Man Pouring Out His Heart to God in Prayer
Folksongs of Faith

Best Wishes for the New Year

Author: Ray C. Stedman

I never start a new year without a sense of adventure, and also an awareness of peril, of danger. I do not know how you feel, but I feel a little grip of fear, as well as the thrill of excitement, as we look forward to the new year and a new decade. Standing at the gateway of this new decade makes us feel very much like explorers entering an unknown land where we do not know what lies ahead -- what perils may beset us, or what joys await us. We have passed through "the sobering sixties." What will we call the seventies when we get through them? Will they be the "shining seventies," or the "shattering, saddening seventies"? It is hard to know.

The twentieth psalm is wonderfully suitable for this occasion because this is a song that the people of Israel sang when the king went forth to battle. Before he went out to face the peril and uncertainty of war, they sang this psalm as a prayer for his safety and victory. It was not just a nice custom on their part, as when we gather on New Year's Eve to sing "Auld Lang Syne" and fill our hearts with nostalgia. It was a genuine prayer, an expression of their faith, a song of trust in the power of the living God who would keep the king and his armies in the midst of desperate battle.

The psalm falls into three natural divisions. The first five verses are the people's prayer for the king. In Verses 6-8 we have the king's response. Verse 9 is a shout of benediction by the people.

You remember that the New Testament tells us that God has made every believer in Jesus Christ both a king and a priest. So when we read Old Testament stories about kings and priests of old, we are perfectly justified in applying them to ourselves. They are designed to teach us how a king ought to act and how a priest ought to behave, to lead us through experiences that kings and priests have, and to show us the way out. On this New Year Sunday let us pray this prayer together for each other, for we are all kings and priests here and we are all going out to battle in 1970.

It opens with a very realistic recognition of the situation:

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
  The name of the God of Jacob protect you. (Psalms 20:1 RSV)

Right from the start there is recognition that the king is heading into a day of trouble. It is not easy to fight battles. And the battles that lie ahead of us in 1970 promise to be unusually severe. Did you read in last night's Palo Alto Times a small item taken from a Hong Kong newspaper? The article was headed: "Words that were meditated upon after having read the comments of the leaders of state and the thinkers of the day." There followed 161 words, every one of which was the same word: gloomy. "Gloomy, gloomy, gloomy, gloomy..." That was all the writer could say after reading the comments of today's leaders.

Certainly that is apropos. We do not know what lies ahead, but we do know that we have never faced such a time of peril and danger to the human race as we are facing today. What awaits us is no joke. It is going to be tough, really tough. I can not sum it up any better than John Mullett, one of our young people, has done in the opening paragraphs of an editorial published in the Sunnyvale High School newspaper.

Things are happening, and they're happening fast: at this very moment, millions are starving in Biafra, India, and Asia. Overpopulation is threatening every country in the world, including ours. Violence is increasing by leaps and bounds. Scientists predict that within the next few years, the world's food shortage will start affecting the United States seriously. Man is now capable of completely wiping himself out hundreds of times over with the pushing of some buttons. Pollution is very real -- the history of the automobile in America can be read by the layers of lead from car exhaust in the remote snows of Greenland. DDT has been found in seals from the far north...

1970 could be a dangerous year to live in.

There are considerably more risks in living today than there were even five years ago: the quagmire in the East called "Vietnam" is taking its death toll daily. The nightmare of violence in America today is killing and smashing many young people, and it looks as if it's here to stay. Crime, and I'm talking about murders and rapes and stealing, is rapidly increasing...

Well, that is nothing new, is it? We know that the problems which have been hanging on the periphery of our nation and of our lives have now moved overhead. The dark clouds can no longer be avoided. And they are going to come home to us much more personally in 1970, and all through the seventies, than they ever have before. They are going to park in our driveways, and sit on our doorsteps, and climb into bed with us, and grip our hearts with the clammy fist of fear, in this coming decade. A day of trouble lies ahead, and there can be no escape from it -- personally, or nationally. How are you going to find your way through? Well, the Psalmist, David the king, gives us the answer. His day, too, was one of trouble:

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob protect you! (Psalms 20:1 RSV)

There is where our refuge lies -- in the name of the God of Jacob. Only God is adequate for the situation. Only he can tell what dangers lie ahead. Only he has the wisdom and foresight to steer a course through all the various perils. If you are not resting upon the God of Jacob, you will never make it. That is what this Psalmist is saying, and he drew upon a wealth of personal experience.

