Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The 20th and 21st Psalms are closely related in structure and contents. Both are liturgical Psalms: the first is an intercession, the second a thanksgiving. In both the king, the representative of Jehovah and the representative of the people, is the prominent figure; and the salvation or victory which Jehovah bestows upon him is the leading thought.
In Psalms 20 the king is preparing to go out to battle against formidable enemies. Before starting he offers solemn sacrifices, and commits his cause to Jehovah, the sole Giver of victory. The Psalm was apparently intended to be sung while the sacrifice was being offered. It breathes a spirit of simple faith in Jehovah’s aid. Israel’s enemies rely upon their material forces: Israel trusts in Jehovah alone.
In Psalms 21 the campaign is over. The victory is won. The people with their king are again assembled to give thanks for the salvation which Jehovah has wrought for them; and in the flush of victory they anticipate with confidence the future triumphs of their king.
There is little to determine the particular occasion of these Psalms. The title of Psalms 20 in the Syriac Version refers it to David’s war with the Ammonites: and some commentators see in Psalm 20:7 an allusion to the chariots and horses of the Syrians who were in alliance with the Ammonites (2 Samuel 8:4; 2 Samuel 10:18); and in Psalm 21:3; Psalm 21:9 allusions to the circumstances of the capture of Rabbah (2 Samuel 12:30-31). Others think that the king may have been Asa (2 Chronicles 14:9), or Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26). The personal importance of the king as the leader of the army, and the spirit of simple trust in Jehovah, not in material forces, point to an early rather than a late date. If the Psalms refer to David, it is natural to suppose that they were written by some poet other than the king himself.
Psalms 20 consists of two stanzas with a concluding verse.
i. The people’s intercession for the king, sung by the congregation, or by the Levites on their behalf, while the sacrifice was being offered (Psalm 20:1-5).
ii. A priest or prophet (or possibly the king himself) declares the acceptance of the sacrifice, and confidently anticipates victory (Psalm 20:6-8).
iii. Concluding prayer of the whole congregation (Psalm 20:9).
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The LORD hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee;1. hear thee] R.V., answer thee, and so in Psalm 20:6; Psalm 20:9.
the day of trouble] Or distress, when adversaries (a cognate word) press him hard. The impending campaign is specially, though not exclusively, meant. Cp. Psalm 46:1; Numbers 10:9.
The name &c.] May the God of Jacob prove Himself to be all that His Name implies (see on Psalm 5:11): may He Who is a tower of refuge (Psalm 9:9, Psalm 18:2) set thee up on high in safety from thy enemies. Cp. Proverbs 18:10. God of Jacob is often synonymous with God of Israel (Psalm 46:7; Psalm 46:11); yet the choice of this name cannot but suggest the thought of Jehovah’s providential care for the great ancestor of the nation. Cp. the exactly similar language of Genesis 35:3 : “God, who answered me in the day of my distress;” and the references to Jacob’s history in Hosea 12:4-5.
1–5. The people’s prayer for their king’s success.
Send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion;2. the sanctuary] Here, as the parallel out of Zion shews, the earthly sanctuary is meant. See notes on Psalm 3:4, Psalm 14:7; and cp. Psalm 20:6.
strengthen] Lit. support; the same word as hath holden me up in Psalm 18:35.
Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice; Selah.3. May He remember all the offerings by which in past time the king has expressed his self-devotion and his dependence on Jehovah, and accept those by which he is now consecrating the present expedition. For sacrifice before a war see 1 Samuel 7:9-10; 1 Samuel 13:9-12; and cp. the phrase to sanctify a war (Jeremiah 6:4, R.V. marg.). Offering properly denotes the so-called meal-offering, which accompanied the burnt-offering.
