Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Covenants and the Role of the King in Psalm 72

Within Psalm 72 are seen references to at least two different Old Testament covenants. The most obvious Old Testament covenant present in Psalm 72 is the Davidic Covenant. Within this covenant, God makes a promise to King David that he will always have a descendant on the throne. God promises that the royal line of David will never end. The first possible reference to the Davidic Covenant in Psalm 72 is in verse 1, which says, “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” Within this verse is seen a reference to both the “king” and the “royal son.” These two references may also be translated as the “king” and the “king’s son.” The psalmist is asking God to provide the king with the ability to act justly as well as to grant righteousness to the king’s son. [1] In other words, the psalmist desires that certain godly attributes, such as justice and righteousness be associated with the royal family – both the king and the descendants of the king.

The role of the king and his descendants as people who will act with justice and righteousness in the eyes of God is a concept that is not foreign to the texts of the Davidic Covenant. When God establishes his covenant with David, God expects David and his descendants to act in faithfulness to him and to reign over the people of God with justice and righteousness. [2] When this covenant is renewed at the dedication of the Temple by Solomon, God says to Solomon, “…if you walk before me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel.’” (2 Chr. 7:17-18). God also warns Solomon that if he and his descendants fail to remain faithful then Israel will be torn from the land. (2 Chr. 7:19-22). This renewal of the covenant sounds somewhat different than the initial covenant given to David in 2 Samuel 7. David Jobling says, “The classic formulation of 2 Sam 7:14-15 unambiguously states that the unfaithfulness of one of David's successors to Yahweh will not mean the end of the covenant.” [3] In that version, God says of Solomon, “When he does wrong, I will punish him […] But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’” (v. 14-16). Both versions say that the descendant of David will be punished if they are unfaithful, but as a post-exilic text, 2 Chronicles gives a much harsher punishment than that of 2 Samuel. [4] Both, however, seem to indicate the great importance of the faithfulness to God of the Davidic ruler. The writer of Psalm 72 asks God to help the Davidic ruler be faithful.

Verse 2 of the psalm continues to carry this idea forward, asking that God grant the king the ability to “judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.” Verse four also says, “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy…” Within the Davidic Covenant, God promises blessings to David and to his descendants, but God also expects that David and his descendants will walk before him in righteousness, and that they will defend the people. Verses 12-14 also speak of how the king is to defend and look out for the helpless and the needy. This psalm is showing that the true Davidic king is the one who acts on behalf of the people, and not simply one who inherits the throne by birth. Walter Houston writes, “A king who is not just, who does not care for the poor, who does not allow the prayer for God's righteousness to be fulfilled in himself, is not in reality God's king.” [5]

In verse 5, the psalmist asks that the king may “endure as long as the sun.” This could be interpreted as perhaps granting the eternal preservation of the king – as the sun lasts forever, so may the king last forever. This is not indicating that the king will never die, but it does indicate the long-lasting and perhaps eternal nature of the position of the king. The king will endure forever through his offspring, who will carry on the royal lineage through the generations. This is seen again in verse 17, which says, “May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun.” The name of the king will endure forever through his offspring as indicated in the Davidic Covenant. David’s lineage will endure, even long after David’s death. Again, the everlasting nature of the Davidic line is likened to the everlasting nature of the sun.

While the Davidic Covenant is the most obvious covenant at work within Psalm 72, this psalm is unique in that it also directly references the Abrahamic Covenant. Christopher Wright says, “These echoes of the Abraham tradition are greatly amplified in the poetic materials concerning the link between the throne of David and God’s purpose for the nations beyond Israel.” [6] The second half of verse 17 reads, “Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed.” Within the Abrahamic Covenant God uses these same words to describe the nature of the covenant they are making. God promises Abraham that he will provide him with a son and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5). God also says that through Abraham all nations will be blessed (Gen. 18:18; 22:18). As in the Davidic Covenant later, God requires of Abraham to walk before him “faithfully and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1) Both David and Abraham are to be righteous in the sight of God, and God promises to both of them that he will make their names great and will give them descendants.

