<To the leader. A Psalm of David.>
1 The LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
3 May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices. Selah
4 May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.
5 May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners.
May the LORD fulfill all your petitions.
6 Now I know that the LORD will help his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.
7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
8 They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.
9 Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call.
Psalm 20 probably has its origins in a military crisis where the king comes to receive a blessing prior to the upcoming conflict. While we may use the day of crisis to adopt this Psalm to our times in any number of circumstances the militaristic language of the Psalm reflects the very conflict heavy history of the Hebrew people. As a people at the crossroads between several ancient empires they constantly found themselves encountering armies marching to or through their nations. Under David and Solomon, they had a brief period of military strength, but for most of their history they were a small nation surrounded by powerful and ambitious neighbors. As in Deuteronomy 20:1 they will go out to battle with armies that are larger and better equipped, having more horses and chariots (the strongest weapons of the day). Just as the priest in Deuteronomy 20 blesses the troops before their upcoming conflict, here the Psalm begins with a similar pronouncement, “The LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of God of Jacob protect you!”
In our time we are very suspicious of an alliance between the church and state. For example, Miroslav Volf can state: “On many occasions throughout their history religions have betrayed their original visions by making themselves instruments of secular causes: they became primarily markers of ethnic, cultural, or national identities, supporters of political rulers and consecrators of wars, or transcendent reflections of economic interests.” (Volf, 2015, p. 58) While there is a real and present danger of religions who become intertwined with the political system betraying central parts of their identity to obtain the blessings of a political party or nation we also need to set aside this concern with the Psalm for a moment to enter the non-secular place that it comes from. If the nation of Israel is going to put its trust in the LORD and not invest in its military might in the same way that the nations around them do, then they need to trust that the LORD will act on their behalf. If the king is living in the way they are supposed to live, modeled on Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 then the priest is expected to give their blessing and the LORD is supposed to intervene in the time of crisis. This is the other side of the covenant they were expecting to live within, if they as a people lived according to the commandments, laws and ordinances of the LORD then the LORD was to intervene and protect them.
The first four verses the speaker is praying for the petitioner who is coming forward with the crisis. May God protect you, send you help, give you support, remember your offerings, regard your sacrifices with favor, grant your heart’s desire and fulfill your plans. Yet, beginning in verse five now the speaker and the petitioner become joined together in the first person plural pronouns (we and us): May we shout for joy, our pride is in the name of the LORD, we shall rise and stand upright, answer us when we call. The day of your distress has become the day of our calling, the priest and the petitioner once stood apart but now stand together before God. In that standing together the king can trust that victory is coming and that the LORD will help the anointed one.
As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger highlight, this Psalm as well as numerous other places in the Old Testament are a critique of military self-sufficiency.(Brueggeman, 2014, p. 106) Although the kings of Israel and Judah would frequently attempt to rely upon military strength or alliances to protect them if they were going to live in faithfulness to their calling they should be able to call upon their God to assist. Often the rulers and nations want both, the divine blessing of their wars and the horses and chariots (or weapons of the era) that will ensure military supremacy. Perhaps the lure of self-sufficiency is too great for any nation to be able to subjugate itself to the LORD. Israel struggled mightily with this calling. Yet, for the Psalm to find meaning today we don’t need to restrict it only to the king or leader preparing to enter into armed conflict and seeking God’s blessing. Days of trouble are a regular part of life and we do want to believe that our prayers are heard and that God will act. In those times where the odds seem stacked against us we want to know that our God can be relied upon and that our pride can be in the action of the LORD in the midst of our own weakness.