Note: This commentary was given as part of a series of commentaries/meditations on the Psalms and Canticles used in the four week Psalter of the Divine Office. The series was started by Pope John Paul II during his Wednesday Audiences in March of 2001 and concluded by Pope Benedict XVI in February of 2006. In the Divine Office Psalm 72 is divided into two parts which are prayed at Vespers (Evening Prayer) on Thursday, Week II. Part 1 consists of verses 1-11, and part 2 of verses 12-20 I’ve included the commentary on both parts in this post.
JOHN PAUL II
Wednesday, 1 December 2004
First part of Psalm 72:1-11[71:1-11]
Justice shall flourish
1. The Liturgy of Vespers, on whose psalms and canticles we are systematically commenting, presents in two parts one of the Psalms dearest to Jewish and Christian tradition: Psalm 72, a royal hymn on which the Fathers of the Church meditated, reinterpreting it in a Messianic key.
We have just heard the first great movement of this solemn prayer (cf. vv. 1-11). It opens with an intense, choral entreaty to God to grant the sovereign the gift that is fundamental to good government: justice. It is expressed above all in dealing with the poor, who instead are usually oppressed by the authority.
You will note the special insistence with which the Psalm emphasizes the moral commitment to ruling the people in accordance with justice and law: “O God, give your judgment to the king, to a king’s son your justice, that he may judge your people in justice and your poor in right judgment” (vv. 1-2, 4).
Just as the Lord rules the world with justice (cf. Ps 36: 7), so the king, who in the ancient biblical conception is his visible representative on earth, must conform to the action of his God.
2. If the rights of the poor are violated, this is not only the perpetration of a politically incorrect and morally evil act. In the perspective of the Bible this is also an act against God, a religious crime, for the Lord is the custodian and defender of the poor and the oppressed, of widows and of orphans (cf. Ps 68: 6), that is, of those who have no human protectors.
It is easy to perceive how, after the collapse of the monarchy of Judah (sixth century B.C.), tradition replaced the frequently disappointing figure of the Davidic king with the glorious, shining features of the Messiah, in keeping with the prophetic hope which Isaiah expressed: “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted” (Is 11: 4); or, according to Jeremiah’s announcement: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23: 5).
3. After this lively and passionate entreaty for the gift of justice, the Psalm’s horizon broadens to take in the royal, Messianic kingdom as it evolves through the two coordinates of time and space. Moreover, its endurance in history is exalted (cf. Ps 72: 5, 7). The vivid images have a cosmic stamp: indeed, the passage of the days is measured by the sun and the moon, and the seasons by rain and abundance.
Hence, it is a fruitful and serene kingdom that always supports those values of capital importance: justice and peace (cf. v. 7). These are the signs of the Messiah’s entry into our history. The comments of the Fathers of the Church who see in this King-Messiah the face of Christ, the eternal and universal king, are illuminating.
4. Thus, St Cyril of Alexandria observes in his Explanatio in Psalmos that the judgment God gives to the king is the one mentioned by St Paul: “according to his purpose… to unite all things in [Christ]” (Eph 1: 10). Indeed, “in his days justice will flourish and peace abound”, as if to say, “in the days of Christ, through faith, justice will spring up for us and, as we turn to God, peace will abound”. Moreover, it is precisely we who are the “wretched” and the “children of the poor” whom this king rescues and saves: and if first of all he “calls the holy Apostles “wretched’ because they were poor in spirit, he has consequently saved us as “sons and daughters of the poor’, justifying us and making us holy in the faith though the Holy Spirit” (cf. PG LXIX, 1180).
5. On the one hand, the Psalmist also outlines the space into which fits the royal justice and peace of the Messiah-King (cf. Ps 72: 8-11). A universal dimension comes into play here, which extends from the Red Sea or from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, from the Euphrates, the great “River” of the East, to the very ends of the earth (cf. v. 8), also called to mind by mentioning Tarshish and the islands, the most remote western territories according to ancient biblical geography (cf. v. 8). This gaze sweeps across the whole map of the world as it was then known, which included Arabs and nomads, the kings of remote States and even enemies, in a universal embrace of which the Psalms (cf. Ps 47: 10; 87: 1-7) and prophets (cf. Is 2: 1-5; 60: 1-22; Mal 1: 11) frequently sing.
