The concluding verses of Psalm 72, sung to the rousing African tune SIYAHAMBA, are a favorite doxology in the congregation I attend at college. This royal psalm describes the blessings all the nations will enjoy as a result of the Messiah’s kingship:
May he live, and gold from Sheba’s realm
Then be given as a gift to him.
May the people always pray for him,
May they bless his name throughout the day.
In all regions—and upon the hilltops—
O may there be abundant crops of grain!
Being fruitful—Lebanon with cedars—
O may the city thrive like grassy fields!
—The Book of Psalms for Worship, selection 72E
As joyous as it is to sing about the bounteous results of Christ’s reign, Psalm 72 often leaves me confused. I understand that its original context is probably a prayer of David or Solomon for Solomon’s kingship, as evidenced by the inscription and v. 20. But many of the blessings invoked in Psalm 72 clearly transcend an individual or even a national focus: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (vv. 8, 17 ESV). Such prayers seem to look forward to the coming of a Messiah whose worldwide reign will bring ultimate peace and prosperity. We Christians confess that the Messiah has come and has begun his reign—and yet the blessings of Psalm 72 seem to remain unfulfilled.
Will there come a day on this earth when all nations acknowledge Christ as King? Will we see a time when “the righteous flourish, and peace abound[s], till the moon be no more” (v. 7)? If so, why do the circumstances of the world seem to be growing worse rather than better?
Lately I’ve been reading David Murray’s recent book Jesus on Every Page: Ten Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament. His chapter on the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, entitled “Christ’s Poets,” held a groundbreaking insight for my understanding of such passages.
Dr. Murray asks some questions that cut to the heart of our understanding of the psalms: “[D]id the original composers and singers understand what we can with the benefit of New Testament hindsight? Did they see the Messiah in the Psalms to the extent that the New Testament writers did?” He answers that while Old Testament believers could not enjoy the “extraordinary light” we have been granted as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they did trust in a future Messiah, and they knew his message of salvation would be much clearer to future generations. Yes, Dr. Murray would say, Psalm 72 was written with the person and work of Jesus Christ as its preeminent focus.
But what Dr. Murray said next instantly clarified my confusion concerning Psalm 72:
In some ways, we are in a similar position to these first psalm singers when we think ahead to the second coming of Jesus. Many passages in the Old and New Testaments—including the Psalms—predict Jesus’ coming again in great glory to end this world and create a new environment for a renewed people. But while we get the overall outline of what lies ahead, only when these events unfold in detail will we fully understand these scriptures. In the meantime, we look ahead with optimistic faith and sing psalms such as Psalm 72 and 98 with the same inquiring faith that the Old Testament prophets also experienced with reference to the first coming of Jesus [I Peter 1:10-12].
In other words, we may not fully understand all the promises of Psalm 72 and other forward-looking scriptures. But that’s okay. Although Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension perfectly fulfilled the messianic promises of the Old Testament, the final consummation of his kingdom according to the Bible’s prophecies is yet to come. The author of Hebrews explains this distinction wonderfully in reference to Psalm 8: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).
So it’s okay for the promises of Psalm 72 to puzzle us. It’s all right to wonder how God will bring about the consummation of the Messiah’s kingdom. As humble, awed worshippers, we need not doubt; rather, we can look forward to the certain fulfillment of this and every other unclear passage. And when we sing, “May his name endure forevermore; may it grow as under shining sun,” we can do so not only in praise but also in anticipatory excitement. Nothing can stop the fact that Jesus is coming again!
–quotes from Jesus on Every Page are from pp. 190, 191