Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn preaches a chapel message at RTS Washington on Psalm 20, “A Psalm to Help Us Pray.”
I encourage you to turn with me to Psalm 20. The psalm divides into three sections: verses 1–5, I think we hear some hopes for blessing; in verses 6–8, a declaration of faith; and verse nine, a final prayer for the king. Psalm 20. Hear the Lord’s Word:
May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you help from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion! May he remember all your offerings and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices!
May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans! May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions!
Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven. We thank you for your Word. We ask that you would help us in these few minutes to focus on the message of your Word. Help us to understand it, to believe it, to rejoice in it, and to apply it in our lives. We ask this help from you, for there is no other who can aid us in this. You often tell us that we have not because we ask not, and so here we are asking, will you hear this prayer and will you bless us in these few minutes? We pray in Jesus’s name, Amen.
Would it be strange if I were to ask you to pray for me? Not really. You know that I know how to pray already, but you wouldn’t mind that. Would you mind if I wrote out exactly how I wanted you to pray for me? That might seem a bit more interfering, a meddling with your quiet times, micromanaging the way in which you come to the Lord.
I ask those questions because that’s really what David himself does in Psalm 20. Picture a king who’s about to leave home, his armies assembled, thousands of men are armed and ready to march, plans and preparations have been made. And before they head off, out of the gates of Jerusalem, the king orders that sacrifices be made and prayers be offered. He stands before the assembled crowd and he hears the congregation offer their hopes of blessing, their declaration of faith, and their prayer for him as he departs.
Psalm 20 Is a Prayer Written by David, for David
It’s a psalm by David. It’s also a psalm for David. We have every reason to think this song was used before a battle. Just just look at the words we’ve read. He’s asked for protection. He mentions banners held high, chariots, horses, some men collapsing while other men are still standing. War is a regular part of Israelite life. Second Samuel actually dates an event in David’s life as the time of year when men go out to battle, when kings go out to battle. So it’s a battle psalm, or at least it’s a psalm for protection for David written by him and for him.
But its placement in the Psalter reminds us it’s not just for David, and it’s not just for battle. In fact, there’s something to learn from the fact that the psalm was written at all. Doesn’t it tell us, at the very least, that even great men need to ask for prayer from others? For David was certainly a greater man than any of us. I think we can learn from Psalm 20 that people who can pray for themselves should still be asking others to pray for them. While it would be wrong for us to allow that supplication of the saints to supersede our own prayers, certainly we can ask for others to be supplementing our prayers.
But you may have noticed that the first verses of the psalm are unusual because unlike most of the psalms, they’re not addressed to God. They’re addressed to the king. These verses are benedictions, benedictions given by the congregation to their leader. Week by week, I pray God’s blessing on my church when the service ends. Here, they’re all praying for God’s blessing on their leader before his service even begins.
Our sacrifices are not automatically worthy of God’s attention.These are very practical prayers and very focused for a king going out to battle. They wish him answers to his prayers, protection in danger, help from the sanctuary, support from Zion. These are the most useful kinds of prayers to ask and to make. The best help in any crisis is sanctuary help. I think it was Matthew Henry who said that. [00:05:48]The best support is heavenly support. [2.8s] No source of strength that we can see can ever compete with that one great source of strength which we cannot. And so here they pray to the Lord for David.
Consider too the wisdom of verse 3. The people of Israel ask here that David’s sacrifices would be accepted. Why might they do that? Well, you remember David’s predecessor, before he went off to his epic battle with the Amalekites, and he offered his sacrifices and was rejected for a variety of reasons. David’s teaching the people here in one way or another that our sacrifices are not automatically worthy of God’s attention, that not everything we do gets the Lord’s favor. He’s not assuming that God will take whatever we give. God’s not impressed by us. So they’re asking for the Lord’s blessing in this service.
Verses 4 and 5 continue the hopes of verses 1 and 2, that David’s desires would be granted, that the people would shout over his success, that flags would be fluttering as the Lord fulfilled the king’s petitions.
Now, I think even without singing the psalm, you can tell that the tune changes when you get to verse 6. There, the congregation moves from blessing their leader to rejoicing in what God will do. And these are verses that call the congregation to incredible confidence. “Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed.” The battle hasn’t even begun. “He’ll answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand.” He has not even faced the danger.
