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Thursday, May 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 20

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-9

Psalms 20:1-9

THIS is a battle song followed by a chant of victory. They are connected in subject and probably in occasion, but fight and triumph have fallen dim to us, though we can still feel how hotly the fire once glowed. The passion of loyalty and love for the king, expressed in these psalms, fits no reign in Judah so well as the bright noonday of David’s, when "whatever the king did pleased all the people." Cheyne, indeed, would bring them down to the Maccabean period, and suggests Simon Maccabaeus as the ruler referred to. He has to put a little gentle pressure on "king" to contract it to fit the man of his choice, and appeals to the "good old Semitic sense" of "consul." But would not an appeal to Hebrew usage have been more satisfactory? If "king" means "king," great or small, the psalm is not post-exilic, and the Davidic date will not seem impossible. It does not seem impossible that a poet-king should have composed a national hymn praying for his own victory, which was the nation’s also.

The psalm has traces of the alternation of chorus and solo. The nation or army first pours out its united prayer for victor in Psalms 20:1-5, and is succeeded by a single voice (possibly that of the officiating priest or the king himself) in Psalms 20:6, expressing confidence that the prayer is answered, which, again, is followed by the closing chorus of many voices throbbing with the assurance of victory before a blow is struck, and sending one more long-drawn cry to God ere battle is joined.

The prayer in Psalms 20:1-5 breathes self-distrust and confidence in Jehovah, the temper which brings victory, not only to Israel, but to all fighters for God. Here is no boasting of former victories, nor of man’s bravery and strength, nor of a captain’s skill. One name is invoked. It alone rouses courage and pledges triumph. "The name of the God of Jacob set thee on high." That name is almost regarded as a person, as is often the case. Attributes and acts are ascribed to it which properly belong to the Unnameable whom it names, as if with some dim inkling that the agent of revealing a person must be a person. The name is the revealed character, which is contemplated as having existence in some sense apart from Him whose character it is. Possibly there is a reference to Genesis 35:3, where Jacob speaks of "the God who answered me in the day of my distress." That ancient instance of His power to hear and help may have floated before the singer’s mind as heartening faith for this day of battle. To "set on high" is a familiar natural figure for deliverance. The earthly sanctuary is Jehovah’s throne: and all real help must come thence, of which help His dwelling there is a pledge. So in these two verses the extremity of need, the history of past revelation, and the special relation of Jehovah to Israel are woven into the people’s prayer for their king. In Psalms 20:3-4, they add the incense of their intercession to his sacrifices. The background of the psalm is probably the altar on which the accustomed offerings before a battle were being presented. {1 Samuel 13:9} The prayer for acceptance of the burnt offering is very graphic, since the word rendered "accept" is literally "esteem fat."

One wish moved the sacrificing king and the praying people. Their common desire was victory, but the people are content to be obscure, and their loyal love so clings to their monarch and leader that they only wish the fulfilment of his wishes. This unit of feeling culminates in the closing petitions in Psalms 20:6, where self-oblivion wishes "May we exult in thy salvation." arrogating none of the glory of victory to themselves, but ascribing all to him, and vows "In the name of our God we will wave our standards," ascribing victory to Him. its ultimate cause. An army that prays, "Jehovah fulfil all thy petitions, will be ready to obey all its captain’s commands and to move in obedience to his impulse as if it were part of himself." The enthusiastic community of purpose with its chief and absolute reliance on Jehovah. with which this prayer throbs, would go far towards securing victory anywhere. They should find their highest exemplification in that union between Christ and us in which all human relationships find theirs, since, in the deepest sense, they are all Messianic prophecies, and point to Him who is all the good that other men and women have partially been, and satisfies all the cravings and necessities which human relationships, however blessed, but incompletely supply.

The sacrifice has been offered; the choral prayer has gone up. Silence follows, the worshippers watching the curling smoke as it rises; and then a single voice breaks out into a burst of glad assurance that sacrifice and prayer are answered. Who speaks? The most natural answer is, "The king"; and the fact that he speaks of himself as Jehovah’s anointed in the third person does not present a difficulty. What is the reference in that now at the beginning of Psalms 20:6. May we venture to suppose that the king’s heart swelled at the exhibition of his subjects’ devotion and hailed it as a pledge of victory? The future is brought into the present by the outstretched hand of faith, for this single speaker knows that "Jehovah has saved," though no blow has yet been struck. The prayer had asked for help from Zion; the anticipation of answer looks higher; to the holier sanctuary, where Jehovah indeed dwells. The answer now waited for in sure confidence is "the mighty deeds of salvation of His right hand," some signal forth putting of Divine power scattering the foe. A whisper may start an avalanche. The prayer of the people has set Omnipotence in motion. Such assurance that petitions are heard is wont to spring in the heart that truly prays, and comes as a forerunner of fulfilment, shedding on the soul the dawn of the yet unrisen sun. He has but half prayed who does not wait in silence, watching the flight of his arrow and not content to cease till the calm certainty that it has reached its aim fills his heart.

Again the many voices take up the song, responding to the confidence of the single speaker and, like him, treating the victory as already won. Looking across the field to the masses of the enemy’s cavalry and chariots, forces forbidden to Israel, though employed by them in later days, the song grandly opposes to these "the name of Jehovah our God." There is a world of contempt and confidence in the juxtaposition. Chariots and horses are very terrible, especially to raw soldiers unaccustomed to their whirling onset: but the Name is mightier, as Pharaoh and his array proved by the Red Sea. This reference to the army of Israel as unequipped with cavalry and chariots is in favour of an early date, since the importation and use of both began as soon as Solomon’s time. The certain issue of the fight is given in Psalms 20:8 in a picturesque fashion, made more vigorous by the tenses which describe completed acts. When the brief struggle is over, this is what will be seen-the enemy prone, Israel risen from subjection and standing firm. Then comes a closing cry for help, which, according to the traditional division of the verse, has one very short clause and one long, drawn out, like the blast of the trumpet sounding the charge. The intensity of appeal is condensed in the former clause into the one word "save" and the renewed utterance of the name, thrice referred to in this short psalm as the source at once of strength and confidence. The latter clause, as in the A.V. and R.V. transfers the title of King from the earthly shadow to the true Monarch in the heavens, and thereby suggests yet another plea for help. The other division of the verse, adopted in the LXX and by some moderns, equalises the clauses by transferring "the king" to the former ("O Lord save the king, and answer us," etc.). But this involves a violent change from the second person imperfect in the first clause to the third person imperfect in the second. It would be intolerably clumsy to say, "Do Thou save; may He hear," and therefore the LXX has had recourse to inserting "and" at the beginning of the second clause, which somewhat breaks the jolt, but is not in the Hebrew. The text, as it stands, yields a striking meaning, beautifully suggesting the subordinate office of the earthly monarch and appealing to the true King to defend His own army and go forth with it to the battle which is waged for His name. When we are sure that we are serving Jehovah and fighting for Him, we may be sure that we go not a warfare at our own charges nor alone.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 20". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-20.html.
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