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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 72

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-20

RIGHTLY or wrongly, the superscription ascribes this psalm to Solomon. Its contents have led several commentators to take the superscription in a meaning for which there is no warrant, as designating the subject, not the author. Clearly, the whole is a prayer for the king; but why should not he be both suppliant and object of supplication? Modern critics reject this as incompatible with the "phraseological evidence," and adduce the difference between the historical Solomon and the ideal of the psalm as negativing reference to him. Psalms 72:8 is said by them to be quoted from Zechariah 9:10, though Cheyne doubts whether there is borrowing. Psalms 72:17 b is said to be dependent on Genesis 22:18 and Genesis 26:4, which are assumed to be later than the seventh century. Psalms 72:12 is taken to be a reminiscence of Job 29:12, and Psalms 72:16 b of Job 5:25. But these are too uncertain criteria to use as conclusive, -partly because coincidence does not necessarily imply quotation; partly because, quotation being admitted, the delicate question of priority remains, which can rarely be settled by comparison of the passages in question; and partly because, quotation and priority being admitted, the date of the original is still under discussion. The impossibility of Solomon’s praying thus for himself does not seem to the present writer so completely established that the hypothesis must be abandoned, especially if the alternative is to be, as Hitzig, followed by Olshausen and Cheyne, proposes, that the king in the psalm is Ptolemy Philadelphus, to whom Psalms 45:1-17 is fitted by the same authorities. Baethgen puts the objections which most will feel to such a theory with studied moderation when he says "that the promises given to the patriarchs in Genesis 22:18; Genesis 26:4, should be transferred by a pious Israelite to a foreign king appears to me improbable." But another course is open-namely, to admit that the psalm gives no materials for defining its date, beyond the fact that a king of Davidic descent was reigning when it was composed. The authorship may be left uncertain, as may the name of the king for whom such far-reaching blessings were invoked: for he was but a partial embodiment of the kingly idea, and the very disproportion between the reality seen in any Jewish monarch and the lofty idealisms of the psalm compels us to regard the earthly ruler as but a shadow, and the true theme of the singer as being the Messianic King. We are not justified, however, in attempting to transfer every point of the psalmist’s prayer to the Messiah. The historical occasion of the psalm is to be kept in mind. A human monarch stands in the foreground; but the aspirations expressed are so far beyond anything that he is or can be, that they are either extravagant flattery, or reach out beyond their immediate occasion to the King Messiah.

The psalm is not properly a prediction, but prayer. There is some divergence of opinion as to the proper rendering of the principal verbs, -some, as the A.V. and R.V. (text), taking them as uniformly futures, which is manifestly wrong; some taking them as expressions of wish throughout, which is also questionable; and others recognising pure futures intermingled with petitions, which seems best. The boundaries of the two are difficult to settle, just because the petitions are so confident that they are all but predictions, and the two melt into each other in the singer’s mind. The flow of thought is simple. The psalmist’s prayers are broadly massed. In Psalms 72:1-4 he prays for the foundation of the king’s reign in righteousness, which will bring peace; in Psalms 72:5-7 for its perpetuity, and in Psalms 72:8-11 for its universality; while in Psalms 72:12-15 the ground of both these characteristics is laid in the king’s becoming the champion of the oppressed. A final prayer for the increase of his people and the perpetuity and world wide glory of his name concludes the psalm, to which is appended in Psalms 72:18-20 a doxology, closing the Second Book of the Psalter.

