Psalms Week 3
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 20
At first blush it seems odd to combine these three psalms, notwithstanding their consecutive order in the Psalter. According to standard typology, Psalm 18 is a royal thanksgiving, Psalm 19 is a hymn extolling God as creator and giver of the law (Torah), and Psalm 20 is a prayer asking God to make the king victorious. Yet a closer look reveals that these three psalms may indeed be considered together.
The most obvious feature the three psalms have in common is their titles. All three are Psalms of David, meaning (as we have seen) that they need to be read with David in mind rather than merely as having been written by this famous biblical character. Psalms 19 and 20 share the same title. But Psalm 18 has a title that cues specific episodes in the story of David in 1 Samuel (1 Samuel 18–31).
However, we shortchange ourselves if we limit these three psalms either to a generic David or to particular events narrated about David. The meaning of Scripture is never exhausted by immediate reference.
In fact, these three Psalms are integrated in a fascinating manner. Psalms 18 and 20 both have in view the king or, more precisely, the Lord’s anointed: the messiah (18:50; 20:6). Psalm 19 features God’s self-disclosure via the created order on the one hand, and the law (Torah) on the other. As it turns out, Israel’s king/messiah is intricately related to this divine self-disclosure.
The importance of Psalm 18 is underscored by the fact that it appears in 2 Samuel 22, which in turn is part of a section (2 Samuel 21–24) presenting the ideal David and therefore Israel’s ideal messianic figure. This poem is at the same time intensely personal and profoundly God-centered. The first three verses attest to this. First-person pronouns (whether subjective, objective, or possessive) abound: there are 14 in these three short verses.
At the same time, the Lord is praised as being the psalmist’s strength, rock, fortress, deliverer, boulder, refuge, shield, horn of salvation (i.e., having the power to effect salvation), and stronghold. The juxtaposition of the pronouns and this catena of stunning metaphors is revealing. The psalmist could not be more vulnerable, while the deity the psalmist praises could not be more formidable.
Immediately after this introductory flourish, we learn that the psalmist’s situation is dire. Here, too, there is a cluster of eight personal pronouns. The vocabulary is depressing, for the poet laments being encompassed by the cords of death, assailed by the torrents of perdition, entangled by the cords of Sheol (the Netherworld), and confronted by the snares of death (Psalm 18:4–5). Such a description tragically reverses the triumphant declaration of 18:3: “I am saved from my enemies.” The language is metaphorically overwhelming; the reality transcends the description. What is the psalmist to do in such a distressing condition?
There is only one answer: Call upon the Lord. This the psalmist does — from the Lord’s temple, no less, the primary symbol in Israel of God’s presence and promise. Not only does the poet appeal for divine help, but he does so with complete confidence. The appeal has hardly been uttered when the psalmist declares confidently that God has already heard (18:6). There may be times when a petitioner is not certain of God’s immediate response, but this is not one of them. The prayer is offered; the deity has heard. Indeed, prayer and divine response are here part of the same reality.
The Lord not only hears, but acts. The actions can be described only as spectacular. In a litany of nine consecutive verses, the psalmist describes a deity who in response to the prayer takes not only extravagant measures, but measures that make the whole created order sit up and take notice. Divine anger roils earth and mountains (18:7), transforming what seemed solid and immutable into chaos and instability. Even the images of God are startling.
Divine nostrils belch smoke, a divine mouth emits devouring fire, and glowing coals flame from the divine self (18:8). Whatever else may be evoked by such incredible images, this God is not to be managed or controlled, and certainly not to be taken lightly.
This God moves aside skies and appears inexplicably in deep darkness; rides — in fact, flies — on the cherub; is borne on the wind; and maddeningly is shrouded by darkness and thick moist clouds only to emerge in brightness accompanied by hailstones and coals of fire (18:9–12). Adding to this incredible divine demonstration, the Lord thunders (also accompanied by hailstones and fire!), flashes forth lightning, lays bare the earth’s foundations, and blasts creation with a mighty snort (18:13–15). Given a display of this magnitude, how might one suggest that the gods who rivaled the Lord were manifestations of nature?
Let us not forget what has spurred God’s actions: a prayer from a desperate David. God may be powerful beyond description, but God is not aloof. Pointedly, this powerful manifestation had a purpose: rescuing the psalmist from death. Thus God reached into life-threatening waters and drew out the prayer. Though surrounded by menacing haters who saw the psalmist’s weakness and attacked, God delivers (18:16–19). Divine rescue trumps serious threat.
At this juncture, the psalmist abruptly shifts from a soaring paean to a majestic deity back to himself, as though recalling the plethora of personal pronouns used at the outset (18:1–6). Though we might expect thanksgiving at this point, we are surprised. Instead of gratitude, the psalmist explains that God’s saving actions were commensurate with the psalmist’s religious and moral posture. This section begins and ends with the same sentiment (only a slight variation in vocabulary): God has rewarded/recompensed the one who has prayed, according to his righteousness/cleanness of hands (18:20, 24). In between, the psalmist elaborates. He has kept the Lord’s ways, has not deviated into wickedness, has attended to the divine statutes, and has stood blameless before the deity (18:21–23).
This is stunning. On what basis could the David who committed the grievous sins involving Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11–12) make such claims? Is this crass royal propaganda? Does either repentance or subsequent absolution allow one to promote oneself as a paragon of virtue? Has the king devolved into self-righteousness or, worse, become delusional? It is one thing to admire the biblical David in spite of his considerable flaws. It is quite another to view him as above reproach.
But this psalmist is neither a psychologically disturbed nor a hypocritical David. Rather, the David who celebrates his blamelessness before God in Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22 is the ideal David. This is the Lord’s anointed as he should have been. Indeed, the psalm in its Samuel setting — where it is part of a tightly woven and highly interpretive literary complex (2 Samuel 21–24) — transforms the actual David into a David who serves as the model for Israel’s quintessential messianic figure. For this reason, one must not confine interpretation of the psalm (in either location) to a point in the past. Both psalms are about the future and the role of Israel’s messiah in that future.
This is why the psalm celebrates God’s loyalty to one who is blameless and pure (18:25–26). This is why the psalm shows the Lord enlightening David (18:28). This is why the psalm stresses God’s people rather than David as a single person (18:27). This is why David has unshakeable confidence (18:29). Finally, this is why the psalmist’s declarations accent a deity whose way is perfect and whose promise is true (18:30).
In the remainder of the psalm the Lord’s actions for and through David go far beyond any of his narrated accomplishments. Granted, a number of poetic utterances may fairly be connected to the David story as narrated in Samuel or Chronicles (e.g., 18:32–42). But as the psalm moves to a conclusion, David’s position takes on a trans-historical dimension. He becomes the head not merely of Israel but of the nations; he is served by peoples whom he did not (historically) know. Foreigners who no longer threaten but are subservient obey David as soon as they hear of him (18:43–45).
Just as David in Psalm 18 is no longer the conventional David, so the enemies are no longer confined to ancient Near Eastern political realities. The deliverance God grants David is virtually cosmic; it is ultimate, not only historical (18:47–48). This is why praise goes beyond Israel’s boundaries and is expressed among the nations (18:49). And it is why the psalm ends by specifically referring to David in his messianic guise (18:50).
Though a less-complex offering, Psalm 20 also features a messianic role (20:6). But the feel of the poem is different. For example, in this prayer there is only one personal pronoun (20:6). In this case David asks the Lord/God of Jacob to answer you (i.e., Israel) when trouble comes. The king pleads for God to send help from the sanctuary/Zion even while remembering the worshippers’ appropriate offerings (20:1–3; see 18:6). Indeed, David prays that the Lord would fulfill all Israel’s desires/plans/petitions (20:4–5). David is confident of God’s answering not only from the sacred space of the sanctuary, but from the holy heavens — which, of course, the deity created in the first place (20:6). In this psalm, David acts as mediator.
But before the psalm concludes, the psalmist takes pains to contrast God’s power with conventional power. David’s and Israel’s normal enemies would be outfitted with the standard weapons of ancient armies, including chariots and horses (the equivalent of heavy artillery). However, neither David nor Israel planned to match any such foe with equal or superior conventional armaments. David’s boast, and Israel’s boast, was in the name of the Lord our God (20:7).
It should not be lost on us that in an incident that depicted David at his unconventional best he approached a foe whose weaponry was formidable beyond description (1 Samuel 17:5–7). David proved victorious on that occasion, not because he was able to match his foe with equally impressive arms but because he was able to call on the name of his God (17:45). Likewise, in this psalm a similar outcome obtains. Those with superior conventional power will “collapse and fall,” while those invoking the divine name “shall rise and stand upright” (Psalm 20:8).
