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the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 20

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

The inscription shows that the psalm was composed by David; but though he was its author, there is no absurdity in his speaking of himself in the person of others. The office of a prophet having been committed to him, he with great propriety prepared this as a form of prayer for the use of the faithful. In doing this, his object was not so much to commend his own person, by authoritatively issuing a royal ordinance enjoining upon the people the use of this prayer, as to show, in the exercise of his office as a teacher, that it belonged to the whole Church to concern itself, and to use its endeavors that the kingdom which God had erected might continue safe and prosperous. Many interpreters view this prayer as offered up only on one particular occasion; but in this I cannot agree. The occasion of its composition at first may have arisen from some particular battle which was about to be fought, either against the Ammonites, or against some other enemies of Israel. But the design of the Holy Spirit, in my judgment, was to deliver to the Church a common form of prayer, which, as we may gather from the words, was to be used whenever she was threatened with any danger. God commands his people, in general, to pray for kings, but there was a special reason, and one which did not apply to any other kingdom, why prayer was to be made in behalf of this kingdom; for it was only by the hand of David and his seed that God had determined to govern and maintain his people. It is particularly to be noticed, that under the figure of this temporal kingdom, there was described a government far more excellent, on which the whole joy and felicity of the Church depended. The object, therefore, which David had expressly in view was, to exhort all the children of God to cherish such a holy solicitude about the kingdom of Christ, as would stir them up to continual prayer in its behalf.

1.May Jehovah hear thee, etc. The Holy Spirit, by introducing the people as praying that God would answer the prayers of the king, is to be viewed as at the same time admonishing kings that it is their duty to implore the protection of God in all their affairs. When he says, In the day of trouble, he shows that they will not be exempted from troubles, and he does this that they may not become discouraged, if at any time they should happen to be in circumstances of danger. In short, the faithful, that the body may not be separated from the head, further the king’s prayers by their common and united supplications. The name of God is here put for God himself and not without good reason; for the essence of God being incomprehensible to us, it behoves us to trust in him, in so far as his grace and power are made known to us. From his name, therefore, proceeds confidence in calling upon him. The faithful desire that the king may be protected and aided by God, whose name was called upon among the sons of Jacob. I cannot agree with those who think that mention is here made of that patriarch, because God exercised him with various afflictions, not unlike those with which he tried his servant David. I am rather of opinion that, as is usual in Scripture, the chosen people are denoted by the term Jacob. And from this name, the God of Jacob, the faithful encourage themselves to pray for the defense of their king; because it was one of the privileges of their adoption to live under the conduct and protection of a king set over them by God himself. Hence we may conclude, as I have said before, that under the figure of a temporal kingdom there is described to us a government much more excellent. (470) Since Christ our King, being an everlasting priest, never ceases to make intercession with God, the whole body of the Church should unite in prayer with him; (471) and farther, we can have no hope of being heard except he go before us, and conduct us to God. (472) And it serves in no small degree to assuage our sorrows to consider that Jesus Christ, when we are afflicted, accounts our distresses his own, provided we, at the same time, take courage, and continue resolute and magnanimous in tribulation; which we should be prepared to do, since the Holy Spirit here forewarns us that the kingdom of Christ would be subject to dangers and troubles.

(470)Et de le il nous convient recueiller, ce que jay dit, que sous a figure d’un regne temporel nous est descrie un gouvernement bien plus excellent.” — Fr.

(471) As the people of Israel here unite in prayer with and for the monarch of Israel, whom we may picture to our minds as repairing to the tabernacle to offer sacrifices, where this animated ode was sung by the priests and people.

(472)Si non qu’il marche derant, et nous conduise a Dieu.” — Fr.

Verse 2

2.May he send thee help. That is to say, may he succor thee out of mount Sion, where he commanded the ark of the covenant to be placed, and chose for himself a dwelling-place. The weakness of the flesh will not suffer men to soar up to heaven, and, therefore, God comes down to meet them, and by the external means of grace shows that he is near them. Thus the ark of the covenant was to his ancient people a pledge of his presence, and the sanctuary an image of heaven. But as God, by appointing mount Sion to be the place where the faithful should continually worship him, had joined the kingdom and priesthood together, David, in putting into the lips of the people a prayer for help out of Sion, doubtless had an eye to this sacred bond of union. Hence I conjecture that this psalm was composed by David in his old age, and about the close of his life. Some think he spake of Sion by the Spirit of prophecy before it had been appointed that the ark should be placed there; but this opinion seems strained, and to have little probability.

