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Psalm 20

A PRAYER for the use of the ancient church in time of war. Addressing her visible head, she wishes him divine assistance and success, ver. 2–6 (1–5), and expresses a strong confidence that God will answer her petition, ver. 7–9 (6–8), which she then repeats and sums up in conclusion, ver. 10 (9).

There is no trace of this psalm having been composed with reference to any particular occasion, its contents being perfectly appropriate to every case in which the chosen people, under their theocratic head, engaged in war against the enemies of God and Israel.

To the Chief Musician. Written for his use and entrusted to him for execution. As in all other cases, this inscription shews the psalm to have been written, not for the expression of mere personal feelings, but to be a vehicle of pious sentiment to the collective body of God’s people.—A Psalm by David. The correctness of this statement is not only free from any positive objection, but confirmed by the whole tone and style of the performance, as well as by its intimate connection with the next psalm. See below, on Ps. 21:1.

2 (1). Jehovah hear thee in the day of trouble! The name of Jacob’s God exalt thee! The name of God, the revelation of his nature in his acts. “May those divine attributes, which have been so often manifested in the experience of the chosen people, be exercised for thy protection. See above, on Ps. 5:12 (11).—The God of Jacob, of the patriarch so called, and of his seed. See Mat. 22:32.—Exalt thee, raise thee beyond the reach of danger. See above, on Ps. 9:10 (9), 18:3, 49 (2, 48).

3 (2). (May Jehovah) send thee help from (his) sanctuary, and from Zion sustain thee. The mention of Zion and the sanctuary shews that Jehovah is appealed to as the king of his people, and as such not only able but bound by covenant to afford them aid. See below, on ver. 10 (9). Sustain thee, hold thee up, the same verb that is used in Ps. 18:36 (35). Both verbs may also be translated as simple futures, will send, will sustain; but see below.

4 (3). (May Jehovah) remember all thy gifts and accept thy offering. Selah. The word remember in the first clause seems to involve an allusion to the memorial (אַזְכָּרָה), a name given in the sacrificial ritual to that part of the vegetable offering which was burnt upon the altar. See Lev. 2:2, 6:8 (15).—The word translated gifts, although properly generic, is specially used to denote the vegetable offerings of the law, while the word translated offering is the technical name of the principal animal sacrifice. They are put together to describe these two species of obligation. Compare Ps. 40:7 (6), Jer. 17:26, Dan. 9:27.—The verb translated accept means elsewhere to make fat (Ps. 23:5), or to remove the ashes of the altar. (Exod. 27:3, Num. 4:13). Some give it here the sense of turning into ashes or consuming, others that of pronouncing fat, and therefore fit for sacrifice. In either case acceptance is implied. The optative form of the verb in the original seems to confirm the sense already put upon the foregoing futures. From this verse it has been inferred, with some probability, that the whole psalm was specially intended to be used at the sacrifice offered by the Israelites before a campaign or a battle. (See 1 Sam. 13:9, 10). To this some add the supposition, that the selah, in the verse before us, marks the pause in the performance of the psalm, during which the sacrifice was actually offered. See above, on Ps. 3:3 (2).

5 (4). (May he) give thee according to thy heart, and all thy counsel (or design) fulfil. This is not a vague wish for success in general, but a prayer for success on the particular occasion when the psalm was to be used.—Thy heart, thy desire. Thy counsel, the plan which thou hast formed and undertaken to execute in God’s name, and for the protection or deliverance of his people.

6 (5). May we rejoice in thy deliverance, and in the name of our God display a banner! May Jehovah fulfil all thy petitions! The phrase thy deliverance may mean that wrought or that experienced by thee. In all probability both ideas are included. In the name of our God, and therefore not as a mere secular triumph. The second verb (נִדְגֹּל) seems to be connected with a noun (דָּגָל) used by Moses to denote the banners under which the four great divisions of the host marched through the wilderness (Num. 1:52, 2:2, 3, 10, 18, 25, 10:14). Hence the conjectural translation, “may we set up (or display) a banner.” But as the participle of the same verb seems, in the only other place where it occurs (Song of Sol. 5:10), to signify distinguished or exalted, others follow the Septuagint and Vulgate in translating, may we be lifted up or magnified.—The last clause is a comprehensive prayer, equivalent in meaning to ver. 5 (4) above, and including not merely what had been expressly specified, but all that the theocratic sovereign might desire or attempt in conformity with God’s will, whether known to the whole body of his followers or not. This clause concludes the first division of the psalm by recurring to the theme with which it opens, and with which again the whole psalm closes. See below, on ver. 10 (9).

