Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 27, 2015

Psalm 124 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

Psalm 124 is a psalm of praise for God’s deliverance from fearsome enemies.  Yet those familiar with Reformed expressions of the Christian faith may recognize that Reformed worship services sometimes begin at Psalm 124’s end.  After all, John Calvin’s Genevan and Strasburg liturgies placed verse 8’s “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” right at their beginning.  Some Reformed congregations still place that profession near the beginning of their worship services.  It serves as a reminder that our worship as well as every part of our individual and corporate lives is grounded in God’s assurance that the God who makes everything that is created is our helper.

The psalmist recognizes on behalf of the worshiping congregation Israel’s desperate need for that help.  She asserts, in fact, twice “If the Lord had not been on our side …” It’s a profession that echoes Isaiah 1:9’s: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors …”

This offers those who preach and teach this psalm an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on expectations of God.  Some worshipers claim that following Jesus solves all believers’ problems.  If faith is only deep enough, they at least suggest, God takes all problems away.  By contrast, the poet at least implies that following the Lord doesn’t guarantee an easy life.  People do sometimes attack and threaten God’s sons and daughters’ well-being.  Were God not on our side, those assaults might destroy us.

Of course, as Stephen Breck Reid points out, the very idea that God takes sides in human conflict “often offends sophisticated sensibilities.”  After all, among other things, it challenges the notion of human sovereignty over history.  What’s more, if God takes sides, there’s a chance that God might at some point be on worshipers’ sides.  On top of that, the Enlightenment has largely convinced North Americans that God is a neutral observer who never takes sides.

So those who preach and teach Psalm 124 may wish to explore with worshipers the meaning of God being “on our side.”  Does that mean that God is always on the side of believers?  What about the times when Christians aren’t on God’s side?  What might that mean for God being “on our side”?  Might, as Reid asks, God being “for us” differ from God being “on our side”?

In Psalm 124 the poet asserts had God not been on the worshipers’ side, had God not graciously intervened, they would have been annihilated.  The threats’ imagery is vivid and chilling.  In verse 2 the psalmist compares Israel’s attackers to a ruthless army.  Yet its use of “men” reminds Israel that her enemies are human who stand in contrast to the divine Lord.  So worshipers’ danger presented them with the basic choice between trusting in “men” and “the Lord,” between seeing people or God as the greatest power.

In verse 3 the poet compares, perhaps with Jonah’s experience in mind, Israel’s potential fate to being “swallowed … alive.”  Of course, one can hardly read this without recalling Jeremiah 51:34’s assertion that “like a serpent” Nebuchadnezzar has “swallowed” captive Israel.

The poet also compares powerless Israel’s assailants to floodwaters that would have engulfed, swept away and drowned her had God not mercifully intervened.  Reid creatively combines verse 3’s imagery of “flaring” with verse 4’s “flooding” to envision worshipers’ danger as that of being boiled alive.

Of course, none of the threats of which Psalm 124 speaks seem literal.  So they’re less about the exact nature of those threats than about both the dangers’ greatness and the narrowness of Israel’s escape.  In that way they offer those who preach and teach Psalm 124 good opportunities to reflect on the nature of the threats God’s sons and daughters still face.  They also offer chances to explore the powerlessness those worshipers sometimes feel in the face of potentially overwhelming threats.

In verse 7 the psalmist emphasizes the narrowness of worshipers’ escape from their assailants.  Israel has escaped by the “skin of her teeth.”  Like a bird that escapes a hunter’s trap because the trap has broken, so worshipers have escaped their enemies’ trap because God freed them.  Verse 7 presents a chiasmus that includes escape, snare, snare and escape.  Escape from God’s enemies, in other words, gets the last word in both verse 7 and the worshipping community’s life.

The “escaped” psalmist responds to God’s gracious rescue by calling Israel to join him in saying, “Had God not been on our side when we were in trouble, we would have been destroyed.”  However, the poet also responds by offering his own personal praise to God.  This offers worshipers another reminder that while the most natural response to any kind of escape is to breathe a sigh of relief, the most appropriate response is to breathe a song of praise to God the deliverer.

As noted earlier, the psalmist ends this song with her profession that Israel’s “help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  Whether or not beleaguered Israel called out to God for help, God helped her.  After all, there is a profound difference between the Maker of heaven and earth and the people, both the attacked and attackers, whom God has made.  We live in the history we sometimes make only through the gracious help of the One who made us.

The Revised Common Lectionary pairs Psalm 124 with Esther 7 and 9’s account of God’s liberation of the Jews who were persecuted by the Persians.  When Persia’s “floodwaters” threatened to annihilate Israel, God helped her to escape by the skin of her teeth.  The Lectionary also pairs this psalm with James 5:13-20’s call to pray in the face of trouble.  When their enemies attack them, the most appropriate response for worshipers is to offer prayers in faith to the Lord who both makes and sustains them.

Illustration Idea

The sarlacc (plural sarlacci) is a fictional creature in Star Wars. It first appeared in the film Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi as a multi-tentacled alien beast whose huge, gaping mouth is lined with several rows of sharp teeth. The sarlacc in the film inhabits the Great Pit of Carkoon, a depression in the sand of the desert planet Tatooine.

In the original Return of the Jedi, the sarlacc is simply a barbed hole in the desert sand into which characters fall and are consumed; some are pulled into the sarlacc’s mouth by its tentacles. George Lucas changed the sarlacc’s appearance in the 1997 special edition of the film by adding computer-generated tentacles and a beak that emerge from the opened mouth.

Because most sarlacci inhabit isolated environments and rely on prey to stumble into their pit, they rarely eat. As a result, sarlacci have evolved an efficient digestive process.  They “swallow” their victims “alive” (cf. Psalm 124:3b).  The stomach of a sarlacc slowly dissolves prey into nutrients in a painful process that can last for several thousands of years. Victims are kept alive in the acid-filled stomach throughout digestion and few ever escape.


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