Psalm 20 – Sacrifices, Kings, Chariots, and Other Obsolete Relics of a Time Long Gone

Bible opened to Psalm 20 with Green and Black's organic 85 percent cacao dark chocolate

Today’s passage: Psalm 20

Today’s chocolate: Green & Black’s 85% Cacao Dark Chocolate

Some poetry is very much a product of its time and place. Consider, for example, this psalm, written in the turn-of-the-10th-century BC kingdom of Israel. It’s a communal psalm, meant for the community of God’s people to sing together: “We will sing for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners” (5). The people recognize themselves as “we” and speak to a singular “you,” expressing their desire for the “you’s” blessing from God. And the name of the God in which they’ll set up their banners? It’s YHWH, the Creator worshiped by the Hebrew people.

The passage also refers to staples of life in the Jewish kingdom. First, the “you” who receives blessing in the first half of the psalm appears to be specifically the king of Israel, though I can’t say for sure whether the “you” is just the congregation addressing each other. (If someone knows for sure which one it is, please drop a comment and let me know.) Second, the psalm identifies the king explicitly in the second half, declaring, “The Lord saves his anointed” (6) and praying, “May the King answer us in the day we call” (9). This is the king that the Hebrew people explicitly asked God for in 1 Samuel 8:4-22, and while Israel’s monarchy (as predicted) rarely lived up to the ideal, a good king should protect his people. The throne comes with responsibilities.

Finally, the passage refers to ritual Jewish sacrifices and contemporary tools of war. “May [God] remember all your meal offerings and find your burnt offering acceptable!” (3) the congregation requests, referring to the sacrifices that the Hebrew people traditionally offered to God. Moreover, though the king takes a prominent role in the psalm, the congregation ultimately puts its hope for victory in YHWH: “Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God” (7).

Much of this seems foreign to us in the modern age. We don’t have a king. Those of us who are Christians believe that Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross obviated the need for animal sacrifices, which symbolically pointed forward to him. And we rarely use chariots or horses, certainly not for warfare. What’s the takeaway here? How could this passage possibly apply to our contemporary world? What does God mean for us to learn from it?

I believe it takes effort to apply the Bible to your life while still taking its historical context seriously, and some passages require more effort than others. But I also believe it’s worth it. In this case, we’d be foolish to put our hope in our president–especially given the candidates in the running this year. And we’d be foolish to put our hope in our military strength, or in the technological tools of our day. Who should we hope in? The God who created the universe we live in, and who is setting right everything that’s gone wrong with it.


On a chocolate note, I’m down to the last few bars of my Green & Black’s. If you have any suggestions for fair-trade chocolate for me to eat next, please leave a comment!

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