The next two songs round out the first antiphon, and they prepare the way for the expedition’s approach to the city.  The expedition will arrive to a ruined and humiliated city.   Despite the circumstances, the dream is that the city can once again host the residence of the King.  It will be the center attraction for a reconstituted Israel that not only includes the remnant of all the exiled tribes of Israel, but also all the nations and families of the world.  The expedition has travelled through inhospitable territory yet still faces a tangled logistical nightmare compounded by violent protest.  A daunting task. 

Our singer once again turns to ardent petition and then to zealous exhortation. He comprehends the magnitude of his own ineptitude and weakness.  Even more so, he comprehends the seriousness of the threat. 

Over the past decades, we have learned to take threats more seriously in the aftermath of a series of shocking school shootings.  Those who are in positions of trust are now trained to take seemingly off-hand or casual comments of threat with much more gravity.  Even our increased posture towards threat still pales in comparison with what most people in the ancient world had to deal with.  For the first three centuries, Christians struggled with the ominous cloud of the Roman Empire’s hostility toward them.  It only took but a wisp of accusation born sometimes by a flash of impetuousness or flighty inconvenience to send a cascade of bloody slaughter down upon them.  Even in many places of our world today like the Congo, Somalia, or Mexico, slander turns to slaughter and rumor turns to riot in an instant.

Our prayers for protection pale in comparison when we have a massive military enterprise and a sophisticated police force in place.  I say this not so much as commentary on our socio-political structure, but to help us realize on a deeper level something about prayer and trust.  Throughout history, when most common folk in the world have prayed to God for protection, they truly “cry out” in desperate hope against hope.  They truly have no one to protect them, not a shred of visible evidence of something on the horizon.  It is a living reality that only God can help them.  The prayer for help is better compared to a woman with children in a Somali refugee camp than us driving through a bad part of town.  Those who have experienced chronic illness come closest to the kind of guttural groan of one’s deepest self when faced with the specter of a merciless and powerful force that has set out to ravish.   

Like the first two psalms, this song is dominated by a life-threatening opposition.

 To Thee, I lift up mine eyes,
            O Thou who art enthroned in the heavens.

 In the stair-step fashion of the lyrics, the supplicant returns to an earlier theme and then elevates it a few steps higher. 

The shift from flirting with the lower limits of despair to turning one’s gaze toward some object of hope is repeated incessantly in the book of Psalms.  Indeed, one could study most of the prayers recorded in the Hebrew bible and find this fascinating characteristic. The creation account of Genesis 1 expresses it in cosmic terms.  Even in and especially in the midst of chaos (Gen 1:2), God’s spirit stirs.

The supplicant relies on appropriate imagery to muster inner strength.  As he was still in route to Jerusalem (Ps 121), he imagined inner strength being renewed in him with the first glimpse of the rising hills around Jerusalem (Ps 121).   There he relies on the visible presence of the hills to spur him toward an even more powerful, yet invisible, reality.  Here his focus ascends even higher than the hills of Jerusalem, even higher than the city walls and its interconnected city dwellings.  He even intently focuses his gaze beyond the temple mount.  It is to You who are enthroned in heaven.

The question easily arises as to how one can intently direct one’s eyes towards something that is not really accessible to the eye.  How does our ancient supplicant look to God sitting on a heavenly throne?  We should not too readily delegate the petition to figurative speech or to spiritualizing.  When the composer had earlier set his eyes toward the hills, he was in route to Jerusalem.  He could only see the hills in his dreams; even so, they were real visible mountains that he was orienting himself toward.  I say this not to hermeneutically toy with the verse, but to point to a tension in prayer that we share with our ancient counterparts.  It is the tension between the visible and the invisible, but even more so, the tension of God’s presence and absence. 

We Christians have such spiritualizing tendencies that we sometimes fall into a kind of pious heresy.  We readily disconnect God from our own reality.  We would do well to explore how the Israelites struggled with this tension.  To do so would not only help us sympathize with the struggle of God’s people in times past, but also clarify for us a critical aspect of prayer—how did they and how do we understand God’s real presence in our midst?  In prayer, how does one focus all physical and mental attention and energy toward that which ultimately reaches beyond all our senses?