Faith can rejoice before the victory comes.Many things make us anxious. Unbelief, as I can testify myself, despairs even before the trouble arrives. Surely faith can rejoice before the victory comes. And that’s what we see here in Psalm 20. And what scares us at first before we go to our refuge is no longer a threat when we go to our true defense and recount who he is and rely on him. Derek Kidner writes, “The fact that the time of trouble has been made the time of prayer, makes that buoyant spirit of verses 6–8 a matter not of wishful optimism but of realistic faith.”
A few weeks ago, I was having a difficult time. I came back from a meeting. I was very discouraged, deflated in every way. I was recounting to Emily all the reasons why I should be fearful and discouraged and then I began to recount who the Lord is, how good he is, how faithful he is, how he can deliver in times of trouble. And we began rejoicing together, perhaps rejoicing more than we had for many months, to be honest. And the victory wasn’t won. We didn’t know the outcome yet, but it was a great encouragement to us. I was preaching that week on Psalm 20, and that’s what helped me that evening.
There are many times we were overwhelmed with news we don’t didn’t expect, hardly knew how to handle it. This psalm encourages us to begin reciting what God can do and recounting who he is and how he might help us against all expectations.
Well, what was David’s trouble? Chariots and horses. The fact is that chariots and horses are impressive. Stand beside a large horse; you’ll feel pretty small. Stand before a charging horse; I think you’d feel smaller still. Stand before a team of charging horses, pulling a fully armed chariot; I think you’d be very small indeed and wishing you had lighter running shoes on. These are the tanks, the armored cars of the ancient world. The challenge was, as I understand it, God had required his people on the one hand to arm themselves for war, but on the other hand, not to depend on horses and chariots. And David’s son, Solomon, was to ignore those commands. But God had called the Israelites at this stage at least in their history, to be foot soldiers trusting in him for their victories.
Most want help from the armory, the psalmist calls for help from the sanctuary.Now, it’s natural, I think, for all people, even God’s people, to feel much more confident in themselves when they have money, power, strength. When we have our chariots or horses, if you will. Calvin says it’s impossible, however. “It’s impossible for him who promises himself victory by confiding in his own strength to have his eyes turned toward God.” And so the Israelites at this point in their history were left without these helps so that they could learn to turn their eyes to God, to find the help that comes in the name of the Lord. That looked foolish. But as Spurgeon says, “The discerning eye of faith sees more in an invisible God than all of these.” “Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we’ll trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Most want help from the armory, the psalmist calls for help from the sanctuary.
With this kind of help, we can rise and stand upright. The psalm ends in verse nine with a special prayer for the king, this time to the Lord. And this too is proper, it’s wise. The king is essential. Because you see, once God established kingship, God promised no salvation for his people apart from the king. The salvation of the people was bound up in the actions of their king. We see that throughout the books of Kings. Their king was their representative. Their life, their cause was won or lost with the king. So no wonder they cry out at the end of the psalm, “O Lord, save the king.” No wonder that they say to one another, “May he answer us when we call.”
This Is a Prayer the Disciples Did Not Pray for Christ, Yet He Triumphed
In the early 1650s, David Dickson, a teacher of theology at the University of Edinburgh, was writing on the Psalms, and he made this important observation: “As the priests being taken . . . together, shadowed forth in something, Christ in the office of his priesthood, so the kings, not every one, but taken together, shadowed forth in something Christ, in his royal office.” In other words, we’re to learn something about Christ our high priest from the office and activities of Old Testament priests. So we’re also to learn something about Christ our king from the office and activities of Old Testament Kings.
It was another Scotsman, Andrew Bonar, a minister from the rival town of Glasgow but in the 1800s, writing on this psalm, who helped me to see Christ the king in Psalm 20. In his book, Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, Andrew Bonar is reflecting on Psalm 20 and his mind turned to Matthew 26:36–46. He imagined this psalm as the prayer which the whole church might be supposed to be offering up had all the redeemed stood by the cross or in Gethsemane in full consciousness of what Jesus was doing there.
On one level, this is a flight of fancy, sort of sanctified imagination, as someone reflecting on these psalms. But Jesus had asked his disciples to pray, and if they had been listening to Jesus and paying attention and understanding what he was saying, what he was going to do, then they could have seen the fitness of this psalm or perhaps something very much like it for that moment, the fitness of this for that. As Bonar writes, “Then Jesus would have known that he had elsewhere the sympathy he longed for when he said to the three disciples, ‘Tarry ye here and watch with me.’”