7 (6). Now I know that Jehovah has saved his Anointed—he will hear him from his holy heavens—with the saving strength of his right hand. What was asked in the foregoing context is here said to be already granted. Hence some imagine that a battle or other decisive event must be supposed to intervene. But this, besides being highly improbable and forced in so brief a composition, is forbidden by the immediate recurrence to the future form, he will hear. A far more natural solution is, that this verse expresses a sudden conviction or assurance that the preceding prayers are to be answered. As if he had said: “Such are my requests, and I know that Jehovah has already granted them, so that in his purpose and to the eye of faith, his Anointed is already safe, and has already triumphed.” The change to the first person singular does not indicate a different speaker, but merely puts what follows into the mouth of each individual believer, or of the whole body viewed as an ideal person.

The second member of the sentence may be best explained as a parenthesis, leaving the third to be construed directly with the first, as in the version above given. In this verse we have two examples of a common Hebrew idiom, one of them a very strong one. The phrase translated from his holy heavens might seem to mean the heavens of his holiness; but the true construction is his heavens of holiness, i.e. the heavens where the Holy One resides, and from which his assistance must proceed. See above, on Ps. 2:6, 11:4. The attribute of holiness is mentioned to exalt still further the divine and sacred nature of the warfare and the victory to which the psalm relates. Another example of the Hebrew idiom before referred to is the saving strength of his right hand, which literally rendered is the strengths of the salvation of his right hand. The plural strengths may either be intensive, or refer to the various exertions of the power here described. The right hand has the same sense as in Ps. 18:36 (35). Here, as in Ps. 18:51 (50), His Messiah or Anointed One includes the whole succession of genuine theocratic kings, not excepting him whose representatives they were, and in whom the royal line was at the same time closed and made perpetual.

8 (7). These in chariots and these in horses, and we in the name of Jehovah our God, will glory. All the objects are connected by the same preposition with the same verb, namely, that at the end of the sentence. In order to retain the preposition, which must otherwise be varied, and thereby obscure the structure of the sentence, the verb glory, which is construed with the preposition in, has been substituted for the strict sense of the verb, we will cause to be remembered, i.e. mention or commemorate. See Exod. 23:13, Amos 6:10, Isa. 48:1, 63:7. The insertion of the verb trust, in the English versions of the first clause, is entirely gratuitous. These and these is the Hebrew idiom for some and others. Compare this to this, in Exod. 14:20, Isa. 6:3.—The verb, in the case before us, may have been selected in allusion to the cognate form in ver. 4 (3) above. “As God has remembered thy offerings, so we will cause his name to be remembered.”—Our God is again emphatic and significant, as shewing that the whole psalm has reference to the covenant relation between God and his people represented by their theocratic sovereign. With the contrast in this verse compare 1 Sam. 17:45, Isa. 31:3, Ps. 33:16, 17.

9 (8). They have bowed and fallen, and we have risen and stood upright. Here, as in ver. 7 (6), the past tense expresses the certainty of the event, or rather the confidence with which it is expected. The emphatic they at the beginning means the enemies and oppressors of God’s people. We have arisen seems to imply a previous prostration and subjection.—The last verb occurs only here in this form, which is properly reflexive, and may be explained to mean, we have straightened ourselves up.

10 (9). Jehovah, save! Let the King hear us in the day we call, or still more closely, in the day of our calling. The Septuagint and Vulgate make the king a part of the first clause: “Jehovah, save the king” (Domine salvum fac regem). But this not only violates the masoretic accents, which, though not ultimately binding, are entitled to respect as a traditional authority, but separates the verb in the last clause from its subject, so that both the ancient versions just referred to have been under the necessity of changing the third into the second person (hear us). The first clause is besides more expressive and emphatic without the king than with it. Nothing could be more pregnant or sonorous than the laconic prayer, Jehovah, save! The object is, of course, to be supplied from ver 7 (6), and from the tenor of the whole psalm. The other construction, it is true, enables us to make the King of this verse the same person with the Anointed of ver. 7 (6). But far from any disadvantage, there is great force and beauty, in referring the expected blessing to the true King of Israel, whom David and his followers only represented. See Deut. 33:5, Ps. 48:3 (2), Mat. 5:35.—By taking the last verb as a future proper (the King will hear us) the psalm may be made to close with a promise, or rather with a confident anticipation of God’s blessing. Most interpreters, however, prefer to make it optative, and thus to let the psalm conclude as it began, with an expression of intense desire.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained (pp. 92–94). Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)

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