At the heart of the Songs of Ascents is a profound longing for the reestablishment of Zion.  As even we ascend with our songwriter in the chanting of the songs, we catch a glimpse into the inseparable bond between a God and His people and a unique place where that is profoundly expressed.   There is no other ancient people who persistently struggled with the tension between a God who made heaven and earth (Ps 121:2), who is enthroned in the highest of heavens and yet one who dwells in a tent, a house (1Kings 8:13), or even smaller a box (ark).  He is above all other gods, yet there is no place, not even in Sheol, that is beyond His reach.  He is hidden (1Kings 8:12), and yet his glory is for all the earth to see. 

This tension heightens in intensity at the temple that Solomon built:

But will God really dwell on earth?  Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!  Yet turn, O Lord my God, to the prayer and supplication of Your servant, and hear the cry and prayer which Your servant offers before You this day.  May Your eyes be open day and night toward this House, toward the place of which You have said, ‘My name shall abide there’; may You heed the prayers which Your servant will offer toward this place.  And when You hear the supplications which Your servant and Your people Israel offer toward this place, give heed in Your heavenly abode—give heed and pardon (1 Kings 8:27).

Two things in this prayer of Solomon address the dynamics of God’s presence in relationship to prayer.  First, God is uniquely and really present when His “servant” offers prayers for himself and for God’s people.  The Temple offered that unique place where all of God’s people direct their attention (lift up their eyes) solely and unanimously on God.  In one sense, all the Psalms are the prayers and hymns of God’s messiah, his anointed one.  The “servant of Yahweh” is the primary supplicant to which priests, Levites, singers, tribal leaders, and the faithful follow behind. 

Second, God cannot fit into a temple anymore than an elephant can fit in a shoebox, but God’s glory and name can abide there.  Under these two designations, the Israelites were able to express the dynamic of God’s Presence (I am with you) and His transcendence (Yet does God dwell in a temple?)

In Israel’s more ancient past, God’s glory was closely tied to the ark that profoundly symbolized God’s Presence.  It was especially a military symbol of God’s immediate presence in crisis.  It symbolized God’s saving act of victory, of the victorious, conquering God.  In other words, it is Israel’s primary icon of God’s decisive action.  The God who defeats his enemies.  The king upon the throne is closely aligned with “the hand of the Lord.”  The ark was placed in the holiest part of the first Temple.

The ancient Israelites also spoke of “the Name” dwelling at the Temple.  In many a sense, the Name is an all encompassing term for “the glory of the Lord” which finds its particular centerpiece in the ark.  The Name closely aligns to the written covenant that was placed inside the ark.  Unique to Israel is a strong connection with word, with covenant.  Reference to the Name, synthesizes icon to word requiring, demanding even, response, engagement, communion, and reinterpretation.

Visions of enthronement intensified with the prophets (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, 10, Daniel[1]) as the wavering of God’s chosen people comes to a high-pitched crisis before the exile. In other words, the worse things got in the real world of religious infighting and political intrigue, with real life consequences like massacre and exile for inhabitants,  prophets such as Isaiah (Isa 6) and Ezekiel (Ez 1, 8) see a reality that is both transcendent and counter to the obvious.  Yes, the visions border on the hallucinogenic, blurring the ordinary with the fantastic, yet they reveal the true situation to those whose fear and anxiety has distorted their ability to see through it.  At the very heart of the enthronement visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel is a radical claim that teeters on the blasphemous—“I saw the Lord,” says Isaiah (Isa 6:1).  In a storm cloud epiphany, Ezekiel sees a man seated on a throne and proclaims that it was “The God of Israel (Ez 10:20). 

The picture of God seated on a throne points to an essential aspect of prayer for the Israelites as it does for us even today.  It points to the sole prerogative of God both to will and act.  This is inherent in Israel’s great confession of faith that the Lord our God is one.  For Israel, there is only one God in whom to look to for all one’s needs, hopes and desires.

[1] Jeremiah does not have a throne vision, but his visions revert back to the fighting god of the exodus story.  God reveals himself to Jeremiah as a king going out to war.

We have had more than enough of contempt,
 our souls have been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease.
Ps 123:3)

The collective supplication for mercy daringly pushes the limits of humble petition, for despite the fact that mercy is undeserved,   the supplicants still presents reasons for God to act.  But even here, their case is based not so much on airtight logic, but on a radical presumption about the God to whom they are making their appeal.  To paraphrase Paul, the greatest of these things is love.  To “trust in the Lord” is to stake one’s own hope on this fundamental posture of God towards his people.  Again Paul talks crazy when he speaks of the weakness of the All Mighty (1 Cor 1:25) that He loves humans.  On this basis the supplicants boldly make their appeal. 

