Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a regular series of reflections on the blog here. The goal is for every week to look at the Psalm reading for the upcoming Sunday as set out in the lectionary. This Sunday celebrates Epiphany which recognizes the arrival of the Magi bringing their gifts before the newborn Jesus. With that in mind, today’s Psalm should seem very appropriate.
Let the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute;
let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts.
Let all the kings bow down before him;
let all the nations serve him.
Let it be so, because he delivers the needy who cry out,
the poor, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the weak and the needy;
he saves the lives of those who are in need.
He redeems their lives from oppression and violence;
their blood is precious in his eyes.
Let the king live long!
Let Sheba’s gold be given to him!
Let him be prayed for always!
Let him be blessed all day long!
Psalm 72:10-15 (CEB)
In this Psalm, the works of the King have attracted the attention of the whole earth (hence the connection with the Wise Men). Tarshish may sound familiar from the story of Jonah when he tried (and failed) to sail away from God by sailing to Tarshish. For the Bible, then, Tarshish often stands as the farthest point West that one might travel. Sheba and Seba are often associated Southern Arabia and Ethiopia. You might also recall that a Queen of Sheba visited Solomon when she heard about his wisdom and riches. So, here we have the kings of the world coming from the ends of the earth to offer gifts, bow down before and serve this king. What I find interesting in this psalm is why they come.
They do not come because of the king’s riches or wisdom.
They do not come because of the king’s military might or political prowess.
They do not come because of the king’s good looks or great architectural achievements.
The kings of the world come before this king because, “he delivers the needy who cry out…he redeems their lives from oppression and violence.”
This ideal king has not used his power and position to bring greater glory to himself. His rule is not established by “divine right” or the might of his armies. This ideal king is defined by his care, concern and salvation of the poor, needy, oppressed and violated. This ideal king has listened and attended to the matters of the lowest in society. The king stands up for “those who have no helper” and because their “blood is precious in his eyes” he is deeply grieved and saddened when their blood is spilled. Artur Weiser writes in his commentary on the Psalms:
“Behind the king’s pity is God’s compassion for the weak and that regard for the life and dignity of the individual human being which causes the blessing of mercy and beneficence to redound on the giver and unites the leader and those he leads in a mutual bond of intercession that is stronger than all power and violence.”
Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, 1962. p. 504
Here’s the sad part of this psalm though. Most biblical scholars and commentators believe this to be an “Enthronement” psalm. This means that this psalm could very well have been read at the feast/celebration/hullabaloo when a new king took the throne in Israel. Now, go back and read the books of Kings and tell me how many kings of Israel and Judah actually did this? You could probably guess that there were not many of the kings who followed this ideal. Even the great king Solomon seems to have had little regard for the poor and put many of them into forced labor for his great building projects.
What would it look like for a king or queen to actually act this way? How would his or her kingdom be different?
This type of care and concern for the other creates bonds that run deeper and hold stronger than any show of force or political cunning could ever imagine to build. A king that cares this much for his people would truly have a great kingdom. One that should definitely attract the attention of three Magi from the east.