Remember) Possibly an allusion to the memorial, or part of the meal-offering which was burnt by the priest on the altar, as it were bringing the worshippers for whom it was offered to God’s remembrance (Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 2:9; Leviticus 2:16; Acts 10:4).
accept] Lit., regard as fat. The fat, as the choicest part, was Jehovah’s portion, and was always to be burnt (Leviticus 3:3 ff. Leviticus 3:16). Less probable is the alternative in A.V. marg., turn to ashes, by fire from heaven (Leviticus 9:24).
Grant thee according to thine own heart, and fulfil all thy counsel.4. according to thine own heart] The literal rendering of the Heb. The R.V. restores the more graceful rendering of P.B.V., thy heart’s desire; but the expression is a different one from that in Psalm 21:2.
counsel] In the war. Cp. 2 Samuel 16:20; 2 Kings 18:20.
We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners: the LORD fulfil all thy petitions.5. The prayer is still continued. Let us (or, That we may) shout for joy at thy salvation; Jehovah Himself was Israel’s Saviour (Psalm 21:1; 1 Samuel 10:19), and the king was His chosen instrument for saving His people (2 Samuel 3:18).
set up our banners] Rather, wave them in token of triumph, than set them up as a memorial of the victory. The cognate substantive is specially used of the standards of the tribes (Numbers 1:52; Numbers 2:2 ff.). Cp. Song of Solomon 6:4; Song of Solomon 6:10.
The LXX however has, we shall be magnified.
petitions] Cp. Psalm 21:2.
Now know I that the LORD saveth his anointed; he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand.6. Now know I] Cp. Psalm 56:9, Psalm 135:5.
saveth] Lit., hath saved: i.e. will surely save. To faith the victory is already won. Cp. the tenses in Psalm 20:8, and see Appendix, Note IV.
his anointed] The title which expresses the king’s consecration to Jehovah is the pledge of his right to expect Jehovah’s help (Habakkuk 3:13).
he will hear him] R.V., he will answer him (as in Psalm 20:1; Psalm 20:9) from his holy heaven, of which the holy place in Zion (Psalm 20:2) is but the earthly type.
with the saving strength &c.] Lit., with mighty acts of salvation of his right hand: the mighty acts of deliverance (Psalm 106:2, Psalm 150:2) wrought by the right hand of the Most High (Psalm 17:7, Psalm 60:5). Cp. Psalm 21:13.
6–8. The sacrifice has been offered. Faith regards it as accepted, and in its acceptance sees the pledge of victory. The voice of a priest, or prophet, or possibly of the king himself, is now heard proclaiming this confidence (Psalm 20:6), and professing for himself and the people their trust in Jehovah alone (Psalm 20:7-8).
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.7. Some] The heathen enemy, like Pharaoh (Exodus 14), and Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:23); not here heathenish Israelites, as in Isaiah 31:1-3.
But we will remember the name] R.V., But we will make mention of the name &c. This shall be our watchword and our strength. Cp. Jdg 7:18; 1 Samuel 17:45; 2 Chronicles 16:8-9; Psalm 33:16 f.; Isaiah 26:13; Hosea 1:7.
They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.8. They are brought down] R.V., They are bowed down; the same word as in Psalm 18:39. It is still the language of faith, anticipating the entire subjugation of the enemy, and the triumph of Israel.
Save, LORD: let the king hear us when we call.9. Concluding prayer of the people.
The rendering of A.V. and R.V. follows the punctuation of the Massoretic text. The prayer for the earthly king is addressed to the heavenly King whose representative he is. But Jehovah is not elsewhere styled absolutely the King (Psalm 145:1 and Isaiah 6:5 are not complete parallels); and the verse appears to correspond to Psalm 20:6. It seems best to follow the LXX and Vulg. in reading O Lord, save the king; and answer us &c. The rendering of the Vulg. Domine salvum fac regem is the origin of the familiar God save the king. See note on 1 Samuel 10:24. The P.B.V., Save Lord, and hear us, O King of heaven, when we call upon thee, is a free combination of the Heb. and Vulg. (LXX).