Why does he say "the God of Jacob"? I am so glad he chose that title. There are two men in the Bible who have always encouraged me greatly. In the New Testament it is Peter, with his handicap of congenital foot-in-mouth disease, because I suffer from the same malady. In the Old Testament it is Jacob -- Jacob, the maneuverer, the manipulator, the wheeler-dealer, the Big Time Operator. He thought he always had to maneuver everybody, to manipulate them, in order to bring a situation around to the way he wanted it. He depended upon his wits, his wisdom, his cunning, in order to accomplish what he wanted. The result, for people like that, is always that they are constantly short-changing themselves. The very thing they think they are protecting -- they end up destroying. They always find themselves coming out with the short end of the bargain because no man is adequate for that kind of living.

But God found a way to set Jacob free from that kind of thinking. Jacob had a God, and his God finally taught him, lesson after painful lesson through the years, to abandon that way of life, that way of thinking, and to come at last to trust and to worship. Hebrews 11 tells us that Jacob was one of the great heroes of faith because he finally learned to lean on the top of his staff and to worship. By then he did not feel he had to maneuver everything; he could wait on God and worship, while God acted. That is why God is called here "the God of Jacob."

What do you and I do when we face a day of trouble? We tend to panic, don't we? We want to cast about for some kind of maneuver to accomplish what we want. We tend immediately to start manipulating, bringing pressure, trying to finagle the situation -- like Jacob, exactly. But the God of Jacob is our refuge. May the name of the God of Jacob protect you in 1970.

In the second verse we have the procedure by which the help of the God of Jacob will come to us:

May he send you help from the sanctuary,
  and give you support from Zion! (Psalms 20:2 RSV)

That is wonderful -- "help from the sanctuary"! You who have been studying the psalms with us know that the sanctuary is always a picture of the place where we meet with God. In Israel it was the temple, the place where the Israelite came to get his thoughts straightened out, to get his thinking corrected. There he met with God, there he heard the word of God, the mind and the thoughts of God.

You will recall that in the seventy-third psalm the psalmist is deeply troubled by the prosperity of the wicked, that perennial problem which can still bother us: Why do the ungodly prosper, while the righteous seem to be downtrodden all the time? Why do the wicked strut their way through the earth so that nothing ever seems to go wrong for them, etc. This had upset him -- until he finally went into the sanctuary. There he began to perceive their end. There he began to see the whole story, he began to see the full picture, and his thoughts were corrected. This is what the sanctuary does.

For us the sanctuary, obviously, is the Scriptures. There is where we get help. It is there that our minds are illuminated, that we begin to see the world the way it is, not the way it appears to be. There is not one of us who has not already learned that life is not the way it seems to be, that what looks to be the answer and what we are convinced at first is the way things are, often turns out to be exactly the opposite. Life is filled with illusion, with deceit; things are not what they appear to be. Doesn't your heart cry for somebody to tell you the truth, to tell you the way things really are, to open your eyes to what is going on? Well, that is what the Bible is for. That is what it does. And unless you are in the Scriptures there is no help. This is the provision God has made for the help of the God of Jacob to come to you. "May you find help in the sanctuary, in the Scriptures," is the Psalmist's prayer, "that your eyes might be enlightened and you might understand."

It always amazes me how many Christians fail to employ the Scriptures when they are in difficulty. If your television set breaks down, what do you do? You call for the repair man. You get him to come over promptly so you won't miss "Bonanza". If your water pipes begin to leak, what do you do? You send for the plumber. If you are slapped with a lawsuit, you call up a lawyer. If your tooth begins to ache, you phone Dr. Lazier or, if it is bad enough, Dr. Edrington -- he'll pull it. We seem to know instinctively what to do when some of these physical things go wrong. But what amazes me again and again is that people can have their hearts broken, they can be depressed of spirit, or sick with shame or guilt, or driven half mad with fear or worry, and their Bible lies unopened, its promises unclaimed, even unread. They desperately cast around for some kind of help, when the help already provided is ignored. Is that not amazing? Why do we live that way? Why do we act so stupidly in that area of our lives?

I am indebted to a friend for sending me this week a wonderful quotation of President Woodrow Wilson:

I am sorry for men who do not read the Bible every day. I wonder why they deprive themselves of the strength and of the pleasure? It is one of the most singular books in the world, for every time you open it some old text that you have read a score of times suddenly beams with new meaning. There is no other book that I know of, of which this is true. There is no other book that yields its meaning so personally, that seems to fit itself so intimately to the very spirit that is seeking its guidance.

That is a wonderful word from the twenty-sixth President of the United States.

Help from the sanctuary, and support from Zion. Zion is another name for Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom, the headquarters. In the Scriptures it stands as a symbol of the invisible kingdom of God with which we are surrounded, made up of ministering angels sent forth to minister to those who are to be the heirs of salvation. In other words, all the invisible help that God can give you in the day of trouble, in the hour of pressure, is made available by prayer.

