Psalm 20 — Worship on the Day of Battle
20 The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee;
2 Send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion;
3 Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice; Selah.
4 Grant thee according to thine own heart, and fulfil all thy counsel.
5 We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners: the Lord fulfil all thy petitions.
6 Now know I that the Lord saveth his anointed; he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand.
7 Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.
8 They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.
9 Save, Lord: let the king hear us when we call.
God’s people live in a world hostile toward them and toward their God (Jn 7:7; 15:18–19, 24–25; Rom 1:30). Israel has had a turbulent existence since the day YHWH revealed Himself to Abraham (Gen 12). Incubating as a nation within the borders of Egypt, the Hebrews were not prepared for the battles to come. However, YHWH’s plans for Israel were assured and offered a hope for better things to come (Jer 29:11). The Bible issues the history of conflict between God’s chosen people, and the people identified with the world. God gave Israel the Promised Land to bear witness of Him to the nations. Israel has been at war ever since.
From the Jews came the promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Dan 9:25–26; Jn 4:25–26). In Him is found a new nation of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:9). These people were first called Christians in the city of Antioch of Syria (Lebanon). They claim Jesus as their King, and He claims them as His people.
Today, after two thousand years, Christians continue bearing witness to the King of the Jews, unto the uttermost part of world. The full number of the elect of God, gathered into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd, is the current work of the church. When the full number is reached, then, the end will come, and the Lord Jesus Christ will bring the kingdom of God at His second coming. The context of His future advent is great tribulation and war (Rev. 6–19). Until then, it will be war and rumors of war (Mt. 24, Mk. 13; Lk. 21).
Psalm 20 is in the genre of royal Psalms, where the king is faced with martial complexities. Israel recognized the integrated relationship between the people and the king. When the king feared God, the people prospered with blessing and rejoiced. The corrupt kings made the people groan. David is the author and protagonist within the setting of preparation before battle. It must be remembered; David’s battles were the Lord’s battles (1 Sam 17:47). It was the intrusion of foreign powers into the land that made David the warrior king.
The structure of the Psalm is liturgical. Israel worships YHWH before going to war. The prayer of the people for the blessing of the king opens this Psalm of David (vv. 1–5). A “selah” pause marks a distinct division with v. 6. A leader (priest, prophet, or king himself) makes a confident declaration that YHWH has heard the prayer of the people and will hear the prayer of the king. Finally, the congregation contrasts the war strategy of the world with the war strategy of the people of God, who anticipate strong deliverance from God their King (vv. 7–9). Psalm 20 has a chiasm from v. 1 to v. 9: prayer — declaration — prayer. The opening and closing prayers also represent an inclusio. 2 Chronicles 20 offers one historical account of this liturgy in action.
Psalm 20 is closely related to Psalm 18 through similar vocabulary. The context is even closer to Psalm 21, as the prayer/worship for victory in battle becomes the praise for victory in the latter Psalm. These two Psalms work as two panels opening to face one another in perfect complement. The antagonists are assumed to be the usual suspects, the surrounding nations hostile to Israel. The date of the setting appears to be during the glory days of David’s reign when battles and victories were synonymous. Worship on the day of battle was the precursor to Israel’s success in war.
The congregation of Israel prayed to YHWH during a time of distress before military conflict (v. 1). The problem for Israel is immediately stated as the familiar “day of trouble.” God’s people do not look for trouble in the world, but the world is happy to provide a regular diet of death and destruction.
The prayer of the congregation is oblique because it works simultaneously as a blessing for the king. “May…,” used seven times in statements of prayer/blessing dominates the Psalm. Also, the pronouns are important for understanding who is talking and who is receiving the blessing. “You” is used as a second person singular throughout the Psalm, always in reference to God’s anointed king.
The needs of the king are foremost in the mind of the praying congregation. The praying king needs to be exalted above his enemies. This requires an act of YHWH, the God of the covenant with Jacob/Israel. The imagery of the vulnerable patriarch clearly positions the current king and people of Israel in a humble state before God and before the encroaching enemy armies.
