Previously we considered the original application of Psalm 72 as a coronation prayer for a Davidic king, but here we explore how Psalm 72 serves both as Israel’s prayer for the ideal king (viz. the Messiah) and as our prayer for the King of Kings.
Israel’s Prayer for the Ideal King
Psalm 72 was chosen to be the last psalm in Book 2 of the Psalter. And it shows us what Israel’s ideal king looks like. But this psalm continues to inspire Israel even after the Davidic dynasty ends in the sixth century BC (i.e., the Babylonian exile). Even when no king sits on the throne in Jerusalem, this psalm still serves as a prayer for Israel’s ideal king—the Messiah. Psalm 72 captures the messianic hope of ancient Israel (cf., Isa 11:1-5; Zech 9:9-10), and it can do the same for us, as we will explore below. Now we can appreciate how this psalm fits in the structure and flow of the whole book.
First, it is necessary to review the outline for the whole book which illustrates the structure of the Psalter.
|1-2||Prelude||Torah and Kingship|
|3-41||Book 1||1st Movement: David and Saul|
|42-72||Book 2||2nd Movement: David's Kingship|
|73-89||Book 3||3rd Movement: Assyrian Crisis|
|90-106||Book 4||4th Movement: Exile & Temple Destroyed|
|107-145||Book 5||5th Movement: Return and Restoration|
|146-150||Postlude||Finale of Praise|
In the prelude/introduction we have two psalms: Psalm 1 is a Torah psalm and Psalm 2 is a royal/kingship psalm. These two psalms provide the thematic “keynotes” for the rest of the book. Psalm 72 develops the theme of kingship that was introduced in Psalm 2. It’s been said that Psalm 72 “works with Psalm 2 sort of like bookends” (Webster and Beach 2010:107).
You might recall the LORD’s claim in Psalm 2:6, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” Psalm 72 describes further what his king is like—how he rules and what he values. You might also recall that Psalm 2 ends with “Blessed are all who take refuge in him [the royal son]” (2:12b). This is very similar to how Psalm 72 ends: “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (72:17). Of course, all this blessing language is also echoing the Abrahamic covenant (cf., Gen 12:1-3; 22:18; 26:4; 2 Sam 7:29).
Next, we need to look at the verses which follow Psalm 72. These are found in 72:18-20. That’s correct; the three verses at the end of Psalm 72 are not technically part of the psalm. The coronation hymn ends with verse 17, and the three verses that follow are added by the inspired editor who organized the psalms in the Psalter.
In the above outline of Psalms, one observes that Psalm 72 closes out Book 2. We therefore call Psalm 72 a “seam” psalm. It’s a “seam” psalm because it marks the seam (or junction line) between the books or movements of the Psalter. The seam psalms tend to strike royal chords, mentioning aspects of the Davidic covenant (e.g., see 89:3-4, 19-39, 49; 145:1, 10-13). And each seam psalm closes with a doxology—a call to praise the Lord (usually baruk-yhwh). It’s helpful to look at these five doxologies in order (all in ESV):
- 41:13 – “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen.”
- 72:18-20 - “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! 20 The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.”
By the way, verse 20 is arguably the most unpoetic verse in the whole Psalter. But it definitively demonstrates that the Psalter is an edited work that was assembled with themes and intentionality. This reference to the “prayers of David” likely refers to the whole collection of Books 1 and 2. It does not necessarily mean that David personally wrote all these psalms, only that David and God’s royal covenant are the major themes of Books 1 and 2. Davidic themes tie together the first two movements of the Psalter; and so it makes sense here to say “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.”
- 89:52 - “Blessed be the LORD forever! Amen and Amen.”
- 106:48 - “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the LORD!” (The editor is getting a little excited here!)
- 145:21 - “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.”
And finally, in the last five psalms of the Psalter (146:1, 10; 147:1, 20; 148:1, 14; 149:1, 9; 150:1, 6) there is a crescendo of praise hymns, opening and closing--a total of ten times!--with “Praise the LORD! [halelu-yah].”
In light of these doxologies, we can confidently say that the purpose of the whole book of Psalms is to call on God’s people to praise him. And in light of the royal theme in Psalm 72 (as well as the royal themes of Psalm 2 and the collective seam psalms), perhaps we should say that the purpose of the whole Psalter is to call on the community to praise the Lord for his kingship. God’s kingship can be realized through a godly human king or even in spite of the human king. God is king whether one acknowledges his authority or opposes him (or his anointed one). Remember: “He who sits in the heavens laughs!” because he has set his King on Zion (2:4, 6).