Verse 3

3.May he remember. I understand the word remember as meaning to have regard to, as it is to be understood in many other places; just as to forget often signifies to neglect, or not to deign to regard, nor even to behold, the object to which it is applied. It is, in short, a prayer that God would actually show that the king’s sacrifices were acceptable to him. Two kinds of them are here mentioned; first, the מנחה , mincha, mentioned in the first clause of the verse, which was the appointed accompaniment of all sacrifices, and which was also sometimes offered by itself; and, secondly, the holocaust, or whole burnt-sacrifice. But under these two kinds David intended to comprehend, by synecdoche, all sacrifices; and under sacrifices he comprehends requests and prayers. We know that whenever the fathers prayed under the law, their hope of obtaining what they asked was founded upon their sacrifices; and, in like manner, at this day our prayers are acceptable to God only in so far as Christ sprinkles and sanctifies them with the perfume of his own sacrifice. The faithful, therefore, here desire that the solemn prayers of the king, which were accompanied with sacrifices and oblations, might have their effect in the prosperous issue of his affairs. That this is the meaning may be gathered still more clearly from the following verse, in which they commend to God the desires and counsels of the king. But as it would be absurd to ask God to grant foolish and wicked desires, it is to be regarded as certain, that there is here described a king who was neither given to ambition, nor inflamed with avarice, nor actuated by the desire of whatever the unruly passions might suggest, but wholly intent on the charge which was committed to him, and entirely devoted to the advancement of the public good; so that he asks nothing but what the Holy Spirit dictated to him, and what God, by his own mouth, commanded him to ask.

Verse 5

5.That we may rejoice in thy salvation. This verse may be explained in two other ways, besides the sense it bears according to the translation which I have given. Some consider it to be a prayer, as if it had been said, Lord, make us to rejoice. Others think that the faithful, after having finished their prayer, encourage themselves to entertain good hope; (474) or rather, being already inspired with an assured hope of success, they begin to sing, so to speak, of the victory, even as it is usual with David to intermingle such kind of rejoicings with his prayers, thereby to stir up himself to continue with the more alacrity in prayer. But upon considering the whole more carefully, my opinion is, that what is meant to be expressed is the effect or fruit which would result from the bestowment of the grace and favor of God, for which the people prayed; and, therefore, I have thought it necessary to supply the particle that, in the beginning of the verse. The faithful, as an argument to obtain the favor of God towards their king, set forth the joy which they would all experience in common, in seeing it exercised towards him, and the thanksgiving which they would with one accord render for it. The import of their language is, It is not for the preservation and welfare of one man that we are solicitous; it is for the safety and well-being of the whole Church. The expression, In thy salvation, may be referred to God as well as to the king; for the salvation which God bestows is often called the salvation of God; but the context requires that it should be rather understood of the king. The people lived “under the shadow of the king,” to use the words of Jeremiah, (Lamentations 4:20;) and, therefore, the faithful now testify, that as long as he is safe and in prosperity, they will all be joyful and happy. At the same time, to distinguish their joy from the heathen dancings and rejoicings, they declare that they will set up their banners in the name of God; for the Hebrew word דגל, dagal, here used, means to set or lift up a banner. The meaning is, that the faithful, in grateful acknowledgement of the grace of God, will celebrate his praises and triumph in his name.

(474) Meaning, “We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God will we set up our banners.”

Verse 6

6.Now I know. Here there follows grateful rejoicing, in which the faithful declare that they have experienced the goodness of God in the preservation of the king. To this there is at the same time added a doctrine of faith, namely, that God showed by the effect that he put forth his power in maintaining the kingdom of David, because it was founded upon his calling. The meaning is, It appears from certain experience, that God is the guardian of the kingdom which he himself set up, and of which he is the founder. For David is called Messiah, or anointed, that the faithful might be persuaded that he was a lawful and sacred king, whom God had testified, by outward anointing, to be chosen by himself. Thus, then, the faithful ascribe to the grace of God the deliverance which had been wrought for David from the greatest dangers, and at the same time, particularly mention the cause of this to be, that God had determined to protect and defend him who, by his commandment, had been anointed king over his people. They confirm still more clearly their hope, with respect to the future, in the following clause: God will hear him out of heaven I do not translate the verb which is here used into the past tense, but retain the future: for I have no doubt, that from the experience which God had already given them of his goodness, they concluded that it would be hereafter exercised in the continual preservation of the kingdom. Here the Psalmist makes mention of another sanctuary, (477) namely, a heavenly. As God then graciously vouchsafed to descend among the Israelites, by the ark of the covenant, in order to make himself more familiarly known to them; so, on the other hand, he intended to draw the minds of his people upwards to himself, and thereby to prevent them from forming carnal and earthly conceptions of his character, and to teach them that he was greater than the whole world. Thus, under the visible sanctuary, which was made with hands, there is set forth the fatherly goodness of God, and his familiarity with his people; while, under the heavenly sanctuary, there is shown his infinite power, dominion, and majesty. The words, In the mightiness of the salvation, mean his mighty salvation, or his saving power. Thus, in the very expression there is a transposing of the words. The sense comes to this: May God by his wonderful power, preserve the king who was anointed by his commandment! The Holy Spirit, who dictated this prayer, saw well that Satan would not suffer David to live in peace, but would put forth all his efforts to oppose him, which would render it necessary for him to be sustained by more than human power. I do not, however, disapprove of the other exposition which I have marked on the margin, according to which the faithful, for their greater encouragement, set before themselves this truth, that the salvation of God’s right hand is in mightiness; in other words, is sufficiently strong to overcome all impediments.

(477) Different from “the sanctuary” mentioned in verse second.

