Psalm 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-13
The responsorial psalm for Epiphany Sunday comes from Psalm 72, a royal hymn in which the psalmist asks God to bless the king so that the king in turn can bless the people.
Ancient monarchs exercised incredible control over the lives of their subjects. Despite the scope and depth of this influence, the king is under the jurisdiction of God. As such, he will be able to govern the people in a way that will provide them the peace and well-being that God wills for them.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
The psalm begins with a prayer, asking God that the king be given a share in God’s own righteousness — the same righteousness with which he governs the world and all the people in it.
While the king is the representative of God, he is human; hence intercession must be made for him.
and with your justice, the king’s son;
By mentioning the crown prince, the prayer underscores the principle of dynastic legitimacy.
This psalm’s title attributes it to Solomon, but it may have been written for an enthronement ceremony in a later stage of the monarchy, perhaps in the time of Isaiah (8th century BC) or Josiah (7th century).
Over time, this depiction of an ideal king and reign came to be understood in Jewish tradition as a description of the Messiah.
he shall govern your people with justice
The people are explicitly identified as belonging to God; presumably, they are the people of the covenant. Thus this is no ordinary king, he has been placed over the covenanted people to rule them as God would, in justice and righteousness.
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
The test of the character of the royal rule is the care given to the most vulnerable of the society, the poor. The psalmist asks God to grant righteousness to the king so he can protect the defenseless and guarantee for them a share in the prosperity of the nation.
Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
The psalmist turns to the rule of the king. He prays first for its steadfastness: may it last forever, until the moon be no more.
Actually it’s not the reign itself that is the object of the psalmist’s prayer, but the righteousness of the reign. Since it is really God’s righteousness, he prays that it will take root and flourish throughout the rule of this particular king and that it will even outlast him, enduring along with peace until the end of time.
May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The psalmist next prays that this rule of justice be extended to include the entire world and all of the nations within it. The boundaries of the civilized world known at the time extended from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east, and from the Euphrates (“the River”) to the islands and lands of southwestern Europe (“the ends of the earth”).
There is also a mythic nuance here. Since the sea frequently symbolized chaos (Psalm 89:9-10), the expression “from sea to sea” also implies all the inhabitable land that lies securely and thrives peacefully within the boundaries of chaotic waters.
The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
The kingdoms listed provide a specific profile of this universal rule, tracing the outline of the ancient Near Eastern world.
- Tarshish is thought to have been a Phoenician commercial center in southern Spain; hence “Tarshish and the Isles” represent the far west.
- Sheba was in southern Arabia; Seba was a royal Ethiopian city in southern Egypt. This would represent the far south.
The cities not only provide the borders of the reign of righteousness, they also signify its good fortune. They are all well-established, flourishing, internationally respected centers of commerce and trade. If they are the outposts of this remarkable kingdom, how successful its center must be!
All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.
The Israelite king, as the representative of God, is the instrument of divine justice and blessing not just for Israel, but for the whole world.
The fulfillment of this psalm in Jesus Christ is borne out by the adoration of the Magi and by the universal reach of the salvation he brought as the Messiah-King. That is why we pray this psalm today, on the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one to help him. He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor he shall save.
The reading ends with a picture of righteousness in action. If the test of justice is the solicitude shown to the needy, the prayer of the psalmist has been answered. The kingdom is rooted in the righteousness of God, and the most vulnerable in society have an advocate in the king.