The structure of Song 20 has a precise symmetry: the 10 verses divide into two equal parts; the name Adonai is repeated 5 times. In contrast, the content is a labyrinth, puzzles within puzzles. The first puzzle presents itself immediately: verse 1 identifies the composer of the song as David. But what is not made clear is whether or not his is the voice speaking throughout the verses, and even more unclear is who the person is that he is speaking to. The “you” addressed in verses 2 to 5, and again in verse 6, is not referred to by name or by any certain identifier. What is clear, however, are the reassurances and the blessings that the speaking voice offers that unnamed “you”: the key auxiliary verb is “may” in each of the first 5 verses, sounded again in the 6th and the final verses. The speaker is praying, unmistakably in verses 1 to 5, on behalf of “you”. Undoubtably that “you” is an Israelite, for he is commended for his “meal-offerings” and ‘burnt-offerings” (v. 4). Moreover, God is imaged as dwelling in “the sanctuary” (v. 3), the Ark housing the Torah.
Verse 2 presents another puzzle of identity: it is “Jacob’s God” that the speaker looks to for protection and succor. But why is Adonai linked, by the speaker, so specifically to one individual? And why this particular individual, Jacob? Out of these questions comes another: why is the name “Jacob” used and not “Israel” as he was re-named, the name from which the people Israel derived its name?
An answer that has the song itself as its claim to validity may be found in the first verb of v. 2; strangely enough, the verb “answer”. The Hebrew, not the English, gives the clue. Without the vowel essential to form the word “answer”, the word the very same letters spell out is “torture”. The life of Jacob, even moreso than those of his father and grandfather, was one of struggle, of a series of tortuous betrayals that he endured with patience and overcame with cunning. A plea for protection “in a day of trouble” (v. 2) is, thereby, appropriately linked to Jacob. Moreover, Jacob’s struggles are implicit in his very name. The root of the Hebrew word signifies “ankle” (Jacob was born grasping his twin brother’s ankle) but also “crooked”: Jacob used the most devious of tools –lies and thievery– the weapons of his enemy Laban, to combat Laban’s treachery. That the name selected by the speaker is Jacob, rather than Israel, the name given to Jacob by the angel he wrestled, might well indicate that, at the time of the song’s composition, struggles had not ceased for the nation Israel. The root of the word “Israel” means, afterall, “straight”. The pleading singer is asking, then, that the path, the future, for ‘you”, and for his nation, be one of rectitude, of moral straightness.
Verse 6 compounds the problem of identities and sets the verse off from the previous 5: it introduces the pronoun “we”. The “we” the speaker is grouping himself with might very well be the people Israel. Or perhaps he is simply joining ranks with the unnamed one he is praying for –the speaker, the “I”, and the individual he is addressing, the “you”, together become “we”. Certainly the speaker directly identifies himself in v. 7: “now I know”. That is, he is the one who has gained knowledge. No longer is he pleading; now he has the assurance that his prayers have been answered. “Now I know that Adonai has saved His anointed” is his powerful affirmation. David, anointed King of Israel, is then indeed the composer of and speaker within the song. The song that declares his knowledge of and gratitude for the bounty he has been given. And yet the troublesome “him” in the line immediately following poses yet another puzzle: were David speaking of himself, surely he would have used the pronoun “me”, not “him”. One possibility –in fact, the simplest– is that David is making a distinction between his identity as an individual and his role as King. It is David the individual who composes the praisesongs, who is the “I” of their words. But it is the King who is God’s anointed. The individual, recognizing the privilege accorded the King, uses the pronoun which marks the difference between the two entities.*
That God’s “right arm” (v. 7) is not simply an image of might, might that the King would emulate, is clarified by verses 8 and 9: the “others”, in their chariots led by horses, have been defeated by David’s army, but their victory has been due to the Israelites’ “trust” in God; it is this trust which has strengthened and empowered them.
The words that are repeated in the song –Adonai (v. 3, 6, 7, 8, 10); fulfill (v. 5,6); sanctuary (v. 3,7)– emphasize the singer’s sense that his people have merited their victory only by their service to God, that God has not remained apart in His sanctuary but has lent them His might: “He answers him from His heavenly sanctuary with mighty salvation by His right arm” (v. 7).
The word “name”, occurring in verses 2, 6 and 8, is the most interesting of the repetitions. It is linked to God alone: the succession of usage is “the name of Jacob’s God” (v. 2), “the name of our God” (v. 6), “the name of Adonai” (v. 8). That is, from the name of the God of a specific individual, Jacob, to the name of the God of Israel, to the name of God the unknowable –the repetition itself traces a journey towards Adonai who, in His sanctuary, turns towards His seekers.
It is the final verse of the song that truly creates it a praisesong. A clap of sound, “Adonai, save!”, is the only instance within the song of a direct command. Arresting, startling, it blares a crescendo. “May the King answer us on the day we call” is its calming resolution. Repeating the plea, the “may”, of the first 6 verses, the closing line is a near repeat of the opening of verse 2: “May Adonai answer you in a day of trouble” (v. 2) complemented by “May the King answer us on the day we call (v. 10). But “us” has replaced “you” and “Adonai” is now acclaimed “the King”. Thus the allegiance of Israel to God is affirmed, the “shout of joy” of verse 6 ringing out its acclamation.
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-*An ingenious and simple solution to the problem of the unidentified “I”, “you” and “we” is offered by the rabbinic commentaries that traditionally hold that the entire song was sung to King David by his people (“you”, then, would be David; “I”, the priest leading the people; “we”, the people Israel). The problem with this solution –appealing as it is in that it immediately erases all ambiguity and puzzlement– is that it imposes a narrative upon the song rather than drawing out the one hidden within it.