Now we are ready to consider how Psalm 72 more specifically offers Messianic hope. First, some have argued that the editing of the Psalter, with the strategic placement of royal psalms like Psalm 72 (see above), presupposes a “messianic interpretation of the royal psalms” (Pao and Schnabel 2007:372; cf. Heim 1995:231). Second, the idyllic manner in which the Davidic king is described in Psalm 72 is clearly fulfilled by the Messiah in the First Advent. Jesus embodies theocratic principles—putting God’s justice and God’s righteousness on display (cf., Isaiah 11:3-5). Jesus embodies the godly character described in the psalm—defending the poor, delivering the needy, crushing the oppressor, having compassion on the weak, valuing human life, and redeeming people from oppression and violence (Ps 72:4, 12-14). Jesus values all of this and does all of this! (See Matt 5:3-12; 25:34-40; etc.).
For this reason the New Testament writers seem to make allusions to Psalm 72. Matthew might allude to kings bearing tribute and bowing before the king (vv. 10-11, 15) in his account of the Magi (Matt 2:11). The Apostle John might also allude to bearing tribute when he says that the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:26). Luke might allude to the first part of v. 18 (“Blessed be the LORD God of Israel”) in the prophecy of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:68).
So we have considered the meanings of Psalm 72—originally as a coronation prayer for a Davidic king, and then as Israel’s prayer for the ideal king (which takes on a Messianic flavor). And now we can consider Psalm 72 as our prayer for the King of Kings.
Our Prayer for the King of Kings
From a Christian perspective the ultimate fulfillment of this psalm will come in the Second Advent—that is, the future return of Jesus. For Christians this Psalm casts a vision of our blessed hope, when the Messiah finally returns: to mete out justice and right all wrongs; to crush the ultimate oppressor—the adversary who will be cast into the lake of fire; to reign universally and eternally; to reconcile all things to himself. Consider the following verses in this light:
- “May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!” (72:5). This is about Messiah’s enduring reign.
- “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” (72:8). This is about Messiah’s universal reign. Notice how the post-exilic prophet Zechariah applies this verse to the Messiah (Zech 9:10b).
- “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (72:11).
- “May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (72:17).
These verses initially applied to the human king from the Davidic dynasty. And I think we should understand them as hyperbole when applied to the Davidic king at a coronation ceremony. But these verses will apply literally to Jesus at his second coming when his reign will have no end, his dominion will be worldwide, and all kings and all nations will be subject to him.
And then we must read verse 19 which is part of the doxology added later by the inspired editor. Speaking of God, the editor exclaims:
- “Blessed be his glorious name forever, may the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (72:19).
This is what Isaiah 66 and Revelation 21 are talking about! A new heaven and a new earth! This is what gets announced at the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!”
And so we see how Psalm 72 can give us a vision for a future hope. The psalm whets our appetite for what will be. It gives us words to articulate our deepest longings for a right world. This is what we mean by saying that Psalm 72 is “Our Prayer for the King of Kings.” According to one writer, “May the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (v. 19) is a prayer that “leaves us poised on the verge of God’s future kingdom, waiting breathlessly for the next chapter to begin” (Bullock 2015:551). C. S. Lewis, in The Last Battle, writes about the return of Aslan and his eternal reign that follows. He offers this wonderful description of the end of life in this world for the children:
But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. 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 (Ryken and Mead 2005:115).
Ah, that is the vision that we are all longing for! “May the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (v. 19).
Now we come full circle back to our consideration of the ancient Near Eastern context. At the start we mentioned the coronation hymn of King Ashurbanipal, and I suggested that Ashurbanipal’s hymn shares many thematic and rhetorical similarities with Psalm 72. But it’s noteworthy at this juncture to state what is different about these two texts. People in the ancient Near East did “set their hope on the king for justice and prosperity…but this hope never focused beyond the currently living king…Mesopotamians did not conceive of a future king who would usher in an ideal age. People considered only their contemporary king” in this idealistic manner. “In contrast, in the Old Testament one finds a progressively developing theme of hope for a future, worldwide kingdom, ruled by a Davidic king on behalf of Yahweh. This theme began to unfold in part through prophetic, royal psalms, such as Psalm 72” (Hilber 2009:377-378).
