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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



The ancient superscription carries the notation, “A Psalm of David.” It is a liturgical hymn used ceremonially upon the occasion of a king’s coronation, or upon the occasion of his going into battle.

“A Psalm of David” may mean merely, “A Psalm about David,” and not necessarily a Psalm written by David. As far as we can understand the passage, it really makes no difference which it means.

If it means that David wrote the Psalm, there is the suggestion of a problem in the usage of the words of other people in a prayer for himself, which to modern ears sounds unnatural; but David may have composed this prayer to be prayed by the people upon behalf, not merely of himself, but on behalf of kings who would arise after him. In this view, the use of the second person in Psalms 20:1-5 is not unnatural.

It was John Calvin’s opinion that, “Under the figure of the temporal kingdom,”(F1) God here laid down the principle reiterated in the New Testament to the effect that public prayers should be offered for kings, rulers, and other persons invested with high authority (1 Tim, 2:1-2). Baigent pointed out that this Psalm is still used ceremonially in prayers for the Queen of England in Anglican services.(F2)

Regarding the date of the Psalm. we find the speculations of various writers about “when” any given Psalm was written are of little interest and still less importance. Cheyne attempted to date this Psalm in the times of Simon Maccabaeus.(F3) However, the use of the word “king” refutes such a supposition, because Simon Maccabaeus was never, in any sense, a king. Furthermore, “The reference to the army of Israel as unequipped with cavalry and chariots (Psalms 20:7) favors the early date.”(F4) After the times of Solomon, Israel possessed many chariots and horses. There is no king whatever in the whole history of Israel whose times fit the situation that surfaces in this psalm, except those of King David.

This psalm naturally falls into three divisions as signalled by the “we…. I” and “we,”(F5) the first person plural, and the first person singular and the first person plural pronouns appearing in Psalms 20:5-7.

The occasion that prompted the writing of this psalm is supposed to have been that of David’s start of a war against Syria, at some considerable time after the return of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem by King David. It is stated by Rawlinson that this “conjecture is probable.”(F6)

As many have pointed out, this psalm is a companion with Psalms 21, their relation being that of a prayer for victory in Psalms 20 and a thanksgiving for victory in Psalms 21.

Verses 1-5

“Jehovah answer thee in the day of trouble The name of the God of Jacob set thee up on high; Send thee help from the sanctuary, And strengthen thee out of Zion; Remember all thy offerings, And accept thy burnt-sacrifice; (Selah) Grant thee thy heart’s desire, And fulfill all thy counsel. We will triumph in thy salvation, And in the name of our God we will set up our banners; Jehovah fulfill all thy petitions.”

The first person plural pronoun in Psalms 20:5 shows that it is the voice of the people who are vocalizing this petition in the sanctuary itself upon behalf of their king.

“In the day of trouble” (Psalms 20:1). Alas, it is the destiny of every child of God to confront the day of trouble. It is the eternal assignment for every Christian that he, “Must through many tribulations enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). It was also true of David. This Syrian war was the occasion of his adultery with Bathsheba and of his heartless murder of her husband Uriah. With the possible exception of Absalom’s rebellion, this was perhaps the most terrible trouble David ever faced.

“Help from the sanctuary… out of Zion” (Psalms 20:2). This indicates that the ark of the covenant had now been transferred to Jerusalem, an event which is described in 2 Samuel 6:12-19. “This means that the psalm is pre-exilic.”(F7)

“Remember all thy offerings… accept thy burnt-sacrifice” (Psalms 20:3). This might be a reference to the prayers and offerings of King David in days gone by; but as Ash wrote, “It more likely refers to the sacrifices being offered upon the occasion of the Psalm’s use.”(F8) The word “Selah” inserted at this place in the psalm may be a reference to a pause in the ceremonies during which sacrifices were actually offered.

“Fulfill all thy counsel” (Psalms 20:4). “This means, `Make all thy plans to prosper.’“(F9)

“We will triumph in thy salvation” (Psalms 20:5). The blessing of God upon the king or ruler is automatically a blessing upon all of his subjects; and the people vocalizing this petition here acknowledge this principle.

“We will set up our banners” (Psalms 20:5). In all ages, the smaller units of an army have always cherished their own individual banners, tokens, or emblems; and this reference is to the fact that the children of Israel here promised to acknowledge their allegiance to God in the various standards that would be elevated by the various tribes. As Baigent accurately noted, these banners, “Are a reference to tribal standards displayed when camping or marching.”(F10)

Verse 6

“Now know I that Jehovah saveth his anointed; He will answer him from his holy heaven With the saving strength of his right hand.”

At this point in the ceremonial use of this psalm, a single speaker, perhaps the king himself, the high priest, or a prophet, using the first person singular, announces God’s acceptance of the sacrifice and divine assurance that the prayers of the people upon behalf of the king are going to be answered favorably.

This may be viewed as occurring shortly after the interval during which the sacrifice had been offered; “And the speaker’s response of confidence issues in the form of a prophetic oracle, in which the use of the prophetic perfect tense gives the necessary divine assurance to the king and the worshippers.”(F11)

Verses 7-9

“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we will make mention of Jehovah our God. They are bowed down and fallen; But we are risen and stand upright. Save, Jehovah: Let the King answer us when we call.”

Again, all the people take up the vocal declamation of this psalm in the last three verses.

“Some trust in chariots, etc.” (Psalms 20:7). “Men who put their trust in chariots, horses and weapons of war and do not rely on the name of the Lord will surely be brought down.”(F12)

In all ages, it has been God who rules among the kingdoms of men and exalts over them whosoever is pleasing to Him (Daniel 4:25). Many an army equipped with the most advanced weapons of the day has fallen before far inferior forces, because it was the will of God. Biblical examples of this are the armies of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, and that of Sennacherib before the walls of Jerusalem, which “melted like snow in the glance of the Lord,” as stated in Byron’s immortal poem.

As noted above, this reference to Israel’s not having chariots and horses is applicable only to the times prior to Solomon who vastly multiplied such instruments of ancient warfare.

Also, as Watkinson observed, “It was this attitude that nerved the youthful David in his victorious combat with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:45).”(F13) The evident reference to that event, implicit in these words, also strongly favors the Davidic authorship of the psalm, concerning which Rawlinson said, “There is no reason to doubt the Davidic authorship, asserted in the title and admitted by most critics.”(F14)

“They are bowed down and fallen… we are… upright” (Psalms 20:8). This means merely that the enemy shall be defeated and humiliated and that Israel shall be triumphant and exalted.

“Save, Jehovah: Let the King answer us when we call.” Dummelow favored the LLX rendition of this, which has, “O Lord, save the king: and answer us when we call.”(F15) However, we prefer the ASV, especially when the word “King” is capitalized, thus recognizing the Lord as the true King of Israel.

“In the Bible, assurance never breeds complacency, but rather offers grounds for urgent prayer and calling upon God to save.”(F16) The great assurance of Psalms 20:8, indicated by the use of the prophetic perfect tense, suggests that the war is already over and that victory has been won; but that was not the case. The prophecy was true, all right, and victory did come; but the people did not neglect to continue their crying out to God in supplication and prayers.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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