A Plea for Help Against Foes in Old Age; The Blessed Reign of the King's Son (Psalms 71-72) August 20-22
Psalm 71 is "a prayer for God's help in old age when enemies threaten because they see that the king's strength is waning.... The psalm bears no title, but it may well be that Ps 70 was viewed by the editors of the Psalms as the introduction to Ps 71 (compare vv. 1, 12-13 with 70:1-2, 5), in which case the psalm is ascribed to David (in his old age; see vv. 9, 18). This suggestion gains support from the fact that Ps 72 [which immediately follows and closes Book II of the Psalter] is identified as a prayer by and/or for King Solomon" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 71). And Psalm 72 ends by describing the psalms that have come before as prayers of David (see verse 20). The Greek Septuagint translation adds a superscription to the beginning of Psalm 71, labeling it "of David."
The opening of Psalm 71—the declaration of trust in God, the plea for His righteous deliverance, that He would bend His ear and be a strong refuge, and the identification of Him as the psalmist's rock and fortress (Psalm 71:1-3) is essentially repeated from David's opening to Psalm 31 (verses 1-3). As David's suffering in that psalm foreshadowed the sufferings of the Messiah, it is likely that Psalm 71 is similarly prophetic, though Jesus' sufferings came when He was a young man, in terms of His human life.
One difference we may note here in verse 3 is the statement, "You have given the commandment to save me." The psalmist recognizes that God has all the forces of the universe and heavenly realm at His disposal. He has but to command the psalmist's deliverance for it to be effected—and indeed the psalmist knows that God has so commanded it. His words bring to mind the centurion's response when Jesus offered to come to his home to heal the servant. The centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed" (Matthew 8:5-8).
Psalm 71 is a welcome comfort for believers enduring a lingering trial that drains their strength, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. God is our Rock, our safe place.
The psalmist, who is likely David, is a man who has trusted God his whole life. His relationship with God began in his youth and has continued ever since (verses 5-6, 17). The statement about God having brought him forth from his mother's womb (verse 6) is also found in Psalm 22 (verse 9), another messianic psalm of David.
The psalmist in 71:7 says "he has become 'a portent' [NIV] (mopeth 'a wonder' [NKJV]) to his contemporaries, i.e., a sign of trouble, chastisement, and divine retribution" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 5-8). Many see his troubles and weakness as evidence of God's punitive judgment on him, as would later be wrongly assumed regarding Jesus Christ (see Isaiah 53:4). Enemies deduce that now is a good time to rise up against him because they think "God has forsaken him...[and] there is none to deliver him" (Psalm 71:11).
Verses 12-13 are a restatement of David's urgent plea for deliverance and the confounding of his enemies in Psalm 70:1-2, thus serving to connect Psalms 70 and 71. As noted above, Psalm 70, a reprise of the end of Psalm 40, appears to condense the themes of Psalm 69 and to introduce Psalm 71.
The psalmist will continue to hope and praise God (verses 14-16). He makes a final plea for God to not forsake him so that he may sing of God's power and strength to the present generation and those yet to come (verses 17-18; compare 22:30). And he is confident that God will save him (71:19-24).
In verse 20, when the psalmist says that God will bring him back up "from the depths of the earth," he is speaking metaphorically of being rescued from his life-threatening situation and his despondency (compare 40:2; 69:2, 14-15). Yet, being old, he could also be contemplating the end of his life and looking forward to his future resurrection from the grave. Given the messianic nature of this and related psalms, it also seems logical to view this as Jesus Christ looking forward to His own resurrection.
Psalm 72 is the last psalm in Book II of the Psalter. At its end appear the words, "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended"—apparently closing the collection of David's psalms in Books I and II as of the time this note was appended. (Other psalms of David do appear in later books.)
Psalm 72 concerns the reign of a succeeding "king...the king's son" (verse 1). The superscription says "Of Solomon," which could mean, as with Psalm 127 (the only other psalm bearing his name), that Solomon wrote it. Yet, because of the appended note about the prayers of David, many feel that David wrote Psalm 72 about or for Solomon. The Greek Septuagint translation has eis, meaning "to" or "for." As pointed out in the Bible Reading Program's introduction to Psalms, it could be that Solomon wrote it prior to David's death and that David included it in his own collection—or it could just as well be that, following David's death, Solomon appended his own psalm to the end of the collection of his father's psalms. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin argued that David gave the substance of Psalm 72 in a spoken prayer before his death and that Solomon afterward set it down in the form of a psalm, composing the poetry and music himself (see Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 1). It would thus be a prayer of David but a psalm of Solomon.