The repeated phrase, we have had more than enough, comes out perhaps understated in our English translations.  In the Hebrew, it is simply two words.  The first word translated as “more,” rav, is used to describe multiplication, becoming great, having an over-abundance.  We can get a feel for this in the well known blessing of God bestowed on humankind at creation (Gen 1:28): “Be fruitful and multiply (rav).”  Negatively in the story of Noah (Gen 6:5), rav is used to describe the excessive violence that humans have come to.  It is also the word to describe excess in size or quality like large frightening armies (myriads or legions) or a king who has amassed hordes of plunder from invasions. 

The second word, sabah, is commonly used with the verb to eat.  Thus it means to eat to the full, to be satiated or stuffed!  Thus, those on expedition are sick unto death, having eaten humble pie much, much more than what one would think is humanly possible.  The pain is excessive and deep.  The use of the Hebrew word “our souls” instead of simply the pronoun “we” draws attention to the chronic nature of the wound.  It has cut within an inch of one’s life.  It has nearly sucked out one’s existence. 

The thrice appeal for God’s favor in this song serves as an antibiotic against the threefold virus their enemies have unleashed: contempt and scorn from those who are at ease. Over all, it is the contagion of contempt. 

This Hebrew word, buz, is mostly found in wisdom literature where it is usually associated with pride and wickedness.   Wickedness is never directly linked to what we would call crimes: murder, abuse, drunken brawls, foul language, vandalism, etc.  Rather, wickedness is connected to conniving to do wrong, planning to inflict injury, or conspiring to destroy someone; in other words, wickedness is primarily malice.  And always, these malicious ones form a crowd or a lynch-mob (Jb 31:34).  It is a contempt that has collectively singled out a victim to unleash its own internal anger and violence and deflect it away from itself.  

This word is often translated “laughingstock” which of course refers to putting someone up for both public punishment and humiliation.[1]  For the one targeted for such collective violence, the contempt is experienced as shame.  In the Old Testament, shame is the external reality of being publically humiliated to the point of being shattered or dismayed.  It is to be taken down by the collective condemnation of a group, of one singled out for communal retribution.  The internal emotions associated with being ashamed run the gambit of negative feelings such as confusion, shock, horror, surprise, consternation, remorse, awkwardness, and anger.  All of these are but the effects of being publicly humiliated. 

This kind of humiliation is further clarified by the next two lines that finish off this psalm.  It is the scorn of those who are at ease, and the contempt of the proud.  The Hebrew word for scorn, laag, is derived from the verb to stammer or stutter.  Isaiah (33:19) speaks of the humiliation from the Assyrian army taunting them in a foreign language. The soldiers guarding the walls hear only gibberish; nonetheless, they know exactly what kind of frightful threats and cursing is conveyed.  Mostly, the picture is of “talking stupid” or “sounding like an idiot.”  It is taunting pure and simple. 

The pain is further compounded by the source of this mocking from those you are at ease.  The taunting is especially from those who have the wealth and power to secure their own well-being and comfortable life.  In Nehemiah’s case (Neh 3:36), this mocking comes from those who are settled in the land.  Most of these people, simply took over lands and house left vacant by the exiles.  These possessions to which they have grown accustom became their wealth and security by simple default.  Jeremiah speaks of those who have not been exiled, who didn’t have their whole life ripped out from under them.  They are undisturbed by the horrible plight of others (Jer 12:1).

They are not only at ease, but arrogant.  The Hebrew word is derived from the word for dove.  In our culture, a dove is mostly associated with peace and calm, but the ancients connected them more with their “uppity” behavior.  Doves are known for their beauty as well as a kind of cocky stature and walk.   They are not only at ease, but they strut around in proud displays meant to deliberately provoke. 

The exiles had grown accustom to the taunts of their captors, but this song reflects the shock experience by those returning to the land.  Expecting a welcome from their brothers, they received scorn.  Instead of help, they received haughty resistance.  Their hometown had changed dramatically in their absence.Psalm 123 begins a mini-set within the larger first unit sung in the Presactified Liturgy that moves upward to a great call to trust God.   The next psalm continues to express the agony of the congregant’s situation but with increasing infusions

[1] Laughingstock was a latter derivative of “whipping stock.”

Psalm 123

Keith Ruckhaus©20113