Psalm 124

Keith Ruckhaus © 2013

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, let Israel now say (Ps 124:1)

The last psalm left the entourage on a sour note as they passed by the Rolling Hills Estates where people wagged their heads from poolside recliners in pathetic disbelief at the expedition now disheveled from the dust bit climb. 

The abrupt shift in voice at the beginning of this psalm signals yet another bold burst upward coming from previously unknown reserves from within.  The voice is of one from among the assembly who turns from head-bowed trudging to a motivation-spewing head coach in the locker room.  This renewed hope finds courage in the memory of victories past.

Regardless of the ingeniousness and military talent of the leader, however, the song reminds all who look with hope that the one and only factor for success against vicious and dangerous opposition is whether Yahweh is “for us.”  Again, the appeal is for the Lord’s mercy.

As discussed in the previous song, favor is something undeserved.  There is no warrant or case that could be brought to procure it.  It is not like a court case were one can present evidence or logical argument to compel the judge and jury that a positive outcome is warranted.  No, the appeal can only begin with “I have no right to this.”  It is as the famous hymn always sung at the end of Billy Graham crusades: “Just as I am without one plea.”  It is never an issue of fairness, but of favor.  It is never an appeal based on merit, but on mercy. 

The recollection of David in the title of this song, reminds the assembly that the collective hope of favor before the One enthroned in heaven, is firmly establish in the favored one.  The way the story of David reads reminds over and over again that it was God who chose David, not the ingenuity or political calculations of men.  There is one primary reason: God loved David.  He found a posture in him that was essential to any supplicant.  It was not his military daring or his political savvy.  It certainly wasn’t his model family life or his questionable, religious piety.  Rather, it was his readiness in any situation to respond to God.  No matter how much David faltered, David was willing to turn to God, to keep responding to God.  He did what Adam and Eve refused to do.  David ran to God when questioned; the first couple hid.  David sought forgiveness when his irresponsibility was exposed; the first couple hoped for God’s forgetfulness.

This is part of what our repentance is about.  If we choose to follow the model of this favored one and of course, of Jesus to whom David was but a forerunner, then we must learn and keep on learning to turn toward God in any situation.  Keep responding to God.  Make every situation one in which God has access to us.  Be a co-respondent with God.

Ironically, the singer continues to push the limits of a non-argument.  This song is moving in two directions at once.  It continues to directly appeal to the one enthroned in the heavens.  It steadfastly fixes its target on the only One who can truly make a difference.  It zeroes in on a bottom-line posture of God that above all He is merciful. 

The verse also presents a bottom-line about what “chosenness” is about.  Chosenness has been, and still is, a posture that can turn quite ugly.  The history of Israel and the Church is riddled with all the ugliness of humanity in the name of God being on “our side.”  Being favored or chosen by God does not equate to privileged status and smugness.  It is not an opportunity to boast or an excuse to oppress others.  Or as Jesus put it, it does not mean slamming the doors shut to the kingdom (Mt 23:13), not only restricting access to mercy for large swaths of people, but ironically excluding one’s self as well.  If we can learn anything from the prophets and the ruin of Israel and Judah, it most certainly does not mean that God will sanction our behavior regardless of what it is. 

The song also seeks to “preach to the choir.”  It is for Israel to declare.  It calls on the petitioning congregation to have the right posture of prayer.  This is, in fact, what much of prayer is about—putting the petitioner in the right frame of mind to make any appeal to the God of heaven.  This song warns the congregation against a flippant approach to the throne all the while strengthening and raising up those who would put full trust in the merciful God.

This song is a kind of spiritual conditioning necessary for all those who put their trust in the Lord.  At its core, it trains the soul to combat one of the worst enemies of a supplicant’s prayer to God—smugness.  In the parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Lk 18:10-14), Jesus warns of this destroyer of effective prayer that easily and often overtakes. 

In the Christian East, spiritual pride is the archenemy of the monk.  The oft mentioned spiritual struggle of a monk who battles for years in solitude mostly refers to the monk’s struggle against “vain glory,” an illusion that his own spiritual prowess has enabled him a deeper access to God.  This struggle is often thought to be a terrible fight against demons. 

This psalm follows a common pattern of prayer found in the Psalms and the Old Testament, that of historical recollection.[1]  A main feature of historical rehearsal is not only to remind the worshipping congregation of how they came to be. Even more so, historical rehearsal seeks to relive the past saving events and pull the congregants into the ongoing saving acts of God.  It pulls the supplicant’s prayer for blessing and protection into God’s current events.  It re-orientates the myopic concerns of daily life toward the great concerns of God’s dealing with this world. 