The welfare of the king is intimately intertwined with the welfare of the people. The “name of God” is introduced as the catalyst between success and failure. Whose name are you going to call on in your day of trouble? This is the first of three uses that link trust — power — victory. Israel trusted in YHWH for deliverance and protection, and God’s people today find the same trust in Yeshua (YHWH + salvation = Jesus). There is something about that name!
The congregation prayed for help from the source location of support (v. 2). God, our help in ages past, is the same today and forever (Heb 13:8). The power of deliverance is localized in the sanctuary. The word “sanctuary” is not the usual miqdas, but it is qodesh in the Hebrew. Qodesh means holiness. The implication is God’s holy presence. Support in the war comes from His holiness, visibly represented by the ark of the covenant located in the holiest of holies in the inner tabernacle/temple precincts.
The ark would be removed following worship, and then it would lead the armies of Israel into battle. It symbolized God’s invisible presence with them. During the days of Saul, the ark was degraded into a talisman for success in war. Israel lost the ark to the Philistines, who gave up on it because of the curses accompanying its misuse.
Zion also symbolizes the place of help. Zion is an ancient name for Jerusalem. Mt. Zion was traditionally the place known today as the temple mount. This is contrasted with the western hill, Mt. Zion, located across the central valley from the city of David. The temple and Jerusalem both represent the place Israel came to meet YHWH.
The earthly symbol actually represented the “holy heaven” reality in v. 6. Jesus, our King, taught the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4) that a day was coming when worship of God the Father would be in Spirit and Truth wherever a believer found himself. A day of trouble for the Christian does not require a pilgrimage to the Middle East, but a wandering heart can access heaven when focused on the spot in worship through the Spirit of Christ.
The congregation blessed the king by praying that his sacrifices to gain favor would be acceptable to YHWH (v. 3). The remembrance of sacrifices, by YHWH, really means His acceptance of them. The prayer of the congregation for acceptable grain offerings by the king is supported by the regular practice of sacrifices requested by the kings in preparation for war (1 Sam 7:9–10).
These were not bloody sacrifices for sin and atonement, but rather, sacrifices to gain YHWH’s attention and favor. When the Christian prays, for help in trouble, he remembers the sacrifice of Christ, accepted by the Father, once for all His people. The perfect temple, Christ’s body, came with the perfect sacrifice for retaining a right relationship between God and His new covenant people. Christ is in permanent right relationship with God the Father, and He ever works intercession by being the permanent Mediator between God and those in Christ.
The congregation prayed that the king’s strategic war plans would align with YHWH’s plans (v. 4). The word “desire” does not appear in the Hebrew. It is important for us to remove any confusion about a prayer for God to grant the king his “heart’s desire.” The proper rendering of the translation is, “May He give to you according to your heart.”
David’s heart was aligned to God, while Solomon’s heart deviated from God’s will. David allegiance to YHWH was undaunted, even when the shepherd king sinned against God. When a king made strategic plans, it was reasonable for him to consult with priests and prophets to discern his plan’s alignment with God’s plan.
Jesus Christ always did the Father’s will during His ministry on the earth. The Scriptures reveal Jesus’ discipline of prayer with His Father in heaven. Trouble met the carpenter from Nazareth when His public ministry as Savior of His people emerged. Jesus’ strategic plan was to bear witness to His Father (YHWH), and to fulfill the purposes for which He was sent. YHWH’s plan was perfectly fulfilled in and through Jesus’ obedience. Our ways are not God’s ways, which suggests we would be wise to learn of God’s plans for us, revealed in His will found in His Word, the Bible.
The congregation promised allegiance to God and His covenanted king in setting up the standard and singing victory songs (v. 5). Here is the key verse in Psalm 20. The anticipation of singing joyful victory songs reveals the trust of those praying/blessing the king. The name of God is lifted on standards with banners. The imagery of banners is helpful.
First, banners were used to visibly declare allegiance. Second, they were a visible gathering point for an identifiable group during festivals or battles. The biblical use of the term is restricted to military references on less than twelve occasions. Paul captured the essence of victory in Jesus in writing to the church triumphant at Corinth, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place (2 Cor. 2:14).” Regardless of the place, the king must make his petitions to YHWH. The prayers of the victors come with the promise of the Victor victorious, “Ask and you shall receive.”
