Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 20

Psalm 20

This Psalm (and the one following) have, as its original setting and background, the royal Israelite/Judean army, led by its king, preparing to go to war. I agree with earlier commentators (Gunkel, Dahood, et al) who identified this context, and the wording and imagery throughout the composition would seem to confirm that it is correct. The Psalm functions as a prayer to God for victory in battle, and may well reflect a specific ritual setting, involving sacrificial offerings made prior to going out to battle. It is not necessary, however, to insist that the Psalm was originally composed for performance in such a setting.

The religious and theological dimension of warfare, expressed in this Psalm, will doubtless seem foreign to modern western readers; indeed, many Christians today may find the association rather repellent, in light of our modern view of the medieval Crusades, Islamic jihad, and other forms of “holy war”. However, in the ancient Near East, the divine role in warfare simply reflected an understanding of the control exercised by deities (or the Deity) over all areas of daily life. The success of an army meant that its gods (or God) favored it, with the deities of the victorious nation effectively gaining victory over those of the defeated people. In the context of Israelite Yahwism, a victory in battle for Israel served as proof that their God (YHWH) was superior to those of the other nations.

The language of the Psalm was such that, over time, the concepts of salvation and victory, trust in the name of God, etc, could be given a wider and more general application to the people of Israel. However, like many of the Psalms, the royal background must be kept clearly in view and central to any proper interpretation. The original context is that of the king and his army, as he responds to the various conflicts with his enemies and opponents. While these “enemies” may be treated generically and symbolically at many points in the Psalms, the poems were also composed within the background of real socio-political conflicts and real battles. It was not the classic “holy war” of the earlier Israelite confederacy, but the basic idea remained, filtered through a strong (Judean) royal theology, regarding the king (from the line of David) and his relationship to YHWH.

Structurally, the Psalm divides into two parts:

    • Vv. 2-6—a prayer for God’s help and support, for the king (and his army)
    • Vv. 7-10—a declaration of victory, indicating that the prayer has been (i.e. will be) answered

Rhythmically, a 4-beat meter dominates in the first part (2+2, but 4+4 in the opening couplet), though not without some tension and irregularity, which may be a way of expressing musically the “distress” that the king faces. In the second part, it is a 3+3 meter, again with certain irregular points of tension that build, only to resolve in the final two couplets.

The musical direction in the superscription simply indicates that this Psalm is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Part 1: Verses 2-6

Verse 2 [1]

“May YHWH answer you (to bring victory) in (the) day of distress,
(the) name of the Mightiest (One) of Ya’aqob set you (safe) on high!”

This 4+4 couplet establishes the theme and setting of the Psalm, which, as noted above, would seem to be a time of conflict for the king (and nation), requiring an act of war. In several Old Testament passages, the verb hn`u* connotes the idea of engaging in violent conflict, to force an opponent into submission, etc (e.g., Num 24:24); in such instances, it is root hn`u* III in the Piel stem. Here, apparently, in line 1 the root is hn`u* I (“answer, respond”), implying the hope that YHWH will answer the prayer and respond to king’s need (in battle). The verb bg~c* in the second line, in the Piel stem, refers to putting something (or someone) in a high place, where they will be safe.

The concept of the “name”, especially that of the deity, was extremely complex in ancient Near Eastern thought. A person’s name embodied the character and nature of the person. Thus, to speak of God’s name, was to refer to God Himself–His nature, power, and presence. Moreover, at times, the “name” of God was understood as functioning as a distinct hypostasis, or active manifestation. Here the “name” (<v@) of the Mighty One (“Mightiest”, <yh!l)a$, i.e. God) of Jacob (Israel) protects the people of Israel, and their king. For more on significance of names and naming in the Old Testament, cf. my earlier Christmas series “And you shall call His name…”, especially the articles on the names of God.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

“May He send your help from (His) holy place,
and give you (His) support from ‚iyyôn;
may He remember all your gifts (to Him),
and receive the fat (of) your rising (offering)s. Selah
May He give (to) you according to your heart,
and fulfill (for you) all of your plan(s);
may we shout (for joy) in your salvation,
and in (the) name of our Mightiest display (the banner)!
May YHWH fulfill all your petitions (to Him)!”

After the 4+4 bicolon of verse 2, a series of four 2+2 couplets follow, interrupted by a pause (hl*s#, selah), perhaps to indicate that the four couplets should not be run together, but to function as two distinct strophes. The first strophe establishes the religious context of the prayer, and of the mobilization for war (on this last point, cf. above). The “help” (rz#u@) YHWH will send to the king comes from His “holy place” (vd@q))—that is, the sanctuary of the Temple, in the temple-palace complex on the ancient fortified hill-top locale (Zion) of Jerusalem. Moreover, this response is predicated upon the faithfulness of the king (and his priests and people) in fulfilling the ritual obligations of the covenant: the “gifts” and sacrificial offerings to God. Possibly, a specific sacrificial ritual, prior to going out to war, and overseen by the king, is in view.

The second strophe, or pair of couplets, brings out this relationship of the king and his people (including his army). The first couplet offers a prayer that God will allow the king to fulfill everything that he plans (presumably in terms of conducting the war); and that, as a result, the people will be able to shout together in confidence that victory (salvation) is assured. The verb lg~D* is often used in the technical sense of displaying (i.e. carrying/raising) a banner or (military) standard.

The final couplet serves a climax to the first part of the Psalm, emphasizing again the prayer context. It is framed in terms of the petitions that the king himself will make to God, presumably prior to (and during) the course of the battle.

Part 2: Verses 7-10

Verse 7 [6]

“Now I know that YHWH brings salvation (for) His anointed—
He (has) responded from (the) heavens of His holy (place),
(bring)ing salvation with (the great) strength of His right (hand)!”

The opening of this part of the Psalm parallels the couplet in verse 2 (cf. above), building upon the war-prayer setting. It is a declaration that God has answered the prayer, and will bring victory (“salvation”). The beat of the opening is irregular—almost, but not quite a 3+3 couplet; I have rendered it above as a single line. A proper 3+3 couplet follows, expounding the idea in the opening line. I tentatively regard the plural form torb%g+ (“strengths, mighty [deed]s”) as an intensive plural, perhaps to convey the sense that YHWH’s aid from heaven will function much like the warriors (“mighty ones”, <yr!oBG]) of an earthly army. On the king as the “anointed one” (j^yv!m*) of God, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 2.

Verse 8 [7]

“Th(e)se with the ride [i.e. chariot], and th(o)se with the horses—
(but) we bring to mind (our trust) in the name of our Mightiest!”

The sequence of 3+3 couplets is interrupted by this 4+4 bicolon, the precise sense of which is difficult to determine. It appears to incorporate a proverbial slogan, perhaps reflecting the ancient “holy war” tradition of the Israelite confederacy. The main idea appears to be that the Israelite army does not simply rely upon superior military strength (i.e. chariots and horses) for victory, but upon the support of YHWH their God. It seems likely that the actual name YHWH (the tetragrammaton hwhy) may be a secondary addition; many commentators omit it as disruptive to the rhythm, and its absence is indicated in the A text of the Greek LXX.

More problematic is the final verb form ryK!z+n~, which would be parsed as a Hiphil imperfect of the verb rk^z`, essentially meaning “bring to mind”. According to this, the line would read: “but we bring to mind with/by the name of our Mightiest”. The parallel with Isa 48:1 suggests that the idea here involves an affirmation of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH, making an oath or confession of loyalty by His name. This special sense of invoking God’s name, with its magical-religious attributes, is also indicated in Isa 26:13; 62:6, and Amos 6:10. By contrast, Dahood (p. 129), derives ryK!z+n~ from a separate root, a denominative verb based on rk*z` (“male”), i.e. “to be male”; as such, the form would be parallel to ryB!g+n~ (from rb#G#, “strong/vigorous [young] man”), cf. Psalm 12:5. In context, the meaning would then be “we will be strong/victorious (in battle)”. It is an intriguing interpretation, but the use such a denominative verb rk^z` (II) elsewhere in the Old Testament is extremely slight and uncertain (but see Exod 34:19).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They—they bend down and fall,
but we—we rise and take our (stand) again;
YHWH brings salvation (to) him, the king,
He answers us in (the) day we call (to Him).”

The contrast between Israel and the other nations (spec. their opponents) is continued from verse 8 in the first couplet. Those who trust in chariots and horses are bent to the ground and fall (in defeat), while those who rely on YHWH’s strength, invoking His name in allegiance to Him, rise to stand victorious in battle. The specific verb forms in the final couplet are unclear; the Masoretic pointing indicates an imperative, following by a jussive, i.e. “YHWH, (may you) bring salvation…may He answer us…”. However, it may be better (and more consistent) to read the first verb form as = ouyv!oh (“He brings/brought salvation [for] him”, i.e. for the king). Both the prayer setting (with an answer to prayer), and the unified juxtaposition of king and people (army), are integral to the entire sense and structure of the Psalm.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

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