We’re soon coming up on the day when we remember and celebrate Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses and his statement at the Diet of Worms when he said before the emperor when asked to recant his claim that we are justified by faith alone, “I cannot and will not recant.”i We remember those events well. What hasn’t seemed to be remembered and passed down nearly as well was the emperor’s response after that diet. He sent out a decree, stating, “I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood and my soul.”ii
Now, think about that for a second. That is the emperor, speaking about one man—Martin Luther. And he says, “I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther,” and just in case you think he’s exaggerating, he adds, “My kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood and my soul.” If any day ever justifiably bore the title “day of trouble” in someone’s life, this would surely have borne that title in Luther’s life.
So, what did Luther do or think in the years following? He turned his eyes toward heaven and placed his trust and hope in his sovereign God. Only a few years later, he would write to his understudy, Phillip Melanchthon, with whom he was exasperated by his continual anxiety, “I pray for you very earnestly, and I am deeply pained that you keep sucking up cares like a leech and thus rendering my prayers vain. Christ knows whether it comes from stupidity or the Spirit, but I for my part am not very much troubled about our cause. Indeed, I am more hopeful than I expected to be. God, who is able to raise the dead, is also able to uphold his cause when it is falling, or to raise it up again when it has fallen, or to move it forward when it is standing. . . . If we are not strengthened by his promises, where in all the world are the people to whom these promises apply? But more of this another time. After all, my writing this is like pouring water into the sea.”iii
As funny as that portion of Luther’s letter is, it’s also instructive, isn’t it? Sometimes it takes a bold, in-your-face kind of statement to remind us of why if God is for us we should not be a people who mope around in anxious hopelessness in the day of trouble. But Luther wasn’t the first to instruct us to this end of hoping and trusting in God. Years earlier, as David wrote the psalm we’re looking at this morning, Psalm 20, he wrote it, directing his people to turn their hope and trust toward God.
Psalm 20 is a royal psalm. That is, it’s a psalm which focuses on the king. We see the king explicitly noted in verse 9 as the psalm ends with the words, “O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call.” Most have understood the psalm itself to be addressed to the king. That is to say, the “you” and “your” in verses 1-5 are spoken to the king. It’s to be sung or quoted or prayed by the people, speaking and seeking blessing from the Lord for the king. And since it’s written by David, it is written by the king as a guide for how they can pray for or seek the blessing of the Lord on him.
Now, perhaps that seems odd or self-centered of David, but it is actually very humble because the psalm expresses dependence on the Lord. That is, this isn’t David saying to the people, “I’m capable and self-sufficient.” Rather, it is David saying, “I need our Lord. And as your king, I’m asking you to seek his blessing on my leadership,” which would have been especially necessary as the king went out to lead the people in battle. In fact, we read of a story in 2 Samuel 21 where David fought with his men, grew weary, and needed to be saved from death by one of his men named Abishai. That led to the men saying to David, “You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam. 21:17).
Therefore, David writes this psalm, asking the people to turn toward the Lord and seek his blessing, even on their king, as David (and those kings who followed David on the throne) would seek to lead the people, even in times of war. What then does this psalm teach us? Let me note a few things.
Our hope and trust should always be directed toward God
Yes, if you read the psalm, there is much about the king, and I’ll focus on that shortly. But what can’t be missed is the point that with this psalm David is instructing the people to look toward God and place their hope and trust in him. We see this throughout. Notice, for example, that in the first five verses, the people’s hope is beyond the king to the God who rules over him. The psalm begins, “May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! (v. 1).” David and the people knew the day of trouble would come, and in that day, the Lord would be his (and their) only hope. Therefore, they look to God to answer the king and for God to protect him and them.
And that only continues in verses 2-5. Notice that their hope is in God working in these verses. We read, “May he send you help from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion [these are places that represent God’s presence, and so the people are asking for God himself to come to the aid of the king]! May he remember all of your offerings and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices [that is, may he see you as one whose heart is toward him and bless you with his favor]! May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans [again, if the king’s heart is toward the Lord then to pray for the king’s desires and plans to be fulfilled is to pray for God’s desires and plans to be fulfilled]! May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the LORD fulfill all your petitions.” Do you see how this is all directed to the one over the king, the Lord, as the people seek his blessing?
If you’ve missed it, verse 6 makes it explicit. The people’s hope and trust is in God preserving and saving the king. We read, “Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand” (v. 6). Then, they explicitly declare their trust in the Lord instead of their own devices, saying in verses 7-8, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” And, as I’ve noted, it ends with a focused request to the Lord to answer them and save their king. This whole psalm directs the hope and trust of the people to the one who is over the king, the Lord himself. Thus, David is teaching his people through this psalm (and those of us who continue to read it today) that our hope and trust must always be directed toward God.
