Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 6, 2015
Psalm 125 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
“Appearances can be deceiving.” Those who preach and teach Psalm 125 will certainly find numerous examples of that old adage that fit our hearers’ own particular contexts. A neighbor who’s going bankrupt may live “high on the hog” right until he files for Chapter 11. A friend who has terminal cancer may look relatively healthy until just before she dies. The evil one whose doom Christ sealed at the cross and empty tomb wreaks havoc across our world.
Psalm 125 begins by asserting that “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” This uses a pair of vivid similes to profess the solidity of those who trust in the Lord who constantly surrounds them with God’s loving care.
Yet very quickly the poet also alludes to some kind of apparent “shaking” of God’s sons and daughters. After all, in verse 3 she notes the scepter of the wicked is “over the land allotted to the righteous.” So it almost seems as if the poet recognizes that it’s the wicked rather than the righteous who at least seem firmly entrenched, who “cannot be shaken.”
The psalmist doesn’t explicitly identify the nature of this “scepter of the wicked.” Yet mention of the “land allotted to the righteous” on which that scepter remains echoes descriptions of the land of promise. After all, God gave that land to God’s Israelite sons and daughters after God freed their ancestors from Egyptian slavery. So by referring to the “scepter of the wicked,” the poet may be alluding to Israel’s exile from the land of promise. Or is she hinting at foreign rule over that land?
While those who preach and teach Psalm 125 may not be able to identify its historical context, we can identify ways in which God’s promises seem threatened or even broken. While God promises to be our children’s God, some of them find ways to avoid being God’s faithful sons and daughters. While God promises to never leave or forsake “those who trust in the Lord,” sometimes God’s children feel desperately alone. While God promises to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens, they sometimes suffer so deeply.
In fact, it sometimes seems as if it’s evil that’s unshakable and eternal. After all, the psalmist doesn’t just speak of the shaking that is the scepter of the wicked being on the land allotted to the righteous. He also alludes to one of evil’s insidious characteristics: it reproduces itself, sometimes even in righteous people. Evil, in other words, sometimes begets more evil. So the poet fears that the scepter of the wicked may induce righteous people to “use their hands to do evil.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 125 can think of countless examples of this. Consider the evil of American slavery. That wicked specter that remained over the United States for more than two centuries induced countless righteous people to do evil. Untold numbers of otherwise God-fearing people owned slaves, approved of slave holding or simply stayed silent while slavery flourished.
Yet in the face of such wicked scepters, the psalmist asserts that things are not as they seem. While evil may seem to stand on more solid footing than righteousness, the poet asserts it’s God and God’s righteousness that finally stands firm. So the poet dares to assert that the “scepter of the wicked will not remain over the land allotted to the righteous.” Someday God’s peace will reign over that land.
Verse 4’s plea for God to do good to those who do good grows out of the fertile soil that is the trust the Spirit has given the poet. She begs God to act justly in a world that overflows with injustice because she trusts that God surrounds “the righteous.” Yet verse 5 seems to return to a profession of faith: God will banish those who turn to crooked ways right along with the evildoers. Perhaps, however, as Carol Bechtel Reynolds notes, verse 5 means, “Those who live in their crooked ways, let God make go the way of evildoers.” If that’s true, verses 4-5 form one prayer that grows out of the psalmist’s trust that God will get the last word.
Psalm 125 closes with the psalmist’s prayer: “Peace be upon Israel.” It echoes Numbers 6:24-26’s beloved priestly blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” With that closing prayer, the poet returns to the themes of verses 1-2: peace in no small part consists of eternal steadfastness and God’s surrounding presence.
Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford notes that an interesting wordplay brackets Psalm 125. Verse 1 asserts that those who trust in the Lord, like Mt. Zion, can’t be “shaken.” That word is from the Hebrew root mavat that can also mean, “waver,” “totter” or “quake.” In verse 5 the poet insists that those who “turn [aside] to crooked ways” will be “banished.” The Hebrew root of that word, nith, can mean to bend, turn aside or bow down. Those Hebrew words and roots are similar enough to create a kind of wordplay that contrasts the upright in hearts’ immovability with the wicked who can quake and totter.
Psalm 125 is one of contrasts. It contrasts those who trust in the Lord, are righteous and upright with wickedness and those who turn aside to crooked ways. In that way it echoes Psalm 1:6’s assertion: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
This psalm speaks to those who are oppressed and tempted toward hopelessness. The lives of those who worship the Lord sometimes feel about as secure as those of people who walk through quicksand. Psalm 125, however, asserts that God graciously pays attention to us, finally granting us God’s perfect shalom. In that way this psalm plays a role that’s similar to worship. After all, in corporate worship God reminds God’s sometimes battered worshipers that God really does pay attention, that God and God’s loving ways and purposes do get the last word.
That makes Psalm 125 a comforting one for a modern church that lives in a society in which Christendom, if it ever really existed, is dead. It also offers comfort to a church that’s besieged on every side in large parts of the world. “The scepter of the wicked” may seem to rule immense parts of that world. Individual Christians may sometimes feel as if we live our lives under siege. Psalm 125, however, insists that since God endures, God’s children, by God’s amazing grace, will also endure.
A few years ago the media was aflame with reports of an 11 year-old perhaps mentally impaired Christian whom Pakistani officials had jailed for allegedly desecrating the Quran. Her desperate plight seemed to belie the psalmist’s assertion that those who trust in the Lord cannot be shaken. Her small Christian community’s forced flight from its homes made some wonder if God surrounds them. To them the “scepter of the wicked” seemed to be in firm control.
Yet a group of Pakistani Muslim clerics and scholars joined members of other Pakistani faith communities to call for justice for the girl. Even apparent radicals whom some might call “wicked” joined in calls for a careful investigation that might lead to her release. Isn’t it interesting how God sometimes “surrounds” God’s sons and daughters?
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