Saturday, April 14, 2012

Psalm 72

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 72 and its interpreters.  I have four items.

1.  Peake's Commentary on the Bible's treatment of Psalm 72 intrigued me.  It states:

"The king is to be just, beneficent, renowned.  But he is in no sense superhuman.  On the contrary, in 15 we are told that men will pray for him constantly.  But in 5-11 another view presents itself.  Not only is he to rule all nations, but his pre-existence, as some have thought, seems to be assumed in 6, and clearly his immortality is implied in 5.  The insertion breaks the connection between 4 and 12.  Hence it is now generally admitted that 5-11 is, at least in part, a later addition..The passage inserted (5-11) assumes a Messianic doctrine of very late age..."

Psalm 72 is about a king of Israel, but which king of Israel?  Is Psalm 72 a Psalm by David about his hopes and predictions concerning the reign of his successor, Solomon?  Is Psalm 72 about any king of Israel, as the nation expressed its hopes regarding a new king----that his reign would bring peace, prosperity, and respect for Israel from the nations?  Is Psalm 72 about the Messiah, as many Jewish interpreters have maintained, and as a number of Christians have held in applying Psalm 72 to Jesus Christ?  

Unlike Peake's Commentary, I don't think that Psalm 72:15's statement that prayer is made for the king continually has any bearing on whether the king is human or super-human.  Granted, a human is probably more dependent on God than is one who is super-human, but people can still pray for and root for the success of a super-human, or one who is superior to humanity.  After all, is not "Thy Kingdom come" a part of the Lord's prayer?  God is superior to us and is able to bring his kingdom anytime, and yet Christians pray for that kingdom to come.  Why, similarly, couldn't Israelites pray for a super-human king?

In a sense, the king of Israel was believed to be super-human.  See here for my post on Psalm 45, in which I discuss that very issue.  The king was thought to have a special relationship with God and even divine characteristics, such as a special knowledge.  That was not the only belief about kings in Israel, however, for the Deuteronomistic School tended to regard kings as mere human beings, who could and did make mistakes, some of them fatal to the nation.  But Psalm 72 could hold that the king of Israel was super-human, without being an exilic or post-exilic statement about a coming Messiah.

But Peake's Commentary believes that Psalm 72 (or, more accurately, what the commentary considers to be a Messianic addition to Psalm 72) is taking the king's super-human status another step: that Psalm 72 is saying that the king existed prior to his human birth and will live forever.  To evaluate that claim, let's look at vv 5-11 in the KJV:

5They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.

For Peake's Commentary, this verse is saying that the king himself will live forever, meaning that it concerns a super-human Messiah.  Those who think that the verse is not about a super-human Messiah but rather a pre-exilic king of Israel, however, maintain that the verse concerns the length of the Davidic dynasty, not an individual king (see II Samuel 7:16).

Interestingly, there are Christians who have argued that Psalm 72:5 actually affirms the Messiah's pre-existence, for the second half of the verse can be translated as "and before the moon, generation to generation."  For these interpreters, this means that the Messiah existed before the creation of the moon.  Detractors, by contrast, maintain that "before" in Psalm 72:5 does not mean chronologically before but rather "before" in the sense of being "in the presence of" the moon.

6He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.

I do not know what Peake's Commentary has in mind in citing this as a verse that assumes the king's pre-existence.  Perhaps Peake's Commentary means that, according to v 6, the Messiah was in heaven and came down to earth, like rain.  An alternative interpretation, however, says that v 6 is suggesting that the king's reign will bring refreshing relief to the poor and natural prosperity to the land, as rain refreshes and enlivens the earth.  The king of Israel was expected to defend the poor and to bring natural prosperity to the land.

7In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.
8He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.
9They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.
10The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
11Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

Those who believe that these verses are about a super-human Messiah point out that vv 8-11 affirm that the king's reign will be worldwide, which was not the case with any Davidic monarch thus far.  Detractors retort that this sort of hyperbole or hope is present in other nations' descriptions of their kings (i.e., Egypt).  There may have been a hope that the king would rule the world, or a belief that the king technically did rule the world (geopolitical realities notwithstanding) because he was the earthly representative of the deity, who himself ruled the world.  See my post on Psalm 2.  Those who believe that Psalm 72 concerns Solomon will point out that some of the nations mentioned in v 10, such as Tarshish and Sheba, gave gifts to Solomon (I Kings 10; II Chronicles 9:21).  (This is unclear in the case of Tarshish, for Tarshish-ships were a type of ship, not necessarily ships from Tarshish.  Solomon could have had Tarshish-ships that brought him riches, without those ships being sent from Tarshish.)

2.  Psalm 72:3 states: "The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness."  What does this mean?  One idea is that the king, by being righteous (i.e., defending the poor), will influence God to bring peace and/or natural prosperity to the land of Israel (called the mountains).  Some interpreters maintain that the specific reference to mountains is significant, however, for they believe that the passage is saying that peace will not only exist in the protected cities, but also in the mountains, where bandits tend to roam.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary regards the mountains as metaphorical for the nations, who make peace with Israel after they recognize her righteousness.

3.  Psalm 72:17 states: "His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and [men] shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed."  Psalm 72:17 associates the king with blessing, which recalls God's promise that the nations would bless themselves in Abraham and Abraham's seed (Genesis 22:18; 26:4).  Many commentaries that I read asserted that the king is the means for the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and Abraham's seed----that it is through the king that the nations will receive blessing, or that Israel will become so prosperous that the nations will bless themselves in reference to Israel.  John Van Seters, however, argues the opposite: that what we see in Genesis is a democratization of the role of the king, as Israel was granted the king's role so that she could find meaning in exile, a time when she lacked a king.

There is debate about what the hithpael for b-r-k means.  Does it mean that the nations will receive blessings through the king of Israel or Abraham's seed, as if Israel has a mission of benevolence to the world, or the nations can bring divine blessing on themselves by being nice to God's people (see here)?  Or does it mean that the nations will look at Israel's prosperity and wish that they would be like her in terms of prospering, the sort of thing that we see in Genesis 48:20 (may God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh)?  In Deuteronomy 29:18, the hithpael of  b-r-k refers to a blessing that a sinful Israelite might pronounce upon himself, notwithstanding his wickedness, and that appears to go with the latter view.  Still, I cannot rule out the former view.  In any case, I'd like to think that God's blessing of Israel will bring blessing to the other nations as well.

4.  Psalm 72:20 states: "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended."  But there are Psalms of David that appear after Psalm 72 (i.e., Psalms 86, 101, 103).  How, then, could Psalm 72:20 says that David's prayers are ended?

A modern scholarly response is that Psalm 72:20 reflects a stage of the Book of Psalms at which David's Psalms did end with Psalm 72.  I should note John MacArthur's point that the Psalms that come next (Psalms 73-83) are by Asaph and not David.  Others have proposed different solutions, however.  One solution is that the word translated as "are ended", kalu, means something different.  It could mean "fulfilled" (Ezra 1:1), in which case Psalm 72:20 is saying that David's prayers will be fulfilled when Solomon or a Messiah rules the world in peace and righteousness.  According to John Gill, this was the view of Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Joseph Kimchi.  The word could mean "yearns" (Psalm 84:3), in which case Psalm 72:20 is saying that David yearns for that time of peace. 

Another Jewish interpretation is that Psalm 72:20 is simply indicating that Psalm 72 was David's very last Psalm, and that David composed it when he was old and Solomon was about to take his place; Psalm 72, in this scenario, is David's expression of hope about what the reign of his son Solomon will be like.

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