Psalm 20
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This psalm is addressed to a king going to battle, and was plainly arranged for part-singing in the Temple. The congregation lead off with a prayer for the monarch’s success (Psalm 20:1-5). The priest, or the king himself, as priest, after watching the successful performance of the sacrificial rites, pronounces his confidence of the victory (Psalm 20:6-8), upon which the shout, “God save the king! “is raised by the whole host, which acclaim again sinks down into the calmer prayer, “May he hear us when we cry.”

The transparent language of the poem and its simple arrangement, the smooth symmetry of the rhythm, and the quiet advance in thought, are all in favour of its being a hymn carefully composed for a public occasion and not a poetical effusion of the feelings of the moment. It is not therefore necessary to discuss the authorship or the question of what particular king it was intended for. It may be taken as a type of the sacrificial hymn. There is, however, a strong Jewish tradition which connects its use, if not its composition, with Hezekiah (Stanley, Jewish Church, ii. 461).

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. The LORD hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee;
(1) Day of trouble . . . God of Jacob.—This certainly recalls the patriarch’s words (Genesis 35:3), “I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress.” The “name” alone of the God of Jacob was a safeguard to the people, called after their great forefather “Israel. So even under the shadow of the greatness of human monarchs and heroes whole peoples have often felt secure and strong, using no other weapon but his name.

Defend thee.—Better, set thee up on high (comp. Psalm 69:29; Psalm 91:14) as in a fortress, out of the reach of foes.

Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice; Selah.
(3) All thy offerings.—The king is sacrificing, according to custom, before battle (1Samuel 13:9), the burnt offering (ôlah, from root to “go up,” i.e., of the smoke) and the bloodless offering (minchah, from root “to portion out”) of fine flour. (See Leviticus 2:1). Since the word rendered in our version memorial (Leviticus 24:7), which is a derivative of the verb here rendered “remember,” has been proved by eminent scholars to signify “incense,” we may believe the psalmist meant—

“Accept the incense of all thy minchah,

And the fat of thy ôlah”

Indeed Mr. Burgess would render “smell” and “relish.”

Accept.—Literally, make fat (Psalm 23:5, “anointest”) i.e., regard or receive as a fat or a worthy offering. The objection to the alternative rendering, “turn to ashes,” i.e., “consume,” (Leviticus 9:24; 1Kings 18:38), is that the Hebrew word never elsewhere has that sense, but only that of “cleansing from ashes.”

We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners: the LORD fulfil all thy petitions.
(5) We will set up our banners.—Rather, we will wave our banners. (Comp. Song of Solomon 6:10.) The whole army, or their representatives, assembled in the Temple courts, raise the encouraging shout.

Now know I that the LORD saveth his anointed; he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand.
(6) Now know I.—Better, now know I that Jehovah hath saved his anointed, i.e., the king who is the subject of the poem, it being out of keeping with the rest of the poem to understand “Israel” or the “ideal” king here. The now is emphatic. After seeing the sacrifice performed, and feeling sure of its acceptance, this confidence is expressed.

From his holy heaven.—The prayer in Psalm 20:2 had mentioned the sanctuary as the residence of the Divine power, and its symbol, the ark, being deposited there (1Samuel 4:4). The inspiration now expresses a yet higher conviction. The manifestation of succour will not be through any earthly symbol of God’s might, but immediately from His dwelling-place on high.

With the saving.—Better, with the might of the help of.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.
(7) Trust.—The poetry is weakened by the insertion of this word. Render, These in chariots and these on horses; but we in the name of Jehovah our God make boast. The mention of horses and chariots suggests a Syrian war, since the armies of Syria were peculiarly strong in this arm. For an interesting historical reference to this verse, see Macaulay’s Hist. of England, chap. ix.

They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.
(8) Stand upright.—We seem to see a whole battle fought before our eyes, in which those formerly struck down rise, and returning to the fight, beat off their foes, and in their turn lay them low. “We were fallen, but have risen, and stand upright.”

Save, LORD: let the king hear us when we call.
(9) Save Lord . . .—The Authorised Version follows the accentuation of the Masoretic text, but spoils the rhythm, and interrupts the sense. The LXX. and Vulg., followed by all modern commentators, dividing the verse differently render, “Jehovah, save the king,” whence our National Anthem. Jehovah thus becomes the subject of the verb hear in the last clause. “May He hear us in the day of our calling.” The change from second to third person is characteristic of the Hebrew manner of conquering emotion, and allowing the close of a poem to die away in calm and subdued language. (Comp. Psalm 110:7.)

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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