When a Nation Goes to War - Page 1 (series: Lessons on Psalms)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

Psalm 20 is a prelude to war; it tells how a nation should prepare for war.

Psalm 20 is a prelude to war; it tells how a nation should prepare for war.

April 30, 2014

Tom Lowe

Psalm 20 (KJV)

Title: When a Nation Goes to War.
To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.

1 The LORD hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee;
2 Send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion;
3 Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice; Selah.
4 Grant thee according to thine own heart, and fulfil all thy counsel.
5 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.
6 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.
7 Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.
8 They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.
9 Save, LORD: let the king hear us when we call.


Throughout history, God has frequently used war as his whip to chastise rebellious nations. Indeed, as we read through the Old Testament, we cannot help but see how frequently God’s people, Israel, were at war. The pages of Hebrew history resonate with the clamor of strife. It is just as true of America; our history reads like one long period of war with, at intervals, only brief periods of peace.

Psalm 20 and 21 are twin warfare proceedings. Psalm 20 is mostly ceremony before a battle, while Psalm 21 is mostly ceremony after a battle. In the theocracy of Israel, these were to be considered holy wars with the chain of command being as follows:
1) The Lord is commander-in-chief over the anointed king-general and the theocratic people.
2) The soldiers.
Psalm 20, in anticipation of a military campaign, commemorates a three-phased ceremony regularly conducted by the people in the presence of the commander-in-chief on behalf of the king-general.
I. An Offering of Their Prayers (20:1-5)
II. A Confirmation of Their Confidence (20:6-8)
III. A Reaffirmation of Their Dependence (20:9)

Psalm 20 is a prelude to war; it tells how a nation should prepare for war. There comes a time in the history of every nation when, faced with the aggression of others, it must say: “That will be enough. One step more and we will fight.” We are considering a nation, faced with the imminent possibility of war, preparing its heart for what lies ahead. Those who have a problem with the military aspects of some of David’s psalms should remember that David went to war only when the enemy attacked Israel. He did not attack other nations just to gain territory and he was fighting the Lord’s battles (2 Chron. 20:15{4]).

Jesus teaches in the New Testament that men are to turn the other cheek, to be peacemakers, and to choose to suffer affliction rather than go to war. But His teachings were not for the world at large, but for those who are saved and in the kingdom of God. Many people have misunderstood this and have adopted a position toward war which is insincere and uncertain. They espouse a philosophy of national peace—peace at any price. They preach appeasement, pacifism, and surrender of the nation to those who would destroy its precious liberties.

The psalm, of course, was concerned with Israel and with one of those wars which became a significant feature of David’s reign. By application, its message can relate to the nation in which we live in a time of world crises when at any moment like it or not, for the sake of its own survival the nation might have to fight. As I compose this study, America is facing threats made by Muslim terrorists, Russia has invaded its former satellites, North Korea is planning another Hydrogen bomb test, and small wars, with the potential of involving world powers, are being contested in Africa and other places. It’s a dangerous world that we live in.


Verses 1-3: There can be no doubt that when war looms on the horizon people tend to become more religious The increase in church attendance following the events of 9-11 would bear this out.. Even though they may have a double standard for themselves, they expect their leaders to be devout. With war clouds gathering on the horizon, the people of Israel looked to their king. It is uncertain whether the scene of the prayer is the sanctuary in Zion or the vicinity of the battlefield.

1 The LORD hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee;

In other words, the psalmist says, “You may be successful, you may be skillful, but are you spiritual?” That is what matters in this time of national emergency. Are you in touch with God? Are you able to pray? In verse 1 it is the eve of the battle, and the people are praying; they ask God to answer the king’s prayers and lift him up above the enemy (“defend”), and turn them back in crushing defeat.

Names are often put for persons, and the “name of God” for God (Deut. 28:58{3]). David calls Him the “God of Jacob,” or Israel, partly to distinguish Him from false gods, and partially as an argument

to reinforce the prayer, because God had made a covenant with Jacob and his posterity, who are called by the name of Israel (a synonym for Jacob).

“The name of the God of Jacob” implies practical trust. “The God of Jacob” is a God of compassion and care. There was nothing deserving about Jacob. He was a scheming, crooked arm-twister, a crafty cattleman, not a bit above lying and cheating if it served his purpose. If I lived back then, I don’t think I would have liked him at all. Yet God met Jacob, they had a wrestling match and God got the best of him; then He molded Jacob, magnified Jacob, and multiplied Jacob. The God of Jacob is the God who loves us in spite of our faults and failings.

To call on the “name of the God of Jacob” implies a practical trust in God. It is saying, “Here we are Lord; we need You desperately. We are weak and wayward by nature. But we are looking for You to meet us where we are.”

“The name of our God” implies personal trust. It is not just a matter of “the name of God.” So often in national life, a politician will acknowledge “God” but he will use a term which is vague, general, and indefinite. The politician doesn’t want to offend Jews and Muslims, so he will not pray “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He doesn’t want to offend the atheist so he addresses himself to Providence. That will not do! We must make it personal and use “the name of our God.” God does not want our patronage, and He doesn’t need it; He wants our prayer based on personal trust.

“The name of the Lord our God” implies perfect trust. The name of Jehovah, our Elohim! That is, He is the God of the covenant as well as the God of creation. He is the God who has revealed himself; who has given His Word; who has spoken in specific, understandable, moral and spiritual terms. He is the God who is not only there; He is known. And because He is known, He can be trusted—perfectly!

It is a great thing for a nation when its leaders are men who have this practical, personal, and perfect trust in God and who are not afraid to let it be known. In an hour of international crisis, nothing else will do. The people of Israel wanted their king to be prayerfully in touch with God.

“The day of trouble” means more than any twenty-four hour period. Of course, the day in the Old Testament can mean just that. But in Israel’s worship, the word means that moment in human experience when the external world breaks in upon our human existence in a threatening manner. We can all look back on such days, such experiences, most of which are too prized to discuss, or held too dear to describe to other people. But there can also come a “moment” when the powers of evil seem to be let loose in a person’s heart. If such a thing does happen to us, then there is only one defense against it, and that is the power which comes from “the name of the God of Jacob.”

“The God of Jacob” is Israel’s Redeemer God. All down the centuries He has rescued Israel from each and all of her foes. So He can be relied on at this juncture to do the same as He has always done. The name in olden days was an exact picture of the nature of its owner. So the name of Yahweh, as we have seen before, means something important now: “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12, 14{2]).

2 Send thee help from the sanctuary, and strengthen thee out of Zion;

The “sanctuary” was a place where a person could expect to receive an infusion of spiritual power. “Zion” was the great citadel of David and the military stronghold of Jerusalem. The one could not be divorced from the other since they were designations for the place of God’s symbolic presence in the ark which David had recaptured and installed in a tabernacle on Mount Zion. The nation’s military and strategic power were essentially linked with the nation’s moral and spiritual power. All the victories of God’s people are from Him and arise out of His gracious acceptance of a perfect sacrifice.

3 Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice; Selah.

In this hour of crisis, the people did not want a king who made vague gestures of a religious nature. They wanted a king who knew the power of God and trusted in Him. The king’s faithful obedience in bringing “offerings” and “burnt sacrifices” is presented as a special reason why the Lord should remember him with favor.

Since there is a “Selah” at the end of the verse, that is, a pause preceded by a blast of loud music, it may be that at this point in the proceedings a priest offered up a “burnt offering” on behalf of the young man seated before him on the throne. Then there would follow a recitation of the prayer we find at verse 4. Human beings can sure make stupid plans, but, says our poet, God can overrule even these and make them into something good.

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