Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion

Trust is surrender, and surrender is something the prophets repeatedly called the people of Israel and Judah to do. The antithesis of surrender is resistance, and repeatedly the people of God refused God’s call to not resist the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

We can easily get a feel for the basic element of the Hebrew word here for trust, batach, for it suggests lying face down on the ground as we do in prostrations several times during the Presanctified Liturgy. Rather than raising a white flag as a sign of surrender, it is possible that ancient armies threw their weapons down and laid face down hoping for the best.

In a sense then, trust carries the notion of being passive, still, or quiet. It is the perfect gesture of non-hostility. This probably doesn’t set well with many of us whose compulsion is to “do something” about a crisis, to secure our own security.

This verse can easily lend itself to the kind of intransigence that leads to religious intolerance. In other words, we can very easily turn our bull-headed stubbornness and arrogance into a virtue not only sponsored by God, but conveniently guarded by Him against all criticism. To remind, everyone puts their trust in something: guns, money, power, luck. It is here, however, where the singer reminds that the act of trust is totally dependent on the object of trust. Appropriate trust is firmly grounded, as Mt Zion is, not in one’s self but in a God whose response to even a minimal amount of trust on our part is full on, complete, and enduring commitment.

Trust, batach, is related to belief, but is not the same thing. Belief has to do with putting confidence in someone, especially in response to a promise, as when Abraham responded to God’s word (Gen 15:6). Belief is prompted by the extended hand of another.

On the contrary, trust in the Psalms and in the prophets is the antidote for fear as when Isaiah proclaims in the face of the approaching Assyrian army: “I will trust and not be afraid” (Isa 12:2). Trust in the Lord is the alternative response of fear to a life threatening situation.

The meaning of trust is perhaps best characterized by Isaiah. One might even say that this is Isaiah’s message. The word is particularly connected to Zion where a radical, even miraculous, reversal will occur. At Zion, God will defeat all the nations whose kingdoms are built on haughtiness, pride, violence, treachery, greed, and ruthless power. The poor, on the other hand, those who are grossly dependent and in distress (tzarar), those who have been coerced into surrendering to systems of human exploitation, will find refuge (Isa 24-26).

This great reversal will culminate in a feast on Zion “for all peoples.”  The feast will have the effect of “destroying the shroud that enfolds all peoples, and the sheet that covers all nations” (Isa 25:6). In terms reflecting the resurrection, God will “swallow up death forever” and “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isa 25:7-8).

Trust for Isaiah has everything to do with what one is going to hold on to in a crisis (Isa 25:9). It is not Zion itself that is important, but rather the act of deliverance performed there that becomes a symbol of the God who delivers. Isaiah as well as much of the Psalms connects praise (as a victory song), rejoicing, deliverance, and trust around the symbol of Zion.

There are a couple of critical qualifiers to this proclamation of the nature or foundation of trust in the Lord, for it is extremely tempting for trust in something else to take precedence to a deleterious effect. First and in every case, the basis and focus of the trust is the Lord. This may seem like an obvious point, but the Israelites clearly lost sight of that.

In one of the most profound confrontations in the Bible, Jeremiah must confront the worshippers in Jerusalem who were placing their trust in the place rather than the person (Jer 7). Even more so, they had lost sight of the kind of God who was said to defend Zion. They presumed Him to be like an imperial deity whose main concern was protecting his investment and keeping his source of self-aggrandizement intact. As Jeremiah forcefully argues, the Lord of Zion is also the Lord of the covenant. He expects behavior in keeping with a covenant people.

Their costly mistake can just as easily be ours. The Jerusalemites got the phrase turned around. They heard more: those who trust in Zion are like the Lord. They were placing their trust in Zion, a powerful icon of God’s mighty presence for sure, but not in the Lord. We should not be slight in our criticism of those silly ancients when this gross error is constantly repeated in every generation. Religious institutions are not holy and inviolable in and of themselves. It is only the God who is present there that makes it holy. Nor should we concern ourselves with distorted fears of outside invaders. The consistent message of the prophets is that the greatest threat to religious freedom is internal, not external. The monastic tradition bears witness to us—one can be completely free even inside a “cell.”

The other error is an extension of the “trusting in Zion” mistake. It confuses the metaphor saying: “Those who trust in the Lord are Mount Zion.”  This kind of distortion may even be more grievous than the one above, for it again distorts what is centrally important. It directs the focus away from the Lord and onto to the one supposedly trusting God. It makes the action of trust more important than the object of trust.

This error also played itself out in Israel’s history. When Nebuchadnezzar first besieged Jerusalem, it was meant to be a corrective measure, not a destructive one. He emptied the Temple and took the nobles of the city into exile. At that time, Jeremiah insisted that the Israelites not resist this because the nation’s troubles were due to a covenant breach with their King, Yahweh. The king of Babylon was merely God’s instrument.

The regent ruler that king Nebuchadnezzar established to replace the rebel king was supposed to implement Babylonian subjugation. The opposite occurred to a disastrous effect, and here is the reason why. Those still left in Jerusalem presumed that God had punished the former occupants of Jerusalem, and replaced them with the “good people.”  They called those in exile the “rotten figs” and themselves the “ripe figs.”  Their main proof was, of course, that they actually occupied Jerusalem. They were the true Zion based on a seemingly good argument—they physically occupied the space. Their control over the institution and the city was for them proof positive that their own trust in God was strong while those in exile was weak, non-existent, or distorted.

In yet another of Jeremiah’s bold confrontations, he shockingly reverses the rotten/ripe fig slogan, saying that those in exile were the ripe figs (Jer 24). And why?  The ones who were radically uprooted were the ones who began to relearn (another word for repentance) what it meant to put their trust in God alone. They lost everything. They truly became poor and had to learn to trust in the Lord. They had to critically decide whether to opt for the dream over against a stark reality. In the end, those who proclaimed most loudly about Zion, ended up being the most stubborn and recalcitrant. They confused their own physical occupation of space and smug self-confidence with the Lord’s promise of Presence based on favor, unwarranted goodwill. In 587 BCE, Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Its inhabitants massacred or exiled. Zion returned to its origins. Once again, it was just a barren heap.

Jesus had to confront this same kind of distorted trust in his own time. He scathingly rebukes the kind of mentality that would place more stock in religious symbols and institutional icons than in the One and True God who is the source of such things. There were some religious teachers who were making fine points about when an oath should be considered binding. They said it is not enough to simply swear by the altar or temple, but by the gold of the Temple. Jesus reminds them that it is God alone who makes any religious artifact, however venerated it is, worth anything at all (Mt 23:16-22). The fact that this same temptation, which is peculiarly a religious one, still plagued the Jewish community nearly 500 years after the destruction of the temple reminds of the precarious lure of false piety.

It is not simply a matter of trust, especially measured in quantities. As Jesus instructs, a puny amount of faith is enough, if it is directed toward the right god (Mt 17:20). Thus, my prayers sometimes seem impotent because I simply did not address them to the True God. I confused the mighty One of Jacob as the god of vengeance, the Holy One of Israel as a petty ledger keeping god.

The promise here is precarious as it is hopeful. Everyone places their trust in something. The issue is what or who?  If it is anything except the Lord alone, it will lead to boastful self-confidence, but also inevitable ruin. As has already been discussed (Ps 120, 123), the “enemy” of the Psalms is consistently portrayed as “the haughty,” “proud,” and “complacent.”  It is the Lord who makes one’s trust “immovable.”

This kind of radical trust “only in God” fundamentally understands that there is no other viable alternative. This is what places our sense of trust into serious question and be again, a cause for repentance. If we are honest with ourselves—a major component of repentance—we must admit that our trust is more in money, guns, and power than in the Lord. This is always the case with those who have money, guns, and power. This is not the case with “the poor.”

The connection between radical trust, the poor, and Zion are so integrated, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of Zion without it. The word “Zion” mainly denotes a dry heap, a worthless mound. Its geographic value was next to nothing. It had no natural resources or beauty, was hard to get to, and was not near major trade routes.

Zion, however, is almost exclusively used in poetic verse. It is a favored term of the prophets, such as Amos, Micah, and Isaiah and quickly took on a symbolic or iconic flavor to it. Zion is an idyllic reference to the inhabitance of Jerusalem whose geographic “height” above the rest of Israel ought to equally correspond to them being model citizens of the covenant with Yahweh. They were to be the model city of covenant living. As Isaiah proclaims:

            I will restore your judges as in the days of old
                        Your counselors as at the beginning.
            Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness,
                        the faithful City.
            Zion will be redeemed with justice,
                        Her penitent ones with righteousness. (Isa 1:26-27)

 Zion was to be a “city on a hill” that would so exemplify a radical alternative to the violent, exploitative, and often merciless kingdoms of Israel’s neighbors by upholding the weak and disenfranchised that the nations would abandon their murderous ways and flock to that holy hill to see for themselves. Furthermore, they would return to their own lands and city embracing the covenant living of the Lord for themselves.

In the last days,
The mountain of the Lord’s temple
       will be established
       as chief among the mountains;
 It will be raised above the hills
      and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,
     “Come, let us go up to the mountain,
      of the Lord,
      to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
      so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
      the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
       and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
       and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
      Nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob,
    let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isa 2:2-5)

 Most of the prophetic proclamation in addressing Zion, however, is scathing because Jerusalem not only neglected the covenant requirements but wantonly pursued the opposite. It became a city just like the others, established more by murder, conspiracy, and gross pursuit of wealth at the expense of the poor. Instead of a place where all from the king and priests on down humbly present themselves before a righteous God, it persistently became a covenant community that walled itself off from the poor, not even allowing them access to the Lord (an accusation Jesus also brings against the city (Mt 23:13-15). It became a community of pious pride, distorting chosenness into privilege, merciful favor into a commodity, trust in false piety as collateral.

The scepter of wickedness shall not rest. Ps 125:3

An abrupt shift occurs here as if our heady lyricist has been jolted back to reality. Even to this day, there are those who oppose God’s people and his alternative vision for humanity. For our lyricist, the opposition is exerting a considerable coercive influence on Jerusalem. Even though the expedition has arrived at base camp, they still must get past the guards. Even though the temple is situated in the center of the city, it is surrounded by hostility. The expedition faces a major obstacle in its final push to the summit. They must pass through the scepter of wickedness.

With ingenious literary play, the next three verses situate those “trusting in the Lord” encircled in the center surrounded by hostile foes, like a wagon train surrounded by Indians. It imitates in literary fashion the real situation they are facing, and it demonstrates how the “trusting trust” in the Lord secures them. It also boldly proclaims the flip-flop kingdom of God that moves the intransigent and stabilizes the transient.

The use of a rod or scepter as a symbol of authority and power to punish was well-known in the time of monarchies up until a few hundred years ago, but the symbolic impact today is negligible. Perhaps a policemen’s “badge” is the closest symbol we relate to. Its symbol “to serve and protect” is backed by the ability and authority to punish if necessary. The rod was referred to in shepherding terms (Mic 7:14)—to lead, to count, to protect—but as Israel faced powerful imperial gods and armies, the references became negative and associated with excessive and violent displays of force, abuse, oppression, and tyranny. Yahweh is spoken of rarely in such vicious terms, but when He is, it mainly refers to the inherent, imperial violence of the Assyrians and Babylon. In that case, the Lord is pictured as “breaking the rod of wickedness” used as a truncheon to beat down rather than an instrument of guidance and protection.

The lyrical form of much of the Psalms often puts in stark contrast “the righteous” and the “wicked” for rhetorical effect. As readers of the Psalms, we must be cautious lest we fall into a smug posture roundly condemned by the prophets and Jesus. The lines are often blurred and this was certainly the situation Nehemiah faced upon returning to Jerusalem.

After several years of intense labor and struggle to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah discovers that many of the wealthy Israelites are seriously undermining the effort (Neh 5:1-9). In behind the scenes negotiations with non-Israelite residents of Jerusalem, they have been lending money to the poorer Israelites, many of them are returning exiles who are seriously struggling to get reestablished, and charging such excessive interest that they are literally enslaving their fellow Israelites, taking advantage of their vulnerability.

Nehemiah is outraged and takes his fellow well-to-do citizens to task. They are playing the “dreamy” intentions of Nehemiah and those who share his vision against those who vehemently oppose the project fearing a loss of political control and income. As is often the case with those with wealth, their top priority is to make sure that regardless of how the political winds blow, their wealth and station remain intact. These Jerusalemites are not vehemently opposed to “the dream.”  It is just that the political and economic winds are shifting, and they are jittery about where it will settle.

Settle is the key word here, for the songwriter emphatically declares that this way of operating, so common in the world, will not rest. The Hebrew word, nuach, literally refers to pastured sheep. Thus it does not just connote stopping somewhere, but rather securing a field in such a way that the sheep can feed and lie down free from predators. The desire to have a “home” where one can settle in without threat is nearly universal. The lyricist reassures, however, that procuring it by “wickedness” will always be counterproductive. To hold on too tightly to what one has, especially that elusive sense of security, ironically leads to a perpetual uneasy sense. Thus in our day, when there is any kind of social, political, economic, and even environmental uncertainty, it is said that the markets are “nervous.”  There is hesitation and “hedging.”  

Unfortunately, those with wealth, power, estates, and influence all too readily appear to be secure while those who struggle to make ends meet must genuinely struggle with a huge amount of uncertainty. Sorely tempting it is to abandon high ideals in the face of day-to-day realities.

What rules Jerusalem as the expedition arrives is labeled “wicked.”  The term rasah, occurs throughout the poetic portions of the Hebrew bible and is mostly associated with violent behavior toward the weak and defenseless. They are enemies of God because they prey on the vulnerable, and in this respect the wicked are viewed as opposing God (Ps 10”2-3, Ps 9:17-18). The word is often associated with criminal activity especially violent.

It is easy for us to associate wickedness with gangsters or drug lords, but the lines between legitimate and illegal enterprises were nonexistent in the time of Nehemiah. Even today, however these lines of business are blurred.

The idea that “there is no peace for the wicked” (Isa 48:22) is undergirded by a reciprocal notion of violence. Violence only begets violence, or as sometimes popularly expressed: “What goes around comes around.”  It is a belief that regardless of appearance, violence towards others is “unsettling.” 

The wicked complete their entrapment around “the trusting ones” by being described in verse five as crooked and evildoers. The first word here invokes a sense of twisting or bending and is opposite the general idea of righteousness as being straight. The idea of twisting is further described by the verb “turn aside” which connotes wandering off. Anyone who has sat down with a car salesman to discuss price senses a winding, meandering discussion meant more to cloak than to clarify. It is definitely not straightforward.

Evil-doing (ewen) connotes bringing on trouble, sorrow, or misery. It is often found in parallel with “toil” so it carries a strong connection with hard labor. As with many Hebrew words, ewen, has both positive and negative denotations. Positively, it means wealth or strength. Interestingly, Hosea uses both (Hos 12:8), fusing unfaithfulness, idolatry, and adultery with economic and military strength. In a sense, one man’s strength or wealth is another man’s brokenness and poverty. Ewen is usually seen as the consequence of “crooked” ways. In other words, the corruption of some usually means the hard labor of others, and it is this very thing that works against righteousness, leads to veneration of false gods, and is denounced repeatedly by the prophets. Evil-doing is often associated with lying speech and conniving.

"Upon the land allotted to the righteous,
     that the righteous not set their hand to wrongdoing,
Do good, O lord, to the good,
    to those who are upright in their heart."
Ps 125: 3, 4

There is one more characteristic of evil-doing and it does not escape our lyricist. This kind of violence is contagious, and thus the prayer and warning is added: “lest the righteous set forth their hands.”  It works its way so subtly into the daily goings on of commerce that even those who wish to “do good” are tempted to ignore or turn away. We need not ponder long of how tempting this kind of evil is. One, especially one who has wealth and is part of the aristocracy, either cheats or manipulates the system to one’s advantage or he may not be in that class for very long. Historically, the wealthy tend not to advocate for economic fairness. The singer here is fully aware that the lure of wealth easily overtakes “righteous” intensions.

It is especially unsettling “in the midst of the land allotted to the righteous.”  In an ironic flip-flop, the singer boldly asserts that the most unsettling thing for the wicked is the righteous, already defined as those trusting in the Lord.

The word “allotted” is a good one here because we can easily make the connection with “lot” and “lottery.”  Real estate in the ancient world was awarded by divine “lottery.”  Literally, it was determined by casting lots—some kind of throwing stones out and determining from that the decision. The best comparison is throwing dice, and dice may in fact be a vestigial remain of such a practice. In basic terms, it was given by the gods. This perspective was especially the case of small villages or farmers who had no other way to make claim on a piece of land. This notion of divine allotment was very powerful in the ancient world. It appears that for “Israel”, this notion was intensified by the exodus story. The land was not “for sale” really. Thus the sin of kings so roundly condemned by the prophets is that they seized the inheritance of others.[1]

I suggest that this is not necessarily how we tend to look on the value of goodness. We tend to look at it as something internal, hidden, and conceptual. Goodness does have this aspect to it as will be discussed below, but we should be leery if it rarely finds visible expression. The Hebrew simply converts “good” into a verb, something like: “I am gooding about today.”  Good creates value. Again, the singer understands clearly that the wickedness is being played out in reality, mainly in the way humans with resources are behaving toward those with little resources.

Third, they are “upright in their hearts”. The word for “upright” (yesher) is a synonym of tzadek. Whereas tzadek connotes straight as opposed to crooked or winding, yesher pictures more of level and even as opposed to rocky or uneven. It counters evildoing. It eases the hard labor of over-bearing task masters.

Either way, the singer adds an important qualifier. Whereas with the words such as righteous, good, and evil refer to actions with ill consequences, here the singer addresses the inward aspect. Goodness, righteousness, and equity must be “in the heart.”  If we take our cue from the earlier Songs of Ascents, we can say that it is not just talk of equity, but something that proceeds from true desire and carries its way to real works of goodness.

Uprightness of heart is a quality that cannot stand on its own, but must be connected with trust in the Lord.

Keith Ruckhaus©2013

Psalm 125