The way the writer of Psalm 72 associates the Abrahamic Covenant directly to the Davidic Covenant indicates that the idea had developed that the Davidic Dynasty was not only a fulfillment of God’s promise to David and to Israel, but that the Davidic king was also a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and to the whole world. James Luther Mays writes, “The prayer envisions and prays for a king who will make it possible for the people of God and the nations of the world to live in the kingdom of God.” [7] The Davidic King then would not only fulfill his proper place in Israel, but would also be a blessing to all peoples on earth. Mays also writes, “His name should endure forever, and the nations bless themselves by that name as God's promise to Abraham is kept through him…” [8]

The Davidic and Abrahamic Covenants are not the only covenants found in the Old Testament; however, evidence of references to other covenants within Psalm 72 seems limited at best. Though, other psalms within Book II of the larger work of Psalms provide references to other Old Testament covenants of God. It would seem, however, that because of the nature of Psalm 72, only references to Abraham and David were needed to make the point that the Davidic ruler was to be a blessing to the people of Israel as well as the rest of the world.

Some of the language of Psalm 72, however, may indicate more subtle references to some of the ideas presented in other Old Testament Covenants or words of promise from the mouth of God. Some of the language used within Psalm 72 may be referred to as “serpent language,” in that some of the expressions used are the same ones used to describe the serpent imagery of Genesis 3. In Genesis 3, God says that the descendant of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. [9] This type of imagery is seen in other places in the Old Testament, where the enemy of God who is described as having serpent-like qualities receives a crushing head wound. One example would be Goliath, whose armor is described as having the appearance of “scales.” David defeats Goliath with a blow to the head. [10] Another example would be the story of Jael, who drives a tent peg through the head, or temple, of General Sisera, who is a serpent-type. [11] This kind of language is not uncommon throughout the Old Testament, and it appears to be used at least somewhat in Psalm 72. Verse 4 says of the king, “may he crush the oppressor.” One may think back to image of the serpent’s head being crushed. Verse 9 also says, “May the desert tribes bow before him and his enemies lick the dust.” This may be referring back to the curse of God upon the serpent in Genesis 3, where the serpent is doomed to crawl on his belly and eat, or lick, the dust. So just as the enemy of Genesis 3 is cursed to lick dust and to be crushed, so the Davidic king will be God’s agent in carrying out this punishment against the enemies of God and his people, causing them to “lick the dust” and to “be crushed.” While this kind of language might not be associated with a covenant agreement between God and his servant/servants necessarily, it is still associated with a promise of God regarding the descendants of the recipient of the promise. [12]

Some of the language of Psalm 72 may also reflect some of the language in God’s covenant with Noah. Within the Noahic Covenant is seen a promise that the seasons of the earth will be set indefinitely.[13] God promises in Genesis 8:22, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” This promise indicates the eternal nature of the established patterns of the earth – that the seasons and the days and the times will continue to rotate forever, or at least as long as the earth is around. [14] Psalm 72 uses this same kind of language, referencing the perceived eternal nature of nature itself and of the created order to describe the righteous reign of the Davidic king. Verse 5 says, “May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.” The sun and the moon are the means by which people measured the passage of time. The psalmist says that just like the sun and the moon’s eternal mark on the passage of time, so also the Davidic rule shall be an eternal marker of the passage of time, because the Davidic king will always endure. Also, language of the different seasons is used in Psalm 72, similarly to the Noahic Covenant. Verse 6 says, “May he be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth.” Just as the rainy season always comes to bless the people year after year, so may the Davidic king also bless the people year after year. However, this type of language is also used in 2 Samuel to describe the effects of the Davidic king who reigns in righteousness, [15] so it would seem that this would be the more likely source for this language than the Noahic Covenant.

Besides addressing the significance of the Davidic and Abrahamic Covenants (and possibly some others) of the Old Testament in regard to the Davidic ruler and placing him in that context, Psalm 72 also speaks to the specific role of the Davidic king and describes what the psalmist believes to be the calling of the king. The role of the king is made clear in Psalm 72. Psalm 72 is interesting in that it appears to be attributed to more than one specific person. At the beginning of the psalm, it reads, “Of Solomon,” however, at the very end of the psalm one finds the words in verse 20, “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.” Psalm 72 is located within a section of Psalms attributed to David, yet Psalm 72 itself is attributed to Solomon in some way. Houston writes, “The speaker is anonymous, in fact invisible. There is no use of the first person anywhere in the text. The speaker is as faceless as the omniscient narrator of Hebrew narrative. It therefore becomes a delicate question to decide whom the speaker represents.” [16]

If Psalm 72 is to be interpreted as actually being written by David then one must ask about whom is David speaking. Verse 1 calls upon God to work in the life of not only the king, but also the king’s son. If David is seen as the author of this psalm, then perhaps David is asking not only for God’s blessing upon his own reign, but also upon the reign of his son Solomon, who would succeed him. [17] One might interpret this as David’s personal blessing upon Solomon, indicating that Solomon would be the one to carry on the Davidic dynasty. [18]

