Psalm 20:1

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.

Break them with a rod of iron.
This cannot mean that Messiah's sway is a kingdom of force, but only that His enemies can no more withstand His power than an earthen vessel can withstand the blows of an iron rod. His only weapons of assault are truth and love; and if human power and institutions crumble at their touch and pass away, it is because there is something radically evil and defective in them. The northern oceans are often filled with mountains of ice, reaching not only far down into the deep, but towering also to the very clouds, and threatening to crush to atoms everything with which they come into collision. Nevertheless, how soon do a few days of the light and heat of the sun rob them of their strength, leaving the frailest barque to speed on its way over unobstructed waters! It is in this way that the Sun of Righteousness operates. By light and heat and truth and love He clears the way over the frozen oceans of human life, for the onward progress of the ark of His salvation to the haven where it would be. The only way in which Messiah can be said to break His enemies with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel, is His leaving them to the natural and fearful destruction that flows from resisting truth and love, the two great laws of His kingdom, and indeed the two great laws of all well-being.

(David Caldwell, A. M.)

Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel
All things are at God's disposal — all nations, all men, collectively and individually. It is God who plants and destroys; it is He who builds up and pulls down. We learn from the Psalm that all things are at the disposal of God the Son. God the Father has given to Him the heathen for His inheritance,...and He shall break them with a rod of iron, He shall dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. In Isaiah it is said (Isaiah 60:12), "For the nation and kingdom that shall not serve Thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted." The Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans would not serve God, and they have perished. Kingdoms which will not serve Christ must be destroyed to make way for those who will serve Him. The kingdom of Christ will, sooner or later, swallow up all other kingdoms. The power of Christ's kingdom, the power of His Word, is in a measure conferred upon His believing people. Christ has given to His believing people great power and influence in the earth. The Word of God is powerful; it is irresistible. If the Word of God be once deeply rooted in the hearts of a people it there abideth forever. God has wonderfully shielded England from danger ever since His Word became deeply rooted ill the land. God breaks the power of ungodly nations that He may break men's hearts of stone. He destroys the kingdoms of this world in order to establish and enlarge the kingdom of this dear Son. To change the heart is the work of God. He must go with the missionaries. But much depends on our faith — our faith in God's promises.

(R. Bickerdike, M. A.)

Rods of iron crashing down upon the heads of men, dashing them in pieces like a potter's vessel, are figures of speech that seem to be very unlike the merciful methods of entreaty and persuasion by which Christ's kingdom is advanced on the earth; but we have need to remember that the Saviour is also the Judge. Not only in the future world, but also in this, history shows that the fate of nations has been determined by their attitude to Christ. While with individuals force is never to be employed as an instrument to conquer opposition, it is equally certain that in the providence of God antagonism to God's will inevitably leads a nation ultimately to its destruction. Though the hand that smites it is hidden behind political movements, in which perhaps nothing can be seen save the passions of men urging them into conflict, yet when the smoke of the battlefield has rolled away, and the strife has ended, there stands out this great truth: "Thou dashest them in pieces like a potter's vessel." Nothing that sets itself against the Christ of God can ever last.

(E. R. Barrett, B. A.)

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