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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 20

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


Psalms 20

The people wish for their king, that the Lord, the God of Israel, would be with him in the impending battle, and grant him the victory, Psalms 20:1-5. The firm confidence is expressed, that the Lord will protect His anointed and his kingdom, Psalms 20:6-8. They conclude with the prayer that the Lord would do as He had inwardly promised, Psalms 20:9.

That the Psalm is not, in the general, “a song of Israel for and to its king, as we have in our song-book songs in which prayers and thanks are presented for kings and rulers, and their office is praised;” that Israel rather presents in it a special entreaty for help to His anointed, in the immediate prospect of battle, and expresses a firm, triumphant confidence therein, is evident from the words, “in the day of distress,” in Psalms 20:1, as compared with Psalms 20:7-8, which determine more exactly the kind of distress as one proceeding from enemies. According to Psalms 20:3, the Psalm was sung along with the solemn offerings which the king presented at his going out to battle. Many expositors conceive that the Psalm refers to a particular occasion. Several follow the Syriac in connecting it with the Ammonitic-Syrian war. But no ground exists for any such special reference: there appears in it, indeed, no individualizing trait; nothing carries us beyond the general application to the troubles of war; and this generality of its aim is specially countenanced by “the day of distress” in Psalms 20:1, and “the day of our calling” in Psalms 20:9. The beginning and conclusion both indicate that the Psalm was to be sung as often as the troubles of war required the people to claim help from its God.

If we hold the Psalm to be thus general in its character, we must also admit that it bears reference to Christ and His kingdom, that the Christian Church justly appropriates it as an expression of her longing for the triumph of His cause, and of her confident hope. For the kingdom of David, to which it refers, culminated in Christ. He is in the full sense “the Anointed of the Lord.” On the other hand, the Psalm refers to Christian kings only when they are His servants, and in so far as they are so.

It has been objected to the composition of the Psalm as David’s, affirmed in the superscription, that he does not appear as the speaker, but the people address him. This objection, however, is of no force. The person addressed is not David in particular, but the anointed of the Lord in general; the speaker is, of course, not the Psalmist, but he speaks in the name of the people; and if so, who might be more readily expected to stand forth as an interpreter of the feelings of the Lord’s people in this respect, than David, who always lived in and with the Church, who always served it with his poetical gift, identified himself with its circumstances, and cared for its wants? Only through paying in general too little heed to this, can we here entertain any doubt of the correctness of the statement made in the superscription. Besides, the Davidic authorship is confirmed by the numerous coincidences with Psalms of David, which we shall notice in the exposition. Then, whatever witnesses for the Davidic authorship of Psalms 21 also makes for this, for they are connected as a pair. The great simplicity, ease, and transparent clearness of the Psalm, which have been urged against its ascription to David, are to be accounted for from its character; these are characteristics of a national song.

Luther says briefly and well: “It seems to me as if David had composed this Psalm, that it might serve as a devout and pious battle-cry, whereby he would stir up himself and the people, and fit them for prayer.”