A leader made the declaration of God’s approval of the king’s petitions (v. 6). The “selah” pause between v. 5 and v. 6 is a musical cue for the music to stop. Some suggest this is the time for sacrifices and other offer the idea of a suitable Scripture reading.
Genesis 35:1–5 may have been a text during David’s time, and 2 Chronicles 20 may have been a suitable text in post-exilic struggles. The first-person singular voice is one of a leader. A priest in the temple, or a prophet, or maybe the king himself uttered the response. The message is clear, “Now, I know that YHWH saves His anointed.”
God’s anointed (Heb. masiah) king was a beneficiary of a covenant relationship with YHWH, the God of Israel. The people were under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, but the Davidic covenant was made with the house of David. The promise (2 Sam. 7) of favor in battle over all the king’s enemies was made part of the covenant.
God answers the prayers of the king and the people from “holy heaven.” The connection with v. 2 is seen, but the sanctuary and Zion were only places of approach. The Lord answers from His heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God’s peace. The imagery of God’s right hand can be understood as a position of prominence (Ps. 110:1), and as the text here reveals, a strength or power to save. God created the heavens with His finger, but He saves with His strong right hand!
The congregation declared their trust in YHWH over the coventional weapons of war (v. 7). “Some” boast in chariots/horses. Chariot technology reached and was employed by Israel during Solomon’s reign. The “some” could be unfaithful internal agents, but it is more likely an external position held by the surrounding nations. “But” is the disjunctive conjunction that allows David to contrast the faithful and the unfaithful. To boast is to trust. The third use of the “name of the Lord, our God,” highlights the main message of the Psalm. Israel trusts, not in the size and strength of a war machine, but in the name of the God of the armies of Israel. As David told Goliath, “The battle belongs to the Lord.”
The congregation contrasted the demise of those who were against them with Israel’s rise (v. 8). The author employs another contrast between those abased and those exalted. Unbelievers often appear to have the edge at first. From their self-appointed lofty positions, ripe with arrogant boasting, they succumb in battle because the Lord is against them.
Believers rise up from their lowly positions in this world to stand in the presence of Almighty God. Faith in Jesus, the anointed King and beloved Son (Ps. 2), is a gift of God’s grace (Eph 2:8–9; Phil 1:29). The pronoun “we” reminds us of the corporate dimension of our salvation. We are the redeemed of the Lord.
The congregation of Israel prayed to the King to deliver their king on the day of calling (v. 9). Translators cannot agree on the subject of this final verse, “May the King…” or “May the king…” Does YHWH, who is King (divine), answer Israel’s call? Or does the king (human) answer them? The divine reading is preferred, but a neat solution is again Christological. Jesus is King and king. He is divine and human. He hears and is heard.
The inclusio from v. 1 finds its closure in v. 9. The day of trouble became the day of calling. The call to YHWH was answered. “God save the King” in the famed British National Anthem is derived from this verse. A note regarding interpretation is warranted. Some take Psalm 20 and use it for various purposes: national leaders, soldiers going off to war, etc. A christological hermeneutic is preferred.
Jesus Christ is King (1 Tim 6:15). He prayed for us, and we pray for His kingdom to come. His prayers are heard and answered. His sacrifice was, is, and always will be acceptable. His victorious believers sing Psalms and hymns with joy and with YHWH, our banner (Ex. 17:15–16) raised high over us with love (Song of Songs 2:4).
The elements of worship have become the preparations for war. As Luther wrote, “He must win the battle.” Our refrain, “O victory in Jesus, our Savior, forever…” reminds us that our warfare is not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers in heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12).
How then should we live? As Christians moving onward, and marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. The door of anticipated battle and victory has opened, and it prepares us for the post-battle song of praise in Psalm 21. For the king trusts in the Lord and Thou dost make him most blessed forever!
Spokane Valley, Washington
June 9, 2021