I don’t often post sermons on the internet, believing that the sermonic project is highly contextual. I decided to make an exception.
Give to the Ruler Your Justice
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Delivered at Eden Theological Seminary, Wednesday, November 30 2016
“Give to the ruler, your justice, O God.”
The text says “king,” “give to the king your justice,” but “ruler” leaves us with a little more breathing room. Give to the ruler, the leader, the head of state…your justice.
The text is thousands of years old, and comes from a culture that was so different from ours. But if we all work together here I think we might be able to make a few connections, and hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, for today.
“Give to the ruler your justice, O God.” If the author of the psalm is asking God to give the ruler God’s justice, what is the author assuming?
(That the king doesn’t have it already.)
The petition, the request itself implies that the ruler is not necessarily, not automatically, and, in fact, is currently not in possession of God’s justice. If the ruler had it already, if the ruler came with God’s justice pre-installed, then the psalmist wouldn’t be asking that it be bestowed. That, in itself, is a profound theological statement, whether it’s about this ruler in particular (who may well have been Solomon), or rulers in general. We are all made in God’s image, and political leaders are no exception, but this psalm begins with some sober clarity about the fact that leaders of state stand in need, in a state of lack, when it comes to God’s justice.
And why, does the psalmist say, “Give to the ruler your justice,” instead of just saying, “Give the ruler justice”? Isn’t justice just…that? Isn’t it pretty much standard issue? Stay with me here, we’re not even out of verse one yet. Why would the psalmist ask God for God’s justice in particular? What is it about God’s justice, God’s mishpat, meaning “justice” or “righteous judgments,” what is it about the righteousness of God that is distinctive, that is different from just any old justice? You know this already. You don’t need me to tell you. Why does the psalmist say, “Give to the ruler your justice”?
(Because the psalmist wants to make a distinction between God’s justice, and the kind of justice that rulers tend to bring with them to the job.)
Right at the outset, right out of the gate, the psalmist wants to draw a line between a whole tradition—the wisdom and experience generations of prophets and priests and former slaves that has given definition and fullness to the righteousness of God—and what often passes for justice among rulers.
That might have some connection to our own situation. If scholars are correct, this is a coronation psalm, a psalm that was written and sung on the occasion of a new ruler coming to power. And the lectionary has, by some gracious chance, laid it in front of us just now, in this season of preparation.
The psalm is addressed, first and foremost, to God. That may seem obvious, but we can sometimes rush toward the social commentary like holiday shoppers after a big screen, 4k, curved panel TV and miss the possibility that there is an honest, ardent, even anxious petition here, asking God to help.
“God…please help this king.”
A good ruler might mean less starvation, more leniency in the debtors’ courts. A cruel and corrupt leader might mean mass enslavement, casual torture, and the use of the office to brazenly amass and consolidate the ruler’s personal wealth. So yes, as a starting place, this coronation psalm may be more than a formality. It may well be a sincere plea for help.
We may have different theologies in the room here about how much God intervenes in political affairs, the extent to which our leaders can be steered by a divine hand, but the psalmist is hoping—and praying—that the just and compassionate way of God will influence the one who rules in real and concrete ways.
How might your prayer go, with the kind of faith that is in your heart and mind?
It’s worth pondering for a moment.
At the same time that the psalmist is speaking to God, he (or she) is also speaking to the ruler. It may be more accurate to say that the psalmist is speaking (or singing) to God in front of the ruler, in the way that small children will sometimes speak to God in front of their parents: “Please God, help my mom and dad to see that you really do want me to have an authorized Olympic trampoline in the back yard, and a motocross bike that is, actually, built for seven-year-olds. And help them to not see the brussel sprouts in the grocery store. Ever.” It’s a little passive aggressive: “Please God help the ruler to not completely screw this up,” but the way I see it, this was the Psalmist’s chance, at the outset, to remind the ruler that there is a standard, that the bar has already been set, and set high, by the most high God.
I imagine the psalmist knowing that there is a unique opportunity here that he can’t afford to miss, in spite of the risks. I imagine her or him sitting in some small music room in the palace, composing this song, with a sense of responsibility and trepidation. There’s a rare chance here, to have the ear of the ruler, to speak truth to power. But, those who served the ruler had to be careful – I’m sure that in the context of a monarchy like that, one’s shoulders could easily be separated from one’s head. And so he carefully weaves in the usual “long live the king” kind of rhetoric that you would expect, that would be considered obligatory:
“May the ruler live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.”