Remember that in the garden in Gethsemane, as he was praying and sweating drops of blood, in the height of Jesus' agony an angel appeared and ministered to him and strengthened him. That angel was made visible to him in order that we might be taught a lesson of what happens when we pray. I have never seen an angel, but I know that I have experienced the ministry of angels. I have gone into prayer depressed, downcast, discouraged, defeated, but while I have prayed I have felt my spirits caught up, changed, and strengthened. I came out calm, at rest, and at peace. Why? Because I have received help from Zion, from the invisible kingdom of angels waiting to minister to those who are struggling through a time of trouble. Does that not encourage you in facing 1970?

But that is not all the encouragement available. In Verse 3 we have the basis and the guarantee upon which help rests.

May he remember all your offerings,
and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices! Selah. (Psalms 20:3 RSV)

The offerings of Israel were the meal offerings, the cereal offerings, and the sacrifices of bulls, goats, lambs, and calves, pigeons, and other animals. What did they mean? Well, those sacrifices, we well know, are pictures of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great sacrifice. And these offerings speak of the basis that he has laid, and of the guarantee which that basis gives us that our prayers will be answered. How do you know that God will help you in the reading of Scripture and in prayer? Because of the sacrifice of the Son of God.

He has given himself in order to remove any hindrance of God's love toward us. In the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus our sins and our guilt were taken care of completely. So there is no hindrance at all of God's mercy and ministry to us. Therefore he can pour it out upon us without restraint, no matter what we have done, as we confess our sins and receive the forgiveness of his grace. That is wonderful. That is why the writer says, "Selah," at this point. It means, "Stop and think. Pause for a moment and think about this." I think the Apostle Paul puts it so beautifully in Romans 8:32: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"

Is that not marvelous? There is your guarantee that God will be with you in 1970! He who spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all, while we were yet enemies, now that we are his children, now that we are friends, will he not with him freely give us all things?

You see, when you come to God in prayer on that basis, you are praying in Jesus' name. That is what that means. "In Jesus' name" is not a little magic formula you tack on at the end of a prayer to make it work.

"In Jesus' name" means that you are praying on the basis of his sacrifice. You are resting on the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that is why you expect God to answer your prayers. That is why the Psalmist says, "May he remember those sacrifices!" In Verse 4 we have the extent to which this help is available:

May he grant you your heart's desire,
and fulfill all your plans! (Psalms 20:4 RSV)

When our hearts have been cleansed by the word of God and by prayer, then what is left is what God wants for us. Basically, every believer in Jesus Christ wants what God wants. We are one spirit with him. And what do we want? What do you want in 1970? If you were to put it into words, what do you want, more deeply than anything else? Immediately, of course, you would eliminate from consideration all the things that you might like to have, because they are not really what you want, are they? What you really want is to be a happy, whole person. You want to be confident, courageous, able to cope with situations, able to handle what comes, and to be trusting and loving. Is that not what you want? That is what I want. That is my heart's desire. And if I could read your hearts, I think that I would see that this is the desire of your hearts, too.

Well, there is God's promise. He will grant you your heart's desire, and he will fulfil your plans. What are your plans? They are the ways by which you will achieve your heart's desire. Have you made any plans for 1970 to achieve your heart's desire, to be the kind of person you want to be?

These plans are really the day-by-day choices that you and I must make. They are not made at a crisis point but are the day-by-day carrying out of those basic decisions which may have been made in a moment of crisis. On New Year's Eve you may have taken a look at your life. You may have said, "Lord, there are some things in my life that I want to be different. I'm going to keep my temper in 1970. I'm going to be more outgoing toward others. I want to be more obedient to your will and your word in 1970." You were caught up in the spirit of the moment and in the glory of it. And in the emotion of that moment you laid your life on the line again and said, "Lord, here I am, available to you."

Well, that is great. No one disparages the value of those moments. But that is not when your character is built. When you make a decision in a moment of crisis, that is just a beginning. When your character really begins to be built is the next morning when you wake up, and you don't feel like you did when you made the big decision. You feel quite differently. You feel like being your same old nasty self. But then you remember your decision that you are going to commit yourself anew to the Lord, and so you do, right then, no matter how you feel. You do the same the next morning, and the next morning, and the next. And that is fulfilling your plans to achieve your heart's desire -- what God is saying -- that he will grant your desire by fulfilling your plans, by giving you the grace to present yourself to him day by day.

