Psalm 72 – Justice and Righteousness

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him,
    and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
    render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
    bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
    all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
    the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live!
    May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
    and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
    may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
    may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
    like the grass of the field.
May his name endure forever,
    his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;
    may they pronounce him happy.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended. (New Revised Standard Version)

Today’s psalm is a prayer of King David – beseeching the Lord to help him rule with justice and righteousness – because G-d is just and right in all divine dealings with humanity.

“Justice” in the Old Testament is neither fairness nor the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Rather, justice (Hebrew משפט, pronounced “mish-pot”) in its most basic sense is caring for the poor. A society is “just” to the degree in which every person has enough for the basic necessities of life and is lifted up as persons worthy of care and respect.

So, the way in which David measured his kingly rule was not by how big of an army he had, or how much gold there was in the royal treasury. Rather, a successful rule for David was measured by whether the interests of the poor were defended and provided for.  

A similar word to justice, “righteousness,” is neither some sort of smug godliness nor a sense of superior piety. Instead, righteousness (Hebrew צדקה pronounced “zed-a-ka”) is a relational term of being in sync with G-d and G-d’s ways. It works itself out in a philanthropic spirit of giving what is needed – both physically and spiritually – through acts of mercy such as forgiveness, debt relief, friendship, charity, etc.

Together, justice and righteousness are concerned for giving needed resources with a compassionate spirit of relationship. It seeks to meet the holistic needs of underprivileged people.

Psalm 72 is read in this Christian liturgical season of Christmas (December 25-January 5) because the celebration of the Christ child entering humanity gives great hope for the poor, the needy, the indigent, and all those who struggle to daily survive grinding situations of hardship and adversity.

This is why, when Jesus announced his earthly ministry, he made it clear the nature of that work would be upholding and extending justice and righteousness:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)

The least, the lost, the lonely, and the lame have a champion – a Divine Advocate who will take up their cause and ensure they are treated as deserving human beings, with adequate care of both body and soul. Done properly, our living a just and right life requires we share compassion and empathy along with the monetary and physical resources.

“Whoever gives justice to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully and empathize with him in his sorrow.”

Maimonides (1138-1204, C.E.)

Both the hand and the heart are always involved in biblical justice and righteousness. That way both the giver and the recipient benefit. Whereas the poor receive money or other material assistance, the donor receives the merit of sharing in G-d’s work.

So then, righteousness and justice involve giving assistance with the hand as well as encouragement with the mouth so that needs are met with no residual bitterness of heart.

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever.” (2 Corinthians 9:7-9, NIV)

May you know the joy and celebration of both giving and receiving with a grateful heart, attuned to the blessings of a generous G-d who stands behind it all.

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