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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

As we conclude this series that interweaves the doctrine of God with the Psalms, I cannot help but reflect on belief and knowledge as partners in the Christian life.

One of the techniques that preachers use to get into a text is to set the scene. We ask about the what, where, and who, so that we can tell the story and so that we can find the resonance and ask. “How is that then like here and now?” It is a common practice with narrative texts and sometimes even with epistle texts where we ask who the audience was and what was the situation that brought about the letter. But I have rarely heard of this technique being used with the psalms. Sure, there are those psalms that paint a picture or describe a new reality. But they seem more about an emotion than an event. The events are often hidden or implied.

Psalm 20, however, seems to ask for some descriptive work. While many psalms are prayers or songs or shouts to God, this one seems to be addressed to people—or to a person. “What is going on here” would be a great question to ponder, along with “Who is talking in this text?” Is there only one person or is this a call-and-response kind of thing? The truth is, we don’t know. That’s a bit of a cop-out, I realize, but we don’t. But that doesn’t stop us from speculating.

Some commentators consider this a royal psalm, an address from the people to the king. And certainly, if you start at the end, that seems to track. “Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call” (Ps. 20:9 NRSV). The people are blessing the king, inviting God’s protection, and asking that God bring to fruition all the plans that the leader has for the nation and the people. “May he [God] grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill all your plans” (Ps. 20:4 NRSV). The connecting moment, then, would be, “How do we bless our leaders?” How do we lift them up in prayer and offer them to God for daily direction and blessing? How do we do this even when we aren’t so sure we agree with the leader’s heart’s desire? Does Psalm 20 invite us to blindly accept any leader? Are we to assume that anyone who steps into a leadership role is ordained by God to have that position and therefore deserving of our total obedience? That’s a hard sell in these divided political times, to be sure.

So, let’s rethink. What if we’ve got the direction wrong from the start? What if Psalm 20 is not about blessing the king, but about the king blessing the people? The king in ancient Israel was to point the people toward God. He was supposed to be the sign of God’s will being lived out throughout the nation. So, is it too far-fetched to imagine that the king would bless the people as they seek to be the people of God at work in the world? The king wants the people to be sustained in difficult times and to shout for joy in times of accomplishment. And surprisingly, the work of the people is the work of peace. We are not to trust in weapons of war, whether they are chariots and horses or bombers and tanks, but to take pride in the name of the Lord, one of which is “Prince of Peace. “

We can consider, amid all the blessing and working for peace, who the anointed is in verse 6. Maybe this is a call-and-response, and the king allows the people to respond, and they say, “Now (we) know that the LORD will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand” (Ps. 20:6 NRSV). They know that the king is anointed because actions match the purpose of bringing the nation before the Lord; because priorities lead to the waging of peace and the honoring of all people. So, the people add their voices to this litany and trust that the victories – victories of peace and community building – are from the hand of God. So, they conclude by saying, “Give victory to the king”; let these efforts bear fruit; let the nation honor even those on the margins; let the immigrant find a welcome in our land; let hope prevail and joy be seen. These are the answers they seek, the sign of God’s presence in the working of leaders and people.

Is that reading too much into the text? Perhaps, but the words themselves seem to support a broader interpretation than we might think. There is an interesting comment from a Jewish writer on the opening verse of Psalm 20 that might be a signal that something is going on here on a deeper level than we might assume. Rav Kook suggests that when verse one invokes the God of Jacob, there is a specific intent behind that designation. When all three of the patriarchs are named – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – there is universal acknowledgment of the God of creation and all that is. When Abraham alone is mentioned, the intent is to discuss the invitational quality of God. The rabbinic symbol for Abraham, says Rav Kook, was the mountain— as in the mountain Isaiah names that will draw all nations to come and learn the ways of the Lord, the ways that make for peace.

The symbol for Jacob, on the other hand, is the beam, as in a roof beam, the main structure of the house. Jacob was the one who was renamed Israel, remember. The God of Jacob, then, is invoked to draw attention to the specific needs and calling of the covenant people. They are the house of the Lord; they are the people of God. Psalm 20 invites us to identify as the people who are called by God to be the light on the hill or the salt of the earth. We are the sign that God is at work in the world. We are the ones who live out ways of peace.

It is within this relationship, then, that we come to know what it means to be saved. And the emphasis has always been more on what we are saved for than what we are saved from. We are saved to be that light, to be that salt. We are saved from fear and self-centeredness, and we are able to work in ways that align with the purpose of God, which we know from II Corinthians 5:18-19, was the reconciliation of the world. We are saved to participate in that reconciliation, to live out the ways of peace, to build up the body of Christ. Let us be about that business.

In This Series...

Trinity Sunday, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes