Psalm 20
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
In this psalm, as indeed in the rest, there are most suggestive verses, which might be elaborated into useful discourses. But in this division of the Commentary we refrain from dealing with isolated texts. We desire rather to show how the whole psalm may be used by the expositor of Scripture as the basis of a national sermon in a time of impending war. No doubt, as Mr. Spurgeon remarks, it has been used by court preachers and pressed into the service of unctuous and fulsome flattery. There is, however, another kind of abuse to which it has been subjected, even that of an extreme spiritualizing, in which the words are made to convey a meaning which there is no indication that they were ever intended to bear. No commentator seems to have set forth the bearing of the psalm more clearly and accurately than that prince of expositors, John Calvin. We have no clue, indeed, to the precise occasion on which the psalm was written; but we can scarcely be wrong in regarding it as a prayer to be said or sung in the sanctuary on behalf of the king when he was called forth to defend himself in battle against his enemies. And inasmuch as the kingship of David was a type of that of the Lord Jesus Christ, the psalm may doubtless be regarded as the prayer of the Church of God for the triumph of the Saviour over all his foes. It is said, "Prayer also shall be made for him continually," and those words are being fulfilled in the ceaseless offering of the petition, "Thy kingdom come." At the same time, there is such deep and rich significance in the psalm when set on the strictly historical basis, that to develop it from that point of view will occupy all the space at our command. The scenes here brought before us are these: Israel's king is summoned to go forth to war; sanctuary service is being held on his behalf; a prayer is composed, is set to music, and delivered to the precentor, to be said or sung on the occasion; after sacrifices have been offered, and the signs of Divine acceptance have been vouchsafed, the Levites, the singers, and the congregation join in these words of supplication. Obviously, there is here assumed a Divine revelations; the aid of Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel, is invoked; he is called, "Jehovah our God." The disclosures of God's grace in the wondrous history of their father Jacob are brought to mind. They, as a people, have been raised above reliance on chariots and horses alone. The Name of their God has lifted them up on high, "as in a fortress where no enemy can do harm, or on a rock at the foot of which the waves fret and dash themselves in impotent fury." They know of two sanctuaries - one in Zion (ver. 2), the other "the heaven of God's holiness" (ver. 6); they know that God hears from the latter, when his people gather in the former. Hence the prayer is sent up from the sanctuary below to that above. We, as Christians, have all Israel's knowledge, and more. The revelation the Hebrews had through Moses is surpassed by that in Christ. And although, as a "geographical expression," no nation now has the pre-eminence over any other as before God, yet any praying people can get as near to God now as ever Israel did. All devout souls have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus. Hence, when any trouble-especially that of war - befalls them, they may betake themselves to their God, and plead with him on behalf of their emperor, their king, their president, their state. And the psalm before us is truly a grand one for preachers to use at such emergencies, that they may cheer a people's heart, quicken the people's prayers. The abuse of the psalm by some courtiers, who feared man rather than God, is no reason why the preachers of any day should leave such a psalm unused, still less is it a reason why they should refuse to preach national sermons at all. For a long time, Nonconformists were so treated, that some of their preachers almost lost the national esprit de corps. But it is to be hoped that that is passing away; for on the basis of a psalm like this, some lines of thought may be so expounded and applied from the pulpit as to cause times of national peril and anxiety to be most fruitful in spiritual elevation and power.

I. IT IS AN ANXIOUS TIME FOR ANY PEOPLE WHEN THE HEAD OF THEIR STATE IS CALLED FORTH TO BATTLE. (See 2 Chronicles 20:1-3.) The interests at stake in the conflict itself, and for the promotion of which it is entered upon, must press heavily on the nation's heart. The fearful bloodshed and unspeakable suffering and distress in private life, which any battle involves, must bring anguish to many mothers, wives, and children; many a home will be darkened, and many a heart crushed, through the war, however large the success in which it may ultimately result.

