Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness. May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Preamble to the United States Constitution
The Ideal King
Psalm 72 is a royal or messianic psalm. It describes the ideal king who establishes justice, defends the people from internal and external threats, and creates the conditions for prosperity. It is, in fact, a prayer to God that God might work through the king to establish these conditions perfectly and permanently.
As a prayer of God’s people Israel, the psalm’s fulfillment is found in Jesus Christ. It is Christ (which is Greek for “anointed one” – a way of describing the king of all Israel) who at his appearing will bring perfect justice, peace and prosperity for all “till the moon is no more.” (Psalm 72:7) It is Christ alone who is competent to rule from “sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 72:8). It is Christ who is worthy to receive the tribute of the nations (Psalm 72:9-11). It his name that should “endure forever;” he is the one through whom all the nations will be blessed. (Psalm 72:17).
Psalm 72, then, is messianic and eschatological, but not exclusively so. The people who first chanted this Psalm in prayer did not envision Jesus the messiah. They were just praying for the old man in Jerusalem and for their community. Psalm 72 captures the biblical vision of the purpose and responsibility of human governments: defend the weak, the poor and the afflicted and establish the just conditions that lead to prosperity for all.
Defend the Innocent
It is a modern notion that defending the weak and needy consists solely of giving them handouts. The Psalmist envisions a king who will crush the oppressor (Psalm 72:4), save the needy from death, and rescue them from oppression and violence. (Psalm 72:13-14). It is the king’s responsibility to defend the weak from criminals, marauding bands and invading states, all of which have the greatest impact on the poor and weak. If it’s hard to eek out a living in hardscrabble, it’s even harder when the king of Babylon or Assyria comes knocking on the door.
God intends for the king to defend the people of the land from harm – from all enemies foreign and domestic. That’s the just purpose of his sovereign rule. The king who lets violent and wicked people run roughshod over those entrusted to him has failed in his God-given responsibilities.
The Sovereign People
All this talk of kings sounds strange to our ears. Perhaps you recall this conversation:
King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you.
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Within the United States and other democratic nations, sovereignty belongs in the hands of the people and not in the hands of a king To whom does the God-given role of establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare of the people fall in our system? We have established constitutional processes and institutions at the federal, state and local levels to achieve these ends. The closest analogy to the king in our system, however, is not the President or the Congress or the Supreme Court. Sovereignty belongs to the people and they exercise it through the constitutional process of voting.
If the just purpose of political sovereignty includes defending the innocent against violence and oppression, within democratic forms of government it is the citizen who inherits that biblical mandate. HOW we fulfill that mandate is a matter for deliberation, debate and decision. The FACT of the mandate is not really a matter for discussion. He or she who votes bears the responsibility of directing the state to fulfill its God-given responsibilities.
The Double Mandate
The Christian citizen, then, finds himself with a double mandate: resist not him who is evil (Matthew 6:39) and crush the oppressor (Psalm 72:4). Some Christians believe the former supersedes the latter. I don’t.
For those Christians who are unwilling to accept their responsibility to crush the oppressor, however, I see only two theological options:
- Christ’s coming abrogated all human governments. Christ directly rules all who submit to him, and every other authority is an invalid usurpation of Christ’s reign. All human governments and institutions are the beast of Revelation 13:5-8.
- God still ordains human governments, still holds them accountable for establishing justice and protecting the innocent, but now expects them to operate under Sermon on the Mount principles. Since the exercise of law always involves the use of force, all human governments operate in an impossible double bind.
It seems to me that both options would require Christians to bow out of exercising sovereignty in government – or in any human institution, really. To exercise human political power would be to participate in rebellion against God or to sin against his revealed will. In these models, governing – for good or for bad – belongs in the hands of unbelievers.
Personally, I’ll do my best to live with the dual mandate. Some form of Luther’s “two kingdoms” thinking is the only approach that makes any sense to me here. In this world, both law and grace are necessary to fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor as myself.