In other words, Mesopotamians had no future hope for an ideal Messianic deliverer who would bring ultimate justice to the world. Their ideal conceptions of kingship were only short-term, not long-term. They had no eschatology (the study of end times). Eschatology was not actually possible in their worldview. Royal hope was merely a present platitude; they had no royal vision for the future, because they had no living God like YHWH who makes covenants and reveals his long term plans for his people. The main difference, then, between Psalm 72 and Ashurbanipal’s coronation hymn is a theological one. The God of the Bible gives us hope for both the present and the future!
Ancient Israelites and Christians today can therefore say “Long live the King!” (v. 15). But it’s not because the previous king is dead. No, for us the king is alive! He did die, of course (to deliver the needy, crush the oppressor, redeem people from oppression--fulfilling the values of the ideal king), but now he’s resurrected and seated at the right hand of God (Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; etc.)! That’s a royal vision of Jesus! So we can announce “The King is alive! Long live the King!”
Life in Psalms
Can you own that proclamation? Do you believe your king is alive and returning for you? What would this mean for you—that your King lives? The following disciplines and exercises are suggestions to help you engage with the King in light of this study.
Adopt God’s Values:
Identify some ways that you can defend the poor, deliver the needy, oppose oppressors, show compassion to the weak, value human life, and redeem people from violence (see Ps 72:4, 12-14). Consider what Jesus meant by helping “the least of these my brothers” (Matt 25:40).
If God is King over every facet of your life, then your relationships, spending, conversations, politics, investments, and personal habits should show it. Take some time to evaluate one of your regular activities and ask God to show you his priorities for that area.
Write a Psalm:
Compose a prayer of praise for the King who rescues you, defends your cause, and blesses you with peace and prosperity. Or, compose a prayer of longing for the King who will bring ultimate justice, crush the oppressor, and fill the whole earth with his glory.
Bible Study on Psalms 69-72:
These four psalms share verbal and thematic correspondence, and the group provides a coherent conclusion to Book 2. Look for the following connections in your own study on Psalms 69-72: praise of God, generations, poor/needy/afflicted, God’s name, redeem/ransom, deliver/save/rescue, righteous(ness), continually, wait/hope, etc. (see Bullock 2015:552-553).
Sing praises to the King:
Many songs capture aspects of the themes that emerge from the study of Psalm 72. Contemporary songs might include Chris Tomlin’s “Famous One” and “You are my King,” or Matt Redman’s “Blessed be Your Name.” Traditional hymns might include “O Worship the King,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”
- “Keynotes” is Howard’s term (2013:200, 202, 204, 206).
- Of course, this is also how Psalm 1—and the whole Psalter—begins: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked...” (Ps 1:1 ESV). Blessing terminology is also expressed at the major structural junctures of the Psalter: see 1:1; 2:12; 41:1; 72:17; 89:15; 106:3 (see Bullock 2015:544-545).
- Psalm 72 may contain additional allusions to imagery from the book of Genesis (see Schnittjer 2006:186-187).
- That is, the original psalm spans vv. 1b-17 (exhibiting a chiastic structure with v. 8 at the center) and is framed by the superscription (v. 1a) and doxology (vv. 18-20); see Heim 1995:226-231, 248.
- The term was proposed by G. H. Wilson in his seminal dissertation on The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter.
- See Howard 2013:204; Webster and Beach 2010:107; and see footnote 2 above.
- James Mays argues for the kingship of YHWH as a central theme of the whole Psalter (Mays 1994:231-246). See also Howard 2013; Walton 1991; cf., Psalms 47; 93-99.
- See Blomberg 2007:5; Hossfeld and Zenger 2005:220; Wright 2014:68; see also Isa 60:6.
- See Pao and Schnabel 2007:263. Of course, Luke 1:68 might also allude to 1 Kgs 1:48 or to other seam psalms like Ps 41:13; 106:48.
- Psalm 72:8 is thus an example of a “Class II” Messianic prophecy (quoted in a later Class I context); see Walton and Hill 2004:247. Heim helpfully shows the four-stage intertextual history of this verse from Exod 23:31 to Ps 72:8 to Zech 9:10 to Matt 21:5 and John 12:15 (see Heim 1995:244-247).
- For the hyperbolic and literal/universal distinction, see Heim 1995:240-242, 244, 245; Selman 1995:286.
- Both quotes in this paragraph are from Hilber 2009:377-378; cf., Selman 1995:286; Walton 2018:267; Walton and Keener 2016:947.
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