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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Psalms 20

 

 

Verses 1-9

Psalm 20

[Note.—This is supposed to be a relic of the ancient liturgy, an antiphonal Temple hymn; the assembled congregation sings one part, and the priest the other, whilst the king is offering sacrifice in view of the struggle against the formidable hosts of heathenism. It has been supposed that the psalm was composed in Asa"s reign. The simple grandeur of the style, and the cordial expression of trust in the living God, seem to point to the date as the time of David. The psalm is represented as a noble embodiment of the conviction that in the opinion of the heroes of Israel right is might.]

Spiritual Knowledge

This psalm is often used at coronations. It fixes itself the occasions on which it may be used fittingly and usefully. This is a psalm which will not fit into every day or every set of circumstances; this bird of song will only sing in the darkness. This is a fit speech for a congregation to make to a minister who is in sorrow or stress of any kind. It is also a fit speech to make to any Christian soul who is feeling the darkness and burdensomeness of life. Under all such circumstances the words have a right to be heard; no apology is needed for introducing them. They seem to come up from eternity, clothed with heavenly dignity, and breathing celestial music, and they claim, without any assertion in words (which is the poorest of all claims), a right to be heard. Beside this, no heart in such circumstances can decline their aid. The heart itself is a witness to inspiration. Why torture the naked intellectual faculties to say anything about inspiration when they know nothing about it? It is asking those to speak a language who never heard of it, or asking men to sing who have no sense of music. It is the heart that must determine these great questions; and never was there a heart in sorrow that knew anything of serious and eternal things that did not at once recognise these words as a special and direct message from the very Soul of the universe. "My sheep know my voice." That is a much larger doctrine than it might at first sight seem to be: being in harmony with God, we know everything that God says; that is to say, on hearing it we can at once decide whether God ever said that or not. A marvellous faculty is set within us, which we describe by the faculty of discrimination—a faculty which knows noise from music, right from wrong, the noble from the mean. A child has this faculty of discernment: "There is a spirit in man." We differ upon all matters of mere opinion, and all matters which are limited by words and terms and phrases; but under all these things there is a necessity which the religious answer alone can satisfy—a cry bitter with the soul"s distress, to which only a religious cry can appeal. Psalm like this, therefore, are infinitely valuable because they speak the universal language. We are not careful to inquire into their literal antiquity, or the particular circumstances under which they were written or sung; they belong to all climes, to all languages, to ail suffering hearts, conscious of a wish to be and to do that which is right. It is this that gives the Bible its place in history and its influence in human life: it belongs to no nationality; It speaks no dialect; it is a great mighty rushing wind from heaven, belonging to all the race and to all the ages with royal and divine impartiality.

"In the day of trouble." Have we heard of that day? is it a day in some exhausted calendar? is this an ancient phrase which needs to be interpreted to us by men cunning in the use of language and in the history of terms? It might have been spoken in our own tongue: we might ourselves have spoken it So criticism has no place here: only sympathy has a right to utter these words; they would perish under a process of etymological vivisection; they bring with them healing, comfort, release, and contentment when spoken by the voice of sympathy. Is the day of trouble a whole day—twelve hours long? Is it a day that cannot be distinguished from night? and does it run through the whole circle of four-and-twenty hours? Is it a day of that kind at all? In some instances, is it not a life-day, beginning with the first cry of infancy, concluding with the final sigh of old age? Is it a day all darkness, without any rent in the cloud, without any hint of light beyond the infinite burden of gloom? Whatever it Isaiah , it is provided for; it is recognised as a solemn fact in human life, and it is provided for by the grace and love of the eternal God. He knows every hour of the day—precisely how the day is made up; he knows the pulse-beat of every moment; he is a God nigh at hand; so that we have no sorrow to tell him by way of information, but only sorrow to relate, that with it we may sing some hymn to his grace. The whole world is made kin by this opening expression. There is no human face, rightly read, that has not in it lines of sorrow—peculiar, mystic writing of long endurance, keen disappointment, hope deferred, mortification of soul unuttered in speech, but graved as with an iron tool upon the soul and the countenance. Who are these that flee as doves to their windows? They are the souls in sorrow that are fleeing to the twentieth psalm. The air is quite blackened with them; they fly in one direction, and swiftly they flap their wings, as with the energy of despair—towards this psalm of comfort A book filled with words of this kind holds its own, not as the result of some great battle in criticism, but as the result of speaking deeper words to the human heart than ever were spoken to it by any other voice.

