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This psalm purports to be “A Psalm of David,” nor is there any reason to doubt that he wrote it. Of the precise occasion on which it was composed nothing can be known with certainty, for there is no historical statement on the point, and there is nothing in the psalm to indicate it. It would seem, however, from the psalm, that it was composed on some occasion when the king was about going to war, and that it was designed to be used by the people of the nation, and by the king and his hosts mustered for war, as expressing mutually their wishes in regard to the result, and their confidence in each other and in God. Or if it was not designed to be used by the people actually, it was intended to be a poetic expression of the real feelings of the king and the people in regard to the enterprise in which he was embarked.
According to this idea, and as seems to me to be manifest on the face of the psalm, it is composed of alternate parts as if to be used by the people, and by the king and his followers, in alternate responses, closing with a chorus to be used by all. If it was intended to be employed in public service, it was doubtless to be sung by alternate choirs, representing the people and the king.
The whole may be divided into three strophes or parts:
I. The first strophe, Psalms 20:1-5.
(a) the people,Psalms 20:1-5; Psalms 20:1-5. They pray that the Lord would defend the king in the day of trouble; that the name of the God of Jacob would defend him; that he would send him help from the sanctuary, and strengthen him out of Zion; that he would remember his offerings and accept his burnt sacrifice; that he would grant him according to his own heart, and fulfill all his counsel.
(b) the king, Psalms 20:5, first part. He says, as expressive of the feeling with which the expedition was undertaken, “We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.”
II. The second strophe, Psalms 20:5 (latter part), and Psalms 20:6.
(a) the people,Psalms 20:5; Psalms 20:5, latter clause; expressing a desire for his success and triumph, “The Lord fulfil all thy petitions.”
(b) the king, Psalms 20:6; expressing confidence of success from the observed zeal and cooperation of the people: “Now know I that the Lord sayeth his anointed; he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand.”
III. general chorus of all, Psalms 20:7-9. This is the language of exultation and triumph in God; of joyful trust in him. “Some,” is the language of this chorus, “trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God,” Psalms 20:7. Then they see their enemies fallen and subdued, while their armies stand upright and firm, Psalms 20:8. Then they call, in joyful exultation and triumph, on God as the great King over all, and supplicate his mercy and favor, Psalms 20:9.
This is, therefore, a patriotic and loyal psalm, full of confidence in the king as he starts on his expedition, full of desire for his success, and full of confidence in God; expressing union of heart between the sovereign and the people, and the union of all their hearts in the great God.
On the meaning of the phrase in the title, “To the chief Musician,” see the note at the title to Psalms 4:1-8.
The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble - According to the view expressed in the introduction to the psalm, this is the language of the people praying for their king, or expressing the hope that he would be delivered from trouble, and would be successful in what he had undertaken, in the prosecution of a war apparently of defense. The word” trouble” here used would seem to imply that he was beset with difficulties and dangers; perhaps, that he was surrounded by foes. It seems that he was going forth to war to deliver his country from trouble, having offered sacrifices and prayers Psalms 20:3 for the purpose of securing the divine favor on the expedition. The point or the moment of the psalm is when those sacrifices had been offered, and when he was about to embark on his enterprise. At that moment the people lift up the voice of sympathy and of encouragement, and pray that those sacrifices might be accepted, and that he might find the deliverance which he had desired.
The name of the God of Jacob - The word name is often put in the Scriptures for the person himself; and hence, this is equivalent to saying, “May the God of Jacob defend thee.” See Psalms 5:11; Psalms 9:10; Psalms 44:5; Psalms 54:1; Exodus 23:21. Jacob was the one of the patriarchs from whom, after his other name, the Hebrew people derived their name Israel, and the word seems here to be used with reference to the people rather than to the ancestor. Compare Isaiah 44:2. The God of Jacob, or the God of Israel, would be synonymous terms, and either would denote that he was the Protector of the nation. As such he is invoked here; and the prayer is, that the Great Protector of the Hebrew people would now defend the king in the dangers which beset him, and in the enterprise which he had undertaken.
Defend thee - Margin, as in Hebrew, set thee on a high place. The word means the same as defend him, for the idea is that of being set on a high place, a tower, a mountain, a lofty rock, where his enemies could not reach or assail him.
Send thee help - Margin, thy help. So the Hebrew. The idea is, such help as he needed; such as would make him safe.
From the sanctuary - From the tabernacle, or the holy place where God was worshipped, and where he was supposed to reside, Exodus 28:43; Exodus 29:30; Exodus 35:19; Exodus 39:1. This was his seat; his throne; where he abode among the people. Here, too, it would seem that he had been worshipped, and his aid implored, in view of this expedition; here the royal psalmist had sought to secure the divine favor by the presentation of appropriate sacrifices and offerings Psalms 20:3. The prayer here is, that God would accept those offerings, and hear those supplications, and would now send the desired help from the sanctuary where he resided; that is, that he would grant his protection and aid.
And strengthen thee - Margin, as in Hebrew, support thee. The idea is, that he would grant his upholding hand in the day of peril.
Out of Zion - The place where God was worshipped; the place where the tabernacle was reared. See the note at Psalms 2:6.
Remember all thy offerings - On the meaning of the word here used, see the note at Isaiah 1:13, where it is rendered oblations. The word occurs often in the Scriptures, and is sometimes rendered offering, and sometimes oblation. The word means an offering of any kind or anything that is presented to God, except a bloody sacrifice - anything offered as an expression of thankfulness, or with a view to obtain his favor. It is distinguished from bloody sacrifices, which are expressed by the word in the following clause. The word here employed occurs in the Psalms only in the following places: Psalms 20:3; Psalms 40:6; Psalms 96:8; where it is rendered offering and offerings; Psalms 45:12, rendered gift; Psalms 72:10, rendered presents; and Psalms 141:2, rendered sacrifice. The use of the word in this place proves that such offerings had been made to God by him who was about to go forth to the war; and the prayer of the people here is that God would remember all those offerings; that is, that he would grant the blessing which he who had offered them had sought to obtain.
And accept - Margin, turn to ashes, or make fat. The Hebrew word - דשׁן dâshên - means properly to make fat, or marrowy, Proverbs 15:30; to pronounce or regard as fat; to be fat or satiated, or abundantly satisfied, Proverbs 13:4. It conveys also the notion of reducing to ashes; perhaps from the fact that the victim which had been fattened for sacrifice was reduced to ashes; or, as Gesenius supposes (Lexicon, see דשׁן deshen), because “ashes were used by the ancients for fattening, that is, manuring the soil.” The prayer here seems to be that God would “pronounce the burnt-offering fat;” that is, that he would regard it favorably, or would accept it. This proves, also, that a sacrifice had been made with a view to propitiate the divine favor in regard to the expedition which had been undertaken; that is, a solemn act of devotion, according to the manner of worship which then obtained, had been performed with a view to secure the divine favor and protection. The example is one which suggests the propriety of always entering upon any enterprise by solemn acts of worship, or by supplicating the divine blessing; that is, by acknowledging our dependence on God, and asking his guidance and his protecting care.
Thy burnt sacrifice - The word used here denotes bloody offerings; see the note at Isaiah 1:11. These offerings were designed especially for the expiation of sin, and for thus securing the divine favor. They were an acknowledgment of guilt, and they were offered with a view to secure the pardon of sin, and, in connection with that, the favor of God. In similar circumstances we approach God, not by an offering which we make, whether bloody or bloodless, but through the one great sacrifice made by the Redeemer on the cross for the sins of the world.
Grant thee according to thine own heart - According to thy wishes; according to the desires of thy heart.
And fulfil all thy counsel - All that thou hast designed or undertaken in the matter; that is, may he enable thee to execute thy purpose.
We will rejoice in thy salvation - According to the idea of the psalm suggested in the introduction, this is a response of the king and those associated with him in going forth to battle. It expresses the joy which they would have in the expected deliverance from danger, and their conviction that through his strength they would be able to obtain it. The word salvation here means deliverance; to wit, from the anticipated danger. The phrase implies that God would interpose to save them; it expresses alike their confidence in that, and the fact that such a deliverance would fill their hearts with joy and rejoicing.
And in the name of our God - This indicates a sense of dependence on God, and also that the enterprise undertaken was in order to promote his honor and glory. It was not in their own strength, nor was it to promote the purposes of conquest and the ends of ambition; it was that God might be honored, and it was with confidence of success derived from his anticipated aid.
We will set up our banners - We will erect our standards; or, as we should say, we will unfurl our flag. All people, when they go to war, have standards or banners, whether flags or some other ensigns, around which they rally; which they follow; under which they fight; and which they feel bound to defend. Each nation has its own standard; but it is difficult to determine what precisely was the form of the standards used among the ancient Hebrews. Military standards, however, were early used (compare Numbers 1:52; Numbers 2:2-3, Numbers 2:10, Numbers 2:18, Numbers 2:25; Numbers 10:14, Numbers 10:25), and indeed were necessary whenever armies were mustered for war, For the forms of ancient standards, see the article in Kitto’s Cyclopaedia of the Bible, “Standards.”
The Lord fulfil all thy petitions - The prayers offered in connection with the sacrifice referred to in Psalms 20:3 (compare Psalms 20:4). This, according to the view suggested in the introduction, is the response of the people, expressing their desire that the king might be successful in what he had undertaken, and that the prayers which had been offered for success might be answered.
Now know I that the Lord saveth his anointed - Saveth, or will save, the king, who had been anointed, or consecrated by anointing to that office. Compare the note at Psalms 2:2. This, according to the view given in the introduction, is the response of the king. It expresses his confident assurance of success from the interest which the people had expressed in the enterprise, as referred to in the previous verses, and from the earnestness of their prayers in his behalf and in behalf of the enterprise. They had manifested such zeal in the cause, and they had offered so earnest petitions, that he could not doubt that God would smile favorably on the undertaking, and would grant success.