Verse 7

7.Some trust in chariots. I do not restrict this to the enemies of Israel, as is done by other interpreters. I am rather inclined to think that there is here a comparison between the people of God and all the rest of the world. We see how natural it is to almost all men to be the more courageous and confident the more they possess of riches, power and military forces. The people of God, therefore, here protest that they do not place their hope, as is the usual way with men, in their military forces and warlike apparatus, but only in the aid of God. As the Holy Spirit here sets the assistance of God in opposition to human strength, it ought to be particularly noticed, that whenever our minds come to be occupied by carnal confidence, they fall at the same time into a forgetfulness of God. It is impossible for him, who promises himself victory by confiding in his own strength, to have his eyes turned towards God. The inspired writer, therefore, uses the word remember, to show, that when the saints betake themselves to God, they must cast off every thing which would hinder them from placing an exclusive trust in him. This remembrance of God serves two important purposes to the faithful. In the first place, however much power and resources they may possess, it nevertheless withdraws them from all vain confidence, so that they do not expect any success except from the pure grace of God. In the second place, if they are bereft and utterly destitute of all succor, it notwithstanding so strengthens and encourages them, that they call upon God both with confidence and constancy. On the other hand, when ungodly men feel themselves strong and powerful, being blinded with pride, they do not hesitate boldly to despise God; but when they are brought into circumstances of distress, they are so terrified as not to know what to become. In short, the Holy Spirit here recommends to us the remembrance of God, which, retaining its efficacy both in the want and in the abundance of power, subdues the vain hopes with which the flesh is wont to be inflated. As the verb נזכיר, nazkir, which I have translated we will remember, is in the conjugation hiphil, some render it transitively, we shall cause to remember. But it is no new thing in Hebrew for verbs to be used as neuter which are properly transitive; and, therefore, I have adopted the exposition which seems to me the most suitable to this passage.

Verse 8

8.They are bowed down. It is probable that there is here pointed out, as it were with the finger, the enemies of Israel, whom God had overthrown, when they regarded no event as less likely to happen. There is contained in the words a tacit contrast between the cruel pride with which they had been lifted up for a time when they audaciously rushed forward to make havoc of all things on the one hand, and the oppression of the people of God on the other. The expression, to rise, is applied only to those who were before sunk or fallen; and, on the other hand, the expression, bowed down and fallen, is with propriety applied to those who were lifted up with pride and presumption. The prophet therefore teaches by the event, how much more advantageous it is for us to place all our confidence in God than to depend upon our own strength.

Verse 9

9.Save, O Jehovah! etc. Some read in one sentence, O Jehovah! save the king; (478) perhaps because they think it wrong to attribute to an earthly king what is proper to God only, — to be called upon, and to hear prayer. But if we turn our eyes towards Christ, as it becomes us to do, we will no longer wonder that what properly belongs to him is attributed in a certain sense to David and his successors, in so far as they were types of Christ. As God governs and saves us by the hand of Christ, we must not look for salvation from any other quarter. In like manner, the faithful under the former economy were accustomed to betake themselves to their king as the minister of God’s saving grace. Hence these words of Jeremiah,

“The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord, of whom we said, Under his shadow we shall live among the heathen.” (Lamentations 4:20)

Whenever, therefore, God promises the restoration of his church, he sets forth a symbol or pledge of its salvation in the kingdom. We now see that it is not without very good reason that the faithful are introduced asking succor from their king, under whose guardianship and protection they were placed, and who, as the vicegerent of God, presided over them; as the Prophet Micah says, (Micah 2:13,) “Their king shall pass before them, and the Lord on the head of them;” by which words he intimates, that their king will be as it were a mirror in which they may see reflected the image of God. To return to the present passage:— The expression, Save, O Jehovah, is elliptical, but it has greater emphasis than if the object for which salvation is sought had been mentioned; for by this means David shows that this salvation belongs in common to the whole body of the church. In Psalms 118:25, there is a prayer in the same words, and it is certain that it is the very same prayer. In short, this is a prayer, that God, by blessing the king, would show himself the Savior of the whole people. In the last clause of the verse there is expressed the means of this salvation. The people pray that the king may be furnished with power from God to deliver them whenever they are in distress, and cry to him for help. Let the king hear us in the day that we call upon him. God had not promised that his people would be saved in any other way than by the hand and conduct of the king whom he had given them. In the present day, when Christ is now manifested to us, let us learn to yield him this honor — to renounce all hope of salvation from any other quarter, and to trust to that salvation only which he shall bring to us from God his Father. And of this we shall then only become partakers when, being all gathered together into one body, under the same Head, we shall have mutual care one of another, and when none of us will have his attention so engrossed with his own advantage and individual interest, as to be indifferent to the welfare and happiness of others.

(478) This is the reading of the Septuagint. Its words are, Κυριε σωσον τον βασιλεα. The reading of the Vulgate is the same. Calvin’s rendering, which is also that of our English version, agrees with the masoretical punctuation; but the Septuagint has followed a different pointing.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Psalms 20". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/psalms-20.html. 1840-57.
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