Of course, every Christian knows what happened. No one was watching. The story troubles our collective consciences because looking at our own lives, our own care for Christ from day to day, and the things that he’s done for us, we don’t have a lot of reason to think that we would have been much more faithful than those disciples were if we had been there ourselves. In Christ’s day of trouble, every disciple could have been praying. This is a psalm which the whole church could have been offering as Christ did battle in the garden and in the courtroom and on the cross. “Pray,” Jesus said. He could have handed them this psalm to pray on his behalf as David handed this psalm, as it were, to the people to pray on his behalf. After all, our life is tied up in the life of the king. Our life, our cause is lost or won with his life.
With Jesus, his sacrifice wasn’t something done before the battle. It was the battle.And this, of course, is the difference between Psalm 20 and Matthew 26. With Jesus, his sacrifice wasn’t something done before the battle. It was the battle. His fight was to somehow accept wrath when he’s the only one to have ever fully deserved praise. His struggle was to endure the curse when he had so far earned only blessing. His great battle was to face death on behalf of his dying people, when he was the one body in the human race that was not dying, the one life that did not need to end, the one man who did not need to bear the wages of sin for himself.
Yet in the midst of that struggle, his friends forgot him rather than remembering him. They were sleeping instead of praying. And for Jesus, of course, there was no sendoff. No crowds blessing him as he went off to do his great work in his day of trouble. No person assuring him that the Lord would save his anointed. No one to say that when the war was won that he would rise and stand upright. It’s a psalm by David for David. It’s a psalm that could have been been written by Christ for Jesus Christ. But I want us just to reflect as we leave on the fact that this psalm is also, of course, a song by David for all of us.
Because Christ Triumphed for His People, This Prayer Will Be Answered for Us
Because you see, this prayer was answered for Christ in spite of his people, so now we can be assured that it will be answered for his people because of Christ. He did win the battle, and so in God’s time will we. His prayers were answered, and so in God’s time will ours. He was raised in triumph, and so in the end will we. John Calvin put this negatively when he read Psalm 20. He said, “We have no hope of being heard unless this king and priest goes before us.” But why not put it positively? We have every hope because he has. Our life, our cause is tied up in his, in the life of the king. Our life is lost, and in this case, one with his life. This is a psalm for the day of trouble: David’s troubles, Christ’s troubles, and now our troubles, too.
That’s why it’s a psalm that helps us pray. It gives us confidence to pray because it teaches us that if God has heard our king, he will hear all those whose lives are are bound up in his. Our hopes of blessing, our declarations of faith, our prayers for salvation, all these are now ours as much as they ever were David’s.
It gives us suggestions for prayer. Just look at these petitions. At the very least, we see we should pray with the psalmist for the continuing success of the king in his kingdom. We can also take this psalm, remembering what Christ has done, apply the psalm to ourselves and to one another. When you go to bed tonight, you can open up Psalm 20 and pray these petitions. You can ask that the Lord will answer us in the day of trouble. You can pray that the God of Jacob will protect us. We can beg help from the sanctuary and support from Zion for those who are failing in the fight against temptation. We can pray for our fellow students that they’ll be granted their hearts’ desires and the Lord will fulfill all their plans. We can ask that our staff will shout for joy over this great salvation. We can pray that as Christians we wouldn’t trust in armies and air forces or better politics but in the name of the Lord our glorious God. We can pray that with a psalm like this to encourage us, we won’t be careless in prayer.
Well, knowing who God is and what he’s done, we can bring before the Lord the one offering of Christ. Ask him to regard the sacrifice that he has made. And because we’ve been given Jesus Christ, we can be bold in this prayer, asking everything for godly leaders, for just causes, for good churches. We can be bold in prayers for friends, for family, for ourselves. And we can be free to ask others to pray for us, even if they already know how.
Let’s pray now. Our gracious God, we come to you, the one who has saved the king, raising him up with might and power from his grave. You’re the one who saved us through the king, and you’re the one who answers us when we call. We rejoice in this. Help us to truly and ever more deeply trust in your name.
And we ask this in Jesus’s name, Amen.