The trouble is dignified by the very kind of help it needs:

"The name of the God of Jacob defend thee; send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion" ( Psalm 20:1-2).

Then this is no skin-wound; this sorrow is not a passing tear; this bitterness and fret and wear of life cannot be ranked as a mere chafing of sensibilities. Learn the dignity of the woe from the dignity of the Physician who alone can cure it:—"The Lord hear thee." There are speeches which men cannot hear; at east, though they make some appeal to the outward hearing, the speeches themselves are not heard in all the tones of their unutterable meaning. Here we often lack the faculty of discrimination, for we know not one sorrow from another, but include all human distress under some common appellation. If only God can cure the sorrow it must be of a peculiar kind; and if he will condescend to cure it there must be something in it which is not in any common form of grief. This is heart-woe; this is anguish in the very seat of life; this is mortal sorrow. "A wounded spirit who can bear?" Who can look into the heart, or dare, but God? We are physicians to each other up to a given point: we can speak to one another about the medicine, we can never provide it; or we can dwell with delighted gratitude upon the remedies it has wrought out, the cures it has effected, but we cannot ourselves administer it. It is something to be able to name it, to point to it, to call attention to it, to cause the mind itself to be awakened in the direction of its origin; but God himself alone can, so. to say, open this bottle, and cause the healing drops to follow one another in the right number, and present the draught to those who die for want of it. It is well thus, and otherwise, often to be shut up to God. It is a grand religious education to be above the reach of man and to be enclosed within the very solitude of God. They are little sorrows, merely physical tears, which can be treated by human voices and by human hands; they are the great agonies that will not, and cannot, be touched by any fingers but God"s. At the last we may have some hint of the meaning of this; for we read that in the final summing up of earth"s probation and life"s discipline God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes. They are not shed of themselves; they are not dropped out of the eye-wells by any action of the law of gravitation: they are removed by the hand divine, and when God shuts no man can open.

Nor can we know what true joy is until we have known what this true sorrow is. We cannot be converted until we have been distressed, impoverished, rendered utterly self-helpless, and have had a face-to-face interview with God in agony—God in Christ. It is a sophism of the most dangerous kind to suppose that men can fall asleep sinners and awaken saints; that by some mysterious and happy transition people who have been committing sin begin to pray, and hence on are clothed in white and are fit for the companionship of angels. Infinite may be the differences as between one experience and another, but somewhere there is a point which can best be described by the word agony—a point of surrender, a point at which self is laid down, nailed to the Cross, and in the strength of Christ"s grace abandoned in purpose and in love for ever. This would no doubt reduce very much the number of nominal Christians, but such a reduction would be no loss to Christ. The Christian cause is burdened by those who know nothing about it. The Church can meet every enemy but the enemy of nominal consent and assent. Who, then, can be saved? That is a question to which there is no answer possible in words. The reply can only be found in an experience that never can be written, that can be but dimly and faintly hinted at by the most vivid and redundant eloquence.