Then they would have swallowed us alive,
 when their anger was kindled against us.
  Then the flood would have swept us away;
the torrent would have gone over us, the raging waters.
Ps 124:3-5

The songwriter conjures up mixed metaphors commonly used in the Ancient Near East to refer to the fearful prospect of being annihilated by an invading army, or as the case in this psalm, being taken to bankruptcy court.  It is like being caught in a flood or a trap.  Both depictions, however, are compared to being eaten or consumed by a great beast.  The metaphors not only serve to evoke God’s mighty saving deeds at the Reed Sea (Ex 14-15) and the sparing of Jerusalem under Assyrian siege (Isa 36-38), but also to summarize the whole history of God’s many and ongoing “amazing rescues.”  Moreover, the images recount the recurrent miraculous intervention of the Lord in sparing God’s people in the exile and their “escape” from Babylonian captivity.

The depiction of the enemy (humanity opposing God) is clear regardless of the metaphor.  They seek to completely devour God’s people.  The picture of being eaten by an enemy is universal in the ancient world.   In verse three, our English translation accurately conveys the notion in Hebrew of being swallowed whole.  It is the word used to describe the wholesale consumption of Jonah by the great fish.    Perhaps many of us have seen videos of great snakes that can engulf its prey twice its size.  The picture is of being completely overtaken and the destruction complete. 

In verse six, the consumption is like being devoured by wild beasts.  Again, I have seen film of lions or crocodiles that vociferously tear and rip at a carcass until only hide and bone remain. Whether overtaken by a flood or devoured by a beast, the fearful prospect is compounded in that the victim is still “alive.”  It does not have a peaceful death, and then it is devoured.  No, the victim is horribly conscious of its oncoming doom.  Prophets such as Habakkuk ( Hb 3:16) and Ezekiel (Ez 4) describe the dreadful horror of a protracted siege of a city where the inhabitants can contemplate their own demise in excruciating dullness of time.

The lyricist makes clear what force lay behind these acts of consumption—raging anger.  Charah is one of the most common Hebrew words to refer to the expression of anger.  It is one of many Hebrew words derived from a CH-R root that even the pronunciation may have a pirate-like snarl to it (the CH has a back-of-the-throat sound to it like coaxing up flem).  The words derived from the CH-R spelling have powerfully negative connotations: dung, dry, desolate, waste, ruin, struck down, sword, tremble in fear, fear, anxiety, strip, expulsion, exterminate.

The prospect of the concentrated and collective anger of men upon a victim is so frightening that the ancients could not directly speak of it.  The reference to rage is metaphorically spoken of as a fire that is out of control, like a wild grass or forest fire.  It takes on a single personality and will nearly impossible to predict let alone contain or defend.  It can suddenly change directions with devastating consequences.  One translation powerfully conjures up the more accurate description: “in their burning rage against us.”[1]

There are many different directions a commentary can go to discuss men’s anger, but here, we must be reminded that this kind of rage is collective and is singularly focused on a target.  The victim is one who has for whatever reason attracted the collected anger of a group like metal to a magnet.  He is a scapegoat for the collective, a sacrifice for the good of the whole.  The collective nature of the anger is particularly evident in the metaphors of fire, flood, and devouring beast.  The imagery of a bird-trapper best depicts the selective target of the victim.  It is one of the most common metaphors in the ancient world to describe a city under siege.[2]  Annihilation is the goal. 

All this, however, is more a commentary on the Lord than on the horrifying prospect of men’s rage.  The emphasis of this song is not so much on the victim, but on the God who defends and rescues those who have become targets of collective hate. The God of the Israelites and of Jesus is a defender of victims.  The allusion to God’s rescue at the Reed Sea here is meant to remind that the primary reason why one can trust in God is that one can always count on the Lord to defend the victim of collective violence.

It is easy enough to see how the metaphor of being swallowed alive and whole by a great fish easily relates to being swept away by a flood.  Both speak of the inevitable doom of one caught in such a predicament.  Verse four draws out the picture of being caught in a flood in remarkably similar fashion as the song of Miriam does in Exodus 15.  There, of course, it was the pursuing Egyptian army, also full of consumptive rage (Ex 15:9), who was overtaken by the waters.  The victory is in the collective rage itself.  Rage turns on those who presume to wield it.  This is craftily portrayed in the Reed see incident by the Egyptians’ own chariot wheels getting bogged down in mud the harder they pursue their victim. 

Once again, Israel is humbly reminded that they could have just as easily been caught in that flood “had the Lord not been on our side.”  The difference between the raging Egyptians and the fearful Hebrews did not lie in any inherent quality within either of them, but only in the God who acts on the part of victims.  God was on “their side” because they were the targets of collective oppression.  They were the victims of empire building agendas.  These verses are a critical precursor to the next series of psalms that speak of confident trust in the Lord (Ps 125:1).   God is on the side of the Israelites to the extent that who upholds the fatherless and the widow, who watches over the Israelites remember that God executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, the sojourner and who will bring the way of the wicked to ruin.[3]

[1] NJPS

[2] Loren D. Crow, The Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120 – 134): Their Place in Israelite History and Religion (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996), 53.

[3] This verse is taken from Psalm, but is also chanted every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy as one of the entrance songs.

[1] Exodus 15:1-18,   Judges 5,  1 Samuel 2:1-12