We live in times of great cynicism about leaders. From politicians, to leaders in business and entertainment, to spiritual leaders — we find ourselves surrounded by stories of leadership failures.
Yet even in our growing suspicions, we cannot be done with the idea of leadership. It is both a practical necessity and a deep longing in the human heart. We were made for true leaders, and we ache for them, for good leaders who will bless and work for the good of their followers, rather than use them.
This angst about leaders in our times makes Psalm 72 an especially relevant word. And not just us as humans and those alive today, but also particularly at our church, as we’ll see.
Who Is This King?
Psalm 72 is a prayer for the ideal leader. It’s a 3,000-year-old prayer, cast in the terms of ancient Israel, and yet the vision is strikingly timeless, both in its ultimate fulfillment and in its personal application to all of us. We all are led, and most of us serve as leaders in some aspect of our lives, whether as father, mother, or older sibling, or perhaps at work, on a team, in the neighborhood, or for extended family.
Now, the question we might have on the face of Psalm 72 is, Who is this king, the one that the prayer was originally for? The superscript at the beginning says, “Of Solomon.” Does that mean Solomon wrote it for his son? But verse 20, at the end, says, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” Does that imply this is David’s prayer for his “royal son,” Solomon?
I think that an aging David, praying for his son, may make the most sense in the full context. (Themes here belong to the same era as David’s final words in 2 Samuel 23 and Solomon’s prayer in his early reign in 1 Kings 3.)
But as I hope you expect by now, almost halfway through the book of Psalms, this psalm is going to end up being about Jesus. Sometimes it’s subtle enough that we deal with the psalm mainly as is, showing in the end how it points to Jesus. This one is not subtle.
Now, it’s not strictly messianic like Psalm 110. This really is a prayer for Solomon, and other royal sons in his line. Yet the vision is so expansive. Verses 5–7 pray for a king without end; verses 8–11, for a king without borders. The majesty of this king — for all time, over all places and nations — swells beyond what any Israelite king ever realized or even came close to.
So, as Christians, we know where this is going. David may have prayed this for his royal son, and Solomon for his. But only the one Messiah fulfills this vision — that is, only Jesus.
Four Aspects of the Ideal Leader
Still, Psalm 72 has relevance beyond Jesus, in real-life manifestations, in various imperfect measures, in those of us today who seek to walk as leaders in Christ’s steps and have his help. Every good and godly leader instantiates this vision in some real, though imperfect, ways.
So, as we look at Psalm 72, let’s highlight four aspects of this ideal leader, fulfilled perfectly and primarily in Jesus, but secondarily and imperfectly in Christian leaders of all kinds today.
1. His people flourish. (verses 15–17)
Verse 7 prays, “In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound.” Then verses 15–17 flesh out this flourishing:
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 the day!
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
on the tops of the mountains may it wave;
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 people be blessed in him,
all nations call him blessed!
One aspect of this ideal leader is that his people flourish. How so?
For one, they have; they possess resources. They have abundance of grain and fruit (verse 16). And even “the tops of the mountains” — that is, “the most surprising of soils” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 257) — wave with abundance. Under this ideal leader, the people prosper. He leads them in such a way that they steward the land and work it and harvest its produce, rather than squandering it. But they not only have; they give. They have gold, says verse 15, from which they give tribute to their king.
Yet they are not only a material people, having and giving wealth, but also a spiritual people. They pray for their king, making “prayer . . . for him continually” and invoking God’s “blessings . . . for him all the day!” (verse 15). This is an essential mark of a flourishing people: they are spiritual. They acknowledge and reverence God, praying to him for their leaders and everything else.
And as they pray, and God answers, and their leaders prove mature and wise, the people flourish even more, and so they multiply. The end of verse 17 says, “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” Verses 8–11 mention desert tribes, kings from faraway coastlands, and the very ends of the earth.
Blossom in the Cities?
Verse 16 includes something that may sound strange to us in 2023: “May people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field!” You might think, “In the cities, the places from which so many seem to move away? Maybe in the prairies! Maybe near the lakes, in the country, in the small towns, on the farm, but not in the cities, at least not the Twin Cities. Get me to the Dakotas and wide-open spaces. Isn’t that now the place to blossom and flourish?”
It might be, for a short time. Yet the prayer of verse 16 gives us a glimpse of how we might think Christianly about cities, specifically the Twin Cities in which we live.