The first petitions of the psalm all ask for one thing for the king-namely, that he should give righteous judgment. They reflect the antique conception of a king as the fountain of justice, himself making and administering law and giving decisions. Thrice in these four verses does "righteousness" occur as the foundation attribute of an ideal king. Caprice, self-interest, and tyrannous injustice were rank in the world’s monarchies round the psalmist. Bitter experience and sad observation had taught him that the first condition of national prosperity was a righteous ruler. These petitions are also animated by the conception, which is as true in the modern as in the ancient world, that righteousness has its seat in the bosom of God, and that earthly judgments are righteous when they conform to and are the echo of His. "Righteousness" is the quality of mind, of which the several "judgments" are the expressions. This king sits on an ancestral throne. His people are God’s people. Since, then, he is God’s viceroy, the desire cannot be vain that in his heart there may be some reflection of God’s righteousness, and that his decisions may accord with God’s. One cannot but remember Solomon’s prayer for "an understanding heart," that he might judge this people; nor forget how darkly his later reign showed against its bright beginning. A righteous king makes a peaceful people, especially in a despotic monarchy. The sure results of such a reign-which are, likewise, the psalmist’s chief reason for his petitions-are set forth in the vivid metaphor of Psalms 72:3, in which peace is regarded as the fruit which springs, by reason of the king’s righteousness, from mountains and hills. This psalmist has special fondness for that figure of vegetable growth (Psalms 72:7, Psalms 72:16-17); and it is especially suitable in this connection, as peace is frequently represented in Scripture as the fruit of righteousness, both in single souls and in a nation’s history. The mountains come into view here simply as being the most prominent features of the land, and not, as in Psalms 72:16, with any reference to their barrenness, which would make abundant growth on them more wonderful, and indicative of yet greater abundance on the plains.

A special manifestation of judicial righteousness is the vindication of the oppressed and the punishment of the oppressor (Psalms 72:4). The word rendered "judge" in Psalms 72:4 differs from that in Psalms 72:2, and is the same from which the name of the "Judges" in Israel is derived. Like them, this king is not only to pronounce decisions, as the word in Psalms 72:2 means, but is to execute justice by acts of deliverance, which smite in order to rescue. Functions which policy and dignity require to be kept apart in the case of earthly rulers arc united in the ideal monarch. He executes his own sentences. His acts are decisions. The psalmist has no thought of inferior officers by the king’s side. One figure fills his mind and his canvas. Surely such an ideal is either destined to remain forever a fair dream, or its fulfilment is to be recognised in the historical Person in whom God’s righteousness dwelt in higher fashion than psalmists knew, who was, "first, King of righteousness, and then, after that, also King of peace," and who, by His deed, has broken every yoke, and appeared as the defender of all the needy. The poet prayed that Israel’s king might perfectly discharge his office by Divine help: the Christian gives thanks that the King of men has been and done all which Israel’s monarchs failed to be and do.

The perpetuity of the king’s reign and of his subjects’ peace is the psalmist’s second aspiration (Psalms 72:5-7). The "Thee" of Psalms 72:5 presents a difficulty, as it is doubtful to whom it refers. Throughout the psalm the king is spoken of, and never to; and if it is further noticed that, in the preceding verses, God has been directly addressed, and "Thy" used thrice in regard to Him, it will appear more natural to take the reference in Psalms 72:5 to be to Him. The fear of God would be dig fused among the king’s subjects, as a consequence of his rule in righteousness. Hupfeld takes the word as referring to the king, and suggests changing the text to "him" instead of "Thee"; while others, among whom are Cheyne and Baethgen, follow the track of the LXX in adopting a reading which may be translated "May he live," or "Prolong his days." But the thought yielded by the existing text, if referred to God, is most natural and worthy. The king is, as it were, the shadow on earth of God’s righteousness, and consequently becomes an organ for the manifestation thereof, in such manner as to draw men to true devotion. The psalmist’s desires are for something higher than external prosperity, and his conceptions of the kingly office are very sacred. Not only peace and material well-being, but also the fear of Jehovah, are longed for by him to be diffused in Israel. And he prays that these blessings may be perpetual. The connection between the king’s righteousness and the fear of God requires that that permanence should belong to both. The cause is as lasting as its effect. Through generation after generation he desires that each shall abide. He uses peculiar expressions for continual duration "with the sun"-i.e., contemporaneous with that unfading splendour; "before the face of the moon"-i.e., as long as she shines. But could the singer anticipate such length of dominion for any human king? Psalms 21:1-13 has similar language in regard to the same person, and here, as there, it seems sufficiently accounted for by the consideration that, while the psalmist was speaking of an individual, he was thinking of the office rather than of the person, and that the perpetual continuance of the Davidic dynasty, not the undying life of anyone representative of it, was meant. The full light of the truth that there is a king whose royalty, like his priesthood, passes to no other is not to be forced upon the psalm. It stands as a witness that devout and inspired souls longed for the establishment of a kingdom, against which revolutions and enemies and mortality were powerless. They knew not that their desires could not be fulfilled by the longest succession of dying kings, but were to be more than accomplished by One, "of whom it is witnessed that He liveth."