II. WHEN WARS ARE ENTERED UPON PERFORCE, FOR A RIGHT OBJECT, THE PEOPLE MAY LAY BEFORE THEIR GOD THE BURDEN THAT IS ON THEIR HEARTS. (2 Chronicles 20:5-15.) There is a God. He is our God. He has a heart, tender as a father's, and a hand gentle as a mother's; while, with all such pitying love, he has a strength that can speed worlds in their course. Nothing is too large for him to control; nought too minute for him to observe. And never can one be more sure of a gracious response than when, with large interests at stake, a people are united as one in spreading before the throne of God their case with all its care. If "the very hairs of our head" are all numbered, how much more the petitions of the heart!

III. AT SUCH TIMES THE INTENSEST SYMPATHIES OF THE PEOPLE GATHER BOUND THEIR ARMY AND THEIR THRONE. (Ver. 5.) "We will rejoice in thy deliverance," etc. Whatever may have been the sentiment in bygone times, we now know that the king is for the people, not the people for the king. Hence his victory or defeat is theirs. The soldiers, too, who go forth loyally and obediently to the struggle, with their lives in their hands, leaving at home their dear ones weeping as they leave them lest they should see the loved face no more, how can it but be that a nation's warmest, strongest sympathies should gather round them as they go to the war?


1. God himself can so order events as to ensure the victory to a praying people, however strong and numerous the foes.

2. An army sent out with a people's prayers, knowing that it is so sustained, will fight the more bravely.

3. To the generals in command, God can give, in answer to prayer, a wisdom that secures a triumphant issue.

4. All chariots and horsemen are at his absolute disposal, and he can cause them all to vanish in an hour. The army of Sennacherib, The Spanish Armada. History is laden with illustrations of Divine interposition (Psalm 107:43).

V. WHEN THE PEOPLE TRUSTINGLY LAY THE WHOLE MATTER BEFORE GOD, THEY MAY PEACEFULLY LEAVE IT TO HIM AND CALMLY AWAIT THE RESULT. (cf. ver. 8.) When once their affairs are rolled over on God, they are on his heart, and will be controlled by his hand on their behalf. Hence the wonderfully timely word of Jahaziel (2 Chronicles 20:15), "The battle is not yours, but God's." Such a thought may well inspire the people with the calmness of a holy courage, and may well lead them patiently to wait and see "the end of the Lord." Note: By such devotional use of national crises, they may become to a nation a holy and blessed means of grace; whereby the people at large may learn more of the value and power of prayer than in many a year of calm, and may be drawn more closely together for ever through a fellowship in trouble and in prayer. - C.

Such a day comes sooner or later to all. Nations have their "day of trouble," when they are visited with pestilence, famine, or war, or torn by internal strifes. Individuals also have their "day of trouble" (Job 5:6, 7). Trouble is a test. It shows what manner of persons we are. Happy are we, if, like the king and people of this psalm, trouble brings us nearer to God and to one another in love and service! The day of trouble should -

I. DRIVE THE SOUL TO GOD. In prosperity there are many helps, but in adversity there is but one. God is the true Refuge. His ear is ever open, and can "hear." His hand is ever stretched out, and can "defend." His resources are infinite, and he can "strengthen us out of Zion." The name here given to God, "the God of Jacob," is richly suggestive. It holds out hope to the sinful; for God was very merciful to Jacob. It assures comfort to the distressed; for God was with Jacob, to keep him during all his wanderings. It encourages trust, for God had a gracious purpose with Jacob, and made all the trials of his life contribute to his moral advancement. "Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God!" (Psalm 146:5).

