Some Trust in Chariots—Psalm 20

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In a world awash with weapons of death, perhaps it is time to focus on the trust we have in guns and violence and threats of violence, in whatever form. Psalm 20 might be a good place to begin.

1 The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
   The name of the God of Jacob protect you! 
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary,
   and give you support from Zion. 
3 May he remember all your offerings,
   and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices.
          Selah 

4 May he grant you your heart’s desire,
   and fulfil all your plans. 
5 May we shout for joy over your victory,
   and in the name of our God set up our banners.
May the Lord fulfil all your petitions. 

6 Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
   he will answer him from his holy heaven
   with mighty victories by his right hand. 
7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
   but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. 
8 They will collapse and fall,
   but we shall rise and stand upright. 

9 Give victory to the king, O Lord;
   answer us when we call.

At the battle of Bouvines (1214), fought between King Philip II of France on the one side and Emperor Otto IV and his allies on the other, Philip (who won) used prayer before and during the battle. According to reports of his chaplain, William of Breton, Philip prepared for battle by praying for victory in a local church. He then blessed his troops, telling them God was their side. Once the battle was underway, William and another priest stood near King Philip chanting Psalms 20, 67, and 143 [David S. Bachrach, Religion and the Conduct of War, c. 300-1215 (Boydell Press, 2003), 186].

Christianity has a bad name in the minds of many because of the perceived causal link between Christianity and war. Religion, the stereotype suggests, is a cause of war. Even if theologians (like William Cavanaugh) have shown that this is not so simple, it is irrefutable that once war is anticipated or underway, the church has often supported war and blessed bombs and battles. Christians have also opposed war and militarism, with Psalm 20 being used on both sides of this debate.

Biblical scholars identify Psalm 20 as a “Royal Psalm”, being one that functioned in ceremonies involving the King. It is also known as a prayer for the king and for victory in war, and was well chosen for King Philip’s battle.

Despite this, the psalm is also a favourite of pacifists, who appreciate the anti-militarist nature of verse 7: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.” These opposing uses of the psalm indicate something of the politically contentious nature of where trust is placed: in God, in human means, or a mixture of the two.

Biblical scholars are divided over the original purpose of this psalm. Was it written to be used before battle, or was it for some regal ritual in peaceful times, which recognized that the king might have to go to war one day? Was it used once, or in all similar occasions?

John Calvin viewed this psalm as a form of prayer to be used whenever Israel faced enemies, thereby rejecting an interpretation that this psalm records a one-off prayer. This psalm is also the source of the phrase “God Save the King/Queen” which features in national anthems and in toasts, not only for the individual monarch, but also in support of the position itself.

The psalm was probably written before Israel had much of a military. The acquisition of horses was prohibited in the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:16); they came later, along with chariots (2 Samuel 8:4; 15:1; 1 Kings 10:26). When there is an arms imbalance, as in the fight between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17), God must be depended on.

The kind of occasion that generated it might have been 2 Chronicles 20, when the Moabites and Ammonites and some Meunites attacked Jehoshaphat. The type of victory God favours is where Israel does not depend on its own might, lest they forget victory is from the Lord (Judges 7).

It is unclear from Psalm 20 itself whether the king had weapons at his disposal, or whether he had none and relied fully on the protection of God. Assuming that the king was David, he would have had an army at his disposal.

Assuming that David had some military force at his disposal, this is a case of mixing the methods of military might and prayer in confronting enemies. This was the approach of King Philip in praying for victory and this model continues to be used today.

This approach of praying to God for a military victory has it critics. Mark Twain’s story “The War Prayer” points out a truth of such prayers for victory. Parallel to the prayer for victory, there is the unspoken prayer for the neighbour’s defeat. The stranger in Twain’s story (unpublished in his lifetime from fear of possible repercussions) puts it like this:

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Twain’s point is clear: in praying for victory, we are also praying for the destruction of the enemy. This is a long way from the love of enemies demanded by the ethic of Jesus.

Those condemned in this Psalm are those enemies of Israel that take pride in their military preparations, without asking God for help and recognising the importance of having God on your side in battle. They make idols of their weapons and their military expertise.

Such people are the enemy, not only militarily, but also spiritually, as they do not recognise the validity of God. So Psalm 20 is not just about victory for those who rely on God, it is a victory over those who make idols out of chariots. Their defeat can be viewed as God’s punishment for idolatry, and their placing trust in human means.

It would have been difficult for the author of this psalm to imagine a situation like World War One, with the people of God on both sides of the battle lines. Such a Christian civil war, like those of the sixteenth century, would be anathema to people who believe that God can only have one side, because God was unknown to the enemy.

In the modern world, when Christians fight Christians, the Christians on one side can only believe that the enemy is mistaken in believing God is on their side; they do not believe that the enemy does not know God at all.

Those praying for victory here, in accordance with the logic on this Psalm, prepared for war while worshipping God. The ethos of this dual approach is captured by those who say that we do not despise military means, but we do not put our trust in them. Alternatively, it’s found in the expression that we should fight as though it was solely up to us, and pray as though if the fight was only in the hands of God.

The problem with these sentiments is that prayer and reliance on God can become an afterthought following military build up. Where military means are accepted as necessary, they are inevitably used and prayer becomes the secondary means, not the primary one.

Where does God sit in relation to these two perspectives? Is there a third option: taking no preparation for war and relying completely on God alone for security? The world has rejected such an approach to national or individual security as utopian. Many realist-leaning theologians would agree. But can this approach be justified theologically?

According to the pacifist interpretation, Psalm 20 directs attention away from the King and his military might onto the might of God to win victory over the enemies. This requires trust not in weapons alone, not in the mixed methods of weapons and God, but in God alone. This third option is where God does our fighting for us.

We have seen this posture in the Old Testament, where God delivers the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus), and where God delivers Hezekiah and Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32:8). Some may see this as prefiguring the way of Christ—resist not the evil doer (Matthew 5:39) and to put away one’s sword (Matthew 26:52).

Such a “God alone” approach to security can be extended to any idol one might be tempted to place one’s trust in instead of God (such as power, money, or fame). However, in a world awash with weapons of death, perhaps it is time to focus on the trust we place in guns and violence and threats of violence, in whatever form. In all this, the final victory belongs to the risen Christ, the Prince of Peace, who rules over all.

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