The psalmist turns for a moment from his prayer for the perpetuity of the king’s rule, to linger upon the thought of its blessedness as set forth in the lovely image of Psalms 72:6. Rain upon mown grass is no blessing, as every farmer knows: but what is meant is, not the grass which has already been mown, but the naked meadow from which it has been taken. It needs drenching showers, in order to sprout again and produce an aftermath. The poet’s eye is caught by the contrast between the bare look of the field immediately after cutting and the rich growth that springs, as by magic, from the yellow roots after a plentiful shower. This king’s gracious influences shall fall upon even what seems dead, and charm forth hidden life that will flush the plain with greenness. The psalmist dwells on the picture, reiterating the comparison in Psalms 72:6 b, and using there an uncommon word, which seems best rendered as meaning a heavy rainfall. With such affluence of quickening powers will the righteous king bless his people. The "Mirror for Magistrates." which is held up in the lovely poem 2 Samuel 23:4, has a remarkable parallel in its description of the just ruler as resembling a "morning without clouds, when the tender grass springeth out of the earth through clear shining after rain"; but the psalmist heightens the metaphor by the introduction of the mown meadow as stimulated to new growth. This image of the rain lingers with him and shapes his prayer in Psalms 72:7 a. A righteous king will insure prosperity to the righteous, and the number of such will increase. Both these ideas seem to be contained in the figure of their flourishing, which is literally bud or shoot. And, as the people become more and more prevailingly righteous, they receive more abundant and unbroken peace. The psalmist had seen deeply into the conditions of national prosperity, as well as those of individual tranquillity, when he based these on rectitude.

With Psalms 72:8 the singer takes a still loftier flight, and prays for the universality of the king’s dominion. In that verse the form of the verb is that which expresses desire, but in Psalms 72:9 and following verses the verbs may be rendered as simple futures. Confident prayers insensibly melt into assurances of their own fulfilment. As the psalmist pours out his petitions, they glide into prophecies; for they are desires fashioned upon promises, and bear, in their very earnestness, the pledge of their realisation. As to the details of the form which the expectation of universal dominion here takes, it need only be noted that we have to do with a poet, not with a geographer. We are not to treat the expressions as if they were instructions to a boundary commission, and to be laid down upon a map. "The sea" is probably the Mediterranean; but what the other sea which makes the opposite boundary may be is hard to say. Commentators have thought of the Persian Gulf, or of an imaginary ocean encircling the flat earth, according to ancient ideas. But more probably the expression is as indeterminate as the parallel one, "the ends of the earth." In the first clause of the verse the psalmist starts from the Mediterranean, the western boundary, and his anticipations travel away into the unknown eastern regions; while, in the second clause, he begins with the Euphrates, which was the eastern boundary of the dominion promised to Israel, and, coming westward, he passes out in thought to the dim regions beyond. The very impossibility of defining the boundaries declares the boundlessness of the kingdom. The poet’s eyes have looked east and west, and in Psalms 72:9 he turns to the south, and sees the desert tribes, unconquered as they have hitherto been, grovelling before the king, and his enemies in abject submission at his feet. The word rendered "desert peoples" is that used in Psalms 74:14 for wild beasts inhabiting the desert, but here it can only mean wilderness tribes. There seems no need to alter the text, as has been proposed, and to read "adversaries." In Psalms 72:10 the psalmist again looks westward, across the mysterious ocean of which he, like all his nation, knew so little. The great city of Tarshish lay for him at the farthest bounds of the world; and between him and it, or perhaps still farther out in the waste unknown, were islands from which rich and strange things sometimes reached Judaea. These shall bring their wealth in token of fealty. Again he looks southward to Sheba in Arabia, and Seba far south below Egypt, and foresees their submission. His knowledge of distant lands is exhausted, and therefore he ceases enumeration, and falls back on comprehensiveness. How little he knew, and how much he believed! His conceptions of the sweep of that "all" were childish; his faith that, however many these unknown kings and nations were, God’s anointed was their king was either extravagant exaggeration, or it was nurtured in him by God, and meant to be fulfilled when a world, wide beyond his dreams and needy beyond his imagination, should own the sway of a King, endowed with God’s righteousness and communicative of God’s peace, in a manner and measure beyond his desires.

