Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 19, 2017
Psalm 123 Commentary
Psalm 123 is the fourth of the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) and the first that is a prayer. Most scholars think that Israelite pilgrims from all over the Promised Land (and perhaps beyond, if this is an early post-Exilic Psalm) sang these words as they journeyed up to Jerusalem and maybe even as they climbed the steps of the Temple. Here in Psalm 123, as the pilgrims approach the earthly throne of Yahweh, they lift their eyes to the Lord’s heavenly throne and pray for mercy, grace, favor so that they can continue their journey into God’s presence.
This Psalm is a perfect prelude to our celebration of Christ the King next Sunday, when we will lift our eyes to the throne of Christ who rules all things from the throne at the center of the universe (Ephesians 1:20-23). But Psalm 123 is not a song of celebration. It is a song of humiliation or, more accurately, a plea to be delivered from the humiliation we have experienced along the way on our pilgrimage. It harks back to those times when other thrones have dominated the vision of God’s people.
The Psalmist opens his prayer by deliberately lifting his eyes above the earthly scene, above the quagmire of history, above those other thrones that have shown such contempt for God and his people. This ancient prayer will preach in today’s world. For one thing, it gives us a marvelous image to work with, namely, “eyes.” Four times in the first two verses, the Psalmist uses that word. There are lots of ways to play with that image. “The eyes have it.” “Their eyes were watching God.” “Oh, be careful little eyes what you see,” which is an old children’s tune.
And, for another, this is a terribly relevant issue. Where do we look for help in this dark and troubling world—to diplomacy, to military might, to politics, to the President, the Congress, the Courts, to our allies, to the United Nations? Our news media keep our eyes focused obsessively on the earthly scene, so we desperately need the corrective of this prayer. “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.” Sounds a lot like a familiar prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven….”
But how shall we look up? With fear, with faith, with anger, with sorrow, with despair, with hope? Verse 2 answers that question with a couple of fascinating similes. But this is where the prayer gets more than a bit difficult. “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord, our God….” Older commentators say that these similes refer to the way servants look to their masters/mistresses to care for them. Such a reading of verse 2 is based on a romanticized past when superiors felt a responsibility to take care of their subordinates, a kinder, gentler era than many of our listeners will remember.
In the last year, I’ve read several powerfully painful accounts of slavery, The Invention of Wings and The Underground Railroad (last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner). Both pierced my soul and helped me understand the residual anger felt by many descendants of former slaves. The eyes of those slaves living in the brutal realities of Southern slavery did not look to their masters/mistresses with anything like trust. They may have bowed their heads and obeyed, but behind their submissive eyes were immense pain and sorrow. Another of my recent reads was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book filled with righteous rage about the slavery of the past and its ongoing effects in the lives of black Americans.
So, as we exegete these striking similes in verse 2, we must take into account the limits of analogy. Analogies help us understand, but only up to a point. We’ll need to take pains to distinguish between how some might read these words and how the Psalmist meant them. His meaning in conveyed in the heart of his prayer. Our eyes look to you, not to avoid punishment, not to gain approval, not to get instruction, not to be cared for, but to get one thing: “till he shows me mercy.”
Scholars point out that the Hebrew word there, hanan, can mean mercy or grace or favor. The problem with “mercy” is that it suggests unworthiness or guilt. Then the prayer of Psalm 123 is like the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 18. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But that is surely not the sense of Psalm 123. Here the problem is not the guilt or shame of the people of God, but the shameful way they have been treated by their enemies.
So, a better translation is “grace,” though that, again, suggests salvation from sin (at least to those with Christians ears). Perhaps the best way to read this is as a plea that the sovereign Lord, the covenant Lord, will bestow his “favor” upon his loyal and beloved subjects. Thus, we should not picture the realm of the slave market or the legal system. Instead, we must imagine the realm of the royal throne room where God’s beloved children lift their eyes to their King and beg him for help in the face of their persecution. The tone of the prayer, then, is humility, dependence, trust, and love.
This is the prayer of a people who have had it up to here, who have had their fill, whose souls are full of it. That’s the sense of “we have endured much.” These pilgrims have endured contempt, ridicule, scorn from those who look down on them, and they have simply had enough. But rather than fight back, which they clearly cannot do because of the power of the proud and arrogant, they look to their King to straighten things out.
Who are these “proud and arrogant,” or as one translation puts it, “those who are at ease (echoing Amos 6:1).” Well, if this is an early post-Exilic Psalm, this might be a reference to the barbarians in Babylon, who mocked the exiles with taunts like we hear in Psalm 137. “Sing for us the songs of Zion.” Or these mockers might be those local officials who opposed the resettlement of the Promised Land in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Where do we experience ridicule and contempt in the contemporary scene? Who are the arrogant mockers today? The usual suspects are the militant atheists who have made a name for themselves by mocking the Christian faith, or the cultural elites who snort derisively at simpleminded Christians who resist the tsunami of cultural change, or the radical Islamic terrorists who kill their Christian neighbors and threaten the same to all who follow Jesus. More difficult to spot and more personally painful are the unbelieving friends and family who respond to tragedies in our lives with that age-old taunt, “Where is your God?”
This is a Psalm for those who have had it with this onslaught of contempt and ridicule. “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.” Note the double plea. This is not a polite, formal little prayer in church, a lovely “Kyrie Eleison.” This is a passionate, desperate cry from people who “can’t take it anymore.” Psalm 123 encourages us to take our anger and sorrow and pain and frustration to the throne room of our loving Lord and ask him to do something.
What do we ask him to do? The frustrated Exiles in Psalm 137 were so hurt and angry that they prayed mayhem on their tormentors, ending their lament with those awful words about dashing babies against the rocks. That is not the tone here in Psalm 123. It surely cannot be the tone of the prayers of those who follow the One who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This Psalm, in fact, does not specify what form God’s favor should take. That’s entirely appropriate, because the Psalm looks to the hand of the King, trusting him to do the right thing. If the order of these Psalms is intentional, Psalm 124 may be the answer to Psalm 123.
The most important take away from this Psalm lies in that image of the eyes. Where do we look in this dark and troubled world? Where do we look for mercy, grace, favor when we’ve had it with the world? As is so often the case, James Luther Mays summarizes it well. “When pilgrims from the world’s contempt lift their eyes to behold the one who rules the world, they find the grace that overcomes the world.”
The Apostle Paul transforms this ancient Jewish prayer into a contemporary Gospel proclamation in Colossians 3:1-4. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” What good news for those who have suffered so much contempt and ridicule here below!
Even congregational members much younger than I might recall the famous words of Howard Beale, the longtime news anchor in the classic film, “Network.” Faced with the maddening complexity of modern life, Beale comes unhinged on air and screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” His cry strikes a nerve in the general populace, and people fling open their windows and race into the streets in a frenzy of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In the end, nothing much changes as a result of their passionate cries. The movie is a parable about how all of our screaming changes very little and in the act of screaming we often lose our voice. The cry of Psalm 123 has a very different tone and, if Psalm 124 is in fact the answer to the prayer of Psalm 123, this prayer changed a lot.
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