Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 17, 2018
Psalm 20 Commentary
In these politically charged times, it is interesting (or ironic, or fortuitous, or providential) that the Lectionary would give us two Royal Psalms in a row. Last week in Psalm 138 we had a Psalm that spoke truth to power. This week in Psalm 20 we have a Psalm that prays for the one in power, but does so in such a way that it, too, speaks truth to power.
We know this is a royal Psalm because of the reference to the Lord’s “anointed (verse 6),” which is the word from which we get the word Messiah. The superscription of this Psalm (“A Psalm of David”) and the other reading from the Old Testament for today (the anointing of David by Samuel in I Samuel 15 and 16) suggest that the “anointed” here is the King, specifically King David. The last verse confirms that royal interpretation with its specific reference to “the king.” “O Yahweh, save the king!”
There are nearly a dozen royal Psalms in the Psalter, a fact many modern day Christians might find peculiar because of the rigid separation of church and state in countries like the United States. In the midst of all these lovely and painful songs about spiritual life, we find these clearly political Psalms, because there was no such separation in ancient Israel. Indeed, even after the creation of the monarchy chronicled in I Samuel, Israel was still a theocracy where Yahweh was the source of authority and law and, as here in Psalm 20, victory in battle.
Psalm 20 is a unique kind of royal Psalm; it is a prayer for a king about to go into battle. (Or as some scholars say, it was an enthronement Psalm in which the people/priests pray about all the battles into which the king might enter in the future of his reign.) For ancient Israel, entering the battlefield was always a deeply spiritual thing. (Think of David’s words to Goliath in I Samuel 17:43-47.)
This unique background of Psalm 20, so remote from the realities of most 21st century Christian churches, makes this Psalm a challenge for today’s preachers. Unless we apply it directly to, say, President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau (plug in the name of your own leader if you aren’t American/Canadian). This is certainly a time filled with not only saber rattling, but also with actual bombs and missiles. For Americans and all their allies, there are plenty of enemies just over the horizon and right there on the Internet. Our “king” faces battles every day.
Psalm 20 suggests an alternative way to pray for our leaders, wherever we stand on the political spectrum. Here’s what I mean. Verses 1-5 challenge those on the left to pray for the success of our King, whether we like him or not. Verses 6-8 invite those on the right to pray that the King will put his ultimate trust not in his own strength or weaponry, but in the Lord God. Both of those prayer emphases will likely stick in the throats of our congregants, so we’ll need to carefully show how Psalm 20 prays for the King.
First of all, we need to figure out the antecedents of all the pronouns in the Psalm. Who is speaking and about whom do they speak? Verses 2 and 3 suggest that the setting here is the Temple area; note “sanctuary” and “Zion” and “sacrifices” and “burnt offering.” There is a liturgical feel to the whole Psalm. So, we can envision the people or the army gathered in the Temple area to pray just before battle.
The King is praying and the people or, perhaps, a priest joins him. In verses 1-4, these other prayers pray for the king (“you”). Then in verse 5 the whole congregation responds in faith to their own prayers, promising to “shout for joy when you [the King] are victorious….” Verses 6 is the voice of one person, possibly the High Priest (?), expressing absolute certainty that “Yahweh saves his anointed, he answers him from his holy heaven with the saving power of his right hand.” In verse 7 that representative of the people continues to speak the truth about and to power, identifying two very different ways to approach battle and two very different results (verse 8). Then the whole assembly, army and clergy, join in a final prayer for the King, the classic “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call!”
Can you imagine the liberal left wingers in your congregation praying for our leaders as this congregation prays for their king in verses 1-5? “May [the Lord] give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed?” But what if our “King” has plans that defy the Bible’s call for justice and peace? What if he desires things that we find reprehensible? “May the Lord grant all your requests?” What if the King’s requests are self-serving or purely partisan?
