Psalm72: Justice in rulers

‘Give the King your justice’ (1)

The psalmist asks for the ruler to show justice, compassion and goodness to his people. Surely a common enough theme, but more poignant since we see how often rulers around the world are more interested in grasping power and its benefits than rescuing the poor.(4) In contrast, recall the remarkable life and example of the late Nelson Mandela — a humble giant of the century. This song prays for divine inspiration for the king, probably Solomon, so that he might exercise strong leadership, that ‘he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice’. (2)

A later mention of foreign kings (10-11) is taken as a reference to the Magi. This is a reason for associating this psalm with Epiphany, a festival observing the manifestation of Christ to the wise men. More widely observed in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, Epiphany also marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas.


Several great composers of years gone by were struck by the reference to foreign kings. Who better to cite but William Byrd (1540-1623)?

In Byrd’s setting Reges Tharsis et Insulae the kings of Tarshish and the isles, of Sheba (‘Arabia’) and Seba get a mention. Musician and leader approach the choice of setting with slightly different priorities. The music leader might concentrate on how the music will sound, support for the words, whether there are enough singers, and whose voices suit different styles — the art of the possible each week. If sight-readers are available, this Byrd piece would be lovely. The worship leader, however, might wonder what good it is other than a nice addition to the atmosphere: it’s in Latin, not in the reading for this week, and the text is peripheral to the main message of justice. In Byrd’s original publication this theme was seen as appropriate as a gradual or offertory for Epiphany, which refers to the coming of the Magi bearing gifts. It invites us to follow the example.

If Byrd is a bridge too far, a hymn based on the psalm text, like NCH 104 We hail you God’s anointed would suffice. It’s relevant to leadership, has a sense of social justice and is listed for Advent. Not too many antiphonal settings come to hand. Some sources use these first few verses to proclaim the justice of God and, hopefully, that good leader who is sorely in such demand. Isaac Everett chose verse 4 mentioned above. Unusually, however, Everett’s tune is not too captivating. Further, poverty and weakness are only a part of the agenda. The pressing need for the extension of peace and justice through good leadership leads us to the broader, and perhaps more poetic, reference in verse 3:

May the mountains bear peace to the people, and the hills righteousness

There seem to be no off-the-shelf antiphons written around that one. So here is another home-grown tune:

Psalm 72 refrain by the author

The final verses 18-20 are the psalmist’s doxology to conclude this group of songs. It may therefore be sung in a separate style to set it slightly apart from the foregoing text.

Entering the village of Taizé in France

Broadening the focus to the full text, the simple, reflective and harmonious strains of Taizé are quite at home here. Several Taizé songs in TiS suggest themselves including No 706, Bless the Lord my soul and 747, The Lord is my light. The latter may be sung as a round or in parts, blend the various parts and harmonies at will. Here is a quick summary of just some of the options showing different themes according to the verse highlighted in the refrain:

  • PFAS 72B. The hymn: Jesus shall reign where’er the sun. (5)
  • PFAS 72C. In his days justice will flourish … peace forevermore. (7)
  • PFAS 72C Alt. Every nation on earth shall adore you. (11)
  • PFAS 72D. (Spanish) In your hand are grace, power and grandeur.
  • Emergent Psalter. He shall deliver the poor. (12)
  • New Century. Give the ruler your justice. (1)
  • TaizĂ©. The Lord is my light. (Not a quote from the psalm.)
  • By author. May the mountains bring peace…(3)
  • By author (SWCC). May honour flourish and peace abound until the moon is no more. (7)

Psalm 72 is the last poem in Book II:

Finit liber secundus, incipit liber tertius; ‘Ends Book 2, starts Book 3’, in an 11th century psalter from Spain, BL MS 30851

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