Psalm 72: A Just Government

Endow the king with your justice, O God,
    the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
    your afflicted ones with justice.
May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
    the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
    and save the children of the needy;
    may he crush the oppressor.

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Psalm 72

I am writing these reflections on the day when the UK has a new Prime Minister. This psalm would be a good one for him to reflect upon and for us to pray for him and for those who are in positions of power.

The psalm is ascribed as being ‘to’ or ‘for’ Solomon: both translations are possible. Whether Solomon is the author or the recipient of the Psalm may be unclear but the hoped for features of his reign are not.

The first mark of just government is righteousness (v. 1). The Hebrew word is ‘tzedakah’. It is an important word covering both God’s character and human conduct. It is also a broad word: Psalm 112 gives us a lengthy description of the righteous person but in summary it is that person who works for the good of the whole community, who loves God and their neighbour. The leader is to be the foremost servant of the people he (or she) governs – we pay lip service to this in the title ‘Prime Minister’ but Jesus put it into practice (John 13). The leader is not to be marked by self-aggrandisement but by helping others to flourish (Mark 10:45). If the psalm was written for Solomon it was a stinging rebuke, while if it was written by Solomon it reminds us how difficult it is to live up to our ideals (1 Kings 10, 11).

Another characteristic of good government is justice for the afflicted (v. 2). Too often in Israel’s history this was absent (Jeremiah 22:15–17) and still today it is often the poor who are the victims of laws framed to benefit the wealthy.

A further feature of the righteous rule is prosperity (v. 3, NIV, NSRV) or ‘peace’ (v. 3, KJV).  Behind these translations is the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom means more than material prosperity and more than the absence of stress. Shalom stands for the great biblical vision of well being, a flourishing of heart, mind and body.  This shalom is ‘to the people’, not restricted to an economic elite but is for everyone. Governments that rule only on behalf of the interests of a chosen few are not what God had in mind. 

In particular it is the poor who will benefit from just rule (v. 4). God is ‘biased’ towards the poor not because they are any better than anyone but simply because they are poor and that is not the way God intended it to be. If we are serious about doing God’s will that will mean a commitment to those who are disadvantaged and those who are or have been exploited.

Such a ruler will be like refreshing showers of rain (v. 6), cooling and nourishing the earth, bringing life to parched land and exhausted people, ‘creating the conditions in which all that is good may flourish’ (Kidner).

When the righteous ruler has got his priorities right then foreign policy will look after itself. Verses 8–11 echo the idea of the nations coming to pay homage to Israel’s king. Verse 17 makes it clear that he will bring blessing to all nations just as God had promised Abram many years previously (Genesis 12:3). Just government is not only concerned with ‘me and mine’ but with all the people of earth.

Enemies will be defeated (v. 9) but just government is more than military might and naked power. The true greatness of the king is seen in delivering the needy and saving them from oppression.

No wonder God’s earthly representative is fêted and God is praised for providing such a ruler. The Psalm points us to how rulers should govern and it is a guide to pray for them, but with the realism that even the best will not achieve it. It is also points to King Jesus, the one who perfectly did God’s will on earth as in heaven and the fruits of whose reign we already enjoy.