Saturday, February 9, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 20

Although Psalm 20 is titled “Prayer for Victory,” it is actually composed of three parts: an extended blessing (verses 1-5); a statement of confidence in God (verses 6-8); and a short prayer for victory (verse 9). The psalm was probably written for the people, that they might bless their human king, express their trust in their divine King, and offer a prayer for God's support.

The first part of the psalm is a beautiful blessing that, while initially designed for the Israelites, could and should be prayed by all Christians over their loved ones. In the first verse, the author exclaims, “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!” We all want God to hear and respond to our prayers and the prayers of our friends and family in times of distress, fear, pain, anxiety, heartache, and trials. We also seek God's protection and support during these afflictions. The Hebrew of the second petition offers us some insight into what it actually means to be protected by the name of the God of Jacob. We might wonder why the psalmist chose to say “the name of the God of Jacob” instead of just “God.” The word for “name” is shêm. It means more than just an arbitrary name assigned to a person by someone else; it actually refers to one's character or authority. This kind of name reveals not only what others call someone, but who that person is deep down inside. When referring to God, shêm designates Who God is, His character, His omnipotence, His omniscience, His true nature. So to say “The name of the God of Jacob protect you!” is to ask that God protect you with all of Who He is as the divine Being. That's pretty powerful request. 

Next, we must ask why the psalmist uses the title “the God of Jacob” here. Again, why not just “God”? By referring to “the God of Jacob,” the author is employing shorthand for Israelite history. He's reminding the people of their ancestors; of God's steadfast care for His people in the past; of the miracles that have accompanied the Israelites from the patriarchs' home land to Egypt and into the promised land; and of the sins and punishments they've experienced. The title may even be a gentle warning to hold fast to the faith of their father Jacob. 

Finally, as we consider the second petition, we must look at the word “protect.” The Hebrew word used here is śâgab, which literally means to be set securely on high or exalted. The psalmist is requesting that God may set the person receiving the blessing up and out of the way of danger, safe from all harm. 

The blessing continues in verse 2: “May He send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.” The center of early Jewish faith was wherever the ark of the covenant was located, whether it was in the traveling tabernacle in the days of Moses, in a temporary tent in Jerusalem during King David's reign, or finally in the Temple built by King Solomon. This verse requests God to send help from His dwelling place on earth, the sanctuary in Zion (i.e., Jerusalem). In the New Covenant, we understand that we are temples of the Lord. When we are in a state of sanctifying grace, God dwells within our souls. He aids us from within to change our hearts and minds and draw us closer to Him. Of course, God is also present in the Eucharist; Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the tabernacle of every Catholic Church in the world. So when we pray as Christians that God send His help from His sanctuary and His support from Zion, we are asking that He support us from within and through His Church, especially in the sacraments. 

Verse 3 requests, “May He remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.” This verse essentially asks that God accept the blessed person's worship. The Israelites worshiped through a rather complex system of sacrifices that were governed by detailed laws and customs, which had to be followed to ensure that a particular offering was favorably received by God. Therefore, this verse also implies a request that the blessed person worships correctly, in a way that corresponds with God's will. We Christians are not bound to the strict laws of Jewish sacrificial worship, but we are still required to offer up our own sacrifices to God, including our prayers, our good works, our trials, our joys, the events of our lives, and our very selves. We pray that God will accept all that we offer, as meager as it may be, and look upon us with the indulgence and affection of a loving father who has just received a handmade gift from his little child. Catholics also have the great privilege of offering the sacrifice of the Mass, in which the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is not repeated but made present that people of every age may participate in it and partake of its innumerable graces. There are strict, God-given rules governing Eucharistic worship, rules that all Catholics (and non-Catholics if they choose to attend) must follow if we are to please God the Father with a genuine offering of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Moving into verse 4, we read, “May He grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill all your plans.” Isn't this what we all want, that God give us what we want and fulfill all our goals and dreams? We must always remember, though, that God knows far more than we will ever know. He knows what is truly best for us, what will get us to Heaven to be with Him forever, and He answers our prayers accordingly. Our deepest desire and highest plan must be eternal life with God. When we pray for this, we can be confident that God will give us exactly what we need.

The blessing portion of Psalm 20 ends with verse 5: “May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners.” In the literal sense, the victory mentioned here would be that of the king of Israel conquering his human enemies. The banners mentioned would be the standards of an army on the march. The people wish to go to war under the name (i.e., character, authority, honor, and hence, protection) of God and thereby win the day. We Christians, too, long for victory over our enemies, but we realize that our war is a spiritual war, and our enemies are spiritual enemies who attempt to lead us away from God and down the path of sin and destruction. We, too, must set up our banners in the name of our God. All of our defense comes from Him. Without His grace, we have no chance of winning the spiritual war we face every day. What is the victory we seek? The Hebrew word used in this psalm is yeshû‛âh...Yeshuah, Jesus. Jesus is our salvation, our deliverance, our prosperity, our victory. The Israelites did not know this, but we Christians do. 

The blessing ends with “May the Lord fulfill all your petitions.” May God answer all your prayers. We know He does this, even if He doesn't always answer them in the way or at the time we may wish. 

With verse 6, we move into the second part of the psalm, which is a statement of confidence in God. The people have just been praying a blessing over their king; now they express their trust that God will answer their prayer. They proclaim, “Now I know that the Lord will help His anointed; He will answer him from His holy Heaven with mighty victories by His right hand.” Notice first that this verse is in the first person singular. Each Israelite and Christian is invited to make a personal statement of trust in God. “I know...” I am certain. I recognize. This is true. God will help His anointed. Who is His anointed? On one level he is the Israelite King, who is anointed with oil at his crowning. On a higher level, he is the mâshı̂yach, the Messiah, Jesus, Whom God did indeed help (the Hebrew word here means to save, deliver, or give victory to) by raising Him from the dead. On yet another level, the anointed one could be each one of the baptized, who have been anointed with holy oil and who share in the victory of Christ over sin and death. Each of us must pray this verse with confidence, knowing that God will help us, that God will answer us and give us mighty victories if only we trust in Him. 

Verses 7 and 8 remind us of what happens to God's enemies. These enemies rely on their instruments of war. They have better equipment (chariots and horses or perhaps temptations of worldly goods, power, fame, or money), and therefore, they think they must be victorious. But the Israelites (and Christians) trust in something greater, “the name of the Lord, our God.” They remember and call on this name (again honor, character, authority) of God as they go into battle (physical or spiritual). The results are clear. God's enemies are overthrown and collapse. God's people are raised and stand upright. The Hebrew word for “stand upright” is ‛ûd, which also means to testify or bear witness. In their victory, God's people bear witness to the greatness of God, Who deserves every bit of their trust and then some. 

Psalm 20 ends with one more petition: “Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.” This is the cry of all our hearts as we long for God's salvation and the answer to our prayers. Hear and respond to our cries to You, O Lord, as we struggle against our enemies, and give us victory that we may live with You forever in Heaven.

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