Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 5, 2015

Psalm 123 Commentary

Psalm 123 is a poignant plea for God to show the poet mercy.  However, this is also a prayer that he offers on behalf of the entire embattled worshiping community.  It’s a good reminder that even those who find themselves under duress should never forget to pray on behalf of others who are also experiencing pain.

The psalmist speaks about eyes four times in Psalm 123’s first two verses alone.  Those who preach and teach may see this as an opportunity to talk about all sorts of features of eyes.  However, the psalm’s specific context of talk about eyes should discipline us.

Perhaps one way to think about eyes in this setting is to explore where people generally look when they find themselves in some kind of trouble.  After all, misery has a way of focusing our attention on our own problems.  So those who find themselves, like the psalmist, beleaguered naturally “look” inward at our own problems and ourselves.  We can scarcely figuratively look more than just a few feet in front of us as we walk through various dark valleys.

Or people who find ourselves in trouble may look around to other people, groups, organizations or even nations for help.  We sometimes look, for example, to various modern medicines to cure our sicknesses or at some kind of loan to help pay our debts and bills.

By contrast, the miserable psalmist looks not inward or around for help, but “up” at the Lord her God.  This posture reflects the poet and her contemporaries’ assumption that God lives in the firmament, essentially in the sky.  They thought of God’s throne being “in heaven.”

Of course, most Christians no longer think of God as living somewhere seven miles above the earth.  We, instead, recognize that God lives in the heavenly realm, a dimension that’s beyond our full comprehension.  Yet we recognize the essential truth expressed by the psalmist’s lifting his eyes “up.”  While God lives in and among God’s children by God’s Holy Spirit, God is in a sense “above” in that God also rules over the heavens and the earth.  While various people, organizations and even nations may claim authority over some part or even all of the earth, the psalmist asserts God rules over everything and everyone God has made.

Psalm 123’s poet’s sense of deep dependence on that God the King is radically counter-cultural.  North Americans in particular seem to treasure the myth of independence.  Many of us assume that we can take care of ourselves and that any expression of dependence is a sign of weakness.

Of course, God has given many of us great gifts and talents.  God has equipped us to largely provide for ourselves.  So we don’t like to think of ourselves as anyone’s “slaves” or “maids” (2).  However, the psalmist challenges us to remember that we depend on God for every good gift we have.  In fact, we depend on the Lord our God for everything we have fully as much as slaves and maids depend on their masters and mistresses for every good thing they have.

Yet James May points to the sense of trust that the psalmist’s looking to God as master expresses.  After all, as he notes, ancient Near Eastern masters and mistresses both recognized and accepted their responsibility for their slaves and maids’ well-being.  So even as the poet compares the Lord his God to a “master” (and mistress!), he’s affirming God’s deep concern for God’s servants’ welfare.

Nancy deClasse-Walford shifts the imagery of the relationship between God the master and worshipers the servants from eyes to hands.  She notes that when servants look to their masters and mistresses, they somehow stretch out their hands in an appeal for help.  When masters and mistresses, in turn, look at their servants, they stretch out their hands to show them kindness and mercy.  In a similar way, when worshipers stretch out our hands to beg for God’s help, God stretches out God’s hands to show favor to God’s dependent servants.

Of course, with an awareness of such dependence comes a fundamental humility.  It’s not easy to think of ourselves as slaves or maids.  We like to think we’re the masters of our own “castles.”  We give rather than take orders.  We generally don’t think of ourselves as needing anyone’s “mercy.” (2) So Psalm 123 expresses a kind of humility that doesn’t come naturally to most citizens of the 21st century – or any century, for that matter.

In fact, the poet’s plea for God to show God’s sons and daughters “mercy” reflects a humble awareness that she doesn’t deserve God’s kindness for which she begs.  This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 123 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on our natural religious self-confidence.  We assume we don’t need God’s mercy.  We’re nice people.  Even at our worst, we’re not nearly as evil as the criminals and terrorists out there.  In fact, Christians sometimes assert, we’re far more deserving of God’s favor than those faithless Israelites who surrounded the psalmists.

Yet Psalm 123, with its plea for God to show kindness in spite of the worshipers’ unfaithfulness brings all of us up a bit short.  It reminds us that we too have sinned and fallen far short of the glory of God.  Psalm 123 reminds us that all of us desperately depend on God’s grace that we can only humbly receive with our faith.  Our eyes too look to the Lord our God till the Lord shows us mercy.

That mercy stands in stark contrast to the “contempt” (3) and “ridicule” (4) the worshipers’ enemies are piling on them.  There’s a strong tone of lament as the psalmist grieves mockery’s flourishing even as righteous worshipers suffer.  The poet doesn’t identify the exact nature of the disdain being experienced.  That leaves its modern relevance open to various applications by the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the psalmist’s enemies are deriding the worshipers for their trust in the Lord.  That would make Psalm 123 a fitting prayer for those who are being persecuted for their faith across the world today.  Or maybe Israel’s enemies are ridiculing for her vulnerability.  Then Psalm 123 could be a prayer for all those who are tormented by powerful people and groups.

The worshipers’ humility is certainly very different from their enemies’ pride and arrogance.  While God’s children look up to the heavenly king, their haughty enemies look down on them.  While God’s sons and daughters live by the mercy of God alone, those enemies live by their own devices.  Yet instead of looking around at their enemies, the faithful look up to their God.

Illustration Idea

Those who have pets understand a bit of the complete dependence that Psalm 123 expresses.  After all, most household pets can’t feed themselves.  They depend on their masters to fill their food and water dish.  When we get up in the morning, our cats sprint ahead of us to our refrigerator where they beg us for a “treat.”  Then again at night, almost like clockwork, they run ahead of us toward our refrigerator in anticipation of another treat.  Were we to cruelly withhold their food and water, our pets would eventually die.

Few people created in God’s image like to compare ourselves to such household pets.  However, Psalm 123’s poet suggests even the most independent people depend as much on God for every good thing as household pets depend on their owners for food and water.

A commentary on Psalm 48 for week Proper 9B can be found here:


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