Verse 1

Ver. 1. The Lord hear thee in the day of distress, the name of the God of Jacob exalt thee. That we are not, with Hitzig, to expound, “ will hear thee,” but, “ may He hear thee,” and that the following Futures are also to be taken so, appears from ידשנה , “May He declare for fat, may He favourably accept,” in Psalms 20:3, from נרננה , in Psalms 20:5, and the expression, “the king hear us,” at the close, which returns to the beginning. שגב means to lift up, to exalt, in the sense of delivering, to transfer to a high and secure place; comp. Psalms 59:1, Psalms 91:14, and Psalms 18:2, where David names God his height. God’s being called the God of Jacob, is equivalent to, “the God, who was and is the God of Jacob, in his person, and that of his posterity,” and points to the relation which constituted the ground of the hearing and the elevation, and of the joyfulness and confidence of the prayer. The expression, “the name of Jacob’s God,” is equivalent to, “God, who manifested Himself as Jacob’s God,” or, “Jacob’s God, who manifested Himself as such in a fulness of deeds.” God is not merely the God of Jacob, He is also named so, has thus made Himself known, and made for Himself a name. His election is not a dark one, but manifest, confirmed by facts. Without such facts the God of Jacob would be nameless, His name would be a nomen vanum.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Send thee help from the sanctuary, and out of Zion support thee. Here also is the help of God sought on the ground of His covenant, of His relation to the Church. This is implied in the words, “out of the sanctuary, out of Zion;” comp. on Psalms 14:7.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. Remember all thy meat-offerings, and accept thy burnt-offerings. That we are here to think, not of the sacrifices of the king in general, but specially of the solemn oblations presented before going forth to battle (comp. 1 Samuel 13:9 ss., where Saul offers such a sacrifice, with the view of entreating God’s favour, and making Him gracious toward him), appears from the Selah, which can only be explained on the supposition, that between this verse and the following one the work of offering the sacrifices intervened, during which there ensued a solemn pause. The word, “remember,” seems to allude to the name אַ?זְ?כּ?ָ?רָ?ה , which in the law was borne by that part of the meat-offering which was burnt on the altar, because it put God, as it were, in remembrance of the offerer; comp. Leviticus 2:2, Leviticus 6:8, etc. To remembering is opposed forgetting, or indifferent reception. The expression is likewise used in the New Testament; comp. Acts 10:31. According to the entire spiritual point of view, from which the Psalmist speaks, it is of course to be understood, that the sacrifices are here considered, not in regard to their body, but in regard to the soul, which dwelt in them; and that their gracious acceptance by God was hoped for only on the ground of the presence of the internal aim and disposition, which were embodied in them. In the symbolism of the law, the presentation of the burnt-offering expressed the consecration and yielding up of self. Whoever presented the meat-offering, which was closely connected with the burnt-offering, vowed that he would present to God the spiritual nutriment due to Him, good works. Where such profession is made in truth, there, the subjective conditions on which the dispensation of salvation proceeds, are such as they are required to be; then, God cannot do otherwise than give to the suppliant according to his heart, and fulfil all his counsel. Luther remarks:” Just as in the new law there are other persons, other matters, other times, other places, so are there also other sacrifices; though still there remains one faith and one spirit: the external only has changed, the internal remains the same.

Wherefore, our sacrifice, which we must present to God in the time of trouble, is a broken heart, and the confession of sin; and this we do when we sigh after God in the time of trouble, recognise our distress as righteous, bear patiently the mortification of self, and yield ourselves up to God, as ready to do all His will.”—דִ?שׁ?ּ?ֵ?ן signifies, “to make fat,” Psalms 23:5, and then “to declare fat, good,” to accept with satisfaction. The ה is the ה of striving; comp. Ew. § 293.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. Give thee what thy heart desires, and fulfil all thy counsels. The discourse is not of the desires and counsels of the king generally, but only of those which relate to the present necessity.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. May we rejoice over thy salvation, and through the name of our God be lifted up; the Lord fulfil all thy petitions. Various expositors render, “then shall we rejoice,” etc.; but this construction is inadmissible, partly on account of the form, which discovers itself to be the optative through the appended ה , partly on account of the last member, which, like the preceding context, still contains the expression of a wish. We must, therefore, expound: “may we rejoice,” etc., equivalent to, “may occasion be furnished us, through thy salvation, for rejoicing.” The name of God stands here emphatically, as in ver. 1. The explanation of נדגל is uncertain: the supposition that it is denomin. דגל of “banner,” is opposed by Song of Solomon 5:11, where the part. per. occurs in the sense of exalted, or distinguished. Probably the verb is related to גדל . The LXX. already rendered, as we have done, μεγαλυνθησό?μεθα , and the Vulgate, magnificabimur.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. Now know I that the Lord helps His anointed, He hears him from His holy heaven, through the salutary exploits of His right hand. Till now the people had spoken in the plural; here they speak as an ideal person in the singular. That there is here a great turning-point, is also indicated by the circumstance that the king is no more addressed, but is spoken of. The now is to be explained from the fact, that the suppliants suddenly obtain confidence of being heard. This now also, in that it shows that the transition from prayer to confidence is effected here quickly and directly—precisely as, for example, in Psalms 6:8—is an objection against reckoning Psalms 20:5 to the second strophe. The now I know is, quite misunderstood by those who, with Maurer, would refer it to a just won victory; it refers to an internal fact, and Luther has quite correctly explained it: “Henceforth the prophet is full of sure hope, and converts into a promise what lie had hitherto been praying for. For in such a manner does the heart which rests its full confidence in God, imagine quite certainly that what it has prayed for will infallibly be done. Faith, if it is truly in the heart, takes such a firm hold of that which it believes, that it can speak of nothing as more certain, and it knows it, indeed, to be as certain as if it had actually happened. Therefore he does not say here, I conceive, I think, but, I know.” The deliverance is here expected from heaven, as in Psalms 20:2, from Zion. The two together, that God dwells in Zion, and also in heaven, constitute the sure ground of hope. The first proves that God will help, the second that He can help; the first is a pledge of God’s love, the second of His almightiness. Heaven is characterized as holy, on account of the strong contrast between it and earth, with its impotence and helplessness. On the expression, from His holy heaven, see on Psalms 11:4; “the right hand of God,” is mentioned in the same connection in Psalms 18:36: יֵ?שׁ?ִ?ע occurs also in Psalms 12:5.