II. BRING ALL THE GOOD TOGETHER IN HOLY SERVICE. In face of a common danger, there is a tendency to unite. So "Pilate and Herod were made friends" (Luke 23:12). So Jehoshaphat and the King of Israel entered into alliance (1 Kings 22:2). So, in a nobler way, God's people come together for mutual edification and comfort, and to call upon the Name of the Lord (Malachi 3:16). The Jews had the temple and the sacrifices, and the high priest to plead for them. But we have greater privileges. For us our great High Priest, "having offered one sacrifice for sin for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool" (Hebrews 10:12, 13). We have common dangers and needs, and can do much to help one another. When David was in trouble in the wood of Ziph, Jonathan went down to him, and strengthened his hands in God. When Peter was in prison, and in peril of death, "prayer was made without ceasing of the Church unto God for him" (Acts 12:5). When the Jerusalem Christians were in sore straits, the sympathies of their fellow-Christians in happier circumstances were called forth in their behalf (Romans 15:26). So when the truth is assailed, and the interests of the kingdom are endangered, it is the duty of all true lovers of Christ to band together, and by prayer and holy effort to "contend for the faith once delivered to the saints."

III. STRENGTHEN OUR ATTACHMENT TO THE SUPREME PRINCIPLES OF RIGHT. There are many things dear to us which we may have to defend, but we must make a difference. "The day of trouble" is a searching and a sifting time. In drawing near to God, and by mutual warnings, we find out what is really of the highest value; what we may let go, and what we should keep; what we may safely relinquish, and what we should fight for to the last gasp; what is only of temporary or of secondary importance, and what is essential and more to be valued than all worldly and personal advantages, or even life itself (Daniel 3:16-18; Acts 4:18-20).

IV. PREPARE FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE COMING VICTORY OF GOOD OVER EVIL. Waiting upon God gives hope. Praying and working inspire confidence. Imagination, kindled by the thought of God's Name, portrays in glowing colours the near deliverance. There is something very inspiriting in the "I know" of the psalmist. Job says, "I know" (Job 19:25); Paul says, "I know" (2 Timothy 1:12); and so we may join with the psalmist in saying, "Now know I that the Lord sayeth his anointed." We are too apt to think only of our troubles; but let us rather "remember the Name of the Lord." We are too ready to wish the defeat of our opponents, but let us rather seek the vindication of truth and the triumph of right, and, if God will, the transformation of foes into friends, so that they, as well as we, may share in the joys of the great day. - W.F.

A liturgical psalm, which was sung on behalf of the king, who was about to go forth to battle. It was chanted in alternate voices by the congregation and the priest or Levite who led the choir. As the king stands within the sanctuary, offering his sacrifice, the crowd of worshippers in the spacious courts lift up their voices in the prayer of the first five verses; then the answering chant of the priest or leader from vers. 6 to 8; then all join in the prayer of the ninth verse, "God save the king!" Help from the sanctuary for the battle of life. Influences to be gathered there.

I. A SENSE OF GOD'S HELPFUL RELATIONS TO US. (Vers. 1, 2.) He hears in trouble, defends us in danger, and strengthens us for conflict; and thus helps us by means of the worship of the sanctuary. It is thus he remembers our offerings and accepts our worship.

II. GOD GRANTS THE DESIRES AND FULFILS THE COUNSELS WHICH ARE INSPIRED IN HIS SERVICE. (Ver. 4.) "If we ask anything according to his will, we know that he heareth us."

III. WE CAN WIN THE BATTLE ONLY SO FAR AS WE REALIZE THAT IT IS GOD'S BATTLE..(Ver. 5.) "In the Name of our God must we set up our banners." He is the Captain of our salvation, and if we are loyal to him we shall rejoice in a victorious cause.

IV. TRUE FAITH IN GOD IS ASSURED OF VICTORY BEFORE THE BATTLE IS FOUGHT. (Ver. 6.) "I know whom I have believed, and... that he is able to keep that," etc.; "Thanks be unto God, who giveth us the victory!" "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"

V. "RIGHT IS MIGHT" TO ALL WHO HAVE BEEN TAUGHT OF GOD. (Vers. 7, 8.) They do not trust in material strength, but in the justice of their cause, i.e. in the power of God, and not in chariots and horses. God, therefore, is not, in any historical war, on the side of the strongest battalions. "They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright."


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