Psalm 20 rolled around in Morning Prayer today; out of habit, I slipped into casting it as a classical drama.
Hearing the Psalm
Verse 1 mentions “the Lord” and then immediately proceeds to “you.” Interesting. So we have on stage God and also another figure whose identity is—at this point—ambiguous; we’ll call this figure Person A for now. The identity of the speaker also is not clear so I’m going to guess that it is our Congregation-Chorus. We’ll see how this hunch plays out as we continue to read.
Verse 1 lets us know that Person A is in the midst of some kind of trial—this is a “day of trouble” and they could use “defense” from the Name of the God of Jacob.
Verse 2 establishes a temple-centric model of relationship with God: God is established in “his holy place” which in the parallel second half of the verse is identified with “Zion.” The image we’re working with is that torus-shaped cosmology where heaven and earth intersect at the site of the Temple in Jerusalem which is simultaneously a building in earth and the site of the heavenly court in heaven.
Verse 3 confirms this temple-centric notion by extending Person A’s relationship with the Temple. There’s history here because now we’re talking about Person A’s past “offerings” and “burnt sacrifice.”
Verse 4 lets us know that Person A has got some difficult endeavor in mind because they have a difficult to achieve “heart’s desire” and “plans.”
Verse 5 introduces martial language into the situation: “victory and triumph.” At this point in the process, I’m going to tentatively identify Person A as the king of Judah as the logical plain-sense referent of this psalm. A quick scan through the previous verses agrees with this: we’re talking about a king of Judah during the time of the First Temple who is likely setting out on a military campaign against enemies–likely foreigners, although nothing so far in the text requires this. This verse also presents the speaking voice as a plural one, matching my initial identification of the speaker with the Congregation-Chorus.
Verse 6 confirms the identity of Person A as the king of Judah with the reference to “[the Lord’s] anointed” and the venture as a military one. The BCP translation of the psalm moves from the previous first person plural to a first person singular “I”; I see this as more of a poetic intensification of the statement of belief rather than a shift of speakers. (I can see the members of the Chorus turning to one another when they sing this line–or maybe a soloist?)
Verse 7 clarifies the military hardware used by the elites—“chariots” and “horses”—and the Congregation-Chorus’s belief (we’re back to first person plural again) that the aid of the Lord is mighter than high-tech weapons.
Verse 8 describes the hoped-for help described at the beginning: collapsing for the enemies and rising for the Judeans. (Is this a mixed Chorus of both priests and warriors?)
Verse 9 summarizes the psalm and provides almost a thesis statement in a concluding position.
Thus, the psalm is a prayer to God on behalf of the king who is setting out on a military expedition. While God and the king are in focus the entire time, neither of them are given speaking roles. On the contrary, the whole psalm is in the mouth of the Congregation-Chorus. Indeed, if we wanted a more complex setup, we might even imagine two choruses, a Chorus of Priests and a Chorus of Warriors who alternate with one another. The Chorus of Priests would begin the psalm and would sing verses 1-4; then the Chorus of Warriors would enter with verses 5-9, with both Choruses singing verse 6 and 9 together.
So—what happens if we then make the Christological move and add another layer of meaning? What if we shift the identification of Person A with Christ and perhaps move to a Chorus of Angels or Disciples?
Certainly seeing Christ in a day of trouble is not difficult as this is his situation once he turns his face towards Jerusalem.
Verse 3 is reinterpreted in terms of what offering and sacrifice mean for the person of Jesus in light of his own self-emptying as described in the Philippians Christ Hymn as well as looking forward to the sacrifice of the cross. The mention of Zion as the place of this sacrifice is both literally accurate but also ironic as the site of the crucifixion.
Verse 4 likewise gains some additional pathos: the “heart’s desire” of Christ is the reconciliation of humanity and God that shall be accomplished by means of the cross.
The self-offering of verse 3 and the journey to the cross in verse 4 then require a reinterpretation of what “victory” looks like. This is no military conquest; on the contrary, this is strength made perfect in weakness.
Verse 6 then dwells in the irony of the reinterpreted victory (note the repetition of the word in this verse). The victory of Jesus the Anointed is in the accomplishment of his ministry of reconciliation that will look like anything but victory.
While verse 7 seemed hyperbolic when following the plain-sense of the passage—we’d rather trust a military victory to God than in high-tech weapons—the opposition between the spiritual and the militant seems much more appropriate when reading it Christologically. Weapons will not help you here; we’re talking about an entirely different kind of conflict where the size of your gun has absolutely nothing to do with your success.
We’ve not defined an enemy (“they”) in our Christological reading and the mention of them at this one point in verse 8 is brief enough that we don’t even need to. Instead, the focus and interest in this verse from a Christological perspective is the language of “arising and stand[ing] upright” given the obvious connections with the language of resurrection: for Christ initially as the first-fruits, then after for those who believe in him.
Verse 9, then, is a reiteration of both the ironic reversal motif (“victory to the king”) and also the earnest hope of the resurrection (“answer us when we call”).
In terms of the voicing, we could see the entire psalm in the voice of a Church-Chorus. I do think that verses 8 and 9 need to be heard in the voice of either the Church or the Disciples because of the resurrection language. An Angel-Chorus might be an interesting addition especially in verse 5 given the resonances with the angel chorus shouting for joy at the act of creation in Job 38:7; alternatively it’s also appropriate in the mouth of the Church riffing on 1 Peter 4:13 (with shades of Isaiah 12:6 as well…)
By casting it as a drama, then, attending to the plain-sense of the text, and then moving to an additional Christological sense of the text, we hear this psalm speaking to us in several voices. Our initial run-through honors the plain-sense of the text in its historical context. This was a psalm of Judah asking the blessing of God upon an unspecified military venture of the king. Our casting options could include a split chorus of priests and warriors as they combine to speak on behalf of the whole people. In addition to this meaning—not replacing it—is a Christological reading which follows in well-worn paths by identifying God’s anointed as Jesus. This reading requires a reinterpretation of victory and purpose—a reinterpretation that seems surprisingly appropriate for some verses. Ultimately, both meanings unite in affirming God’s fidelity to his Anointed and in the Chorus’s prayers for success in these endeavors.