Enthronement of a king—Psalm 20

Psalms of David

Psalms in Book 1 (Psalms 1 to 41) are mostly personal songs, so I will be looking at how they apply to us personally. Social and communal aspects of life and work do not come in until the later books of psalms.

The subject of Psalm 20 depends on who you ask.

Some say it consists of prayers for a king about to go into battle, while others that it is coronation prayers sung at a coronation. At that time a king would lead his army into battle, so battle prayers would have been appropriate. I am following the coronation angle here, but there is also the other aspect which is just as likely.

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation regalia.
Free image from Wikipedia

The books of Psalms are roughly themed like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us.
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

20 May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
    May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and give you support from Zion!
May he remember all your offerings
    and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices! Selah
May he grant you your heart’s desire
    and fulfil all your plans!
May we shout for joy over your salvation,
    and in the name of our God set up our banners!
May the Lord fulfil all your petitions!

Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
    he will answer him from his holy heaven
    with the saving might of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
    but we rise and stand upright.
O Lord, save the king!
    May he answer us when we call.

Psalm 20 ESVUK

The coronation of King Charles III will take place in May this year when the Archbishop of Canterbury will anoint him King of Britain in the name of God. That is the reason I took on looking at Psalm 20 as a coronation hymn.

Getting to the style of any Biblical writing is the key to understanding it. “History must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.” This quote is from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the most Conservative Evangelical statement on the Bible there is which also warns about blind literalism. The psalms are poetry and should be read as such.

Psalm 20 consists of two chiasms, a form which introduces its subjects in one order and deals with them in reverse order, sometimes with a central section. verses 1 to 5 form the first of these and verses 6 to 9 the second, with a slightly altered form. This is how it works; each section with its verse numbers and themes:

  • v. 1a – The Lord
    • v. 1b – The name of God
      • v. 2 – Asking God to answer prayer
        • v. 3. – Asking God to remember
        v. 4 – Asking God to answer prayer
      v. 5a – The name of God
  • v. 5b – The Lord
  • v. 6 – The Lord saves, he will answer (literally pay attention)
    • v. 7a – Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
      • v.7b – but we trust in the name of the Lord  our God.
    • v. 8a – They collapse and fall,
      • v. 8b – but we rise and stand upright.
  • v. 9 – The Lord save, may he answer.

That was supposed to make things clearer, but looking at it on the page it looks like I failed in that. However, the theme is clear. Both parts of this psalm start and end with the Lord. The small capitals show that this is the name of God, YHWH, also translated as Jehovah or Yahweh in English Bibles. While this is a coronation hymn the focus is on God rather than the new king.

Remembering was a big theme for the Jews. The 4th Commandment, Keep the Sabbath day holy, has this in the comments afterwards that is not in the version in Exodus:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. The Lord your God reached out his mighty hand and powerful arm and brought you out of there. So the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Deuteronomy 5:15 NIRV

The Jews were to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt in their instructions to keep the sabbath day set apart, the meaning of holy, and also when they dealt with foreigners in their land, to treat them exactly the same as natives. The Jews are to remember they are just the same as other people, it is good for us to remember that applies to us too. Christians are not a special people, Jesus is calling everybody to follow him.

Psalm 20 does the opposite. It calls on God to remember in the central section of the first chiasm. God calls the people to remember and the people ask God to remember which shows that a relationship with God works both ways.

Once you start looking at the original text (I speak no Hebrew, I am simply using an English/Hebrew Interlinear function of the Blue-Letter Bible online) you notice that in the Hebrew, and also in the Authorized or King James Bible there are no pronouns for God in this psalm, yet modern translations use ‘he’ five times. Even versions that pride themselves as being literal word-for-word translations contain these pronouns. This could be down to a feature in English where pronouns make understanding easier, and English has no gender-neutral singular pronouns. There is nothing in this psalm, as far as I can tell, to say that God is masculine.

Book 1 of the Psalms is mostly personal but Ps 20 is not. Other non-personal psalms have been linked to personal ones by being in a pair of Psalms with a Selah at the end of the first in the pair, such as Psalms 3 and 4 and Psalms 9 and 10. There is no such joining device here but Ps 21 is also about the king. If this Psalm is about the coronation prayers and mentions preparation for battle and Ps 24 is about the victorious king returning from war. I am therefore linking these 5 psalms, 20 – 24. Psalm 20 verse 6 mentions God’s anointed. The Hebrew word used is ‘messiah.’ I am postulating that this section is also messianic, about Jesus the messiah who is to come.

There are 3 sections in this psalm: The people’s prayer for the king is split into two by a selah, a sign for a pause or that the consequence of the words before it will be looked at afterwards. Then there is the more personal ending.

verses 1 to 3

As I have already pointed out it is written in Hebrew without pronouns. It isn’t difficult to write this without pronouns, you just write it as a list of requests to God. Here are the main points of such a list:

“May the Lord answer you,  protect you, may he send you help, from give you support, remember all your offerings and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices!”

Not difficult is it?

It leads up to asking God to regard your sacrifices with favour. That is not a done deal, sacrifices were never meant to be something that guarantees that God would take your side, it is integrity that does that, but they are a sign that you are sorry for the times you went against God or against other people and that you wish to be restored, reconciled to God, or if it is a fellowship offering, reconciled to other people.

verses 4 to 5

It is out of this, God regarding you with favour, that the list continues in verse 4, “[May the Lord] grant you your heart’s desire and fulfil all your plans!” The shout for joy is because God answers prayers. God doesn’t have to answer and we have no way of dictating to God what to do. Instead, there is a relationship. Relationships have to give and take both ways. God is not after blind obedience, God is after a relationship of mutual love. God already loves you—will you love him back?

verses 6 to 9

“The Lord saves his anointed.” The word used for anointed is Messiah.

The psalm is not just the coronation of the human king, it also looks forwards to Jesus who would come to show us what God is like in the way that he lived and worked, especially in the way he gave away power. (You’ll have to wait until Lent, from late February to early April this year, when I will look into Jesus giving away power.)

The centre of this section, verses 7 and 8 are the consequence of where you put your trust. Putting each part together, I’m risking ruining the flow of the poetry here, we get:

 Some trust in chariots and some in horses, they collapse and fall.

 We trust in the name of the Lord our God, we rise and stand upright.

Like God’s messiah, those who trust in God will rise. To see how this occurs we need to look at the next four psalms.

< Psalm 19 | Psalm 20 | Psalm 21 >
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