Luca Giordano, Dream of Solomon, (1694-1695)
1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield 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 needy, and crush the oppressor.
5 May he live 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 righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
8 May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
12 For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have 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.
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 day long.
16 May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; 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 all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.
18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.
20 The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.
This royal psalm which looks with optimism at the coronation of new king could easily be met with cynicism for multiple reasons, but even our jaded imaginations have something to learn from this psalms vision of the way the nation, properly administered, could be. One reason for our jaded imaginations can be our own experience with politicians and powerbrokers who claim to be ‘protectors of the poor’ but a sober examination of their actions highlights the ways in which they have enriched themselves or their allies. The biblical narration of Israel and Judah’s history of monarchs as told by 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and the recorded witness of the prophets tell a vastly different story from the utopic vision of kingship imagined by this psalm and other places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Particularly in a time where dystopic literature has become a dominant way of telling stories that highlight uncomfortable truths we may have little interest in the seemingly idealistic vision of what a monarch or political leader can mean for a people and the world. Yet, there is some undying residue of hope that is essential to the Jewish and Christian worldview: a belief in what God can do through the right person to further God’s kingdom.
The bracketing of this psalm by the names of the first two Davidic kings, David and Solomon, provides two initial reading possibilities. One possibility is that the psalm is written by Solomon, perhaps early in his reign before he turns his wisdom to acquisition, and it reflects Solomon’s request for wisdom to, “discern between good and evil” so that he may faithfully govern the people of Israel. (1 Kings 3: 1-14) Another possible reading suggested by the closing of this psalm is that this is a final psalm of David at the ascension of his son, Solomon, and the superscription indicates that the psalm refers to Solomon. Narratively I prefer this second option where David pronounces a blessing on the upcoming and hopeful coronation of his son without knowing how Solomon’s later choices will turn away from this vision. It makes less sense for Solomon writing this at some later date even though it indicates knowledge of events within the early reign of Solomon. The psalm may be written at a later date tapping into the hope of the Solomonic reign, and trying to provide another witness to the incoming king, along with Deuteronomy 17: 14-20, to encourage the new ruler to examine their rule in light of God’s covenantal expectations for the people and the nation’s part in God’s reign on earth.
The Davidic monarch was one of the central symbols of God’s provision for the people and when Israel and Judah narrate their history it is centered on a theological judgment of each king’s faithfulness. The king, the temple, and the land are all viewed as a means through which God can provide protection and care for the people. The focus of Psalm 72 is the king and how the “regular rhythm between covenantal imperatives addressed to the king and divine promises made to the king that are conditioned on the imperatives.” (Brueggemann 2014, 313) The king is to lead in a way that enables the entire nation, including the exploited poor of the people, to experience God’s justice and the blessings that come from it. This covenant shaped imagination of what the society of the people of God could be is a strong contrast to the societies of Egypt where the people had served as slaves for the benefit of the Pharaoh. Now the king is to be a defender of the cause of the poor rather than their exploiter.
The covenantal imperatives of justice and righteousness by the king’s reign over the people lead to the divine promise of shalom which comes forth from the creation for the people. Living in accordance with the vision of God is expected to bring about wholeness, completeness, harmony, and both personal and communal well-being and prosperity. A non-exploitative government overseen by a faithful monarch who judges and defends the needs according to God’s justice and righteousness may contradict the self-interest of the ruler to accumulate personal power and wealth, but this psalm shares the vision of Deuteronomy.
16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. (Deuteronomy 17: 16-17)
It is God who ultimately provides longevity and prosperity for the king, and through the king for all the people. One could perhaps make the accusation that this is a divine trickle-down economics, but that would fundamentally misunderstand the covenantal identity of the people and the way that the law was intended to structure the society they lived in. Yet the kings faithful reign was to be a blessing for not only the people of Israel, but also a force that nourished the land like rain showers on the soil.
Throughout the royal psalms there is an expectation that God will extend God’s power and reign over the nations through the king. Psalms 2, 18, 20,21, and 45 (all royal psalms directly referring to the king) expect God to provide deliverance for the faithful king and people from the military might of the nations that surround them and to extend God’s reign beyond the boundaries of Israel. Some view this a endorsing a larger empire that conquers the lands that stretch from the ocean to the Euphrates river where Jerusalem becomes an imperial capital, but Israel was never a military powerhouse that could establish an empire nor does the vision of the ideal king rest on military might or prowess. The psalm imagery also imagines Jerusalem as the trade center of the world with wealth and gifts from the ends of the earth flowing through the gates of the city in tribute. But the psalm, after leaning into these images of greater influence and wealth immediately returns to the cause of this experience of prosperity: the king’s justice and deliverance of the poor and needy.
In the royal psalms the king is often viewed as God’s special vessel and a way in which the people of Israel and beyond would come to know what their God is like. The king, like their God, is one who saves the weak from oppression and violence, provides justice and righteousness to the needy, restrains the powerful and creates a space where the shalom of God can be received. They become a means for the God’s kingdom to be experienced on earth. The choice to follow a different ideal of leadership by most of the kings of Israel and Judah would give rise to the fiery words of the prophets. Just as the good king is credited with extending the reign of God in this psalm, the unfaithful rulers are judged by God for their unfaithful shepherding of God’s people. The psalm may have originally ended with verse seventeen which has a natural closing with the king assuming the vocation of Abraham in language that mirrors Genesis 12: 1-3, “that all nations may be blessed in him.”
The psalm, as we receive it, transitions from the king to the God of Israel in worship and praise and then closes this section of the psalter by indicating this is the last of David’s psalms. The primary actor throughout the psalms is the God of Israel, but the faithful ones who intercede, give thanks, and sometimes lead on behalf of that God may also be a part of the reign of God extending to the ends of the earth. The people of Israel and the writers of the psalms experienced times of oppression by enemies, the struggle of living under unfaithful leaders, and yet they lived in hope of God’s protection and action. Modern people may be critical of this psalm or Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 as utopic visions that are incompatible with the self-interested nature of humans, yet I’m not convinced that our dystopic visions have been any more effective at challenging the misuse of power. Deuteronomy and this psalm provide a vision for a faithful leader to enact a portion of God’s reign on earth and also provide the language for the prophetic critique of leaders who become unfaithful shepherds of the flock God entrusted to them.
 Hebrew shalom which is often translate ‘peace’ but has broader connotations of wholeness, completeness, well-being and prosperity.
 The word here and in the following verse is once again nephesh which is often translated ‘soul’ but in Hebrew refers to the entirety of ‘life.’