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Psalm 20

Anyone church-savvy enough to think the lectionary important is likely also to recognize the difference in Old Testament texts between the so-called “Deuteronomistic” and “Jobian” perspectives on the “causes” of human happiness. Not the feel-good emotional state commonly called “happiness” today. “Deuteronomistic” (and Jeffersonian, Declaration of Independence) happiness is a fulfilled life in felicitous circumstances, with promising prospects–what we may call a temporal aspect of biblical shalom. The “Jobian” demur can be expressed, “I did all God said, but God did not give me (or worse: God took away) the blessings/shalom Deuteronomy promises to God-followers. My life is pit-i-ful!”

Partly because we have it so good, and we know it, theologically informed Western Christians today often are uncomfortable with this Deuteronomistic perspective on God’s blessing, or withholding blessing from, God’s people, and human creation generally. Living as we do in a global information age, we know many Christians suffer intense persecution daily, while we live in luxurious comfort. More Jesus-followers have died for their faith in the last one hundred years than in all previous centuries combined. Even leaving aside such suffering, we know many non-Western believers endure grinding poverty all their lives. They live as “deuteronomistically” as we do. Why are we so “blessed,” and they are not?

Let’s not even start on the vending-machine god of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” That’s enough, by itself, to give the book of Deuteronomy a bad name.

Still, one has only to skim this short psalm to see its perspective is thoroughly “Deuteronomic.” The psalmist expresses confidence that he–or the one of whom he is speaking–has a corner on God’s attention, first call on God’s favor. Meal offerings and whole burnt offerings guarantee that God will attend to you, providing “all your askings” (v 5). God will assure victory. Enemies, trusting in chariots and horses, will fall on the battlefield, but God’s people, boasting in the name of Yahweh, have risen, and stand established, upright, setting up their banners. To those professing to love the eschatological world-wide shalom we read the Bible as promising, the whole ten verses could sound quite jingoistic.

Let’s pause a moment, though–think a step-and-a-half further. The psalm is ascribed to David as author, dedicated to David or to David’s memory, or at least composed in a style associated with David. David was God’s anointed king over God’s people Israel. In antiquity, kings usually led their armies into battle. At a minimum, battlefield defeat was a public humiliation for king and people. Very often, defeat initiated at least a year of severe hardship, as crops and livestock were carried off as the spoils of war. Defeats experienced seriatum could mean the annihilation of a people: male survivors enslaved; wives and daughters taken as concubines, household or cottage industry servants, or even prostitutes. The stakes were high. The results of God’s “blessing” were tangible, palpable, immediate, realized and enjoyed season by season. By the same token, God’s withholding of blessing manifested itself immediately, thoroughly, disastrously–and, at worst, permanently. The stakes were high, the social safety net we so often take for granted, virtually non-existent. As Mark Twain said of ancient Israel in another context, “Let us not be airy with them.” They may have something to teach us here.

Much in these ten verses is worthy of emulation. Who better to hope in than Yahweh who, the psalmist was rightly confident, will “answer you in the day of trouble” (v 1)? Though, with Job, we probably ought to remember that God’s answer sometimes is other than the one we were hoping for. (God’s “wrong” answer is infinitely better than a non-god’s “right” answer.)

Deuteronomy or Job? Both teach that Yahweh only is worthy of our attention and trust. The psalmist affirms that meal offerings and whole burnt offerings (v 3), and their modern equivalents, can be made for the right reasons and from pure motives.

Whether the talk of victory throughout the psalm is focused on the king in Jerusalem, or on Yahweh as Israel’s “true” King, the psalmist knew, as do we, that victory ultimately belongs to God, and to God alone. In that regard, verse 7 is fascinating. Translating quite literally (with bracketed words for clarity):

These [trust/boast] in the chariot, and these [i.e., others, trust/boast] in the horses. But we the name of Yahweh our God will cause to remember [bring to remembrance, trust in/boast of].

The psalmist’s petitions, claims, and certainties are heightened here because the stakes were high for him and his people Israel. If we think to take the long view, as we should, we will recognize they are equally (if not so immediately) high for us, as well. In the end, this psalm is not as “Deuteronomistic” as at first it seems to us. It is we who are in need of adjusting perspectives. When we do, the psalm is neither “Deuteronomistic” nor “Jobian.” Rather, it is a sincere, uncomplicated, confident affirmation of Yahweh, the God who hears and responds to the voice and the needs of God’s people, simply because God loves us.