This post by June Mears Driedger was originally published on December 23, 2014. June is a writer and spiritual director. She lives in Lansing, Michigan with her partner, Kevin. They attend Lansing Church of the Brethren.
When we look at the lectionary texts for the fourth Sunday of Advent we often focus on Mary’s wondrous prayer in the Magnificat with its visions of biblical justice and of radical healing and hope.
This psalm text is often overlooked by preachers and writers, as if we in unison say to the lectionary creators, “Yes, yes, we get it. Jesus is part of the Davidic lineage.” It doesn’t feel like this text has much new or meaningful to offer compared to the other readings and so the psalm is left out of the Advent worship service.
Yet I wonder if there are valuable reasons to spend a little more time considering this text? Are there deeper connections between this psalm and the other biblical passages for the week? I think so.
Personally, I am challenged by the royal psalms, both as an American and as an Anabaptist Mennonite. What do I care about kings (other than the adorableness of Great Britain’s Prince George)? If I am reading a royal psalm as part of my prayers I usually rush through them or skip them altogether. So again, I wonder, is there any value in considering this text?
Bernhard W. Anderson, in his book, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, provides helpful context. The “royal psalms” were written to praise the ruler of Israel, David. These psalms place the king as the central figure—chosen by God to rule over the nation. The surrounding cultural understanding of rulers was that the king was the mediator and representative of the Divine Order of the universe. Additionally, the psalmist was influenced by other writers of the ancient Near East which used courtly, extravagant language of praise and adulation for the king.
But, for Israel, says Anderson, “… kingship emerged not in mythical times but out of the harsh realities of secular politics” especially when the Philistines attempted to create an empire in Palestine. The Israelites did not view the king as divine like the surrounding nation-states did, rather the king was God’s “son” by adoption. This unique relationship was based on God’s choosing of the king, as we see in Ps. 89:26-27.
King David was chosen to perform a task: to rule as God’s representative on earth. Therefore, “in this royal capacity, the king’s role is to obtain justice for the weak and the oppressed and to mediate divine blessing to the social order (Ps. 72). Above all, the king rules under the judgment of God, (cf. Deut. 17:14-20),” writes Anderson. The king is chosen by God to bring about God’s will, God’s initiatives, and God’s reign on earth.
Additionally, in this public hymn and courtly psalm, we are given a glimpse of what the reign of God might look like—not in a prescriptive manner but as descriptive of God’s character. And, I think this is the heart of the psalm. The psalmist repeatedly proclaims, “God’s steadfast love endures forever,” and that God “made a covenant with David.” The key words used here are “steadfast love” (Hebrew word, hesed) and “covenant” (Hebrew word, berit). Both of these words describe God’s character. The first word goes to God’s internal character and testifies that at heart, God is a faithful God. The core of God’s character is comprised of mercy, steadfast love, constancy, loving-kindness, and womblike compassion. The second word goes to the external actions of God and testifies that God is faithful to the promises God makes. Or, God’s fidelity is to those with whom God is in relationship. Likewise, the word describes the relationship of God’s people to God.
So what does this text bring to our advent season? On the face of it, we see the prophetic connection from David to the Messiah, the baby Jesus whose birth we celebrate in a few days. We see the connection of Jesus as God’s son and designated representative to create the reign of God, to initiate God’s reign, on earth as in heaven. Yet, when we weave Mary’s Magnificat along with the psalm revealing God’s character we receive a fuller view, a brighter glimpse of God. Mary reveals that this new ruler, God incarnate, “the Mighty One” has “lifted up the lowly” and has “filled the hungry with good things.” She describes God’s reign as one of leveling the social playing field and proclaims that God has “scattered the proud”, “brought down the powerful”, and “sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). Mary understands God’s faithful and love-abiding promise made to King David is about to be fulfilled and God incarnate will bring freedom, justice, and shalom to the world.