In Verse 5 we have the fellowship of rejoicing, which God's help always produces:

May we shout for joy over your victory,
and in the name of God set up our banners! (Psalms 20:5 RSV)

This is a gathering of believers. May we shout for joy over your victory." Victory is never a one-man accomplishment. You do not win your victories by yourself. You might think you do, but you don't. Others have had a part in it. They have entered into the battle with you, sharing the blood, sweat, and tears. Therefore they have a right to share in the joy when the victory comes. You are going to be fighting battles in 1970, tough, difficult ones -- maybe all the more difficult because of the world situation around us. But remember this! Others who love you, right here among us, are going to be praying for you and with you in these battles, and encouraging and strengthening you. So when you come to a victory, share it with us. That is why we have sharing meetings. Whenever we have them we want you to be there and to share some of the things God has taught you and the victories he has brought you. Then we can rejoice together.

The Psalmist pictures a group that has gathered together and "set up their banners". When I read that I think immediately of the scene at the Rose Bowl game. Over on one side was a great crowd of partisans, fanatics ("fans" for short), that were supporting Michigan. On the other side were those supporting USC. They all had fancy little banners, pennants, and pompons, and they waved them with great excitement and shouted for joy whenever there was a gain for their side down on the field. That is exactly what David is describing here. That is what a church meeting should be -- a time when we set up our banners and rejoice with somebody who has gained a victory through Jesus Christ. Written on the banners were these words: MAY THE LORD FULFIL ALL YOUR PETITIONS. That is the sharing of the body of Christ.

In Verses 6-8 we have the response of the king. It opens with this note of sturdy confidence:

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. (Psalms 20:6 RSV)

Why, he has not even gone to battle yet, and yet here he is declaring with confidence what is going to happen! That is the mark of a Christian. A Christian is one who is completely fearless, continually cheerful, and constantly in trouble. The king is declaring that he is not afraid. "Now I know," he says. "You have reminded me of all his promises, and now I know that the Lord will help his anointed." Now, that word "anointed" means the king, the one anointed king. And since we are kings, we are God's anointed. But it also is the very word that is translated "Messiah". You are God's messiah in this day. Did you ever think of yourself in this way? "We pray you in Christ's stead," says Paul, "that you might be reconciled unto God," 2 Corinthians 5:20). Here is the confidence begotten by a reminder of these great promises of God:

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. (Psalms 20:6 RSV

I never tire of reading those wonderful words of Paul to his friends in Philippi when, though he is in prison and chained to a Roman guard, and things look discouraging because he has to appear before Nero and it does not look as if there is much chance that he will survive, nevertheless he writes,

Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage, now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:19-20 RSV)

That is, I do not care what comes. I do not care what happens. know this -- that God will express himself through me, and whatever happens to me he will be honored and glorified." What a marvelous sense of confidence the king has. Along with it he rejects the false:

Some boast of chariots, and some of horses;
  but we boast of the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall;
  but we shall rise and stand upright. (Psalms 20:7-8 RSV)

The world has its sources of confidence, too. But they will not suffice. There is nothing wrong with them, as such, except that they are not adequate for the task. This Psalmist well knew that horses and chariots are needed in battle, but he also knew that if they are all you are going to trust in, you will not have much of a chance. Horses and chariots are not enough without the Lord of glory behind them. These things are not wrong, nor are they to be thrown aside. It is just that they are not where you place your trust.

As you face 1970, what do you trust in? What are you relying upon? There are many modern equivalents to these horses and chariots. You could say, some trust in missiles and tanks but we shall rely upon the name of the Lord our God. "Some trust in ancestry and education; but I will rely on the Lord my God for power." "Some trust in tranquilizers and charm schools but I will rely upon the Lord my God." Here is the note of faith, the quiet, confident expression of a man who has learned where true power lies, the only source of power in the world. And so he says, "I am not going to trust in anything secondary, but I will trust ultimately in the working of the Lord my God."

Finally we have the wonderful expression of benediction, a triumphant shout:

Give victory to the king, O Lord;
answer us when we call. (Psalms 20:9 RSV)

We see there an implied promise of continued prayer. The people are saying, "Give victory to the king, as we keep calling upon you, O Lord." This is the promise to pray for one another. As we pray for one another, God will continue to supply us with that which is needed to take us through the problems, the perils, the dangers, and the battles of the years that lie ahead. Who knows what you are going to face in 1970? I do not. But I will pray for you. I will pray in the words of this psalm for you. Will you pray for me in these same words? Let us pray for one another in this way.


The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
  The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary,
  and give you support from Zion!
May he remember all your offerings,
  and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices! Selah. (Psalms 20:1-3 RSV)

May he grant you your heart's desire,
  and fulfil all your plans!
May we shout for joy over your victory,
  and in the name of God set up our banners!
May the Lord fulfil all your petitions! (Psalms 20:4-5 RSV) Amen.