Now the tone changes, as is customary in the Psalm. From the fifth verse—especially from the sixth verse—the whole tone rises into one of confidence and triumph. The morning was dull, the evening was fine. So have we seen it in life. We have often been afraid of the morning too bright; we have said, "It is too bright to last." Concerning some houses we say to their occupants, "You do not get the morning sun here, do you?" and the reply has been, "No: here we do not get the morning sun, but soon after midday the room is filled with light; we see beautiful sunsets; we have long, warm afternoons and eventides." That may be best. Has it not been a sort of tragical experience to us that we have seen so many who had their sunshine only in the morning? They laughed, as was natural; they danced for very rapture of soul, which was not improper; but have we not known, as we saw this demonstration of delight, that probably the day would darken towards afternoon? We have seen the young minister in sudden popularity, developed all at once, quite the growth of one little hour—how triumphant! how delighted by popular acclamation! how highly-fed with public appreciation! Presently the brightness has vanished, and in the obscurity of a cloudy afterday the idol has been forgotten. Have we not seen men struggling in the morning when there was no light upon their window, raising themselves for a moment"s relaxation, sighing—not the expiration of weakness, but a sigh that means there is still latent strength which shall be developed? Have we not seen them patiently working, confidently keeping on, pressing forward, persevering with that persistence which is itself a kind of inspiration—when lo! one slanting beam came to the workshop; then every moment after the beam broadened and made room for other beams, and the afternoon was bright, and at eventide there was light? It is sad when people have all their good fortune in the beginning of life. It is pitiable to see a man starting life with many thousand pounds, and with the world"s key in his hand, opening what doors he pleases. It is a sad sight to see a well-dressed pampered child. Blessed are they who have had their clouds in the morning, and whose windows look westward, and catch the afternoon light, and have a great blaze of glory at the time of the setting sun. Those of you who are cursed with prosperity in the beginning of life should voluntarily renounce it. They are the wise men, and will eventually be the happy men, who have set their fortune aside and gone to live in the most destitute parts of the metropolis, that they might divide the burdens which weaker men are carrying.

The Psalmist says, "Now know I" ( Psalm 20:6). There comes a point of knowledge in the spiritual education of the soul. For a long time the soul knows nothing, can explain nothing, is groping after everything, but is quite sure that it is groping in the right direction. Then there comes a point of positive knowledge—a birthday—a day never to be forgotten. Such days there are in intellectual illumination. The scholar, opening his book, knows nothing; the first few pages are weary reading; he asks if he may not omit a good many of the pages, but he is told that not a single word is to be omitted. The reward is not on the first page; it begins about the middle of the book, but only begins to those who have carefully read every word up to that point; then for the first time the reader sees one beam. Now his interest in the book deepens; every page becomes an enjoyment, and he is only regretful when the last page is reached. We know the meaning of this kind of illumination in the acquisition of languages. For a long time we seem to be speaking incoherently, even foolishly; the sounds are so unusual to our own ears that when we say them aloud to any listener we smile, as if we had made a possible mistake, or might be mistaken for persons who had altogether misapprehended their natural talent and genius. A little further on we speak, perhaps, with a shade less hesitation; then mingling with people who are always speaking the language, we get into the hum and music of the utterance, and then venture our first complete sentence, and when it is answered as we expected it to be answered, a great satisfaction comes into our soul, and from that point progress is comparatively easy. These illustrations all help us to understand some little about the religious life. When a man first hears his own voice in prayer, it is as if it thundered. It is a terrible thing to hear the voice the first time in prayer to those who are naturally timid and self-obliterating. But there is a point of knowledge. The Psalmist reached it in the sixth verse. He felt the saving hands of God were under him and round about him, and his confidence was grand. After this, what would he do? He would set up his banners—that is to say, he would bear public testimony. There should be no doubt about which side of the war he was on. "In the name of our God we will set up our banners;" the heathen are setting up their banners, and unfurling their flags on every height they can clear. "In the name of our God we will set up our banners;" the fact of our having a banner is nothing; the heathen have banners, and are not ashamed of them; the thing to be noted is the name in which the banner is to be set up; they are our banners, but it is God"s name.

