Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 14, 2015
Psalm 20 Commentary
It seems as if psalmists typically pray for themselves. However, in Psalm 20 the poet prays for someone else, in this case Israel’s king. After all, verse 4 refers to God’s “anointed.” Verse 9 also speaks explicitly of “the king.”
Psalm 20 expresses a strong sense of dependence on God’s gracious provision even for rulers. While most of the psalmist’s contemporaries assumed that their monarchs stayed in power because of their gods’ favor and military might, Psalm 9’s poet recognizes that it’s the living God’s protection, not Israel’s military power that preserves her king.
Of course, Psalm 20’s prayer’s form is rather unusual. After all, the poet doesn’t speak directly to Yahweh in it until its very end. Virtually this entire “prayer” is, in fact, directed to the king. In that way, Psalm 20 is not unlike the benedictions that modern worship leaders offer. They’re blessings that, in some sense, contain no “power” unless God extends God’s blessing.
In Psalm 20 the poet prays that God will bless the king by answering and protecting him when he’s in trouble. Such a prayer for rulers is, as James Mays notes, an “ancient and enduring tradition.” So Psalm 20 invites those who preach and teach it to reflect with worshipers on the frequency and nature of their prayers for their leaders.
Of course, Israel’s king was uniquely the Lord’s anointed. However, the apostle Paul reminds us that God has also put modern rulers in place. In Romans 13:1 he insists, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” So perhaps Psalm 20 challenges worshipers to spend even more time praying for our leaders than we do criticizing, questioning or even praising them.
Yet our prayers for our presidents, prime ministers and other leaders are always at least somewhat fraught with danger. They easily reflect a kind of idolatry that identifies a ruler or nation with God and God’s purposes and forgets that God’s Church and kingdom stretches across the whole world. What’s more, as we pray for our rulers’ “success,” we easily slide into depending on their success rather than depending on God’s gracious provision.
Psalm 20’s opening verses suggest Israel’s ruler is in some kind of trouble. So we sometimes assume the poet offers it as the king goes into battle. Certainly the poet fills Psalm 20 with military images. She speaks of chariots and horses. She also pleads for victory in battle. What’s more, verse 5’s lifting up of banners seems to refer to the standards carried by military units.
However, some scholars suggest that Psalm 20 an enthronement psalm that’s offered merely in anticipation of coming battles. Its repeated use of liturgical references may lend credence to the idea that this is an enthronement liturgy. After all, the psalmist speaks of the “sanctuary,” sacrifices and burnt offerings, as well as prayerful “requests.”
Yet while Israel’s king is one of Psalm 20’s central figures, Yahweh remains its primary actor. God is, after all, the extremely active subject of most of its verbs. Psalm 20 recognizes that Israel’s “neighbors’” kings rely on their military power. Horses and chariots were symbols of immense national power. Rulers often even had themselves publicly portrayed as riding on horses and in chariots in order to demonstrate their might.
However, Psalm 20’s poet insists that leaders who depend on military may “stumble and fall.” After all, only God can provide the kind of protection that leaders really need. The help of even the mightiest people on earth comes from the Lord who made the heavens and earth. So when the psalmist wants to support Israel’s king, he turns to the Lord, the “God of Jacob” for his protection. It’s reminiscent of Jacob’s own profession in Genesis 35:3: God “answered me in the day of distress and … has been with me wherever I go.”
In Psalm 20 the poet essentially calls Israel’s king and nation to trust not in their military might, but in the Lord. After all, she insists, only God can raise them up and keep them standing. Success in battle and other national endeavors depends not, in fact, on earthly royalty but on the Heavenly King. Israel’s king, as Mays notes, is “not the savior, but the saved. The saving victory will be God’s work.” Psalm 20 recognizes even the most powerful leaders must depend on God for their deliverance because success always comes from the Lord.
So as Luke Powery writes, this psalm affirms God, not humanity’s reign over all of creation. We see that reign in the way God’s kingdom grows from the tiniest beginnings to a “mighty tree.” God’s kingdom doesn’t need chariots and horses to grow. Only God’s power brings the Kingdom’s growth and victory, as well as God’s salvation. Because God reigns, God’s sons and daughters can be confident that the God who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead holds a place for us in the new creation.
It’s fitting that Psalm 20 ends as it basically begins. In verse 1 the poet pleads for God’s blessing on the king as he prays, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress.” In verse 9 the psalmist speaks directly to God as he says, “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call!”
How, then, can 21st century Christians think about this text? After all, while we don’t want to hurry too quickly past its Old Testament context, no modern nation has a monarch who’s God’s special representative on earth. Nor do any of us have a king, queen or any other leader who goes automatically in God’s name to do battle on God’s behalf.
So we might we see Psalm 20 as a reminder to pray for all those who are “in distress.” It could serve as a cue to pray for God’s answer and help for, as well as protection of not only beleaguered rulers, but also the poor, hungry, lonely and oppressed. However, this psalm might also serve to remind us to pray for Christ the King to succeed in carrying out God’s good plans and purposes for the creation that God loves so deeply. After all, at Calvary Jesus Christ won the victory over sin, Satan and death on our behalf. However, Christians continue to worship and pray some while rulers, authorities and powers still rebel against God and God’s loving purposes.
When is “God save the queen” (cf. Psalm 20:9) an inappropriate sentiment? Apparently some people assume it’s only when it’s put to music by a 70’s British anti-establishment band called “The Sex Pistols.” The department store Woolworth refused to sell the controversial single. And on May 31, 1977 the BBC banned the song from its airwaves. It labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste,” a charge the band itself probably wouldn’t reject.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!