In any case, Psalm 72 was probably also used by the nation as a prayer for later kings in David's line. Yet it should be clear from reading this remarkable psalm that it is not the reign of Solomon or any merely human king that is primarily in view here. Rather, Psalm 72 concerns the reign of the ultimate Son of David, who is also the Son of the Almighty King, God. As The Nelson Study Bible comments, "This psalm is intensely messianic, speaking in ideal terms of the coming of the great King...who will establish this glorious reign" (note on Psalm 72).
Indeed, as pointed out in prior comments, we should notice again a most interesting pattern of arrangement in Book II of the Psalter. Book II begins with a cluster of lamenting prayers to God for help against enemies (Psalms 42-44), figurative of the suffering of Jesus Christ at His first coming, followed by a psalm about the Messiah's marriage to His Bride at the beginning of His glorious reign at His second coming (Psalm 45). Likewise, the book ends with a cluster of lamenting pleas for God's help against enemies, which expressly relate to the Messiah's sufferings in His first coming (Psalms 69-71), followed by a psalm that portrays Christ's majestic reign when He comes again (Psalm 72). Realize also that David himself, whose grief in the lamenting psalms foreshadowed Christ's own, will himself be raised to rule with Christ as king over Israel at that time. Moreover, all Christ's followers should also see in these psalms that our own suffering for His sake today will be followed by our future glory when we are at last raised to reign with Him in His Kingdom.
Verse 3 says that during the King's reign the mountains and hills will bring forth peace by righteousness. On one level this may concern productivity. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, means more than absence of war. It concerns perfect contentment and happiness and may connote prosperity. Mountains and hills are not typically fertile areas, but blessing will flow even from them (compare Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13). Yet mountains and hills can also be figurative of great and small nations—and that may be intended here as well, considering the universal reign of this King, as later described. The verse would then entail all peoples learning God's way, resulting in world peace. The reign of Solomon, whose name meant peace, was a time of peace and prosperity—yet it was only a small foretaste of the peace and prosperity of the Kingdom to come.
The King will be feared—denoting "an expression of wonder, awe, reverence, worship, and obedience" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 72:5-7)—and this for as long as the sun and moon exist, throughout all generations (verse 5). Righteousness and abundant peace would flourish during His reign "until the moon is no more" (verse 7). Clearly this did not concern merely Solomon's earthly reign. Again, the Kingdom of the immortal Messiah is primarily intended. The Messiah's coming is as the gentle rains to bring forth righteousness and peace (verse 6; compare Hosea 6:3; 10:12; Isaiah 55:10-11). Isaiah states, "Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end" (9:7).
The King's dominion, Psalm 72:8 tells us, will extend "from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth." The expression "the River" typically denotes the Euphrates River, the northern boundary God promised for the Promised Land—as it was during Solomon's reign. "Sea to sea" might then appear to represent the east-west boundaries of the land of Israel—from the Dead to the Mediterranean Sea. However, since the dominion extends to the ends of the earth, "sea to sea" could have a much broader meaning. Solomon did experience the royalty of other lands, including Sheba, presenting him with gifts, as described in verse 10 (see also verse 15). But He did not experience the fulfillment of verse 11, which says that all kings would fall down before the Great King and that all nations would serve Him. This will only happen following the return of Jesus Christ.
Verses 12-14 expand on the important theme introduced in verses 2 and 4—bringing justice to the lowly and needy, saving them from those who oppress them. Indeed verse 12 seems to imply that this is part of the reason nations will choose to serve Him. "The little word ['for' at the beginning of verse 12] directs our look back at the prediction, 'All kings will bow down to Him' (v. 11). What makes the rule of this king so special? Simply that he is dedicated to save the needy and rescue the oppressed. He has God's own compassion and the power to act on others' behalf. These verses forever change our notion of 'rule.' The central issue of rule is not the power to use others, but the willingness to serve them" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, note on verses 12-14).
The statement "precious is their blood in His sight" (verse 14) does not mean the King desires their deaths. Just the opposite, this phrase should be seen as the reason that He saves people from violence, as mentioned immediately before in the verse. Their blood is what sustains their lives (Leviticus 17:14), and it is their lives that are precious to Him (for similar wording, see 2 Kings 1:13-14). In short, the King will not look on human life as cheap—as so many cruel despots throughout history have done. Rather, He values it very highly. And violence will be eliminated during the rule of His Kingdom (Isaiah 11:9).
In Psalm 72:17, the mention of all peoples being blessed through Him "recalls the promise to Abraham (see Ge 12:3; 22:18) and suggests that it will be fulfilled through the royal son of David—ultimately the Messiah" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 72:17).
Verses 18-19 were probably added to the psalm a closing doxology (expression of praise) when Book II of the Psalter was completed. And the "prayers of David" note in verse 20, as already mentioned, was probably also appended at that time.