Just this week, I was in Manhattan with my young family of six, including an 8-year-old and 6-year-old. From there we took the train and stayed in downtown Philadelphia. Then on our way home, we had a flight delayed, missed our connection in Detroit, and couldn’t find room for six on a flight back to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport until two days later. We spent two unplanned nights in Detroit, so we’ve been on quite the city tour in the last week. We have seen the best and worst of American cities, and none of it feels especially easy for young families.
Yet here in Psalm 72, in this prayer for the future, David envisions God’s people blossoming in the cities. That is, in the cities, with all the challenges of their densities and pressures and crowdedness, God’s people blossom as humans. We were made for cities, at least eventually. And cities themselves, in all their strengths and complexities and opportunities are the blossoming of human civilization and industriousness. Cities, not prairies, are our future, both in this age and forever.
Manhattan is not becoming more rural, but our world is slowly becoming more like Manhattan. The world is growing toward cities — and good cities are God’s world in bloom. As a church in the central metro, filled with people from all around the metro, urban and suburban, we can be encouraged by this vision and prayer. Blossoming in the cities can happen, even in this age. It’s possible. Pray for it. Endure in it. And one day, for sure, it will happen under the full and final reign of the ideal leader.
Which relates to that little phrase in verse 17: “in him.” Zoom out, and you’ll see, “May people be blessed in him.” To understand the flourishing of the people, we need to know more about the leader himself.
2. His strengths serve his people’s good. (verses 1–4)
Look at the first four verses:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!
There is a threefold vision here for the skills or abilities or competencies or strengths of this ideal king.
First is his ability to make the decisions that leadership requires, to make wise and skilled judgments. The king decides. Verse 1 is literally, “Give the king your judgments [plural], O God.” In other words, make him wise and discerning in the countless decisions it takes to lead well. Help him to know, in the ever-changing and ever-complex situations of life and leadership, how to navigate the moment not for his own private good but for the good of his people, to think for their good as a whole (which is often more costly to the leader). People who flourish are guided by leaders who are wise and judge justly.
Second, the king provides. We saw the mention of mountains in verse 16. So here, “mountains bear[ing] prosperity for the people” is a sign of abundance. And we can say this about the king’s leadership: he guides the people in such a way that they steward the land and reap its natural benefits in season. They at least conserve the land; they sow in the spring and gather at harvest. And so, through his able leadership, he provides for the people.
Then third, according to verse 4, he protects his people. Which has two parts: he defends the cause of the vulnerable, and he crushes the oppressors of the vulnerable. The two go together. Oppressors don’t just quietly go away when the king arrives to defend his people. Oppressors must be confronted and defeated. To protect his people, the king must crush his enemies.
Note how the ideal king not only exercises wisdom and provides for his people, but also protects them, particularly those who are truly weak and needy and poor, that is, those without the power to protect themselves. The leader leverages his strength to protect his people who are weak.
This is what Jesus does for us. Which is why Christians, from the very beginning, have been people with hearts to help the weak, the needy, the poor, the orphan, the widow, the unborn. This leads to a third aspect of this ideal leader.
3. His heart pities the needy. (verses 12–14)
There’s a flash of his heart in verse 6: “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth!” This is very similar to how David talks in his last words, recorded in 2 Samuel 23:3–4:
When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.
This image of life-giving rain goes back to Moses in Deuteronomy 32:2, where he says,
May my teaching drop as the rain,
my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
and like showers upon the herb.
Gentle rain is an insightful picture of good leadership. Think about what rain can do for crops. A gentle rain gives life, but a driving, violent rain destroys. This is what gentleness in leadership is. It is not weakness. Rather, it is strength applied to life-giving rather than life-harming ends. Gentle leaders are not weak. Rather, they are strong, and they know how to exercise that strength so as to help their people, rather than hurt them. Which begins in the leader’s heart.
Worship Won by Mercy
Verses 12–14 expand on this prayer, and (this is very important) these verses give the reason why his dominion extends so far (verses 8–11), to include the ends of the earth and all kings and nations:
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has 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.
There is only one “for” or “because” in Psalm 72 — at the beginning of verse 12. It shows verses 12–14, humanly speaking, to be the reason why this king’s dominion stretches so far, and why so many bow the knee to him.
- Verse 11: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!”
- Then verse 12: “For he delivers the needy.”
In other words, this ideal king wins the nations with his mercy. He may conquer hostile foes by force, but he does not win worshipers with the sword. He wins worship with his stunning mercy. He works for the joy of the needy, the weak, the poor, and in doing so, he reveals his warm heart of pity and compassion and wins others to bow the knee. As we sang this morning in the words of Isaac Watts, which were inspired by Psalm 72,
People and realms of every tongue
dwell on his love with sweetest song.
