Psalm 72, the last chapter in Book II of the Psalms, is David’s prayer for his son Solomon and the nation of Israel. It is easy, however, to read this psalm through the eyes of the New Testament seeing it as a prophetic look forward to Jesus’s future kingdom as described in the book of Revelation. But if we don’t pay attention to the immediate scriptural and historical context we will miss some important subtleties relating to Israel’s past as well as to our present lives.
Book II of The Psalms is full of intensely personal psalms lamenting how the author has been constantly pursued by wicked men. Psalm 42 and 43 begins Book II by asking the question of why God seems so absent leaving the author with a downcast his soul. This brief and lonely preface leads immediately into Psalms 44-49 which provide numerous images of God conquering evil, sitting on an eternal throne (Psalm 45-47), and providing himself as a refuge for all who seek him (Psalm 48). But, this beatific vision is short lived as the remaining chapters (50-70), and the heart of Book II, are an unending barrage of cries to God for his justice, love, mercy, and deliverance from the many attacks of wicked men. Book II then concludes as Psalm 71, a very personal song, describes a constant tension between praise and suffering, and Psalm 72, a communal prayer of hope describes the glories to be found in the kingdom of Israel under Solomon’s reign.
Psalm 72 is often classified as a coronation psalm, as it sings of David’s hope for a strong Israel under the hands of his son, Solomon, a capable king who would love the Lord and walk according to his righteousness. David imagined Israel to be a land where all the people, from the least to the greatest, were taken care of. He saw that it would economically prosper, conquer all of its enemies, and become a land where foreign kings would come to pay tribute. In short, David saw a virtual paradise on earth, and even though he recognized that the Lord would be the one to accomplish all of this (72:18-19), David saw it happening during the reign of his son Solomon.
But the modern reader has the advantage of sight gained by the passage of time, and we know that David’s hopes never fully came to fruition. Even though Solomon began his reign on a high note, it wasn’t long before his pride and sinful nature took control. Not only did he find himself with nearly 900 wives and concubines, he also built numerous temples to foreign gods in the city of Jerusalem. Only a short 40 years after David’s prayer in Psalm 72 did Israel fall into sin and fracture into two separate kingdoms. And over the next 400 years, history tells us only eight of the next thirty-eight kings did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.
But Psalm 72 is not only about kings and kingdoms, it also illustrates a more universal principle: trust placed in anyone or anything that is not eternal is ultimately doomed to fail. We might think that a new job, increased wealth, or an intimate friendship will bring us the peace for which we so deeply long, but we are gravely deluded. We might be lucky enough to capture a few moments of bliss, even a few years, but eventually everything loses its luster and ceases to satisfy the way in which we think we deserve. Bitterness, anger, sadness, and depression sink in, and before long you can easily find yourself in despair awaiting the day when this brief and painful life concludes. The heart once filled with joyful hope turns restless as the receptacle of hope cracks and falls to pieces.
I have heard it said before that you cannot fully understand and appreciate light if it were not for darkness. I have also heard it said that you cannot fully understand and appreciate God’s grace were it not for his law and judgment. In the same way, I do not think we can fully appreciate the promise of eternally fulfilled longings for peace and justice unless we first see the failures and emptiness of our temporal hopes.
This is a lesson I have been learning my entire life. Every person and thing into which I have invested my heart has failed me. This is not because they are essentially bad things (though I have certainly tried a few of those), but because they are not meant to completely satisfy. Friendships are good things. Work is a good thing. Academic pursuits are good things. Exercise and leisure are both good things. But if we place our hopes into any of these things we will find them failing us in some way and at some point in time. This, I believe, is the message of Psalm 72. Hopes placed into anything temporal will never satisfy, but hopes placed in God will always satisfy. In other words, “Thou has made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” – Augustine