royal hopes of the Psalm and the most rigorous requirements of the Torah.
The matter is given succinct articulation by Jeremiah who contrasted father Josiah with his rapacious royal son, Jehoiakim (Shallum) (Jeremiah 22:11-19). Of Josiah, the king who reconstituted the public life of Israel, the prophet could declare:
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me? says the Lord (Jeremiah 22:15-16).
The terms of the Psalm are all there:
justice and righteousness;
poor and needy;
the double use of “well” (tov).
José Miranda, Marx and the Bible, can write of these verses:
Yahweh is not among the entities nor the existings nor in univocal being nor in analogous being, but rather in the implacable moral imperative of justice (49).
The connection of these two themes of the Psalm is unmistakably in this rendering of the belated king. It is the business of government to redress the economic injustices that have been perpetrated. The future wellbeing of the Jerusalem establishment depends upon it!
The teachable, preachable point of Psalm 72, I suggest, is the non-negotiable linkage of just restoration for the vulnerable and societal wellbeing (and eventually environmental wellbeing). This linkage is elemental to the claims of covenant and prophetic tradition. And when that linkage is violated or disregarded, big trouble comes. It comes not only to the vulnerable who suffer where there is a failure of restorative justice. It comes also to the moneyed, the powerful, and the well-positioned, because privileged wellbeing is not sustainable in the long run. The way the Old Testament works is to show that when the power structure of old Jerusalem rejected the proper claims of the vulnerable, big disturbance came. It may come in many forms, but it cannot finally be resisted or averted because, so the tradition insists, God’s creation is coherently and morally ordered. Those who seek to outflank that order are, in the Psalter, termed “fools”:
Fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt; they do abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good (Psalm 14:1).
They do not say this out loud, but only in their secret thinking and scheming. Theirs is not a frontal denial of God, or a theoretical atheism. This is, rather, practical atheism that imagines there is no moral reckoning or limit to created reality. This “atheism” is performed by “abominable deeds” (v. 1). Specifically:
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call on the Lord (v. 4)?
Such “fools” seek to “confound the plans of the poor” (v. 6). The governance of the creator, however, tells otherwise. The impact of his connection must have been sobering to the self-absorbed regime in ancient Jerusalem. It might, in like manner, be sobering now among us when the connection is made visible and compelling.
I have pondered Psalm 72 amid a church across our land where almost every church member is zealous and generous about charity, with a will to ameliorate social vexations. The same church, for the most part, is indifferent to and uninterested in the capacity of government to invest in serious and significant social betterment and transformation. The reason Psalm 72 might be an important reference point for us now is that it insists that it is exactly the proper role of government (so Solomon) with its great resources to be in the business of equitable economic justice for the vulnerable and the disempowered. It is the work of the church, in such a frame of reference, to insist that the government do its proper work. This insistence, of necessity, opposes any “small government” mantra of the privileged who want there to be no interference with their easier private economic wealth. This issue must be joined, not because any of us is a “bleeding heart liberal,” but because government is understood, in important strands of our faith, as an instrument of God’s restorative justice.
All the while I was pondering this Psalm I had ringing in my ears the phrasing of Arianna Huffington from long ago. I have only a brief exact phrase from her. She said, in general, that private charity is good for the support of the symphony and the opera; but when it comes to needy children, we need “the raw power of government.” This is her phrasing and it is exactly correct. The “raw power of government” has the resources and the clout to make a difference. In the Psalm the kings are urged to use “the raw power of government” on behalf of the weak, the poor, and the needy. In this Psalm this is more than an urging. It is recognition that such rescue of the weak, needy, and poor from the hand of the “oppressor” is a condition for societal and environmental wellbeing.
According to this Psalm, the government (Solomon, kingship) has a chance to flourish. All it has to do is to execute its mandate toward the weak, poor, and needy. All it had to do was exercise “raw power” for its most important subjects. But of course they did not:
Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. They despised his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their ancestors, and the warnings that he gave them (II Kings 17:13-15).
And so the Psalter moves along from Psalm 72 until we come to Psalm 89, the concluding Psalm of Book III, yet another royal Psalm. In Psalm 89, Davidic kingship (the family of Solomon!) is celebrated for its reliance on and practice of covenantal fidelity:
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens…
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you…
My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
and in my name his horn shall be exalted…
But I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness (Psalm 89:2, 14, 24, 33).
But then, alas! In verses 38-51, the reality of covenantal faithfulness has vanished:
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David? (Psalm 89:49)
God’s steadfast love vanished from a regime that could not do its proper work. Thus Psalm 89 is a reality check on the hopes of Psalm 72. Nevertheless, Psalm 72 continues to voice hope. It keeps hoping on behalf of every new king, every new regime, and every new government. It hopes that the “raw power of government” will be faithfully and fully deployed on behalf of the poor, the weak, and the needy. It is the proper work of government in a world where the creator God presides. We are not finished in our commentary concerning “the raw power of government” until we do such a reality check of actual practice. Thus Psalm 89 is a crucial cognate to Psalm 72.
But then, a sober counter-thought, alas! I write this in the wake of the court’s revocation of Roe v. Wade. In that court action we are watching the “raw power of government” being deployed against the bodies of women and the future of women. Of course we know that the “raw power of government” can be wrongly performed for nefarious ends. John Calvin, my place of rootage, had a very high view of government and urged that even bad government must be honored and obeyed. On the final page of his Institutes, however, Calvin offers a decisive caveat to his general commitment to government:
We may not be submissive to the corrupt desires of men, much less be slaves to their impiety (Institutes of the Christian Religion II [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education]) 806.
Calvin quotes Acts 5:19, “We must obey God rather than men.” A few pages earlier he writes:
All laws are preposterous which neglect the claims of God, and merely provide for the interests of men (779-80).
Calvin uses the term “men” conventionally and uncritically. In our own context, however, we may see that it is exactly “men” who sponsor and who underwrite such court actions that do great damage to vulnerable women. It is nothing less than a forceful return of patriarchy! We are witnesses to the energy of “the raw power of government” deployed against vulnerable women to shameful ends.
The lyrical imagination of Psalm 72 soars beyond the close reasoning of Calvin. But they come to the same point. The raw power of government is to be used on behalf of the vulnerable, not against them. It is a sad occasion when the “magistrates” (Calvin’s preferred term) act against the vulnerable. The kings in ancient Israel learned the hard way:
Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. The Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel; he punished them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until he had banished them from his presence (II Kings 17:19-20).
We know better than that; and we can act more covenantally than did they.
July 28, 2022
Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Day1, Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.