However, if David did not personally write Psalm 72 and it was written by someone else, it would seem that whoever wrote it was interested in showing how David was an honorable king who protected the people and provided for the needy. Throughout the Deuteronomistic History David is portrayed as the ideal king, especially when compared with his predecessor, Saul. Saul is portrayed as a “bungler from the beginning,” and the narrative purposely contrasts Saul’s demise with David’s rise. [19] Psalm 72 may be an attempt to show the good quality of David as king. While this psalm shows in a way David’s faithfulness, it does not seem to be limited to just David himself. Kaiser writes, “[I]t is, nevertheless, the whole royal house of David that is the concern of the psalmist.” [20] So while David is a part of the house of David and may serve as the representative of the whole, the psalm is not specifically about him, though it is attributed to him.

Psalm 72 is also attributed to Solomon, and one may see more obvious connections to Solomon than perhaps to David. It would seem then that David did not write Psalm 72, but that it was merely written in remembrance of him. [21] Aspects of the life of Solomon are clearly present within the psalm itself. Solomon fulfills the expectations of Psalm 72. He seems to be the epitome of the perfect Davidic king. Solomon’s wisdom is described as being greater than the wisdom of all who came before him and after him (1 Kgs 3:12), and many kings and rulers from around the world are reported to have traveled to see him and to hear his wisdom (1 Kgs 4:34). Psalm 72:10-11 says, “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” Solomon fulfills this aspect of the psalm. Even the reference to Sheba by the psalm seems to indicate that the writer is indeed referring to Solomon. In 1 Kings 10, the Queen of Sheba is reported to have traveled to see Solomon and to hear his wisdom. She is said to have brought gifts to him as well, just as the psalm says the king of Sheba does. Psalm 72:15 also says, “May gold from Sheba be given him.” One of the gifts Solomon received from the Queen of Sheba was gold. Solomon fits well into the role of the Davidic monarch in Psalm 72.

However, immediately following the passage about the Queen of Sheba’s visit the text records that Solomon received 666 talents of gold annually in addition to further amounts of gold (1 Kgs. 10:14-15). The text uses the number 666 intentionally to portray Solomon negatively. [22] Verses 18-20 go on to describe the gold throne Solomon made for himself, describing it as having six steps with six gold lions on the left and six on the right. Again, a set of three sixes is used here to suggest that Solomon’s intentions are far from righteous. [23]

If Solomon wrote Psalm 72, then it would seem that he was drawing from his own life experience and speaking of himself. [24] However, Solomon is recorded in Kings as not having asked for gold or riches of God, but only wisdom. So it would seem that if Solomon did write this psalm, he has lost his former humility as portrayed in Kings and desires the world to pay tribute to him. It seems unlikely then that Solomon is the author of this psalm, but rather someone who was familiar with the reign of Solomon. [25] If that is the case, then the writer of the psalm may also be familiar with Solomon’s failures.

While Solomon is portrayed as the ideal Davidic king in both Kings and seemingly Psalm 72, Solomon is also portrayed in a rather negative light. Kings records that he married seven hundred wives and had three hundred concubines, and that his wives led him astray into worshiping other gods (1 Kgs. 11:1-8). Deuteronomy speaks of the role of the king, and specifically states that the king is not to have many wives, many horses, and much gold (Deut. 17:16-17). 1 Kings says Solomon had many wives (11:1-4), many horses (10:26-29), and much gold (10:14-21). Solomon also built places of worship to foreign gods in addition to building the Temple of Yahweh (11:7-8). Solomon also forced the people into what seems to have been slave labor (1 Kgs 5:13-18). According to 1 Kings 9 however, Solomon did not make slaves out of any of the Israelites, but only those Canaanites who still lived in the land (9:20-23). Yet in chapter 12, after the death of Solomon the people go to his son Rehoboam and plead with him to lighten the heavy load that his father Solomon had placed upon them (12:1-4). Rehoboam responds by saying, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” (12:14). Both the people and Solomon’s own son believe Solomon to have been a very harsh ruler over Israel. At this point Solomon sounds more like Pharaoh than the righteous Davidic king. Psalm 72 affirms Solomon’s recognition of the poor and needy, but it also seems to imply that Solomon did not follow through with his responsibility completely. The Davidic king is clearly called to look out for the needs of the poor and to defend the people from harm. Kaiser writes:

