This year is the sesquicentennial of Canada, which means that it is now 150 years since Confederation, when Canada first became an independent country. Confederation was the culmination of a drawn-out political process which finally ended with the passing of the British North America Act by the British Parliament in 1867. For the final stages of the drama a number of leading Canadian politicians travelled to London to negotiate the final details. Among other things, the Canadian delegates in London debated with their colonial overlords whether the new nation which they were designing should be called the kingdom of Canada, or the republic of Canada, or something else.
One of the participants was Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley, who was the premier of New Brunswick at the time. Like many of the other delegates in London he was a devout Christian, who reputedly began every day with Bible reading and prayer. One morning during his morning devotions in London he read Psalm 72, and he was struck by verse 8, which in the old King James Version reads “He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” Later that day, as the delegates were debating the relative merits of kingdom or republic or something else to describe Canada, he suggested that “dominion” might be a good word, referring to this text in Psalm 72. The new united country was to be under God, and moreover before long it was to stretch literally from sea to sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that it would be appropriate for it to be called “the dominion of Canada.” The other delegates agreed, as did the British Prime Minister and Queen Victoria, and so “dominion” became the official designation of Canada. That is also why our July 1 national holiday, which we now call Canada Day, was called Dominion Day until 1982.
To the ends of the earth
However, the text which Tilley quoted is not just a text that has the word “dominion” in it, and which happens to refer to two seas. It occurs in quite a special psalm.
Psalm 72 is written by King Solomon, and is about the ideal king. It begins like this:
“Endow the king with your justice, O God,
The royal son with your righteousness.
He will judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.”
This seems to describe a human king, someone like David or Solomon, but without their character flaws. What is being described is an ideal king. This is confirmed by verse 4, which reads as follows:
“He will defend the afflicted among the people,
and save the children of the needy.”
But as we read further in the psalm, we begin to realize that this is not just a human king that is being described. The next verse reads as follows:
“He will endure as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.”
That cannot apply to a merely human king. Nor can it be a merely human who is described in the verse which follows:
“May the king’s rule be refreshing like spring rain
on freshly cut grass,
like showers that water the earth.
May all the godly flourish during his reign.
May there be abundant prosperity until the moon
is no more.”
It is at this point that we come to the verse that Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley read in London in 1867:
“He shall have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the river to the ends of the earth.”
In the context of ancient Israel that meant that the ideal king’s sovereignty would be world-wide, from ocean at one end of the world to the ocean at the other end.
Clearly, the ideal future king that is here described, with his universal sovereignty, is not a human king like David or Solomon, but a superhuman king whose sovereignty is as wide as that of God himself. What is being described is the future messianic king of Old Testament expectation.
Accordingly, it has been understood for a long time – already by the Jews in Old Testament times, that Psalm 72 is about the coming King Messiah, and Christians have always understood it to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact the well-known hymn “Christ shall have dominion, over land and sea” is really a versification of Psalm 72. Jesus Christ is the one who will have dominion from sea to sea. That was clearly understood by Sir Samuel Tilley and the other Fathers of Confederation in 1864. Canada was to be a Christian nation.
Further Biblical connections
But there’s more to the story. When Canada was to have its own coat of arms in 1921 it was decided to pick up on this reference to “dominion from sea to sea” from Psalm 72. In the official Canadian coat of arms we have the Latin words a mari usque ad mare, which means “from sea to sea,” and is a direct quote from Psalm 72. So wherever you see the Canadian coat of arms, for example in your passport or on other official government documents, you have before your eyes a reminder of the Christian origins of our country.
(Incidentally, just as an aside, if you look closely at some versions of the Canadian coat of arms you will notice that it has another Latin phrase as well, namely desiderantes meliorem patriam, which means “longing for a better country,” which is another biblical allusion, namely Hebrews 11:6.)
But there’s even more to the story. When Canada adopted its own flag in 1965, the originally proposed design, which was favoured by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, had two blue bars on the right and left edges representing the Atlantic and the Pacific. This was explicitly designed to allude to the extent of Canada “from sea to sea.” Although the final design changed the colour from blue to red, the bars on either side of the flag still remind us of this connection with the phrase “he shall have dominion from sea to sea” from Psalm 72. Throughout Canadian history, it seems, there has been an intimate connection between this biblical phrase and our country.
There has been a move afoot in recent years to change the Canadian national motto from the original “from sea to sea” to a more inclusive “from sea to sea to sea,” to highlight the fact that Canada is bounded on the north by the Arctic sea. This has not yet been officially adopted, and I personally hope it doesn’t happen, because it would obscure the significant connection of that motto with Psalm 72.
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