Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 27, 2017
Psalm 124 Commentary
“Whose side are you one?” That’s the challenging question that rings out over playground skirmishes, gangland rumbles, complicated family disputes, and international standoffs. It’s the question asked by Joshua as Israel was just beginning its conquest of the Promised Land. “Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’” The stranger answered in a way that ought to stop all of us short. “Neither, but as the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell face down on the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-15)
In spite of that humbling word, God’s people have claimed in countless conflicts that “the Lord is on our side.” The American Civil War was the most famous and bloodiest example of that. As President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both cannot be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purpose.”
In the eternal fog of war, Psalm 124 presents us with a comforting and controversial claim. God is on our side. Or at least he could be. If he is not, we are in a world of hurt. If he is, we will be delivered from our enemies. At least that was the experience of ancient Israel many times. Even the fair minded Abraham Lincoln attributed the victory of the Union to the providence of God. “If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us,” we would have been defeated. But clearly the Lord was on our side, because we won.
As I said, this is a controversial, even dangerous claim to make. It can baptize the worst forms of violence as holy war. It can give combatants a warped perspective on the justness of their cause. It can give false confidence to whole armies, leading to their defeat. So we must be careful how we preach on Psalm 124.
Many preachers may simply avoid the controversy, judging this apparently jingoistic saber rattling as unworthy of attention in a service of worship. But, that’s exactly what Psalm 124 intends to be—a part of worship. That’s what the liturgical call in verse 1 is about. “Let Israel say” is a responsorial invitation to participate in the worship of the God who has shown himself to be on our side. After God gives a great victory, we are supposed to praise God.
Psalm 124 is not a call to war; it is a call to worship the loving God who has delivered us from deadly enemies. We may wish that there weren’t enemies who threaten our very existence, but there are. We may pray that God will help us to avoid violence and bloodshed, and we should. But when God gives us the victory, we should praise him. Psalm 124 serves a very important purpose in the life of God’s people—limited perhaps, but crucial.
But what about the claim that God is on our side? That’s the nub of the problem with Psalm 124. James Luther Mays finds a way to avoid the problem by translating verse 1, “If it had not been the Lord who was for us….” He puts the focus on the Lord, rather than on us, and our side. If we had relied on another god, or no god but ourselves, we would have been defeated. This slight shift in focus avoids the chest thumping that comes from claiming that God is on our side. Instead, it gives glory to the Lord. That seems more humble, though it still asserts that the Lord was for us. It just doesn’t highlight the issues of “sides.” Whose side is God on?
Another way of dealing with this “sides” issue is to emphasize the fact that Psalm 124 is looking backward, not forward. It isn’t about entering into battle with the firm conviction that God is on our side, and therefore we cannot be defeated. It is about looking backward at a battle in which God came to our aid. We know that God was on our side because, if he hadn’t been, we would have been slaughtered.
The grammar and imagery of the first 5 verses helps us come to terms with the “side” issue. There are two “if’s” and three “then’s” in those verses, though you don’t find the “then’s” in the NIV translation, only in the NRSV. “If the Lord had not been on our side… if the Lord had not been on our side….” The repetition suggests a shudder of horror at the thought. Given what we were facing, we would have been absolutely defeated.
Here’s where the three “then’s” and the vivid imagery help us understand Israel’s certainty that Yahweh was indeed on their side. “If Yahweh had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, then they would have swallowed us alive; then the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, then the raging waters would have swept us away.”
My immediate response to these images was a mental picture of a gullywasher. That’s what folks call a flash flood after a thunderstorm in the desert Southwest, where the climate is as arid as much the desert of Palestine. A formerly bone dry gulch or gully or wadi (in Israel) is suddenly a raging flood that sweeps away anyone in its path.
However, upon further investigation, it seems that the imagery following the “then’s” harks back to the mythology of the ancient Near East. The most terrible thing Israel could face was the chaos of the primeval waters, the very symbol of destructive evil. Israel was up against a force of evil so darkly primitive and brutally powerful that they could not possibly defeat it. But they did and that’s how they knew Yahweh was on their side. This claim is not a bloodcurdling war cry. It is the grateful whisper of the miraculously delivered.
Well, maybe not whisper. Verse 6 sounds pretty loud. “Praise be (baruk, blessed be, in the Hebrew) to the Lord….” Then the Psalmist changes the imagery again to convey the power of the enemy and the helplessness of God’s people. We would have been “torn by their teeth” like roast sparrows or squab. We were trapped like frail birds in a snare. Perhaps that is a reference to the Babylonian captivity (according to some scholars, thus locating Psalm 124 in the post-Exilic period). Whether that be true or not, it is definitively the case that the formerly trapped little bird called Israel has “escaped… out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.” Who broke the snare? The Lord who was clearly on our side, or else we would still be trapped like little birds.
