Epiphany, 2012, Jan. 8 Psalm 72 – Vision of a New Social Order
Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
“A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning
What are you reaching for, hoping for, working for? Perhaps a world at peace? A better world for your children and their children? What are your dreams?
Our psalmist for today has a dream, a dream of a better world, a better social order, a world ruled by a king who is truly righteous and just. Psalm 72 is a coronation psalm; it contains prayers for a new king, prayers that he might lead well, with God’s justice. Not only that, that his son might be righteous as well, with good reason. Many a good king has been followed by less than exemplary children. The fact of being born into the household of the king does not automatically make the person right for leadership. And so it is wise to pray for the king and his son.
The writer prays for a king who will judge with righteousness and bring justice to the poor, an important role for kings of those days, role of judge. He prays for prosperity for the people, but especially he prays that the king will be a defender of the poor and needy. He prays not just for long life for the king, but stability. The many blessings sound like a toast at a dinner party, yet they are more than that. The poet prays that the king provide order in four different areas: moral, social, political and economic.
Verse 5 refers to the king as the symbol and vehicle of moral stability. “The basic element of a moral order is its timelessness; any suspicion that it may be subject to the caprice of man or the exigencies of group life destroys its power to command contain behavior. As it is put here, righteousness will flourish only if it is as durable as the moon. Another striking observation follows: the moral order which the king symbolizes rest not alone on an absolute and immutable base; it is characterized by a spiritual quality presented in the simile of falling rain.” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, pp. 382-383) This brings to mind, Portia’s statement on mercy in the Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1 “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” So the king is to be first and foremost a righteous man, concerned for the poor of his country, providing justice tempered with mercy.
Upon the base of this moral order the king builds a social structure, one based on gentleness and care for his people. Such a social structure will have an impact far beyond the national level, or the realm of the kingdom, resulting in alliances with other kingdoms, building political security on an international level. Vss 8-11 describe the new king’s dominion. His enemies bow down before him, even the kings of Tarshish and Sheba and Seba bring him gifts. Vs. 9 does not mean abject groveling of defeated enemies, to lick the dust refers to the homage ordinarily given to a king. Nations do not bow down to him because of military conquest but because of his just and merciful ruling of his country as we see in verses 12-14, he delivers the needy, has pity on the weak. This implies that the way to true political security is not through war but good example, focusing on right governance of your own country. In this way, all will be drawn to the goodness present.
The result of all of these, moral, social and political order, is economic security, shown in vs. 16 as an abundance of grain and growth in population. The poet then ends with a benediction, blessing God, as the conclusion not of Psalm 72, but of Book II of the Psalter, Psalms 42-72. Verse 20 is an addendum perhaps to separate “Davidic” psalms from those by “Asaph.”
We can see in this psalm, an early effort to dream of a world order of peace and righteousness. The poet uses the social structure of the time, kings and kingdoms, to envision this reality. He dreams of a king who will do all of the above and more so that the world would experience peace and prosperity. The need for some type of organization, ways to order our lives together, has been present from the beginning, going from a tribal structure to kingdoms to democracy. As one commentator states, “Despite man’s doubtful success in creating a world order and administering it, the dream and the effort to achieve it are very ancient and engaging.” (p. 380) This dream of a world order that works has been around for a long time. That it needs to be based on sound moral order has also been around for a long time. A commentator writing in 1950 wrote: “. . . that our own disordered society will not return to security and peace except by rebuilding the moral bases that in recent years have been everywhere shaken and in some places reduced to rubble.” (p. 385) Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Seems I’ve heard the same comments recently. People for ages have longed for a world of peace, a world where it is easier to be good than evil, where righteousness prevails and the poor and vulnerable are protected.
Throughout the centuries people have sought to create new social orders. They have utopian visions of communities where all shared equally, like the early Christian community which we know only lasted for a short time. Still a beautiful dream while it lasted. In the 4th century the desert fathers and mothers sought to grow closer to God through communal life in the desert. Different religious communities have formed over the years, each with their own rules and order for their life together. I recently returned from a retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI, an Episcopal monastery following the rule of St. Benedict. The community of brothers meets together for prayer seven times a day, beginning with matins at 4a.m. In prayers and chants their voices blend together so that none stick out, a form of unity within community. I’m sure like all communities they have their differences and disagreements, however it’s comforting to know that there are communities of people getting up during the wee hours of the morning when others are sound asleep or just getting to sleep after a night out, in order to pray for the world. I don’t believe it’s a matter of finding the right “rule” or way to order a community for it seems to be part of our fallen nature to disagree. Still we strive for that ideal vision.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the coming of the three kings to Bethlehem. It isn’t the end of the Christmas season but rather the beginning of a new season, the season of Epiphany. An epiphany is a manifestation of God. During the season of Epiphany we reflect further on the light of Christ that shone in the darkness, the light that continues to the present day, the light that Isaiah speaks of in our passage today, the light of Christ that the three kings, three dreamers, recognized in a small baby.
Our psalm is often attributed to the Messiah, the one true king, under whose reign, there will be peace on earth. The three kings came from far away, following a star, in hopes of seeing this great king. What they find is a baby, yet they recognize this baby for who he was, the Messiah, the one true king who will bring lasting peace to the earth. In Isaiah we hear how nations will come to the light of God; all peoples shall bow down before our God and king. Paul works to bring the good news of salvation, the light of Christ, to the Gentiles. All people, Jew, Gentile, bow down before the one true king.
The problem with all social systems lies not in the structure but in the people. There is no magical structure or set of laws or form of governance that will bring about a true and lasting peace to the earth; all are flawed because we as people are flawed. This true and lasting peace is dependent on a just king, the one and true king, Jesus. If we are to someday have that dream of peace, then we must first begin with ourselves, to live lives of peace, devoted to our God, then we, too, shall be a light to the nations. Others will be drawn to us because of our goodness, so that someday all will live in peace under the leadership of our God.
What began in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago continues to this day. We are a part of and a continuation of this dream. Our reach exceeds our grasp as we build upon a foundation others started and future generations will continue. This is a dream worth devoting your whole life to, a dream for this life and the next.
Robertson, copyright 2012