My short legs and tiny cowboy boots barely reached the stirrups. A saddle was between my knees, reins in hands. I couldn’t even balance atop a bicycle yet, but I could trot along on a horse like an old pro. My father made sure of that. We were equine rich, with a stud, a few mares, and a gelding. A time or two per week, we joined other horsemen at a local arena outside Jal, New Mexico, for an evening of BBQ, sweet tea, and steer roping.
Over the years, I learned how to saddle and unsaddle my own horse (“Smitty” was his name), trim his hooves, feed him oats and alfalfa, and—every boy’s favorite job—shovel the piles of dung from his pen. Miles upon miles, over the years, I sat in the saddle. I rode and roped. I helped ranchers gather cattle. I got to know my horse: his fears, his speed, his gait, his personality. He knew me and I knew him.
I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that I trusted my horse.
But that trust raised a question in my mind. I was a cowboy, to be sure, but I was also a Bible-reading, church-attending young man who didn’t quite know what to make of the warnings in the Bible not to trust in horses. For instance, Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” And Isaiah 31:1, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!”
Did God have something against cowboys? Why not trust in your horse?
Weaponizing and Idolizing Horses
What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that horses in the ancient Near East served a very different purpose than they served in my cowboy years in New Mexico and Texas. First, horses in that ancient past were militarized, weaponized, four-legged fighting machines. And, second, horses were often connected to various forms of idolatry, including sun-worship.
Regarding weaponry: in the second millennium BC, the horse-drawn chariot became the weapon of war. At the Red Sea, Israel hymned of how Yahweh threw “the horse and his rider” into the sea, along with the chariots of which they were the engine (Exod. 15:1). (Funny how we still speak of how much “horsepower” an engine has). Solomon also infamously filled his stables with horses, directly defying God’s command that kings not do this (Deut. 17:16).
There’s also pictorial evidence from the time of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (9th c. BC) that his troops were mounted on horseback. Over time, of course, cavalry units came to dominate the landscape of war. Interestingly, the United States has even employed mounted troops in modern warfare in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The horse, in some places, is evidently still a war machine.
The horse was also used in many religious contexts connected to the celestial bodies, especially the sun, which was mythically imagined as being pulled across the sky. This helps explain why, in the 7th c. reformation enacted by King Josiah, that he “removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:11). These could have been equine statues or even living horses in the precinct of Yahweh’s holy temple. Either way, they were dedicated to Shamash, the Babylonian and Assyrian god. Archaeologists have also unearthed many horse-and-rider statuettes in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judea, which perhaps served as little family or individual idols to this same deity.
In short, Israel was saddled with equine idolatry and surrounded by horses that served as icons of military muscle.
In light of all this, it comes as no surprise that God pronounces a woe on those who trust in horses. Not only was this flagrant idolatry in some cases, it was also that more sly and sinister form of pseudo-worship. You know, the kind where we say with our lips, “In God I trust,” but with our actions, we reveal that our true trust lies in power, wealth, influence, or any of the other “modern horses” that run roughshod over the first commandment.
Who or What is the Name?
What is fascinating is the contrast that the Psalmist sets up. He does not say, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7). Rather, he says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
In fact, in Psalm 20, not once, not twice, but three times we read of “the name”:
-Verse 1, “May the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”
-Verse 5, “In the name of our God set up our banners.”
-Verse 7, “We trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Why not just say “God” instead of “Name”?
In the Old Testament, many times the “name of the Lord” is treated as of God and from God but somehow also distinct from God. Like the “Messenger of the Lord” and the “Word of the Lord,” it is a divine person. We see this personification of the Name, for instance, when God makes his Name to dwell in the sanctuary (Deut. 12:11; 1 Kings 8:16). The temple houses his Name (1 Kings 5:5). The Psalmist says, “Our help is in the Name of Yahweh, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8).
This personified divine Name is best understood as the one who bears the name of God, in whom we trust, who protects us: the Son of the Father.
This personification of the Name is in the background of John’s writings. After Jesus says that the “hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), he prays, “Father, glorify your Name” (v. 28). See? The “Son of Man” is the “Name” of God in the flesh. In his third epistle, John simply refers to Jesus as “the Name” (v. 7). Paul, too, refers to the “obedience of faith for the sake of his Name among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5).
So, when you pray these lines, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God,” think along these lines: “There are plenty of people who put their faith in earthly trappings that are designed to promote arrogance, in the ‘horse power’ of this or that idol that nails the soul down to this dying world. But it is not to be so among you! We trust in the Son of God, the Name of Yahweh, who is indeed trustworthy.”
Riding into Jerusalem
When the prophet Zechariah predicts that the Messiah will ride into Jerusalem, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” in the same breath he says, “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10).
The Messiah will be mounted on a regal animal, a donkey, upon which Judean kings rode (1 Kings 1:33, 38). But he will come as a “humble” king. In his humility, he will be victorious, cutting off “the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem.” His kingdom will be established in blood, to be sure, but it will be his own blood, shed for his enemies to transform them into his friends.
This Name of God, who rode into Jerusalem to establish his kingdom of peace, he is the one in whom we trust.
You can hang your hat on it.