The Source of Our Security
Pope John Paul II offered his reflections on Psalm 20 during his general audience March 10 as he continued his catechesis on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer.
Psalm 20, the Holy Father said, is a solemn liturgical prayer asking the Lord to grant the king victory over his enemies. Faced with the threat of an advancing army of horse-men and chariots, the king and his people choose not to trust in the strength of their armies. Instead, they place their trust in the Lord.
“The king and the people will overcome them with their trust in the Lord,” John Paul noted, “who sides with the weak, the oppressed and those who are victims of arrogant conquerors.” The Pope pointed out that our Christian tradition has applied this psalm to Christ the King, who has triumphed over evil to offer his people salvation.
Even though war is a central theme in Psalm 20, the Holy Father said the psalm is nonetheless a call to overcome evil not by violence but by the power of faith and forgiveness: “Christ comes into the world not with armies but with the power of the Spirit and launches a decisive attack against evil and the abuse of power, against arrogant behavior and pride, and against all deceit and self-centeredness.”
The final invocation, “Lord, grant victory to the king, answer when we call upon you,” reveals the origin of Psalm 20, which we just heard and upon which we will now reflect. It is a royal psalm of ancient Israel, which was proclaimed in the Temple of Zion during a solemn worship service. In it, a plea is made for God's blessing upon the king, especially in this “time of distress” (see verse 2), a time in which the whole nation is prey to deep anxiety as it faces the nightmare of a war. In fact, reference is made to chariots and horses (see verse 8) that seem to be advancing on the horizon; the king and the people will overcome them with their trust in the Lord, who sides with the weak, the oppressed and those who are victims of arrogant conquerors.
Christ the King
It is easy to understand why our Christian tradition has transformed this psalm into a hymn to Christ the King, the “anointed” one par excellence, and the “Messiah” (see verse 7). He comes into the world not with armies but with the power of the Spirit and launches a decisive attack against evil and the abuse of power, against arrogant behavior and pride, and against all deceit and self-centeredness. Christ's words to Pilate, who is a symbol of earthly imperial power, resound in our ears: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).
Examining the plot of this psalm, we notice it reveals traces of the liturgy that was celebrated in the Temple of Jerusalem. The sons and daughters of Israel are at the center of the stage, praying for their king, the leader of their nation. Moreover, at the beginning, we catch a glimpse of a sacrificial rite along the lines of the various sacrifices and holocausts the king offered to the “God of Jacob” (see verse 2), who does not abandon his “anointed” (see verse 7) but protects him and sustains him.
The Lord Is Our Security
This prayer is characterized by the conviction that the Lord is the source of security: He is the one who responds to the confident desire of the king and of the entire community, to whom he is bound by a covenant. The climate, of course, is the climate of any warlike event, with all the fears and all the risks war entails. Thus, the word of God is not some abstract message but a voice that adapts itself to the misfortunes of mankind, whether small or great. For this reason, this psalm incorporates some military language along with the atmosphere of war that prevailed in Israel at the time (see verse 6), thereby reflecting the feelings of a man who is in trouble.
In the text of the psalm, verse 7 signals a turning point. The preceding verses express a series of clear requests addressed to God (see verses 2-5), but verse 7 expresses a certainty that God has heard his prayer: “Now I know victory is given to the anointed of the Lord. God will answer him from the holy heavens.” The psalm does not specify the sign by which he has come to know this.
However, it does express a clear contrast between the situation of the enemy, who is trusting in his material resources of horses and chariots, and the situation of the Israelites, who put their trust in God and will, therefore, be victorious. It is reminiscent of the famous passage with David and Goliath: the young Jew opposed the weapons and the arrogant behavior of the Philistine warrior by calling on the name of the Lord, who protects the weak and defenseless. In fact, David tells Goliath: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts … it is not by my sword or spear that the Lord saves. For the battle is the Lord's …” (1 Samuel 17:45 and 47).
A Call to Peace
Even though this psalm is historically and concretely associated with war, it can become an invitation to never let ourselves be lured by an attraction to violence. Even Isaiah exclaimed: “Woe to those … who put their trust in chariots because of their number, and horsemen because of their combined power, but look not to the Holy One of Israel nor seek the Lord!” (Isaiah 31:1).
The just overcome every form of iniquity with faith, kindness and forgiveness, and by offering peace. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” the Apostle Paul admonished Christians. “Be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.” In commenting on this psalm, Eusebius of Caesarea, a historian of the early Church who lived between the third and fourth centuries, broadened its scope to include the evil of death, which Christians are able to conquer through what Christ has done for them: “All adverse powers and the enemies of God, both visible and invisible — faces that are fleeing from the Savior himself — will fall. But all those who receive salvation will rise again from their former ruin. It is for this reason that Simeon said: ‘He is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel,’ that is to say, for the fall of his adversaries and his enemies and for the rise of all those who, once fallen, have now been resurrected by him” (PG 23, 197).
- March 21-27, 2004