Theme: Two National Psalms
In this week’s lessons we learn what kind of people our leaders should be, and how we should pray for those whom God has put in authority over us.
Scripture: Psalm 20:1-9
The twentieth psalm and the immediately following twenty-first psalm are different from the psalms we have studied thus far in that they were designed to be sung by the Jewish people on behalf of their king and nation. The first is a prayer for the king’s victory in a day of battle. The second is a prayer of thanksgiving for that deliverance.
There are several stylistic details to be noted. For one thing, the psalms are tied together by the final lines of the first and the first lines of the second. Psalm 20 ends with a prayer that God will answer the people’s intercession and save the king. Psalm 21 starts by acknowledging that God has done it. Again, each psalm is tied together. Psalm 20 begins with the words “LORD,” “answer” and “day,” although the latter is hidden by the English translation. The opening line actually speaks of a “day of distress.” The psalm ends with the same three words: “LORD,” “answer” and the “day of our calling.” Psalm 21 begins and ends with the words “LORD” and “strength.” In scholarly language this is called an inclusio. It is like a front and back door to a house. A striking example is Psalm 8, which begins and ends with the words, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
There is this feature too. The two psalms seem to be more explicitly liturgical than any we have studied thus far. Why? There are two reasons. First, they are written (for the most part) in the first person plural, that is, using the word “we” rather than “I” or “me.” Compare them with the psalms immediately before and after. Psalm 19 ends, “May the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” That is a personal prayer uttered by an individual. Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is also personal. But Psalms 20 and 21 say, “we will shout” (Ps. 20:5), “we call” (Ps. 20:9) and “we will sing” (Ps. 21:13). In these psalms many worshipers are involved.
The second reason is a variation on what I have just said. In Psalm 20 the dominant voice is the first person plural, but that is at the beginning and ending only. In between there is a stanza introduced by the words “now I know.” It would seem, therefore, that the first stanza (vv. 1-5) was to be uttered by the people on the king’s behalf; the second stanza (vv. 6-8) to be spoken by an individual, probably a priest, assuring the people that their prayers are answered; and the final verse or stanza (v. 9) again to be spoken by the entire people as a summary and farewell petition, probably as the king marched off to battle.1
J. J. Perowne summarizes this in a balanced way in his introduction, saying, “I think it to be a kind of general litany for magistrates and those who are placed in high office, for whom the apostle also (1 Tim. 2) bids us first of all pray, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.”2 Perowne means that the prayer is a model for what we should seek in our political leaders and how we should pray for them.
How are Psalm 20 and 21 connected according to their content, and what stylistic details seem to link the two together?
Why is Psalm 20 thought to be liturgical in composition?
Application: Read Psalm 20 and take note of how it can guide your own prayers for your political leaders.
For Further Study: You can order your copy of James Boice’s entire three-volume series on the Psalms from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and receive 25% off the regular price.
1The commentators vary in the extent to which they see liturgical words or a liturgical structure in the psalm, as well as in the individuals to whom they assign the various parts. Much of this is sheer conjecture. But even Leupold, who generally resists this kind of speculation, admits that in this case at least “the psalm bears a half liturgical stamp” (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p.185.2J. J. Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 229. Original edition 1878-1879.