While a king like Solomon, who during his prosperous rule of peace and prosperity, may have carried out some of this, it is clear that, at least by the end of his reign, the ten northern tribes felt that Solomon had badly failed them, for they had been overtaxed and treated unfairly in comparison with how Judah had been favored. [26]

So it would seem that while Solomon may have been the perfect example of the righteous Davidic king for a time, he was not always this way. Kaiser again says that “the kings of Israel rarely exercised their office in accordance with the Torah of God as provided for in the kingship law in Deut 17:14-20 in particular.” [27] He goes on to say that “when the Royal Psalms are read in their contextual settings in the Psalter, the Psalter tended to direct our attention beyond the contemporary expression of kingship in Israel to a future king who would exceed the best examples, even of those in the Davidic line.” [28]

With this information in mind, perhaps the writer of Psalm 72 is recalling all of the good things about Solomon, but hoping that someone will arise from David’s line that would be righteous in the ways that Solomon was righteous but not fail in the ways that Solomon failed. John Durham writes, “When a given Davidic king fell short of the ideal posed by the concept of an anointed one of Yahweh—and all of them did, of course, even David himself, […] — the nation's hopes were redirected towards a Davidic king yet to come.” [29] Psalm 72 falls at the end of the section of Psalms attributed to David, yet this psalm is also attributed to Solomon, so this may mean that the writer is recalling the Davidic covenant and how Solomon started out faithful to the covenant but ended up being unfaithful. If this is the case, then the writer of the Psalm may in fact be hoping for a future anointed one to rise up from David’s line in order to completely fulfill the requirements of the Davidic promise, which would include the link to the Abrahamic promise in which the Davidic ruler is understood as being the one from the line of Abraham who would cause all nations on earth to be blessed. This desire for the ideal king who would come and reign as portrayed in the psalms is a significant contributor to the messianism that would later develop in Judaism. This desire arose from a consistent lack of faithful leadership by the Davidic rulers over time. [30] Mowinckel writes, “It is affliction, the need for help, and a hope of change in the situation, which makes the royal ideology relevant because of its reference to the future, and presents to the imagination the picture of an ideal king either in the immediate future or as already present.” [31] The psalmist recognizes Solomon’s contribution to the fulfillment of this promise in how he was a sort of blessing upon the whole world, to the point that rulers from across the earth came to him to hear his wisdom, however, the psalmist also recognizes that Solomon fell short in that he did not remain faithful to God and turned away to false gods and idolatry and did not follow the other commands of God to the point of becoming a curse to his own people by forcing them to pay heavy taxes and making many of them his slaves to work in the mines and elsewhere. To summarize this final point, the author of Psalm 72 remembers the Davidic Covenant and the faithfulness of David, recognizes Solomon’s good start and ultimate failure, and hopes for the coming of the future faithful Davidic ruler, the one who will fulfill both the Davidic and the Abrahamic Covenants and cause all people on earth to be blessed.


[1] Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The One Who Is to Come. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007.
[2] Wright, Christopher J. H. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1992.
[3] Jobling, David. "Deconstruction and the Political Analysis of Biblical Texts: A Jamesonian Reading of Psalm 72." Semeia no. 59 (January 1, 1992): 95-127.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Houston, Walter J. "The King's Preferential Option for the Poor: Rhetoric, Ideology and Ethics in Psalm 72." Biblical Interpretation 7, no. 4 (October 1, 1999): 341-367.
[6] Wright.
[7] Mays, James Luther. "In a vision": the portrayal of the messiah in the Psalms." Ex Auditu 7, (Jan. 1, 1991): 1-8.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Wright.
[10] Dr. Ray Vander Laan. “Focus Institute Lecture Series: The Blood Path.” (lecture presented at Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colorado, March 2009).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Wright.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kaiser, Walter C, Jr. "Psalm 72: an historical and messianic current example of Antiochene hermeneutical theoria." Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 257-270.
[16] Houston.
[17] Wilson, Gerald H. "The use of royal psalms at the "seams" of the Hebrew Psalter." Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament no. 35 (June 1, 1986): 85-94.
[18] Houston.
[19] Kenneth I. Cohen. “King Saul—A Bungler from the Beginning.” Biblical Archaeology Society Archive. 10:05 (Oct 1994).
[20] Kaiser.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Vander Laan.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Kaiser.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Durham, John I. "The king as "messiah" in the Psalms." Review & Expositor 81, no. 3 (June 1, 1984): 425-435.
[30] Mowinckel, Sigmund. He that Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005.
[31] Ibid.

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