Now the Psalmist, being in triumph himself, passes easily into a mood of ridicule—high intellectual taunting—when he views the poor trusts of the world: "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses." The chariots are of iron, the steeds are caparisoned, the show is one of pomp, but it is only show; the chariots shall be broken, the horses shall be slain. "We will remember the name of the Lord our God"—eternal name! They who trust in chariots and in horses "are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright." The end must test everything. Viewed within given limits, there is nothing so absurd as spiritual trust. Compared with chariots and horses, what is spiritual trust?—a ghostly, shadowy thing; a praying into the air; a calling up avenues that have no end—into heavens that have no God. See the chariots, count the horses, watch the gleaming steel,—that is trust. Within the limits we have alluded to, the judgment is right. The young man who said to the prophet, Behold all these chariots and horses! they are coming nearer and nearer, and thou wilt surely be crushed by the tremendous weight, was right; in the exercise of his physical faculties alone he could come to no other judgment. The prophet, quiet, serene, too powerful to be in a tumult, too dignified to be in any haste, too sure of God to have any fear of Prayer of Manasseh , simply said, "Lord, open his eyes"; and the Lord opened the eyes of the young Prayer of Manasseh , and behold, the mountain was alive with angels, with chariots of fire, with the horses of Omnipotence. We are only afraid when we are blind. What we want is open vision, clear eyesight, a proper estimate of realities, and not appearances; so when Jesus passeth by we will say, when he says to us, What is your petition?—Lord, that we might receive our sight!


Verse 7

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord cur God."Psalm 20:7

In the Hebrew poetry the word "trust" is omitted. The literal translation has been represented thus: These in chariots, and these on horses; but we in the name of Jehovah our God make boast. The circumstances under which the text was written probably pointed to a Syrian war. Syria rejoiced in the number of her horses and chariots. The true Israel are upright in soul, are pictured as beholding all the glittering and prancing host, and as setting up confidence in the name of God in opposition to such physical resources and securities. it is possible for men to put their trust in the merely material. But riches make to themselves wings and flee away. The strong man is daily weakening; the mightiest is but hastening to his tomb. All nature is itself a protest against putting confidence in its resources. The hills crumble; the sea makes inroad upon the rocks; the winter exposes the caves of the forest Nature will not permit false alliances with herself. She proclaims herself to be but a type or emblem of higher things; every separate feature of nature points to the creating and sustaining Hand; we cannot therefore make nature a party to our sin or our folly. Rightly interpreted, nature fights for God. The stars in their courses fought against Sisera. The hailstones were part of the artillery of heaven when the enemy dared Jehovah to battle. The nature of the trust is determined by the quality of the object that is trusted in. If we are trusting in something that is itself fickle or transitory, our confidence must partake of its qualities. He who trusts in the Eternal eternally safe. He has no need to reckon or compute or arrange as to contingencies and possibilities; he says, God is my refuge and strength, therefore will not I fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." Doom is written upon every part of nature. When the great stones of the temple were pointed out by the disciples, Jesus instantly told them that in a short time not one stone would be left upon another. Though we mount up to the heavens and make our nest in the stars, yet shall God pursue us and tear us away from our false refuges. Why should we live a life of folly by trusting for eternal security to things which are themselves temporary? Let us allow that they are good for a season: they are momentary conveniences: they have their high and beneficent uses: but being in themselves temporal, they must of necessity go down by mere flux of time. We are not to trust in the name of the Lord simply for self-protection. We are not to make a mere convenience of God. They who remember the name of the Lord should prove their remembrance by their character. It is blasphemy to trust God in extremity, and then to serve ourselves when the extremity is overpast. Thus, again and again, and at every point, in our perusal of Biblical history, we come down to the solemn and abiding question of character. What are we? What: is our supreme purpose in life? What are we in relation to God when there is no fear, when no danger threatens, and when everything seems to be going according to our own disposition? The Psalmist, speaking of chariots and horses, says, "They are brought down and fallen." Speaking of those who remember the name of the Lord their God, he says, "They are risen and stand upright." The picture is very vivid. It is that of one army pitched against another, and the one army thrown down into the dust and trodden upon by the army that has not lost a man. Blessed are they who fight under the divine banner and who trust to a righteous cause, for at eventide they shall bring home the victory.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 20:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/psalms-20.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, September 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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