The triumphant swell of these anticipations passes with wonderful pathos into gentler music, as if the softer tones of flutes should follow trumpet blasts. How tenderly and profoundly the psalm bases the universality of the dominion on the pitying care and delivering power of the King! The whole secret of sway over men lies in that "For," which ushers in the gracious picture of the beneficent and tender-hearted Monarch. The world is so full of sorrow, and men are so miserable and needy, that he who can stanch their wounds, solace their griefs, and shelter their lives will win their hearts and be crowned their king. Thrones based on force are as if set on an iceberg which melts away. There is no solid foundation for rule except helpfulness. In the world and for a little while "they that exercise authority are called benefactors"; but in the long run the terms of the sentence are inverted, and they that are rightly called benefactors exercise authority. The more earthly rulers approximate to this ideal portrait, the more "broad based upon their people’s will" and love will their thrones stand. If Israel’s kings had adhered to it, their throne would have endured. But their failures point to Him in whom the principle declared by the psalmist receives its most tender illustration. The universal dominion of Jesus Christ is based upon the fact that He "tasted death for every man." In the Divine purpose, He has won the right to rule men because He has died for them. In historical realisation, He wins men’s submission because He has given Himself for them. Therefore does He command with absolute authority; therefore do we obey with entire submission. His sway not only reaches out over all the earth, inasmuch as the power of His cross extends to all men, but it lays hold of the inmost will and makes submission a delight.

The king is represented in Psalms 72:14 as taking on himself the office of Goel, or Kinsman-Redeemer, and ransoming his subjects’ lives from "deceit and violence." That "their blood is precious in his eyes" is another way of saying that they are too dear to him to be suffered to perish. This king’s treasure is the life of his subjects. Therefore he will put forth his power to preserve them and deliver them. The result of such tender care and delivering love is set forth in Psalms 72:15, but in obscure language. The ambiguity arises from the absence of expressed subjects for the four verbs in the verse. Who is he who "lives"? Is the same person the giver of the gold of Sheba, and to whom is it given? Who prays, and for whom? And who blesses, and whom does he bless? The plain way of understanding the verse is to suppose that the person spoken of in all the clauses is the same; and then the question comes whether he is the king or the ransomed man. Difficulties arise in carrying out either reference through all the clauses; and hence attempts have been made to vary the subject of the verbs. Delitzsch, for instance, supposes that it is the ransomed man who "lives," the king who gives to the ransomed man gold, and the man who prays for and blesses the king. But such an arbitrary shuttling about of the reference of "he" and "him" is impossible. Other attempts of a similar kind need not be noticed here. The only satisfactory course is to take one person as spoken of by all the verbs. But then the question comes, Who is he? There is much to be said in favour of either hypothesis as answering that question. The phrase which is rendered above "So that he lives," is so like the common invocation "May the king live," that it strongly favours taking the whole verse as a continuance of the petitions for the monarch. But if so, the verb in the second clause (he shall give) must be taken impersonally, as equivalent to "one will give" or "there shall be given," and those in the remaining clauses must be similarly dealt with, or the text altered so as to make them plurals, reading, "They shall pray for him (the king), and shall bless him." On the whole; it is best to suppose that the ransomed man is the subject throughout, and that the verse describes his glad tribute, and continual thankfulness. Ransomed from death, he brings offerings to his deliverer. It seems singular that he should be conceived of both as "needy" and as owning "gold" which he can offer; but in the literal application the incongruity is not sufficient to prevent the adoption of this view of the clause; and in the higher application of the words to Christ and His subjects, which we conceive to be warranted, the incongruity becomes fine and deep truth; for the poorest soul, delivered by Him, can bring tribute, which He esteems as precious beyond all earthly treasure. Nor need the remaining clauses militate against the view that the ransomed man is the subject in them, The psalm had, a historical basis, and all its points cannot be introduced into the Messianic interpretation. This one of praying for the king cannot be; notwithstanding the attempts of some commentators to find a meaning for it in Christian prayers for the spread of Christ’s kingdom. That explanation does violence to the language, mistakes the nature of Messianic prophecy, and brings discredit on the view that the psalm has a Messianic character.

