Psalm 20 - King for a Moment
TEXT for Hebrew text, see endof comentary)
1. For the leader. A psalm. Of David.
2. May the LORD answer you in a day of trouble, the name of Jacob’s God protect you.
3. May He send you help from the sanctuary, and from Zion, support you.
4. May He remember1 all your meal-offerings, and favor your burnt-offerings. Selah.
5. May He grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill your every plan.
6. May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God raise banners. May the LORD fulfill all your desires.
7. Now I know that the LORD has saved His anointed. He answers him from His heavenly sanctuary with mighty salvation by His right arm.
8. They from chariots, they from horses, but we from the name of the LORD our God grow strong.2
9. They have collapsed and fallen, but we arose and have been restored.
10. O LORD save! May the King answer us on the day we call.3
1. Meaning uncertain.
2. Others, “call upon” for “grow strong from.”
3. Or “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call.” See commentary.
(Note: some English translations do not number the title verse.)
This short poem seems to specialize in quick surprise and reversal, so much so that by the end of a first reading one must go back to re-conceive all that appeared in the first encounter. With the second reading and the third, the psalm gains increasing power. It has often been less appreciated due to modern tendency to isolate the poem in a posited particular circumstance, a cultic ceremony in the presence of the king. The following interpretation makes no such assumption, but reads the psalm as a poem
The First Reading
I trace a series of surprising developments that one encounters when reading or hearing the poem through for the first time.
(a) At first the reader feels addressed! The speaker prays for “your” welfare and salvation, with no “you” defined. This is no small gesture, for the speaker wishes "you" God's support in time of trouble and general well being from the deity. Through verse 5, the reader is almost overwhelmed by the good wishes.
(b) In verse 6 the reader is surprised to find him- or herself facing not an individual speaker but a group (or someone speaking in the name of a group), and the fate of the addressed “you” seems intertwined with that of the group.
(c) Verse 7, which begins, “Now I know…,” is particularly baffling, owing to both the appearance of a first person singular (“I”) and the implication that some unspecified event just ("now") transpired. Repetitions would seem to indicate that the verse is very important. Two terms echo the beginning of the psalm (“answer” and “sanctuary”) and two uses of the root “save/salvation” (y-sh-’) echo a similar use in the previous verse. So, too, “LORD” had appeared before, in verses 2 and 6. The verse strikingly leads to the possibility that the “you” of the beginning of the psalm was perhaps the king, not the reader. To some small degree, the reader feels a twinge of disappointment.
(d) One continues, however, only to discover that the use of the second person disappears! Indeed, at this point, the speaker is only “we” and the relationship described is that of the group to the LORD (spoken of, not addressed), as the king and national concerns take center stage.
(e) Should the reader decide at this point that the psalm is a bit of stream of consciousness, simply flowing from one thought to another, the last verse comes to refute that conclusion. It closes the poem hermetically, providing a firm inclusio for the psalm as a whole. (Three terms, “answer,” “LORD,” and “day,” appear at the beginning and at the end.) Further, the last verse includes another inclusio with the middle verse 7, echoing both "answer" and "salvation." Armed with that knowledge, the reader finds an implied enclosure in the first half, verse 1 through 6, through "answer" in the first verse, and "salvation" in the sixth, an anticipation of the second half's double enclosure, which could only be noted after reading the entire poem. The last verse, then, clarifies that the poem is a single piece, and thus the reader is sent back to reread it, now armed with elements of structure previously unknown. At the same time, the last verse provides its own significant surprise. God is addressed, not discussed, and it turns out that the psalm is a direct request to God by the group (of which there had been little hint before).
The Second Reading
Most commentators try to envision a single situation in which the two sections of this psalm make sense. The poem is most often understood as a prayer by the people for the success of the king. A presumed spokesman, perhaps a priest representing the assembled, asks that the king’s prayers, wishes, and sacrifices be accepted (the king being present and addressed). At verse seven there is a change (“And now I know”), which has led to much speculation as to what occurred. Some commentators suggest that the confidence is the result of the successful conclusion of the king’s prayer or sacrifice, and some even posit that the second part of the psalm was recited separately or later, after news of the king’s victory in battle. In any case, the triumph is attributed to the LORD and there is a plea for further victories.
Beyond Reductionism to Poetry
However logical this explanation may be, however, its fault lies in its purpose, a sought explanation of the poem in prosaic terms. (I also mention that it involves a rather incomprehensible pause for a major battle to take place.) The poetry of psalms, however, involves multiple meanings, not a single one; inferences, not definitions; challenges, not information. For example, even if the rereading hints at the king being “you,” the initial impression (that the reader is addressed) lingers. So read, poetry comes to life. Among the points of fascination, one can point to the following:
1. Certainty is indeed the challenge of verse 7. How sad it is that commentators insist on “providing” the circumstance that the text omits. The poet, on the other hand, leaves the occasion undefined, a challenge and a puzzle that should not be taken away from future readers. Wherein lies the certainty of salvation? The poet puts it into the mouth of a speaker, and the reader ponders. Is pious prayer sufficient to guarantee God’s salvation? Is successful sacrifice? In fact, is news of victory? Is this statement altogether perhaps the “word” of a religious official who claims extraordinary ability to understand God’s intentions? Would one accept that? The reader is meant to be left with the original question concerning, the certainty of salvation, not to posit it away.