Psalm 19 proclaims God’s self-disclosure in two media: the natural world and the divine law (Torah). Unabashedly, the psalmist declares that God’s glory/handiwork is made evident by the heavens/firmament (19:1). This is an ongoing feature of nature that takes place night and day (19:2). It is delightfully ironic that the natural world is somehow able to speak even though it otherwise has no voice (19:3–4). It is a simple fact that nature’s linguistic capacity is a function of the intricacy God has built into its regular operations (19:5–6). According to this section, we who inhabit the earth are continually surrounded by God’s revelatory works.
But God’s revelation also includes another medium: the law (Torah). Though conventionally translated law, the Hebrew term Torah means much more. In one sense, it refers to the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called the Pentateuch. Torah also means instruction, teaching, even narrative or story. As we said in Week 1, one might say that Torah is a story, a liturgy, and a comprehensive way of life for God’s elect people.
Contrary to the typically negative Christian view of law/Torah, Psalm 19 gushes with accolades. The Lord’s law/Torah is perfect, for it has animating power; likewise, the Lord’s testimony is certain, as it makes a simple person wise (19:7). The Lord’s precepts/commandments are right/pure, in that they make the heart rejoice and the vision clear (19:8). The fear of the Lord cleanses/endures, while the Lord’s ordinances are true/righteous (19:9). In this light, nothing should be considered more valuable or desirable (19:10). There is not a whiff of negativity regarding the Lord’s law/Torah. Not only that, but observing Torah keeps one from sin and guards against moral failure (19:11–13). Given this accent on God’s word and its power as expressed by Torah, it is altogether fitting that this psalm’s final verse has been a standard for introducing sermons in many worshipping communities (19:14):
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (19:14).
Of course, the Torah has something to say about the kind of king appropriate for the elect people of God. Deuteronomy 17 provides for an Israelite king but points to a particular type of king. The king is to eschew the power, wealth, and status that commonly are part and parcel of conventional kingship. This is expressed by not allowing the king to multiply wives, horses, or money for himself (Deuteronomy 17:16–17). Positively, the king shall copy out the law/Torah, keep it by his side, and read it and adhere to it for his spiritual and religious benefit, and for the benefit of the people (Deuteronomy 17:18–20).
Obviously, Israel’s exile came about because her kings were such colossal failures when compared to the standard laid out in Deuteronomy. This is why the only Israelite king who was seen as an embodiment of Deuteronomy’s admonition was the ideal David, as put forth not only in 2 Samuel 21–24 but in Psalms 18 and 20. In terms of content and placement, it makes perfect sense to bookend a Psalm (19) that elevates the importance of obeying God’s will as manifested in the law/Torah with two Psalms (18; 20) that elevate Israel’s ideal messianic figure.
In the context of both Old and New Testaments, this messianic figure who is the ideal David arrives ultimately as the anointed one (the messiah/Christ) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is also known as the Son of David (e.g., Matthew 1:4; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15). In Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14–36), the apostle alludes to Psalm 18:4 (Acts 2:24) in reference to God’s having loosed the pangs of death in the resurrection. Psalms 18, 19, and 20 are reflected in the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus not only as the ideal David but also as the one whose obedience to the law/Torah is nothing short of perfect (Matthew 5:17–20).
Questions for Further Reflection
- Dr. Spina notes that the connection between our psalms for today might not be obvious at the outset. What theme does he see throughout? Are there certain verses where you see this demonstrated? How are the themes of these psalms carried into the New Testament?
- The writer of Psalm 18 communicates with complete vulnerability, and from that place of vulnerability turns to the Lord for help. When it comes to your own relationship with God, are you able to turn to Him with that same level of openness and vulnerability? Why or why not? Moreover, do you believe and trust that God will act if you call for help? Why or why not? Consider how this psalm might challenge a situation you currently find yourself in.
- Psalm 20 contrasts God’s power versus conventional power in the world. Where in the text do you see this come through most clearly? What are some contemporary examples of “horses and chariots” that you see others rely on? What are some examples from your own life? If you have time, spend time in prayer about how you might rely more fully on God’s power rather than your own.
- In Dr. Spina’s words, Psalm 19 “gushes with accolades” for the law/Torah. What are some of these accolades? Do you think Christians are too negative about the law in general or the Torah in particular? How does this psalm challenge your own understanding of the law/Torah?
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