This ideal king, in all this unequaled strength and wisdom and wealth, has pity on his weak people. He has compassion for the needy. He is sympathetic to the desperate, the humble, those who own their need of rescue. And this heart of mercy wins the nations.
Crush the Oppressor?
What about the tension between verses 4 and 14?
- Verse 14 says he redeems them “from oppression and violence.”
- Verse 4 says he “crush[es] the oppressor” of his people.
Now we’re not asking about his gentleness with his people, but his strength in protecting them. And when he does so, does he oppose violence or use it? “Crush the oppressor” is strong language. It sure sounds violent.
The answer is at least this: The way he opposes violence, of necessity, is by crushing the oppressors. Crushing a known oppressor is very different than oppressing with violence. Jesus is never the oppressor; he crushes the oppressors, and in a very unexpected way.
And that leads to a final aspect of this ideal leader.
4. His God gets glory. (verses 18–19)
It’s amazing that Psalm 72 ends the way it does. The glory of the king in verse 17 — his name, his fame — gives way to the glory of his God in verses 18–19:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen!
As wondrous as this ideal leader is in his wise decisions and gracious provisions and strong protection of his people and stunning mercy, verse 18 says that “[God] alone does wondrous things.” In other words, the wondrous works of this good, godly leader are wondrous works of God.
Not only does the king’s name and fame endure forever, but also God’s “glorious name” (verse 19) will be praised forever, in the whole earth. Without end and without limit. No expiration and no borders.
Note that Psalm 72 doesn’t say that God gets the glory and not the king. Oh, the king gets glory, honor, and praise indeed: gifts of gold, cries of “Long live the king!” an enduring name, ongoing fame — yet all that in complement to, not competition with, the glory of his God. You might even hear Philippians 2:9–11:
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Which leads to two particular words of hope for us as a church in this season.
Our Church, Right Now
The first word concerns this perfect leader, the fulfillment of Psalm 72, Christ himself. He is reigning now. He died, he rose, he ascended, he took his seat at the Father’s right hand, he is alive, and we have him now.
The leader we long for, the leader this psalm prays for — we have him now. The great leader has come, and is on the throne, and has sent his Spirit. Even now, he has spoken and still speaks. He builds his church, he decides for us, he guides us, he leads us, and he will judge justly and right every wrong. As Christians, we have the leader our souls long for, though we can be so quick to forget it.
For our first five years as a church, we had no pastoral transitions. But in the last three years, we have had pastors move to Wisconsin, to Washington State, to Missouri, to Florida, to Idaho. That’s no condemnation. People move. They didn’t leave the faith; they only left the state. Undershepherds will come and go; Jesus will not. The undershepherds are not the chief Shepherd of the church. Jesus is, and he is the one true, perfect, immovable leader.
The second word of hope concerns your imperfect leaders who remain — and your own imperfections in your various callings of leadership. This is such good news: the chief Shepherd changes us as part of his rescue of the weak and needy. He brings this vision, this prayer of Psalm 72, to life in real measures in leaders today.
So pray for it, and expect it, in your pastors. And pray for it, and seek to be it, in your various callings of leadership. He changes people. No matter what they say, change is possible. Don’t give up on anyone, including yourself. And in your leadership disappointments — with yourself and with other leaders — look through and beyond to the true King.
In him, we remember that, and admit that, we are not the ideal leader, and we can repent like it. And in Jesus, we not only admit that we are not him, but we can even take joy in admitting it, because he’s the kind of king who has pity on those who know themselves weak and needy. He came to call sinners, not the righteous.
Whether father or mother, executive or manager, block leader or team captain, pastor or deacon, we can lay aside the pretense of perfection. We can own our neediness and weakness and failures, not to mope about them or wallow in them, but to know the strength and mercy of our King. He is good. He is generous. He is compassionate. He is wide-hearted. We come to his Table.
Receive Abundant Mercy
Along with blossoming in the cities, verse 16 mentions an abundance of grain and fruit — which is how we get bread and wine. Not only does the ideal leader, King Jesus, exercise wisdom and provide for and protect his people, but it is only possible through his self-giving at the cross.
He shed his own blood to show the preciousness of the life of his needy, weak people. His providing an abundance of grain and fruit, including the bread and cup of this Table, is not cheap, but costly, at the price of his own blood.
And in that very moment when he decisively crushed Satan, the oppressor of his people, he showed his people his mercy. The cross is the supreme manifestation of regal mercy. It is the place where the King triumphs, the ground of all kings and nations falling down before him. And his cross purchases not merely the pardon of his people but our blossoming — even in the Cities.