Now, I know that’s easy for me to say, easy for you to nod in agreement with, and easy for us to move on from quickly. But let’s stop and stay here for a bit. And the reason we need to do so is because I don’t think this is as easy to do as it is for me to say and you to agree with. The reality is, we’re always tempted to put our hopes and trust in someone or something else other than our God. The reason David mentions specifically trusting in the name of the Lord rather than horses and chariots is because it would have been so tempting to trust in horses and chariots. I mean, consider these moments when the Israelites are outnumbered in battle, the opponent has weapons you don’t have, and you know the neighboring nation has horses and chariots you could get, and another neighboring nation is willing to make an alliance with you so that you could double the number of soldiers, and the Lord is saying, “Don’t go get horses and chariots. Don’t make alliances. Just trust me.” If you’re the king, do you feel that pressure? How well do you sleep that night when by all human perception it seems like you’re about to lead your nation to slaughter. Don’t trust in horses and chariots; trust in the Lord.
For us, we don’t feel that particular temptation in that particular way. Horses and chariots aren’t a temptation for us to trust in instead of God. I don’t even know how one could get a chariot in West Tennessee in 2018. But there are many other places and times and situations in which we’re tempted to say, “I will only trust if I can see how all of this will work for my good or if I possess this or that thing that allows me to feel control over my circumstances.”
And that’s often where sin enters in. You can’t quite see how the Lord is going to provide for your loneliness, your trust wavers, and you pursue a dating relationship with an unbeliever. Or, you can’t see how the Lord can give you joy and security when you’re feeling lonely and insecure, and so instead of trusting you turn to pornography, or forced vomiting or starving yourself to chase that body image, or gossiping so that your neighbor will elevate you over another, and in each of these situations, we’re trusting in the equivalent of what horses and chariots held out to the ancient Israelite—a means of saying, “Maybe this will provide for me what I just can’t trust the Lord to provide.”
In other words, Psalm 20 is saying, “Fight the fight of faith,” or maybe we should say, “Fight the fight for faith.” The battle is one of trust. And every pursuit of sin begins with a refusal to trust the Lord and obey in faith.
But you could respond by saying, “How do I actually fight to trust the Lord in the moment of temptation?” That’s a good question. It’s not like trust in God just automatically rises to the surface at each point we call upon ourselves to trust in him. But I do think the text guides us in answering this question as well. Notice how David begins the psalm saying, “May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you” (v. 1).
Why mention Jacob? He doesn’t refer to the Lord as the God of Jacob throughout the rest of the psalm. He could have said the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, why Jacob? Well, we can’t be sure, but the mere mention of Jacob makes us go back and think about his life. It was one of constant struggle, wasn’t it? The “day of trouble” seemed often present with him. And after all of the ups and downs (and more downs), the Lord holds on to him and shows him he’s with him, and blesses him. And this brings us to Genesis 35:1-3 where we read, “God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau’ [i.e. who proved himself trustworthy in your day of trouble]. So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress [that’s the same word as “trouble” in Psalm 20:1] and has been with me wherever I have gone.”
In other words, David is saying, “As you pray for me in the day of trouble as I lead our nation, and we are going to war or find ourselves in some other day of trouble, look to and trust in the Lord, the very one who answered Jacob in his day of trouble and was present with him.” David is instructing us to remember how God has always proven himself trustworthy. And that is one key way we fight in the moment of temptation not to trust our God. We remember how he has proven himself trustworthy again and again in the previous days of trouble. If you have to put notes on your wall, read in a journal where you’ve written of God’s faithfulness, make your computer or phone password something that reminds you of God’s faithfulness in showing himself trustworthy, or whatever it is, here is a key element in fighting the fight for faith—we remember that we’re praying to the God of Jacob, the God who “answers me in the day of trouble and has been with me wherever I have gone,” as Jacob said.
And of course, this is why we are a people who allow the gospel to consume our thoughts and words. It is because there is no clearer evidence of God’s trustworthiness than that while we were weak, while we were enemies, God sent his Son to live, die, and be raised for us. Maybe in the day of trouble you want to remind yourself of what our Lord has done by memorizing and quoting to yourself Revelation 1:5 where our Lord reveals himself to his suffering people as the one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” That is one in whom we should trust. And that is the truth that runs throughout this psalm, namely, that we must direct our hope and trust toward God at all times. But there is another key theme that is hard to miss—our hope is wrapped up in God’s King.
Our hope is wrapped up in God’s King
Throughout the Old Testament there is this theme of representation for the people in their king. We could trace this all the way back to Adam, who is put in the garden as a priest-king, and when he sins it affects everyone in him (which happens to be all of his). His action as a representational figure affects us.
