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We Don’t Have a King

Date: June 30, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
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Scripture: Psalm 72

We continue today with the third in our series of Psalms that, at first glance, may or may not be relevant to modern American life.

Maybe we don’t like to think about anything in the Bible, the Word of God, as irrelevant. Many of us have been taught that every word in the Holy Bible was given to us by God and that every word in the Bible is thus to be listened to and obeyed.

But if that’s the case, why are we not still offering the sacrifices commanded in Leviticus? If that’s the case, then should we be avoiding eating shrimp? Should we be looking closer at the labels in our clothing, to make sure we aren’t wearing anything that is a blend of more than one fiber? (Would we really want to give up our cotton-poly blend shirts that don’t have to be ironed as diligently as the all-cotton ones of old? Or—perish the thought!—our jeans with a little Spandex in them to make them more comfortable and flattering?) Do we need to send for a priest to verify that mold in our houses has been properly cleaned up?

What do we do with a Psalm that is pretty clearly a prayer for a king, when we are this week celebrating the day on which we ran off the last king who tried to rule us and declared ourselves an independent nation?

If we get to taking parts of the Bible and saying they’re not relevant, before long we’re left with a pretty small Bible. Even the rules that we believe Jesus released us from may have something to teach us, if we spend a moment understanding the lives of the people to whom they were first given. What was the purpose of that particular rule for those original people? In many cases, like the rules about tattoos and a whole lot of the commandments relating to what we do with our bodies, the purpose was to keep the people separate and distinct from other peoples, for whom those were common religious practices. Some of the food restrictions could be matters of safety as much as anything else.

And yes, I believe the royal psalms have something to say to us about what God wants to see in God’s people and their leaders, even though we don’t have a king and haven’t had one for 243 years.

In the earliest days of its existence, Israel did not have a king. God brought this people out of Egypt and settled them in Canaan with the intent of having them live as free people with God as their only ruler. That didn’t, unfortunately, go all that well, as evidenced by the book of Judges.

Finally they went to the last of the judges, Samuel, and demanded a king, so they would be like all the other nations they knew. Samuel said, “Have you thought this through? Have you seen how the neighbor nations’ kings act? Here’s what you will be in for if you have a king. He will take your sons and make them fight in his army. He will take your daughters to be his servants. He will take the best of your crops for himself and his household. He will take your slaves and your livestock.” [1]

He will take…he will take…he will take…and you will cry out to God for relief, but God will not listen, because you didn’t listen to God’s warnings about what kings do.

But the people said, “No! We want a king!” [2]

So God sighed and said, “Let them have a king.”

And that’s how they got King Saul, who did all right for awhile, but then he got to defying what God told him to do, and God finally had enough and sent Samuel out to find someone else—David, the son of Jesse, a shepherd and, if tradition is to be believed, a poet.

Our Psalm for today has a superscription at the beginning, “Of Solomon”—David’s son with Bathsheba, who became king after David died. We can’t know whether Solomon wrote this,[3] or if perhaps it was written for his coronation, an anniversary of his coronation, or a later coronation or anniversary celebration for another king in David’s line.

But what we can know is what the psalmist’s prayer is for the king. Many of the petitions are pretty standard, what you would expect someone to ask for any king, anywhere: Long life; secure borders; respect from other rulers, and submission of the nation’s enemies; abundance of gold, and prosperity for the whole nation; happiness; and a place in history.

But the vast bulk of the prayer is devoted to other matters: justice, righteousness, peace, compassion toward the needy and vulnerable of the land, and deliverance of the people from oppression. There is even a point at which the psalmist claims that the king will receive the blessings of long life, prosperity, peace, and respect from other countries because he has compassion on the needy, vulnerable, and oppressed. This is pretty much in keeping with the prophets’ teaching that God judges a king as righteous or wicked not by whether he expands or secures the nation’s territory or receives tribute and respect from other kings, but by how he treats the poorest and most vulnerable of his people.[4]

As we saw in Psalm 98 last week, God judges the peoples with righteousness and equity; and then this week Psalm 72 asks that God would place the same righteousness and equity in the mind and heart of the king.

That’s all well and good, and we do hope that people in countries that have kings are praying for their rulers in this way. And we hope God answers their prayers. But what about us? We don’t have a king; we kicked our last one out in 1776.

I doubt anyone here would dispute that God calls us to pray for our leaders, whether they be kings or queens or presidents. And I do hope everyone here is doing that regularly. Psalm 72 gives us an idea what the content of those prayers ought to be—and, as a result, what God expects of a national leader.

Give the president your justice and righteousness, O God. May the president’s decisions and policies and leadership be life-giving to the people and the land. May he (someday it will be she) be respected by other nations and their leaders. May he act with compassion toward those who are desperate and in need. And thus may he be considered great, not just today but also as historians look back at our time.

But for us that’s not all.

Our leaders are elected by us; they don’t inherit their positions from their parents, and they aren’t chosen by a council somewhere, or installed by the military. In the famous words of Mr. Lincoln, this is a nation of, by, and for the people—us. Thus, as we pray for our leaders, so let us also pray for ourselves and one another:

We, the people of the United States of America, ask, O God, that you would give us your justice and righteousness. May we have compassion on our neighbors who are in need, poor, desperate, vulnerable, those who have no helper. From oppression and violence may we work to redeem their lives, and may their lives be as precious in our sight as those of our own flesh and blood.

Give America your justice, O God, and your righteousness to us Americans, so that we may act justly and righteously toward all of your people.

[1] 1 Samuel 8:4-22.  See also Deuteronomy 17:14-20, another warning about the behaviors of kings, and the compromises that take rulers away from faithfulness to God.

[2] 1 Samuel 8:19, NIV

[3] A substantial reason for this is that the Hebrew preposition translated “Of” in this and many other Psalm superscriptions can also be translated “to,” “for,” or “in regard to.”

[4] See, for instance, the book of Amos.