The last part of the psalm (Psalms 72:16-17) recurs to petitions for the growth of the nation and the perpetual flourishing of the king’s name. The fertility of the land and the increase of its people are the psalmist’s desires, which are also certainties, as expressed in Psalms 72:16. He sees in imagination the whole land waving with abundant harvests, which reach even to the tops of the mountains, and rustle in the summer air, with a sound like the cedars of Lebanon, when they move their layers of greenness to the breeze. The word rendered above "abundance" is doubtful; but there does not seem to be in the psalmist’s mind the contrast which he is often supposed to be expressing, beautiful and true as it is, between the small beginnings and the magnificent end of the kingdom on earth. The mountains are here thought of as lofty and barren. If waving harvests clothe their gaunt sides, how will the vales laugh in plentiful crops! As the earth yields her increase, so the people of the king shall be multiplied, and from all his cities they shall spring forth abundant as grass. That figure would bear much expansion; for what could more beautifully set forth rapidity of growth, close-knit community, multiplication of units, and absorption of these in a lovely whole, than the picture of a meadow clothed with its grassy carpet? Such hopes had only partial fulfilment in Israel. Nor have they had adequate fulfilment up till now. But they lie on the horizon of the future, and they shall one day be reached. Much that is dim is treasured in them. There may be a renovated world, from which the curse of barrenness has been banished. There shall be a swift increase of the subjects of the King, until the earlier hope of the psalm is fulfilled, and all nations shall serve him.

But bright as are the poet’s visions concerning the kingdom, his last gaze is fastened on its king, and he prays that his name may last forever, and may send forth shoots as long as the sun shines in the sky. He probably meant no more than a prayer for the continual duration of the dynasty, and his conception of the name as sending forth shoots was probably that of its being perpetuated in descendants. But, as has been already noticed, the perpetuity, which he conceived of as belonging to a family and an office, really belongs to the One King, Jesus Christ, whose Name is above every name, and will blossom anew in fresh revelations of its infinite contents, not only while the sun shines, but when its fires are cold and its light quenched. The psalmist’s last desire is that the ancient promise to the fathers may be fulfilled in the King, their descendant, in whom men shall bless themselves. So full of blessedness may He seem to all men, that they shall take Him for the very type of felicity, and desire to be even as He is! In men’s relation to Christ the phrase assumes a deeper meaning still: and though that is not intended by the psalmist, and is not the exposition of his words, it still is true that in Christ all blessings for humanity are stored, and that therefore if men are to be truly blessed they must plunge themselves into Him, and in Him find all that they need for blessedness and nobility of life and character. If He is our supreme type of whatsoever things are fair and of good report, and if we have bowed ourselves to Him because He has delivered us from death, then we share in His life, and all His blessings are parted among us.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 72". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-72.html.
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