Psalm 20: Praying for Answers

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Psalm 20: Praying for Answers
from The Psalms: Jesus’s Prayer Book
by Douglas D. Webster

Psalm 20 offers a prayer liturgy for the king when the Lord’s anoint- ed is in distress. Psalms 20–23 are royal kingship psalms highlighting King David’s special relationship with Yahweh. These “royal psalms are often typological of the greater king, Jesus the Messiah.”[1] They envision the Son of David as the shepherd king, whose “voluntary immolation on the Cross is the point of reference in the line that reads: ‘All Your sacrifice may He remember, and accept Your whole burnt offering.’”[2] Two horizons are often in view: the immediate distress facing David and the long-range horizon of God’s ultimate and everlasting salvation through Yahweh’s Son of David. “Prayed in this way, our psalm is the ‘Amen’ of the Church to the pouring out of the redemptive blood, when ‘Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many’ (Heb. 9:28).”[3]


May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
and lift up our banners in the name of our God.
May the Lord grant all your requests.

—Psalm 20:1–5

Matthew Henry drew a straight line from King David to Jesus Christ:

These prayers for David are prophecies concerning Christ the Son of David, and in him they were abundantly answered; he undertook the work of our redemption and made war upon the powers of darkness. In the day of trouble, when his soul was exceedingly sorrowful, the Lord heard him, heard him in that he feared (Heb. 5:7), sent him help out of the sanctuary, sent an angel from heaven to strengthen him, took cognizance of his offering when he made his soul an offering for sin, and accepted his burnt-sacrifice, turned it to ashes, the fire that should have fastened upon the sinner fastening upon the sacrifice, with which God was well pleased. And he granted him according to his own heart, made him to see the travail of his soul, to his satisfaction, prospered his good pleasure in his hand, fulfilled all his petitions for himself and us; for him the Father heareth always and his intercession is ever prevailing.[4]

The redemptive trajectory inspired by Psalms 18 and 19 sets up Psalm 20 in our praying imagination as a messianic psalm. This singular focus on the Lord’s Anointed renders either a primitive reconstruction of a battle scene or a modern existential quest for fulfillment as relatively unimportant compared to the psalm’s eschatological horizon. When once we see Jesus in this prayer it is difficult to see anyone else, but until then, it may be easy for some to misinterpret the promise.

We may be tempted to read God’s promise as a blank check ready to be exchanged in the currency of our personal desires. If we lift out a line from the psalm the way we break open a Chinese fortune cookie, we end up catering to false hopes and misguided fantasies. Psalm 20 teaches us how to pray for Christ and his kingdom, not how to focus on our best life now. The issue here is how God’s redemptive mission shapes and inspires the believer’s heart desires. Psalm 20 gives believers a template for answered prayer. Seven submissions (answer, help, support, remember, accept, give, and make) depend upon the name of the Lord. Everything prayed centers on and flows from Yahweh’s identity and action. The people of God pray for Yahweh’s responsiveness, protection, and help. They depend upon his remembrance, acknowledgment, and acceptance. Everything depends on the God of Jacob, who answers “in the day of distress” (Gen. 35:3). Only Yahweh’s victorious action leads to shouts of joy. Only in his name do we unfurl the banners of celebration. The psalmist’s bottom line sums it all up: “May the Lord grant all your requests” (Ps. 20:5).


Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call!

—Psalm 20:6–9

David asserted his confidence boldly: “Now this I know.” This “proclamation of faith” grows out of the description of faith found in the first five verses. The psalmist was a person “who admitted his need of God and in faith petitioned [Yahweh] for help, who understood God’s stipulations for true worship and faithfully observed them, and who recognized the inadequacy of his own strategy and by faith submitted it to God.”[5] As a template for intercessory prayer, Psalm 20 corresponds to our Lord’s encouragement in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). This is how we are to pray for Christ’s kingdom work. We acknowledge our dependence upon the Lord. Psalm 20 invites us to leave the world of our making and to enter into the world of God’s making. We are “in conspicuous need of unselfing.”[6] The Lord’s Anointed is on the throne, not the imperial self, and the psalm begins with the spiritual need for deliverance rather than our felt need for success.