I find it very interesting that Psalm 124 uses such stunning imagery to describe the power and danger of evil. Isn’t that often the case? It is easier to make evil seem real and alive than it is to make grace shine with splendor. We can wax eloquent about the trouble in the world. When we have to show that grace is better, however, we revert to pale bromides. Maybe that’s why Psalm 124, along with so many other Psalms, paints such a dark picture of evil—to make grace shine all the brighter. When we see how hopeless our plight is, then and only then will we embrace the Good News that the Maker of the Universe is actually “for us,” “on our side.”
That’s how we must read Psalm 124—not as a proud war cry to support our particular political cause, but as a humble confession of our utter dependence on the God who is unalterably “for us sinners.” Psalm 124 is not about America or Canada or Russia (as it was about Israel). It is not about Republicans or Democrats, rich or poor, black or white, male or female or transgender. It is about sinners trapped by the destructive powers of sin and evil. It is about every human being who needs the help of God. “Our help is in the name of Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
With those last words, the Psalm moves from what could be taken as partisan posturing to universal affirmation. Brueggemann calls verse 8 a “serene verdict.” After all the trouble of life, here is the one absolute truth. Our help comes not from adam (the Hebrew word translated “men” in verse 2), not from any coalition of human force, but from Yahweh, the God who has reached down into human history and taken sinners by the hand in covenantal faithfulness. Yahweh is more powerful than any enemy of human life, for he is the Maker of all that is. Yahweh is the One True God who brought order and light and life to the dark waters of primeval chaos (Genesis 1:2). Because God’s power is absolute and his resolve unconditional, our deliverance is beyond doubt, if we are on God’s side.
But are we on God’s side? That was the question raised by Abraham Lincoln. In the heat of the Civil War, one of President Lincoln’s advisors said he was grateful that God was on the side of the Union. Lincoln replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
The great question raised by Psalm 124 is whether we, its readers, are on God’s side. This Psalm means nothing for us if we don’t know that. Romans 8:31 says a powerful thing. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” But how do we know that God isn’t against us? After all, the Bible tells the story of the great human rebellion against God, which made us all enemies of God (Romans 5:10) who follow our own sinful desires and the ruler of the kingdom of the air (Ephesians 2:2). We have all taken sides against the Maker of heaven and earth.
How do we change sides? Morality won’t do it. Religion won’t do it. Being nice and going to church won’t end the war. Pursuing justice and worshiping God won’t make peace with God. Only one thing will get us on God’s side. Surrender. Laying down our arms and falling into God’s loving arms. That involves changing our minds about God. He is not the enemy. He is our Maker and Father. And surrender involves accepting his terms of surrender, which means simply embracing the One who entered the battlefield on our side and died as a blasphemous traitor, accused of being on the side of neither God nor good.
We know this because Romans 8 begins with these words. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And it ends with the assurance that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” At the end of life, all those so loved will say, “If the Lord had not been on our side, we would have been overwhelmed by ‘the flood of mortal ills prevailing.’” But “our help [was] in the name of the Lord Jesus, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates better the danger and perversity of claiming that God is on our side in a political and military sense than Mark Twain’s satirical piece, “The War Prayer.” Here’s a part of it.
It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast there burned the holy fire of patriotism….
Sunday morning came. All the young men were about to march off to war the next day. The preacher stood to pray. The burden of his prayer was that God would watch over our noble young men, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset, and help them crush the foe.
As he prayed an aged stranger entered the church and slowly made his way to the front where he mounted the pulpit and stood next to the praying preacher. When the preacher had finished, the stranger said, “I have come from the Throne, bearing a message from Almighty God. He has heard your prayer and he will grant it after I, his messenger, shall have explained to you its import—that is to say, its full import.”
“Is it one prayer? No, it is two—one uttered, and the other not. You have heard your servant’s prayer. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it. You heard the words, ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God.’ When you have prayed for victory, you have prayed for many unmentioned results that follow victory. Here is your unspoken prayer.”
“O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells… help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing with pain… help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief… help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst….”
On and on rages Twain’s “War Prayer,” showing us the horror of human’s taking sides and claiming that God is on our side. This sort of abuse should caution us as we preach on the comfort of Psalm 124.
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