And then the psalmist spends much of the rest of the psalm laying out, giving content to, what is meant by “God’s justice.” “May the ruler judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.” May the court system actually work for justice, and not simply funnel the poor into a system of cheap labor. The psalmist lifts up the poor in particular, indicating that he knows they don’t generally fare well in the system, but God has particular concern for them: the losers, the welfare freeloaders, the ex-cons.
“May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills in righteousness.” In God’s eyes it is the burden of leadership to insure that the fruits of the nation’s labor result in prosperity—in a living wage, in basic shelter, and food, and health—for all the people, and not only for those who can afford the best. The psalmist knows how badly this can go, and so he writes this vision of prosperity for all into the song.
“May the one who rules defend the cause of the poor”: the cause of just labor systems, the cause of educational systems that actively prevent the wealthy from centralizing resources only around their own children, the cause of equal protection and equal legal representation under the law and in the halls of government. “Give deliverance to the needy,” not slogans, or promises, or another advisory panel, but actual, measurable, verifiable change on the ground. “And crush the oppressor.” Those who would exploit and demean others should not be rejoicing as the ruler takes office. They should not be emboldened in their acts of bullying, on airplanes or outside of mosques. They should not be gearing up for even greater systematic disenfranchisement.
If the ruler receives God’s justice, God’s standard, they should be trembling with fear. And in verse seven, “May righteousness flourish and peace abound.”
“O Day of peace that dimly shines,
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams
guide us to justice, truth and love, delivered from our selfish schemes
may swords of hate fall from our hands
our hearts from envy find release
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.”
We get to the end of the psalm, and the psalmist totally goes for it. This is his Queen Esther moment: “I will go before to the king. If I perish, I perish.” And the psalmist does not shrink back from the moment that is being offered.
“Blessed be the HOLY ONE, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.”
If the new ruler has a particularly fragile ego, or particularly thin skin, this is the kind of theological pronouncement that could result in a four-day day tweetstorm from the golden throne of the king’s bathroom. Bless God, who alone does wondrous things! Only God does the really amazing things. Only God brings the thunderheads in off the ocean with a rising breeze, and fashions the petals of the desert flower, opening to the rising sun. You can gather all your cronies, and make weighty pronouncements. You can send forth threats and armies, O great and mighty ruler, but let’s be clear about the scale of your magnificence. You’re pretty awesome, but you’re not all that. God remains the ruler of the earth and all that dwells within it. And just in case that’s not completely clear, the psalmist ends not by pronouncing a blessing upon the ruler, but on God: “blessed be God’s glorious name forever, and may God’s glory fill the whole earth.” God’s glory extends beyond the palace, beyond the borders, beyond the justice and righteousness of mortals.
Clearly much of this is said for the king’s ears. But the psalmist also speaking to the people. The psalmist knows that all the people gathered for the occasion are listening—dignitaries and priests, and soldiers, and servants, and maybe some common folk. So he or she takes a deep breath, and sings out, full-throated and clear, for all to hear, including us. The song of the psalmist reminds us not to get caught up in the narrative of human power. It reminds us that God’s justice has been the standard toward which we live our lives long before the ruler came on the scene, and will remain long after the current regime has drifted to dust. Even when God’s vision of shalom is overshadowed by the machinations of mortals, God’s justice remains the true north that our ancestors in faith have tried to follow.
And there’s more: the psalmist is setting an example for us. He or she is saying, “Look, look what I am daring to do with my Queen Esther moment.”
How will you use your voice, your talent, your body, for the sake of God’s justice? How will you speak truth to power, raising up the cause of the poor and the exploited right in the middle of the ceremonies of flattery and obedience? Because your moment may come along any minute now, and you need to be ready.
In this season of preparation, as we are bracing for a new ruler, we can easily forget which ruler we are preparing for. In the wash of ominous news and signals of alarm, we can forget, at times, that the ruler we are preparing for, the one we are always preparing for, is the prince of peace. This season, when you hear someone say, “the King is a baby,” don’t be confused. They’re talking about an actual baby, who is coming so that God’s justice, God’s kin-dom of justice, and compassion, and peace, may prevail upon the earth.
If these words be true, then let all the people say, “Amen.”