The Politics of the Psalms

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March 18, 2011
by David T. Koyzis

Perhaps it has something to do with my first name, but I have always been fascinated by the biblical book of the Psalms. I grew up singing from a hymn book in which the Psalms set to meter were given a prominent place. The liturgical practice of singing the Psalms has ancient roots going back to temple and synagogue worship, finding its way also into Christian churches. It is thus not surprising that, until the end of the 18th century, the majority of Protestants sang from metrical psalters containing all 150 Psalms. Most Protestants since then have abandoned this practice, but many in the Reformed tradition have held to it, glorifying God, as it is often said, in his own words.

One of the characteristics of the Psalms is their earthiness. In contrast to some religions in which the divine is portrayed as a static something to which the soul strives to ascend, the Bible in general and the Psalms in particular see God as actively intervening in history to save his people in the midst of adversity. Politics plays a role in this. There are a number of royal psalms addressed to the king or at least pertaining to him. Psalms 72 and 82 are typical in this respect.

Psalm 72 is associated with the great King Solomon, fabled for his wisdom. The biblical scholars tell us that it may have been sung at a coronation or its annual commemoration. In addition to giving voice to the expected “long live the king” sentiments, it also sees fit to touch on the ordinary tasks of doing public justice, especially to the most vulnerable:

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 (vs. 12-14 RSV).

This falls short, of course, of the final justice to be meted out at the Last Judgment. Yet the early church saw the proximate salvation offered by the Davidic monarch of the old covenant as an anticipation of our ultimate salvation in Jesus Christ, “great David’s greater Son.” Thus they considered Psalm 72 a messianic psalm, offering a foretaste of the coming Christ and his kingdom.

Psalm 82 is sometimes thought to invoke a pre-monotheistic notion of a divine council of gods over which the chief God presides. Yet it seems evident from the context that God is addressing earthly rulers who fancy themselves gods, as seen in the very down-to-earth commands he gives them to do public justice to their subjects:

“How long will you defend the unjust
   and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
   uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (vs. 2-4, NIV).

If there is a politics of the Psalms, it consists of the following principles: (1) All human beings are created in God’s image and have been given a royal mandate over the rest of creation (Psalm 8:5-8); (2) the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10); (3) those specially invested with political authority have a responsibility to rule wisely and justly (Psalms 72, 82); and (4) the nations and their rulers belong ultimately to God and are responsible to him for their actions (Psalms 47:9, 82:8).

The fact that we live in a country with a democratic form of government in no way cancels or diminishes these principles of justice to which rulers are bound. To the contrary, as the Center’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship affirm, “Citizens share with governments the responsibility to uphold a just political community.” The Center was established more than three decades ago precisely to equip citizens to exercise this task wisely and justly.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003). His Genevan Psalter project can be found at: http://genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca/.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Topic(s): Psalms

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.