THE KING WE NEED
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 2, 2016; 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A
Psalm 72:1-19; Matthew 3:1-12
“Give the king your justice, O God…
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor. ”
Well, the presidential election is over. It’s been over for more than a month, now. Lots of us, in those final weeks, were wishing it was over even then — so bitter was the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The nastiness, the name-calling, the threats, the outright lies: it was not a campaign America can be proud of.
And it’s not over yet. The outcome is not in doubt: despite the recounts and the internet petitions asking members of the Electoral College to change their votes. In January, Mr. Trump will be inaugurated as our next President, even though two and a half million more Americans voted for his opponent than for him. The Electoral College is part of our Constitution, and Mr. Trump has clearly won a majority of electors. So, he will be our President.
When I say “It’s not over yet,” what I mean is that the nation is still terribly unsettled: more unsettled than at any time I can remember. The pollsters tell us that a great many of us cast our votes not so much in favor of one candidate as against the other. That’s a recipe for dissatisfaction, no matter what the outcome.
It will be our responsibility, as Christians living within this great democracy, to pray for the success of our new President. We will do so, here in worship — and I hope we’ll do so in our private prayers as well.
Yet, when we pray for Mr. Trump’s success, what are we praying for? What does God seek, in a national leader?
One place we can turn, in the scriptures, for an answer to that question is Psalm 72. The Bible scholars call this a “royal psalm.” By this they mean it focuses on the kings of Israel. Many have called this a “coronation psalm.” The ancient Israelites didn’t crown their kings — they anointed them with oil — but it does seem clear this psalm was used, somehow, in Temple worship, to inaugurate a new king. It’s a prayer for the king’s success.
We don’t have kings here in America, of course. We have presidents. They don’t serve for life — and for the time they do serve, they’re constrained by constitutional “checks and balances” such as King David or the Emperor Augustus never knew. But still, they are rulers of people, and as such, there are certain benchmarks we can use to gauge whether or not they are good rulers, in the biblical sense.
Let me hold up for you a few of the attributes of a good king, as Psalm 72 describes them.
There are two important kingly attributes in the very first line: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” Justice and righteousness: two qualities anyone would want to see in a president.
Justice (mishpat in the Hebrew) is a word rich in meaning, used throughout the Old Testament. Whole books have been written on it, but a shorthand summary definition would be “justice, fairness, a passion for doing what’s right.”
The word used here is plural, and can also be translated “judgments” — “give to the king your judgments, O God.” Ancient kings like David or Solomon spent a great deal of time sitting in judgment. The king sat on his throne, high and lifted up, and their subjects could come to him for help in solving their disputes.
A famous judgment in the Bible was rendered by King Solomon, who was renowned for his wisdom. Two women were arguing over which of them was truly the mother of a baby. Solomon’s solution to the problem was to call on one of his palace guards to pull out his sword and cut the baby in half. As soon as the king issued the order, one mother fell to her knees in tears and begged the king to give the baby to the other woman. By this the king knew instantly that she was the real mother, and awarded the baby to her, healthy and unharmed.
A true king, like Solomon, is a perfect combination of might and mercy. He’s always in search of justice for his people, no matter how poor or humble they may be.
A true king is also righteous. The Hebrew word is tsaddiq. Righteousness, in the Hebrew, is very close to holiness. A righteous king is one who lives close to God, whose decisions are wholly motivated by his relationship to God. The Hebrew scriptures, in fact, consider the king as God’s agent on earth. You can see that in this first verse: “Give to the king your justice… your righteousness.”
Now, admittedly, righteousness (or holiness) in this sense is not high up on the list of what modern political parties are looking for as they nominate a candidate. In all candor, they’re happy if their candidate can sprinkle his or her speeches with the name of God, like chocolate sprinkles on an ice cream cone. But the Bible expects a good deal more.
It’s clear from this psalm, also, there are some particular people God is singling out for the king’s focused attention. Verse 4: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” And again, in verses 12 through 14:
“For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.”
There’s not a word, here — not even the barest hint — of lobbyists, union leaders or millionaire contributors to super PACs. God gives particular honor to a king who looks out for the interests of the weak, the needy and the dispossessed.
A biblical king, also, is meant to be strong. It’s no accident that such a king is able, by leading the machinery of state, to “crush the oppressor” — as we’ve just seen. But note well who, here, is being oppressed. That phrase occurs in the same breath as “defend the cause of the poor” and “give deliverance to the needy.” Clearly, it is the poor who are being oppressed. A just and righteous king is supposed to crush their oppressors. It’s all about protecting them.
The king is charged to make the lives of his people better: “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.” If a true and godly king is on the throne of Israel, then the benefits of his enlightened rule will fall down upon the people as from heaven itself.
This is an agricultural people, living in a desert region. They know the importance of “showers that water the earth.” This is not about handouts for the lazy. The people still have to till their fields, sow their seeds and harvest their crops. But as long as they have sufficient rain, they know they can accomplish these things, and their lives will be productive. A good king who governs effectively is like rain for the people’s fields.