David’s confidence in Yahweh is set in contrast to the world’s resources. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7). Chariots and horses stand for a nearly endless variety of inadequate objects of faith. Writer David Goetz calls these “chariots and horses” in the modern suburban context “immortality symbols.” We are tempted to create an idol out of something from our “flat, mysteryless, empirical world” that stands for something that gives us a sense of glory and self-worth. It may be our bank balance, our home, our SUV, our child, or our job.[7] Whatever it is, it becomes our immortality symbol, the cultural equivalent to “chariots and horses.” But David confesses, “We trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

The dashed dreams of a self-centered world cause the follower of Christ to reexamine the meaning of Psalm 20. Instead of co-opting this psalm for selfish ends and equating our desires with God’s will, we align ourselves with God’s kingdom purposes. We trust ourselves to the sovereign will of God. On the eve of the crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23). In the upper room we learn that prayer’s promised efficaciousness, “whatever you ask,” is locked in to our relationship with the triune God. The Father is the source of every good and perfect gift. The Son, in whose name we pray, gives the purpose and the passion for “whatever” we ask. And our advocate, the Holy Spirit, guides us into all truth. The answer to our prayers is not controlled by anything other than the will of the Father, the glory of the Son, and the wisdom of the Spirit. Any thought that Jesus writes a blank check to be filled in by our hopes and dreams misses the point not only of prayer but of our intimacy with God.

We tend to read “whatever you ask” without hearing Jesus frame our prayer in the will of the Father and in the name of the Son. “Whatever” seems broadly inclusive of anything we want it to be. But we must not forget the strategic transition in the life of the disciple from self-rule to Christ’s rule. This changes everything. Our asking undergoes a remark- able change, because our requests are vetted by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Psalm 20 says a lot about the person who is being prayed for. Such a person looks for answers from the Lord, longs for protection from the God of Jacob, and lives to please God. This person seeks God, depends upon God, and worships God. To pray for the Lord’s anointed, the king, was to pray for the people of God and to desire God’s blessing on the king was to be blessed. We will “shout for joy over your victory and lift up our banners in the name of our God” (Ps. 20:5). The congregation’s benediction for the king underscored the solidarity of the people of God and respected the true order of blessing. The individual was blessed in community. The king represents the people of God and foreshadows the Messiah, the Anointed One. Today we cannot read this psalm without thinking of Christ. Israel’s hope in the Lord’s anointed, the king, is superseded by hope in the Anointed One, the Messiah. May Jesus Christ be praised.

[1] Ross, Psalms, 1:491

[2] Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, 37.

[3] Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, 37.

[4] Henry, Psalms, 87.

[5] Ross, Psalms, 1:500.

[6] Peterson, Earth and Altar, 13.

[7] Goetz, Death by Suburb, 42.

This post is adapted from The Psalms: Jesus’s Prayer Book by Douglas D. Webster. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

A Commentary for worship, devotion and reflection on the Psalter.

The Old Testament Psalter testifies both to the universal human condition and the redemption wrought for believers in the person and work of Christ. In The Psalms: Jesus’s Prayer Book, longtime pastor and seminary professor Doug Webster distills ancient and modern scholarship on the Psalms into theological, canonical, apostolic, linguistic, and pastoral edification to students of Psalter. By focusing on both the most consequential and the less developed aspects of Psalm studies, Webster shows how living a Christ-centered life goes hand in hand with digesting the Psalms as a complete collection prefiguring Christ. The volumes of The Psalms follow the internal divisions Psalms presents:

    • Volume 1 (Book I of the Psalms)
    • Volume 2 (Book II)
    • Volume 3 (Book III-IV)
    • Volume 4 (Book V)

Designed with preachers and teachers in mind, The Psalms: Jesus’s Prayer Book strikes a middles ground between a technical commentary and a book of sermons. Webster offers pastoral insight in both interpretation and application of the Psalms for worship, unveiling purpose and significance for worship, devotion, and reflection.



About Author

Douglas D. Webster (Ph.D., University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for fourteen years as well as churches in New York City, Denver, and Toronto. His other books include, Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation and Preaching Hebrews: The End of Religion and Faithfulness to the End. Find him at

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