But it’s not contained to those early chapters of Genesis. We also see the people’s hope wrapped up in their king in Israel’s history. When the king trusts and obeys God, the people are blessed. When he demonstrates unbelief and disobeys God, the people bear judgment. Remember, for example, David with the census? He decided to number the people of Israel, it displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent pestilence upon all of Israel. David even recognizes his representational nature, saying to the Lord in 1 Chronicles 21:17, “Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done?” But, again, this is the reason why it is so crucial that the king walk well before the Lord and such a travesty when the kings don’t.
And this is the story of Israel’s history, isn’t it? A good king, and the people are blessed. A bad king, and the people are cursed. And this is why David can pen this psalm for the people to read, memorize, and sing (and they are the ones singing—note the “we” in v. 5). It’s because he knew that their blessing was wrapped up in his success as king. This is why the people would “shout for joy over your salvation.” It’s why they’re calling out to the Lord, “O LORD, save the king.”
Notice, as well, how the psalm instructs them to point to the king’s obedience in their pleas to the Lord. In verse 2 they ask for the Lord to come with his presence and deliver their king in the day of trouble before asking in verse 3 that the Lord remembers all of the king’s “offerings” and “burnt sacrifices.” That is, David is saying, “As you turn your trust to the Lord, asking for blessing up on his king, hold up to the Lord the king’s obedience in offering sacrifices and burnt offerings as God has commanded.”
And wouldn’t that be a glorious day when the people of Israel were set for battle, and the people began to sing Psalm 20, looking to David, knowing he is a man after God’s own heart, and saying, “Lord, remember our king who has obediently served you.” How thankful they would have been on that day to pray for and look to their obedient king who serves as a representative of the people before God.
But, I think we all know that such a moment would have been an exception in Israel’s history. More often than not, Psalm 20 simply would have felt empty and even self-condemning on the lips of an ancient Israelite. Can you imagine them praying, “Lord, remember the obedience of Solomon as he has taken many foreign wives, or Manesseh who, well, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, or Amon who also did evil, or Jehoiakim who . . . well, Lord, can we just get a better king?” And that’s the main point of Psalm 20, isn’t it?
Do you remember Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. He quotes David’s writing in Psalm 16 about the Lord being with him, not abandoning him, or allowing him to see corruption, and then Peter says that David was ultimately pointing beyond himself. He says, “Bring therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:30-32). That’s what is going on in Psalm 20.
David writes this Psalm as a prophet. Sure, it would have been a good and right psalm for the people to sing and pray as David or Solomon or anyone else led the people to battle in the day of trouble. It would have been right and good for the people to acknowledge that their hope was wrapped up in God’s king over them and for them to ask God to answer him, protect him, remember his obedience, grant him his heart’s desires, bring him salvation, and save the king. It would have reflected their hope in God. But ultimately David is pointing the people to look for a king for whom Psalm 20 would be fitting.
And, brothers and sisters, that King has come. From David’s own line, Christ lived many days of trouble. He offered up loud cries and tears, and he was heard. The Lord answered him in the day of trouble by raising him from the dead. He was not merely obedient in offerings and burnt sacrifices, he was obedient to the point of offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins on the cross. And his Father delivered him in that day of trouble, bringing salvation. The confident declaration of Psalm 20:6 that the Lord will save his anointed on, we can say, has indeed happened. And, get this, he is our King, our representative before God.
And this has huge ramifications for us. It means that when you and I turn to our Father in prayer, we get to approach him with our perfectly obedient, victorious, glorious King representing us. We get to say, “I come to you Father, in Jesus’ name, knowing your pleasure and delight in me because my King is your Son in whom your soul delights.” We can trust God to fulfill his every promise and give us what we need because our King is not merely one after God’s own heart but God the Son who is perfectly righteous in every way. He is the second Adam who is perfectly obedient and represents all in him. Therefore, in the day of trouble, we trust in our God with confidence, setting our eyes on our glorious King who represents us. We get to live our lives, run to our God in prayer, and trust in our God, knowing that our hope is wrapped up in a King who loves us, died for us, rose for us, and now sits at God’s right hand interceding for us. We never have to shrink back from approaching the throne of our God in boldness as we run to him and put our trust in him.
Since I began with Luther, let me end with what is perhaps my favorite Luther quote that captures the confident hope we can have in the day of trouble because Christ is our representative king. Luther writes, “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’”iv And Luther is right because Christ is our King. Let us then remember our King now as we come to the table. Amen.
i Heiko Oberman, Luther Man between God and the Devil, Trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 29.
iii Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Vol. 18 of Library of Christian Classics, ed. Theodore G. Trappert (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 147.
iv Ibid., 87.