The only way we can pray this way for our leaders is to see them as this congregation sees its king, namely, as a person facing a crisis that he cannot meet in his own strength and wisdom. Some scholars see an example of such a crisis in II Chronicles 20. King Jehoshaphat is faced with an invasion from the East, so he proclaims a fast, gathers the people in the Temple area, and offers prayers which stress the nation’s powerlessness. Verse 12 captures the mood of that prayer: “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” That spirit of mutual dependence on the Lord is the key to the kind of prayer we find in verses 1-5.
But it is hard to summon up that kind of mutuality if the King does not express dependence, but instead seems arrogant and self-sufficient. This is where the conservative right wing members of the congregation need to pray that their leader will adopt the kind of faith expressed in verses 6-8. These verses speak the subversive message that runs like an underground stream throughout the Psalm; here it comes bubbling to the surface—“the Lord saves….” I use the word “subversive” because we don’t really notice this main message when we focus on the king in our prayers. But in all of those prayers in Psalm 20, the subject of all the verbs is none other than Yahweh. “May Yahweh answer, protect, send you help, grant you support, remember, accept, give, make, and grant.” In other words, the King is important, so we pray for him. But the Lord God is the main actor here, and everywhere, and always, even in matters political and military.
We need to pray that our “king” comes to the realization that is voiced in verse 6. “Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed….” And though the battles may be on earth, “he answers…from his holy heaven….” And though it is important for the king to be strong, it is Yahweh gives victory “with the saving power of his right hand.” And yes, while we must have our armed divisions and our air power (“chariots and horses”), we will put our “trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Of course, the prayers for such a king raise difficult questions. Does such prayer make weapons unnecessary? David did have weapons, even when it was only a sling. Should prayer turn all of us into pacifists? David slayed “his ten thousands.” Will prayer always result in victory for our side? Israel went down to defeat many a time. Does prayer place restraints on what we can do to achieve victory? Finally, one translation of verse 7b says, “we take pride in the name of the Lord our God.” Robert Davidson points out that there is a danger in such language. “To take pride in the name of the Lord can be the seedbed of a dangerous religious nationalism, unless we remember the words of Amos. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities (3:2).’”
While such issues must be considered as we preach on Psalm 20, let’s be sure to get the main message across to our praying congregations. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, let us pray for our leaders. But, to keep our prayers honest and ourselves genuinely Christian, let us pray contrary to our political allegiances as I’ve suggested above, so that in all things God is first. The closing prayer sums it up. “O Lord, save the king!” As Luke Powery puts it, quoting James Mays: “Only God can give victory because victory is dependent on the heavenly King, not the earthly one. ‘The King is not the savior, but the saved. The saving victory will be God’s work.’”
That talk of salvation connects us to God’s ultimate victory in Christ. When we preach about praying for a human king, we must finally point to the Divine King who became human in order to defeat the enemies of human life. Indeed, the Orthodox priest, Father Patrick Henry Reardon, informs us that some parts of the church treat Psalm 20 as the church’s prayer to Christ the King. Read all of the “you’s” as addressed to Christ and the Psalm takes on a powerful Christological focus. Christ went out to battle on Calvary, where he offered the sacrifice that won the victory. Psalm 20, says Reardon, is “the ‘Amen’ to the redemptive work of Christ….”
In my last church, where I served for 22 years, I preached the same sermon in both Democratic and Republican administrations. When controversy about the sitting President was running at a fever pitch, I preached a sermon entitled “What to Do about the President?” When it was a Bush in office, the Republicans were initially defensive and the Democrats showed up with high expectations that I would speak truth to power. When it was Clinton or Obama in office, the Democrats were sure I was going to be critical of their man, while the Republicans were licking their chops in anticipation of a good old fashioned whupping. Both were disappointed (though some read their own biases into the sermon), when I preached on I Timothy 2:1ff, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and those in authority….” I didn’t think of Psalm 20 back then, but it would have made for a good teaching tool. This is how all of you, Republican and Democrat, should pray for whatever king (red or blue, black or white, yours or theirs) is in office at the moment.
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