The ideal seal to set on this vision can thus be expressed precisely by the words of the Prophet Zechariah, which the Gospel was to apply to Christ: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; he is just…. I will banish the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be broken, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Zec 9: 9-10; cf. Mt 21: 5).
Second Part of Psalm 72:12-20 [71:12-20]
“He shall save the poor!’
1. The Liturgy of Vespers, which we are following through its series of Psalms, presents to us in two stages Psalm 72, a royal and messianic hymn. After meditating on the first part (cf. vv. 1-11; [ORE], 8 December 2004, p. 11), we now have before us the second poetic and spiritual movement of this hymn dedicated to the glorious figure of the Messiah-King (vv. 12-19). We must immediately point out, however, that the finale of the last two verses (cf. vv. 18-19) is actually a later liturgical addition to the Psalm.
In fact, it is a brief but intense blessing that was to seal the second of the five books into which Judaic tradition divided the collection of the 150 Psalms: this second book began with Psalm 42, the Psalm of the thirsting deer, a vivid symbol of spiritual thirst for God. So, a song of hope in an age of peace and justice concludes the sequence of Psalms and the words of the final blessing are an exaltation of the Lord’s effective presence, both in the history of humanity where he “works wonders” (Ps 72: 18) and in the universe he created, which is filled with his glory (cf. v. 19).
2. As we have already seen in the first part of the Psalm, the crucial elements by which to recognize the figure of the Messianic King are above all his justice and his love for the poor (cf. vv. 12-14).
He is their sole reference point and source of hope, as the visible representative of their only defender and patron: God. In fact, this Old Testament story teaches us that all too often, the sovereigns of Israel neglected this duty of theirs and abused the weak, the wretched and the poor.
For this reason, the Psalmist’s gaze now focuses on a just and perfect king, incarnated by the Messiah, the one sovereign ready to redeem the oppressed “from oppression” and abuse (cf. v. 14). The Hebrew word used is the legal term for the protector of the lowliest and victims; it was also applied to Israel, “redeemed” from slavery when it was oppressed by Pharoah’s power.
The Lord is the principal “deliverer-redeemer” who works visibly through the Messiah-King to save the poor whom he protects, for their “life” and “blood” are dear to him. “Life” and “blood” are the fundamental reality of the person; they represent the rights and dignity of each human being, which are frequently violated by the powerful and domineering of this world.
3. In the original composition, Psalm 72 ends before the final antiphon mentioned above with an acclamation in honour of the Messiah-King (cf. vv. 15-17). It is like a trumpet blast that accompanies a chorus of good wishes and hopes for the sovereign, for his life, his well-being, his blessing and the endurance of his memory down the ages.
We are, of course, in the presence of elements belonging to the style of courtly compositions, with their own special emphasis. Henceforth, however, these words were to acquire their truth in the action of the perfect king, the longed for and expected Messiah.
In accordance with a feature of messianic poems, the whole of nature is involved in a transformation that is first and foremost for the good of society: the corn of the harvests will be so abundant as to become, as it were, an undulating sea of rustling ears rolling to the peaks of the mountains (cf. v. 16). This is a sign of the divine blessing that in its fullness spreads over the earth, pacified and serene. Indeed, all humanity, leaving aside and putting an end to all divisions, will converge toward this sovereign of justice, thus fulfilling the Lord’s great promise to Abraham: “Every tribe shall be blessed in him, all nations bless his name (v. 17; cf. Gn 12: 3).
4. Christian tradition has discerned in the face of this Messiah-King the features of Jesus Christ. In his Exposition on Psalm 72 (Esposizione sul Salmo 71), St Augustine, who reinterprets our Psalm in a Christological key, explains that the wretched and the poor, to whose help Christ comes, are “the people who believe in him”. Indeed, recalling the kings mentioned earlier in the Psalm, he explains that “this people also includes the kings who worship him. They did not in fact scorn to be wretched and poor, that is, humbly to confess their sins and recognize their need for God’s glory and grace, so that that king, the son of the king, might free them from the powerful”, that is, from Satan the “slanderer”, the “powerful”. “But our Saviour humiliated the slanderer and entered the house of the powerful, carrying away his vases after leaving him in chains. He “has set the unfortunate free from the powerful, and the poor who had no one to save them’. Indeed, no created power could have done this: neither any just man nor an angel. There was no one who could save us; and behold, he came in person and he saved us” (71, 14: Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana, XXVI, Rome, 1970, pp. 809, 811).