Digging into the Text:
Psalm 124 is again one of that special collection of Psalms called “Songs of Ascent.” These Psalms were associated especially with the liturgical life of Israel during the pilgrim feasts in which the people traveled to Jerusalem and its Temple. It’s clear that this Psalm has a liturgical setting. It begins, “Let Israel now say,” and ends with a confession of complete dependence on Jahweh.
Another indication of the Psalm’s liturgical usage is that it is not a list of actual historical incidents in which Israel triumphed over its enemies. It uses evocative poetic imagery to describe times of intense danger and the miracle of God’s deliverance. That poetic language makes it a useful liturgical element for a wide variety of times and places.
The NRSV translates verse 2: “when our enemies attacked us.” The actual Hebrew word is not the one for enemies, but Adam, mankind, people. This also implies that the message of the Psalm does not just point to Israel’s historical battles with its enemies. In his commentary on the Psalms, James L. Mays writes,
The word adam is used here as in Psalm 10:19; it is a collective noun for Israel’s enemy, the nations in their humanness. The enemies are “man” in contrast to the Lord. The danger was of the quality and kind that posed the basic choice of existence in history, the choice between trusting God or man as the decisive power. “If it had not been the Lord who was for us…!” That is what pilgrims must and may say as the truth about themselves.
This Psalm, therefore can be said by all God’s people, no matter what their circumstances. We all face times of intense hostility from others, moments in which we feel swept away by a flood of pain, grief, or betrayal. It is the stuff of life in the world.
Pastors should be aware that some people get stuck in such confessions of the Lord’s deliverance because they vividly and painfully recall moments of seeming abandonment, times in which prayers for deliverance seem unanswered, experiences in which the flood did overwhelm. How can we sing this Psalm in the dark? How can we confess God’s deliverance when we or those we loved were “swallowed alive?”
It’s important for the preacher to keep these people in mind, and not just riff on the wonders of God’s deliverance. One thing we might point out is that this in the genre of the wisdom literature of Israel. For example, in Proverbs we read, “Train children in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.” (22:6) That is not meant as a promise to all faithful parents of their children’s future. Like all wisdom sayings, it reflects a general truth that we see in the world.
So too, the deliverance for which this Psalm gives thanks, does not preclude moments in which disaster did come, enemies did triumph, and the flood of misfortune did overwhelm. A quick look at Israel’s history will reveal that truth.
The Psalm declares that our only true and lasting help comes from the Lord. We cannot rely on human devices, or governments to deliver us. We cannot be assured that no disaster will befall us. Yet, God’s people can faithfully confess that “Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as a prey to their teeth.” It looks at our lives through the eyes of faith and the promise of God’s covenant faithfulness. No matter what, God is our help and salvation, not any human person or institution.
Ultimately, Christians read this Psalm, like all the rest, in the light of Christ. He is our help and shield, and in his cosmic victory over sin and death on the cross and in his resurrection no human power can overwhelm us. As Keith Getty writes in his widely acclaimed hymn “In Christ Alone,”
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The confession that God is the creator of all things in heaven and earth, offers us hope because God’s wisdom encompasses time and eternity, God’s power dwarfs all human power. He is our source and maker and is therefore above all earthly powers. God alone is worthy of our trust and confidence.
Preaching the Text
1). Psalm 124: 8 was a favorite text of John Calvin. In both his Strasbourg and Genevan liturgies for the Lord Day, the service began with the words, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Calvin believed that this wonderful sentence expressed the deepest truth about the congregation gathered for worship. It is similar to the words of Peter in John 6: 68, “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It is also significant that this phrase should be said at the beginning of worship. It expresses Calvin’s profound understanding of worship. We often think of our worship as something we do for God. Worshipping God is impossible in our own human strength and understanding. Even our worship is utterly dependent on God’s help through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We do not come into God’s presence in our own strength or because of our own merit, but because of his saving grace and only with his sustaining help. We are gathered not as the righteous, but as the sinners redeemed in Christ. Yet despite our unworthiness, we appear in God’s courts with confidence. He has no need of our worship, but he delights in it. The almighty Creator of the universe is present wherever his people gather in his name—and thus we can say, not only in acknowledgment of our need but also in joyful assurance, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
This prayer from Calvin could well be used before every worship service:
Grant, Almighty God, that we may learn, whether in want or in abundance, to submit ourselves to you, that it may be our only and perfect source of happiness to depend on you and to rest in your salvation, the experience of which you have already given us, until we shall reach that eternal rest, where we shall enjoy it in all its fullness, when made partakers of that glory which has been procured for us by the blood of your only begotten Son. Amen.
2). It might also be helpful to remind your congregation that this Psalm, like many others, was meant to be used in the liturgy of Israel’s worship. Liturgy sometimes has the connotation of turgid ritualism, repeated words that can become prosaic and formal rather than alive and vital. One of the gifts of liturgy is that it gives us words to worship God. If we rely on our own words and ideas, they will often be more banal than beautiful. The well-crafted prayers and hymns of the Christian church have the power to evoke our deepest emotions and give wings to our mundane thoughts and prayers.
3). One way of using this Psalm liturgically is to divide it up into a litany between leader and people.
Leader: If the Lord had not been on our side—
let Israel say—
People: if the Lord had not been on our side
when people attacked us,
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger flared against us;
the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters
would have swept us away.
Leader: Praise be to the Lord,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.
People: Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 30, 2018
Psalm 124 Commentary