Verses 7-8

Ver. 7. Some make mention of chariots, and some of horses; but we, of the name of the Lord our God. Ver. 8. They stoop and fall; but we rise and stand upright. As the object of confidence in the world and in the Church is different, so is also the fate: there, from height to depth; here, from depth to height. הזכיר elsewhere always signifies “to make mention,” never, “to praise” (where the latter signification is adopted, it rests on a false explanation); and this signification must here be the more firmly held, as it exists also in the radical passage, Exodus 23. “The name of other gods ye shall not make mention of,” as appears from the parallel, “neither let it be heard in thy mouth.” That the mention is in the way of praise, does not lie in the word itself, but in the constr. with ב , pointing to the feeling of confidence with which the person mentioning rests in the object. Parallel to Psalms 20:7 is 1 Samuel 17:45, where David says to Goliath, “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord God of Hosts:” Psalms 33:17; Isaiah 31:3. By the chariots, chariots of war are to be understood. The contrast lies between human means of help, and the assistance of God. The Preterites of Psalms 20:8 are to be explained by the fact, that the people in faith see the enemies as already conquered. Luther: “Faith alone, which commits itself to God, can sing the song of triumph before the victory, and raise the shout of joy before help has been obtained; for to faith all is permitted. It trusts in God, and so really has what it believes, because faith deceives not; as it believes, so is it done.” Before the catastrophe here described the enemies had the upper hand, and the people of God were put to the worse. This especially appears from קום , which means, not, “to stand,” but, “to stand up.” Luther: “At the commencement of the attack, the ungodly, indeed, appear to stand firm, confiding in their chariots and horsemen; on the other hand, the pious, who trust in the name of the Lord, appear to be far from equal to them. But faith boasts thus: Although those stand, and we seem to be weak and to fall, yet we are sure, that presently matters shall be entirely reversed, and they shall fall; but we shall be raised on high and stand, nay, we are already lifted up and stand erect. O what a noble pattern of faith is this!”

Verse 9

Ver. 9. Lord, help; the King hear us when we call. The last strophe, that of the renewed prayer, stands in close relation to the preceding context. The help is based on the, He helps, in Psalms 20:6; the hear us points back to, He will hear him, in the same verse. The prayer springs from the promise: “the Lord is entreated to do what He has promised.” By this reference to the promise, the prayer at the end is distinguished from that at the beginning. The expression, “may He hear us,” here, is much more emphatic than the expression, “may He hear thee,” there, which is now resumed again. Special emphasis rests on המלך ; Luther: “Hear Thou us, Thou who truly art our King. For David, who serves Thee, is not king, and governs not his, but Thy kingdom. With what vehement emotion does he move God, that is, does he teach us to move God, as one who is moved when we ourselves are moved! For how should He not hear when His kingdom, His interest, His honour is in danger? In other words, we then pray most earnestly when we have confidence that we are God’s kingdom and His heritage. For then we seek not our own, and are certain that He will not abandon a cause which belongs to Him, and a kingdom which is His, especially when we call upon Him for this.” As King of Israel, God appears already in Deuteronomy 33:5, comp. Psalms 48:3. Without ground, several expositors, following the LXX. and Vulgate, domine salvum fac regem, leave the accents, and connect המלך with the first clause. By this exposition the sense of the first member is weakened; the simple, “Lord, help,” is more emphatic; then, in the second member, the designation of God is awanting, which grounds the prayer for help; and what is the chief point, the transition from the address to the third person is then deprived of all occasion, on which account also the Vulgate, on its own authority, supplies the address, “et exaudi nos.” The expression, “in the day of our calling,” rests on Deuteronomy 15:2.

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 20". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-20.html.
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