2. One of the other great challenges of the psalm is association: with whom does the reader associate? The initial non-mention of the king and the later “clarification” that it is he who is “you” allow the reader to wonder in what ways his or her fate is intertwined with that of the king. Indeed the slight disappointment at discovery that the king, not the reader, is the subject of concern, must engender a slight twinge of tension. What is the implication of the reader’s initial confusion at a time when perhaps the king was being addressed and the reader thought it was himself? If the king’s salvation is “ours,” is there an implication that one’s own prayers automatically extend beyond oneself?
3. A different (perhaps complementary) reading of the psalm focuses on salvation ultimately being in the hands of God, not the human king. In a time of battle, that message would be in order, even as the text acknowledges parallel roles. This is beautifully expressed in the last verse, which can be read in slightly different ways: (a) “LORD save, the King will answer us on the day we call”; (b) “LORD save, the king will answer us on the day we call”; (c) “LORD save the king, (He) will answer us on the day we call”; and (d) “LORD save the king, (he) will answer us on the day we call.” Together they reflect the parallel roles, whereas the opening in each case addresses the request to the primary party, the LORD.
4. These multiple readings, in turn grant new weight to the object "us" in the final verse, in light of the concerns noted in paragraph #2 above. Whether the help of the human or the divine king is sought in the final verse (in the latter case, "us" includes the human king and the reader in the same category!), the reader is returned to the center stage, a partial resolution of the tension previously intimated.
5. On another level, the “I” of verse 7 takes on the role of spokesman for the “we” of which the reader is evidently a part. Does the reader accept this representation or leadership, and does the reader agree with the assured tone of the verse?
6. The progressive use of “name” bears its own fascination: “the name of Jacob’s God (verse 2), …of our God (6), …of the LORD our God (8).” Progressively, these increase in intimacy (Recall, “the LORD” is His name). Does this three-step progression have an implication? Does the intimacy grow with desperation, with assurance, or perhaps simply with the passage of time?
Further, a propos “Jacob’s God,” many classic commentators ponder why Jacob alone among the forefathers is the reference. Among suggested answers are: that this forefather had the most troubles in life; that only this forefather’s descendants all remained part of the Jewish people; or that his other name, ‘Israel,’ came to symbolize the people. Several point to Genesis 35:3, with parallel terminology: Jacob praises God, Who “answers” him in time of “trouble.”
Psalm 20, in short, bespeaks complexity and challenge, not mere reassurance and request. Therein lies its strength.
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Additional Notes: Post-biblical Uses
Psalm 20 is included in most of the rites of the traditional Jewish liturgy toward the end of the morning service, a section dedicated to personal imploration. (This would seem to imply an understanding that the reference to “you” is to the one praying, not a distant king). It is omitted on certain days of celebration.
The fervent request that God hear “your” prayer led to this psalm being used in Jewish tradition with some frequency by and/or for women who were barren.
The Vulgate (the early Latin version of the Bible) reads “king” of the verse 10 as the object of “the LORD save,” which is the origin of the well-known call: “God save the king.”
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com.
א לַמְנַצֵּחַ מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד
ב יַעַנְךָ יְהוָה בְּיוֹם צָרָה יְשַׂגֶּבְךָ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב
ג יִשְׁלַח-עֶזְרְךָ מִקֹּדֶשׁ וּמִצִּיּוֹן יִסְעָדֶךּ
ד יִזְכֹּר כָּל-מִנְחֹתֶךָ וְעוֹלָתְךָ יְדַשְּׁנֶה סֶלָה
ה יִתֶּן-לְךָ כִלְבָבֶךָ וְכָל-עֲצָתְךָ יְמַלֵּא
ו נְרַנְּנָה בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ וּבְשֵׁם-אֱלֹהֵינוּ נִדְגֹּל יְמַלֵּא יְהוָה כָּל-מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֶיךָ
ז עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי הוֹשִׁיעַ יְהוָה, מְשִׁיחוֹ יַעֲנֵהוּ מִשְּׁמֵי קָדְשׁוֹ בִּגְבֻרוֹת יֵשַׁע יְמִינוֹ
ח אֵלֶּה בָרֶכֶב וְאֵלֶּה בַסּוּסִים וַאֲנַחְנוּ בְּשֵׁם-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נַזְכִּיר
ט הֵמָּה כָּרְעוּ וְנָפָלוּ וַאֲנַחְנוּ קַּמְנוּ וַנִּתְעוֹדָד
י יְהוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם-קָרְאֵנוּ