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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Disconnect of Psalm 20

I like Psalm 20, but with some reservations. It troubles me. I am troubled by certain parts in each of the two sections, and by some of the implications of the psalm as a whole. 

Psalm 20 is a bipartite psalm, a call and response psalm, a before and after psalm – with the division occurring between verses 5 and 6.  Part 1 (verses 1 – 5) is a song directed toward the king as he prepares to lead the army out into battle.  Part 2 (verses 6 – 9) is an announcement of victory. The psalm was likely written during the time of King Solomon’s temple – though neither the specific King of Judah, nor the enemy he faced in this time of trouble clearly identified. 

All of the “you”s in the first section (“The Lord answer you in the day of trouble...”) are all singular – addressed to the King as the leader and representative of the nation.  He is in trouble, faced with a powerful enemy.  He is preparing for war.   The people are praying for him, and for his victory.  This first section seems to be a sort of prayer song on his behalf.  Imagine it sung by the congregation of the faithful, by the temple choir, or even perhaps by the warriors themselves as the King stands on the balcony above them.

In the second section, the priest (or perhaps a prophet) has received word of the King’s victory and announces it to the congregation “Now I know that Yahweh has given his anointed victory…” (Translator Mitchel Dahood in the Anchor Bible series notes that the verbs in this second section are all (but one) past tense verbs, though most translations use present or future tenses)

In section one of this psalm - verse 3 – there is the suggestion that the king has made a large number of sacrificial offerings as part of his preparation for battle – that he has made these sacrifices in order influence God toward granting him a victory in the battle.  We might, if we’re cynical, see this as a bit of a bribe.

Is this the way that God works?  Offer enough animals on the altar and be assured a victory in battle?  Do the televangelists have it right?  Send in a large enough check and God will give us the desires of our heart?

There was a sense in the ancient world that an individual could influence the gods to action by the sacrifice of animals (or in extreme cases, humans). We tend to dismiss that idea in our modern world – at least in our words.  In our inner, undiagnosed thinking however we still sometimes operate that way.  If I’m a good person, If I attend church services, If I tithe, If I send my check then God will perform XYZ on my behalf.

Verses 7-8 are terrific verses, but they comes with a bit of disconnect. 

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
    but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
    but we shall rise and stand upright.

It should be noted that the “take pride” – in the RSV – or “trust” or “boast of” in other translations isn’t actually in the Hebrew text.  These verbs are supplied by the translators to help make sense of the phrases in English.

These verses are among my favorite verses in the entire bible.  I share them frequently. Our strength, our hope for the future, our pride should not be in military might.  Military power does not make a nation good.  Military power does not represent God’s favor. 

And yet there is a disconnect here. These words are coming from the priest (or prophet) who has just announced that the King has won a military victory.  How can we sneer at our enemies for their trust in horses and chariots (the armored vehicles of war in the ancient world) when we’ve just sent our own troops out to battle? Shouldn’t there be at least a little bit of cognitive dissonance as we read these words? It makes me think of a verse from the previous psalm “But who can discern their own errors?” Psalm 19:12a 

Can I mock the enemy for his trust in military power – when I’ve just won a military victory myself?  History is written by the victors who inevitably give credit to God.

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