He will hear him from his holy heaven - Margin, “from the heaven of his holiness.” So the Hebrew. Compare 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Nehemiah 9:27-28; Psalms 14:2; Psalms 102:19. heaven is represented as the dwelling-place of God, and it is there that he hears and answers our prayers. The meaning of the word “hear” in this passage is, that he will “favorably hear,” or regard; that is, that he will “answer” the petition, or grant the request.
With the saving strength - That is, he will interpose with that saving strength. Literally, “with the strengths of salvation.” The answer to the prayer will be manifest in the strength or power put forth by him to save.
Of his right hand - The right hand is the instrument by which mainly we execute our purposes; and by constant use it becomes in fact more fully developed, and is stronger than the left band. Hence, it is used to denote “strength.” See Exodus 15:6; Judges 5:26; see Psalms 17:7, note; Psalms 18:35, note.
Some trust in chariots - This (see the introduction to the psalm) seems to be a “general chorus” of the king and the people, expressing the fullest confidence in God, and showing the true ground of their reliance. The general meaning is, that their entire trust was in God. This is put in strong contrast with others, who relied, some on their chariots, and some on their horses, while “they” relied alone on God. They who trusted in horses and in chariots would be overcome; they who trusted in God alone would triumph. The word rendered chariots - רכב rekeb - means properly riding, and then a vehicle for “riding,” a wagon, a chariot. Here it refers to the war-chariot, or the vehicle for carrying armed men into battle. These furnished great advantages in war, by the speed with which they could be driven against an enemy, and by the facilities in fighting from them. They were usually very simple. They consisted of “a light pole suspended between and on the withers of a pair of horses, the after end resting on a light axle tree, with two low wheels. Upon the axle stood a light frame, open behind, and floored for the warrior and his charioteer, who both stood within. On the sides of the frame hung the war-bow, in its case; a large quiver with arrows and darts had commonly a particular sheath. In Persia, the chariots, elevated upon wheels of considerable diameter, had four horses abreast; and in early ages, there were occasionally hooks or scythes attached to the axles.” - Kitto, “Cyclo.” In early ages these constituted a main reliance in determining the result of a battle.
And some in horses - Some in cavalry, commonly a very material reliance in war. The use of horses in war was early known in the world, for we find mention of them in the earliest periods of history.
But we will remember the name of the Lord our God - That is, we will remember God - the name, as before remarked, often being used to denote the person. The meaning is, We will not forget that our reliance is not on armies, but on God, the living God. Whatever instrumentality we may employ, we will remember always that our hope is in God, and that he only can give success to our arms.
They are brought down and fallen - That is, those who trust in chariots and horses. The reference here is undoubtedly to the enemies against whom the king was about to wage war, and the language here is indicative of his certain conviction that they would be vanquished. So certain was he now of this that he could speak of it as if it were already done. “They “are” brought down.” He sees them in anticipation prostrate and subdued; he goes forth to war with the certainty on his mind that this would occur. The word rendered “brought down” - כרע kâra‛ - means “to bend,” “to bow” (as the knees); and then it refers to one who bows down before an enemy, that is, one who is subdued, Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 65:12; Psalms 72:9; Psalms 78:31.
But we are risen, and stand upright - That is, he sees this in anticipation. He is certain of success and triumph. Depressed though we may now be, yet we are certain of victory.
Save, Lord - “Yahweh, save.” This is still an earnest prayer. Confident as they are of success and triumph, yet they do not forget their dependence on God; they do not forget that victory must come from his hand. There was, indeed, exultation, but it was exultation in the belief that God would grant success - an exultation connected with, and springing from prayer. Prayer is not inconsistent with the most confident anticipation of success in any undertaking; and confidence of success can only spring from prayer.
Let the King - That is, let “God,” spoken of here as the Great King. The connection and the parallelism demand this interpretation, for to God only is this prayer addressed. He is here invoked as the supreme monarch. A king going forth to war implores the protection of a greater king than himself - the King of all nations; and who, therefore, had the disposal of the whole result of the conflict in which he was about to engage.
Hear us when we call - As we now call on him; its we shall call on him in the day of battle. Thus the close of the psalm corresponds with the beginning. In the beginning Psalms 20:1-4 there is an earnest “desire” that God would hear the suppliant in the day of trouble; in the close there is an earnest “prayer” to him from all the people that he “would” thus bear. The desire of the blessing goes forth in the form of prayer, for God only can grant the objects of our desire. The whole psalm, therefore, is an expression of a strong confidence in God; of a sense of the most complete dependence on him; and of that assurance of success which often comes into the soul, in an important and difficult undertaking, when we have committed the whole cause to God. The psalm, too, is a model for us to imitate when we embark in any great and arduous enterprise. The desire for success should be accompanied with earnest prayer and supplication on our part; and when our friends express the desire that we may be successful, there should have been on our part such acts of devotion - such manifest reliance on God - such religious trust - that they can simply pray for our success to be in accordance with our own prayer. Never should we look for success unless our undertaking has been preceded by prayer; and when our best preparations have been made, our hope of success is not primarily and mainly in them, but only in God.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 20". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28