A Primer for Kings

Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1–10
Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
Matthew 3:1–12

Scattered throughout the Psalter is a series of what are known as the “royal psalms.” Unlike the many psalms that deal with the relationship between God and the nation of Israel, or between God and the psalmist, often with unsettlingly honest and intimate language, the royal psalms tend to be generic songs written for public occasions. Think of the difference between “The Star-spangled Banner” on the one hand and Simon and Garfunkel’s “American Song” on the other. The royal psalms tend to be anthemic, whereas songs like Psalm 51 or 22 are much more personal, even painfully so.

The royal psalms were composed for the coronations of new kings. The beginning of a new reign was always a time of hope mixed with trepidation. Would this new monarch turn out to be as righteous (or as corrupt, as the case may be) as his father, or were the fortunes of the nation about to change, either for the worse or the better? How could the people use their limited power to influence the king to meet their hopeful expectations rather than fulfill their fears of disaster?

Psalm 72 represents one answer to that question. It serves as both a prayer to God and a charge to the king. Lord, make sure our new sovereign acts with justice and righteousness on behalf of all the people. King, are you listening?

The psalm sets forth the expectations of how the kings of Israel and Judah were to conduct themselves and what the results would be if they did their job right. They were to ensure equity and fairness: "May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (v. 2). They were to put an end to the activities of those who would take advantage of their less powerful neighbors: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (v. 4). The faithful execution of his duties would result in peace and wealth for the nation: “May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness” (v. 3); “In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more" (v. 7).

The psalm is chock-full of the language of righteousness and justice, which were parallel concepts in ancient Hebrew. No less than six times do those words appear in the nine verses that make up our reading for today. That’s a pretty good indication of what the people expected of their leaders. There is an emphasis on material prosperity and agricultural abundance, but these blessings depend on the king's acting to ensure justice and righteousness. This psalm is entirely consistent with both the Torah and the writings of the prophets, which emphasize the absolute necessity of justice and righteousness in the corporate life of the nation.

But not just any justice and righteousness. Verse one makes clear that the source of these attributes is God: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son” (emphasis added). The monarch who seeks to lead by his own lights may not be destined to fail, but is certainly walking on the edge. Lord Acton once observed that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and this was no less true in the psalmist’s time than it was in the nineteenth century CE. Governing according to God’s justice and righteousness is the only reliable safeguard against that kind of corruption. The psalmist acknowledges this explicitly in verse 18: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.”

We find a similar description of the ideal king in Isaiah 11. The background of this oracle is uncertain, although it too apparently has to do with the coronation of a new king. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1). Jesse, of course, was the father of David, so the Davidic dynasty of Judah is in view. But what does the “stump of Jesse” signify? If this was written after the Exile, it may be a prophecy of the restoration of the kingdom. But if this oracle was composed before the Exile, we need another explanation. It may refer to the coronation of Josiah, who came to the throne after the assassination of his father Amon, or it may simply signify the nation's hopes for renewal after the reign of a particularly bad king.

Whatever the background, what we have here is the articulation of Israel’s hopes for the future. By this time in the nation’s history, David had already been idealized as the model king; he embodied the aspirations of his people and was considered the locus of God’s blessing. All of Israel’s hopes had become bound up in the figure of this king in the mold of David—a figure that would in later years become known as the Messiah.

Listen to some excerpts from Isaiah’s vision of what will happen once this “new David” takes the throne: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v. 2). “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (vv. 3–4). “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins” (v. 5).

But the blessings of this renewal are not limited to the political or human sphere; the prophet expects the advent of this shoot from Jesse’s stump to transform all of creation:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (vv. 6–9).

Talk about a high bar! This is almost as heavy a burden as was laid on Barack Obama’s shoulders eight years ago.

Historically speaking, we know that no king of Judah ever realized these tremendous expectations. Josiah probably came the closest, but even his exemplary reign fell short of perfect justice and the complete transformation of nature. That is why many Jews, especially after the Exile, began to view prophecies like this one as predictions of the consummation of the age, and to see the king envisioned here as not just another in the Judean dynasty, but a perfect ruler, a Messiah who would overthrow all their oppressors and set up an eternal kingdom over not just Judah or Israel but the entire world.

It was natural, then, that the early church, which started out as a minority sect within Judaism, would apply this prophecy and others like it to Jesus. As they searched the Scriptures for evidence to back up their conviction that their leader was in fact the long-awaited Messiah, they found some passages that matched up pretty well with Jesus’s earthly life—the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah and Psalm 22 come to mind—and others that pointed to a future fulfillment that would come about upon Jesus’s return. This vision in chapter 11 of Isaiah is one of those.

