Posted by: religionthink | January 3, 2007

Psalm 20: May He Send You Help From The Sanctuary.

Psalm 20: May He Send You Help From The Sanctuary.


The temple or “sanctuary” played an important role in early Israeli society the same as it dose today. In this particular psalm we will discuss some similarities on the pre-war preparations that the king and people would go through to ensure victory and also how the people participated in this ritual. The temple gave Yahweh a ligament foot hold in a nation that was mixed with other gods and goddesses of the region. So the dwelling of Yahweh changed from a tent shrine to a stationary building. It was used as a religious, economic, and political center. The temple soon became an important center for rituals and religious rites. We read below from the prophet Haggai how important the temple would later become to Yahweh.

You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. (Hag 1:9-10)

In Psalms 20 we read of a pre-war song where the congregation, in verses 1-5, wishes the king well with the strength of Yahweh. In verses 6-9 the priest or prophet recites the following assurance of victory:

Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand. Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright. Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call. (Psalms 20:6-9)

What is absent from this psalm is the ritual itself. Although we find the requirements for Holy war and some of the steps in the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and more in the Book of Kings, we never get the full detail of the preparation the King went through. Psalms 20 could possibly be recalling to mind the holy war song of Deborah in Judges 4 and 5, with its references to chariots and the victory over enemies. We read below:

Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. (Jdg 4:13-14)

So what took place in the temple when the rites of holy war were being performed? To answer this we must travel to the neighboring regions to find an example. Neighboring peoples had profound effect on the formation of religious ideas, ritual, and writings of the early Hebrews as did the Hebrews on them.

We will look to the text of Ishtar and Izdubar or what is known as The Epic of Babylon. It is in this text we find a king preparing for war. The King goes to the temple of Ishtar to get the blessing from the priestess and the goddess. In this beautifully translated account, translated to English from cuneiform by Leonidas Hamilton, we find the ritual in detail.

The richest and the poorest here must stay,
Each proud or humble maid must take her way
To Ishtar’s temple grand, a lofty shrine,
With youth and beauty seek her aid divine.
Some drive in covered chariots of gold,
With courtly trains come to the temple old.
With ribbons on their brows all take their seats,
The richer maid of nobles, princes, waits
Within grand chambers for the nobler maids;
The rest all sit within the shrine’s arcades.
Thus fill the temple with sweet beauties, crones;
The latest maids are the most timid ones.

In rows the maidens sat along the halls
And vestibules, on couches, where the walls
Were carved with mystic signs of Ishtar’s feast;
Till at the inner shrine the carvings ceased.
Amid the crowd long silken cords were strung
To mark the paths, and to the pillows clung.
The King through the great crowd now pressed his way
Toward the inner shrine, where he may pray.
The jewelled maidens on the cushioned seats,
Now babbling hailed the King, and each entreats
For sacred service, silver or of gold,
And to him, all, their sweetest charms unfold.
Sonic lovely were, in tears besought and cried,
And many would a blooming bride provide;
While others were deformed and homely, old,
As spinsters still remained, till now grown bold,
They raised their bony arms aloft and bawled.
Some hideous were with harshest voices squalled,

And hags like dal-khi from the Under-World,
Their curses deep, growled forth from where they curled.
But these were few and silent soon became,
And hid their ugliness away in shame.
For years some maids had waited day and night,
But beauty hides the ugly ones from sight.

The King astounded, eyed them seated round;
Beneath their gaze his eyes fell to the ground.
“And hath great Accad lost so many sons,
And left so many maids unmarried ones?”
He eyed the image where the goddess stood
Upon a pedestal of cedar wood
O’erlaid with gold and pearls and uk-ni stones,
And near it stands the altar with its cones
Of gold adorned with gems and solid pearls,–
And from the golden censer incense curls.
Beside the altar stands a table grand
Of solid metal carved with skilful hand;
Upon it stands a mass of golden ware,
With wines and fruits which pious hands prepare.
The walls are glistening with gold and gems,
The priestesses all wear rich diadems.
The Sar now eyes the maidens, while they gaze;
Thus they expectant wait, while he surveys.
And see! he takes from them a charming girt
With Ishtar’s eyes and perfect form, the pearl
Of beauty of them all; turns to the shrine,
When in her lap he drops a golden coin,
And says, “The goddess Ishtar, prosper thee!”
She springs, for she from Ishtar’s halls is free,
And kneels and weeps before the monarch’s feet,
“O great and mighty Sar I thee entreat,
My will is thine, but all my sisters free:
Behold my sisters here imploring thee!”
The King gazed at the beauteous pleading face,
Which roused within his breast the noble race

Before her heavenly charms transfixed he stood.
Before her heavenly charms transfixed he stood.

“‘Tis well! my daughter, I the favor grant!”
And to the priestess said, “Let here be sent
Great coffers filled with gold! for I release
These maids. Let all their weary waiting cease,
The price I’ll send by messengers to thee.”
And all rejoicing sing a psalmody.
A ring of maidens round the image forms;
With flashing eyes they sing, with waving arms,
A wilderness of snowy arms and feet,
To song and dance the holy measure beat;
A mass of waving ringlets, sparkling eyes.
In wildest transport round each maiden flies,
The measure keeps to sacred psalmody,
With music ravishing,–sweet melody.
The priestess leads for them the holy hymn,
Thus sing they, measure keep with body, limb:

“Let length of days, long lasting years,
With sword of power, extend his holy life!
With years extended full of glory, shine,
Pre-eminent above all kings in strife.
Oh, clothe our king, our lord, with strength divine,
Who with such gifts to gods appears!

“Let his great empire’s limits be,
Now vast and wide, enlarged, and may he reign
(Till it shall spread before his eyes complete)
Supreme above all kings! May he attain
To silver hairs, old age, and nations greet
Our sovereign in his royalty!

“When gifts are ended of Life’s days,
The feasts of the Land of the Silver Sky,
With bliss, the Blest Abode Refulgent Courts,

May he enjoy through all eternity,
Where Light of Happy Fields with joy transports
And dwell in life eternal, holy there
In presence of the gods with sacred cheer,
With Assur’s gods walk blessèd ways!”

In the above epic poem, we see the interaction of the people, also we get a small glimpse of how the ritual may have been preformed in the Hebrew society. When compared to the language in Psalms 20 there are many similar themes mentioned. Although it may not be totally in sync with early Israeli ceremony; we know how the people celebrated when King David returned victorious from war in the book of Kings; so it would not far fetched to consider like pre-war preparations. In the next essay, on Psalms 21, we will discuss the King’s triumphant return. We will also look to the same Babylonian text for possible answers and examine some of the triumphant returns of kings of the Old Testament.

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible: Psalms 1-50. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York 1968.

Hamilton, Leonidas Le Cenci. Ishtar and Izdubar: The Epic of Babylon. New York, W.H. Allen & Co. 1884.

Quoted biblical texts are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

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