A good king also calls forth respect from the rulers of other nations:
“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
Admittedly, the writer of this psalm is speaking about domination over other countries. “Rendering tribute” means acknowledging the superiority of the other king to whom you bow down and bring gifts. In the modern setting — in which we’d rather have our nation be first among equals rather than dominating others — it makes more sense to speak about respect and honor. A godly king is respected by his peers, the rulers of other nations: not because of the strength of his armies or the wealth of his treasury, but because of the justice and righteousness that are his highest ideals.
N.T. Wright of the University of St. Andrews, one of the most respected Bible scholars today, has this to say:
“Psalm 72 holds out for us a vision of a world aflame with glory; a world in which justice is done, especially for the poor and for those who have nobody to speak for them. This is a vision of a king to whom the kings of the earth come bearing gifts — because he is doing what they know they ought to be doing, namely delivering the needy when they call out, having pity on the weak and poor, rescuing the helpless from the greedy, the oppressive and the violent.” [Advent Devotional with N.T. Wright, email of Nov. 27, 2016 from ntwrightonline.org]
Blessed indeed will our nation be, if our new President lives up to that biblical ideal!
This is the season of Advent, after all, so let’s make the leap from the Old Testament to the New.
The Gospel-writers Matthew and Luke have Psalm 72 in mind as they relate the story of Jesus’ birth. For Matthew, the magi or wise men — those mysterious visitors from the east — are like the Kings of Sheba and Seba, bowing down and offering lavish gifts. (Indeed, it was largely because of this psalm that later generations came to refer to the magi as “kings” — even though Matthew says nothing about them being of royal lineage.) As for Luke’s Gospel, you’ve only to read the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, to sense how the newborn king will grow up to become a champion of the poor: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 1:52-53]
Jesus never had the power to accomplish such feats during his earthly life. He did feed the hungry as he multiplied the loaves and fish, and he demonstrated constant concern for the poor. He did send the rich away empty on at least one occasion: that story of the rich young ruler who came to him asking what he had to do to gain eternal life. Jesus instructed that self-satisfied, self-made man to sell all he had and give to the poor. The man “went away grieving,” the Gospels tell us [Mark 10:22].
Yet, by no stretch of the imagination did Jesus of Nazareth ever “bring down the powerful from their thrones.” If ever there were a candidate for that sort of treatment, it was the brutal and corrupt King Herod. Jesus’ parents fled his wrath when the child was but an infant: and when Jesus was an adult, he stood helplessly before the new King Herod in chains. Far from granting this righteous man a reprieve, the king brushed him off like a fly who had alighted on his damask robe: sending him back to the Roman governor to be crucified.
The good news of Jesus Christ, though, is that the cross was not the end of the story. It was only the beginning. God raised him from death, and — in the words of Philippians chapter 2 — “God… highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord.” [Philippians 2:9-11]
It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte, reflecting back on his life, made this capstone statement on his career in government: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but on what foundation did we rest the creatures of our genius? Upon force. But Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love; and at this hour, millions of persons would die for Him.” [Cited by Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (W Publishing Group, 2002), p. 149]
Napoleon was absolutely right. As mighty as he was in his own day, his influence upon the human race is but a dim bulb compared to the radiant glory of Jesus Christ, who is enthroned above the heavens. No king nor emperor nor president who’s ever lived — nor who lives still, including both the present and future occupants of the Oval Office — will succeed in living up to the kingly ideal of Psalm 72.
David didn’t do it. Solomon didn’t do it. What makes us think any president will? Being made of human flesh, they are bound to fail in demonstrating the sort of justice, righteousness and love for helpless humanity that are the biblical ideal.
As citizens of this democracy and as Christians, though, you and I can still hold them to that high biblical standard. We can still raise our voices — doggedly and insistently — in favor of peace and justice. We can write letters, make phone calls, contribute to advocacy organizations. We can encourage our President and members of Congress not to neglect the poor, and to offer shelter and welcome to refugees. We can challenge our leaders to put the interests of others before their own — and before their wealthy backers — as any righteous ruler would.
One of our greatest modern hymn-writers is Brian Wren. Inspired by this very Psalm 72, he wrote these powerful stanzas. They are, for us and for our entire nation, a promise for the future — God’s future. With them we close:
With humble justice clad and crowned,
the Christ of God will come again
and sing in every land on earth
the song begun at Bethlehem,
and justice shall defend the poor
as barn and warehouse give their grain,
and all the hungry, richly filled,
shall feel that Christ has come again.
Say not that justice never dawns,
that peace on earth will never come.
The promise shines from Bethlehem,
for all, forever, like the sun.
Along the highway of the weak,
the poorest and the most distressed,
Christ comes again, and yet again,
till earth, and all on earth, are blessed.
Jesus Christ is the king we need.
Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.