But even in the interim before Christ returns to bring the reign of God in its fullness, these passages from the Psalms and Isaiah offer a sort of primer for kings. Even if your coronation does not lead to universal harmony in the animal kingdom, you can act in ways that typify that ideal Davidic monarch. Remember how many times the words “justice" and “righteousness” appeared in Psalm 72? Well, the same words appear in Isaiah 11, along with related concepts such as wisdom, understanding, knowledge, equity, and fear of the Lord. Even the most human of kings can practice these virtues to a certain extent, and all kings should aspire to ever greater manifestations of them. 

By looking back to an idealized monarch from the past or pointing ahead to a perfect future ruler, these passages seek to instruct the newly crowned king in what should be the priorities of his reign—not the consolidation of power or the conquest of enemies for the purpose of personal gain, but rather the just administration of the kingdom so that all live in freedom and prosperity. A faithful king will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity; he will deliver the needy and crush the oppressor. These readings tell us the king’s goal should be to conduct the affairs of state as though God sat on the throne. The consistent testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God is the true king of Israel, so all human kings ought to try to approximate God’s perfectly just rule.

We, of course, do not have kings in our country. In fact, our nation was founded upon an explicit rejection of monarchy. But we still have leaders, and the primer for kings we find in these passages applies to them as well. Presidents, senators, members of Congress, judges, governors, mayors, city councilwomen, and so on have the responsibility to administer public affairs in ways that will ensure the fair distribution of resources and equal justice under the law. For those who come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is probably upwards of 95% in this country, these responsibilities are part of not only their public duty but also their religious obligation. The primer for kings, in a republic like ours, becomes a primer for every public servant and officeholder.

So what do we do when we see these officials failing in their public trust? When we find them making laws to benefit corporations and the super-rich over ordinary people? When we catch them with their hands in the cookie jar, enriching themselves at taxpayers’ expense? When they make decisions or interpret the law in ways that disenfranchise certain people, or favor one racial or ethnic group over others, or seek to enshrine discrimination in law? When we see prejudice fueling legislation, ideology outweighing reason, and greed endangering the very planet on which we live?

What we do is we speak out. We resist. We hold our elected officials accountable to their oaths to uphold the constitution and represent all citizens. When they claim to be people of faith, we judge them by the standard of justice and righteousness we see in today’s readings. We demand that they adhere to the dictates of the primer for kings.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because our nation was founded on the principle of representative democracy, because we eschew monarchy in favor of self-rule, the primer for kings becomes in our time a primer for citizens. We no longer have to call on God to endow the king with wisdom, justice, and righteousness; we no longer have to look to a monarch on whom the Spirit of God rests. No, the story of Pentecost tells us that the Spirit rests on the whole community of the faithful, not just certain people set apart as leaders. As John says in today’s gospel lesson, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me.… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11). We cannot shirk the responsibility that once fell on the king. We—each of us individually and all of us as a community—are to defend the cause of the poor and give deliverance to the needy. We are all to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

In our country we face a rising tide of racial strife, political discord, and xenophobia. We have leaders who win elections by preying on people’s fears, appealing to their basest instincts, and pitting one group against another. It remains to be seen if those who campaigned on anger and insults and hateful rhetoric will govern the same way, but we have already seen a spike in incidents of religion- and race-based conflict and violence. We cannot wait around for something to happen and then react; we must be proactive. We must take the initiative to promote racial reconciliation, to offer welcome to the stranger in our midst, to incarnate the justice and righteousness of God in our personal lives and in the public square. We must bear fruit worthy of repentance.

That’s what John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to the Jordan to be baptized: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (vv. 8–10).

It’s not enough to pay lip service to God; it's not enough to sing the hymns and mouth the prayers and say we believe in Jesus; it's not enough to say, “I didn’t vote for [fill in the blank], so it’s not my problem”—we must bear fruit worthy of repentance. We must study and put into practice the primer for kings.

The ax is at the root of the trees, John warns, ready to turn any tree that bears bad fruit into a stump. But the good news is that even from that stump a shoot can grow. Even in the darkest times hope remains. Even when we have failed again and again, the Spirit of God is ready to awaken new life within us. Even in times of turmoil, when it seems for all the world that evil is triumphant and the smoldering wick of grace has been snuffed out once and for all, the promise of Advent comes to us like a whisper in a tornado. It says, in the words of the prophet, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (v. 9). It says, in the words of the psalmist, “Blessed be God’s glorious name forever; may God’s glory fill the whole earth” (v. 19). It says, in the words of the hymn writer, “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s deep shadows put to flight.”

Amen and amen.

Robert Turner