Psalm 128 begins with a statement that seems to be impossible: “Happy (or blessed) is everyone who fears the Lord.” It seems to be contradictory to put “happy” and “fear” together in the soul of a person. The two emotions seem to be mutually exclusive of each other.
Edgar Wallace described fear as “a tyrant and a despot, more terrible than the rack, more potent than the snake.” In his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” then he went on to define fear as a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
How could a person possibly be happy with such terror (or with such a tyrant) stomping around within one’s soul?
But what if the fear of the Lord is different than being terrorized by fear?
The evidence of Scripture suggests that they are different. In Exodus 20:20 (just after the giving of the 10 Commandments), Moses says to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so that you do not sin.”
Moses calls us away from the kind of fear that paralyzes us and terrifies us; he calls us to the fear of the Lord that enriches our lives.
Phillip Keller provides a wonderful picture of the two kinds of fear in his book Lessons from a Sheep Dog. He writes about his experience bringing a severely mistreated Sheep Dog to his sheep ranch in British Columbia. Because of the mistreatment the dog had been subjected to, Lass was terrified of Phillip Keller. He records, “As I put Lass into my old car and started off down the road to ‘Fairwinds’ she was sure something terrible was about to happen. She crouched on the floor behind my seat, trembling and tense with apprehension. Even when I stretched out my hand to touch her head, or spoke softly in reassuring tones, she withdrew in terror, snarling with tension.” (p. 40-41)
That’s the kind of fear Moses calls us away from—the kind of fear that leave us terrified, suspicious of all that comes our way, snarling with tension at others and at God.
As the book progresses, Phillip Keller describes the change that takes place as Lass begins to trust him. Later in the book, Keller writes, “The use of this word ‘fear’ all through the Old Testament scriptures has, most unfortunately, left the wrong impression upon our minds. And it was Lass, more than anyone else, who brought me to a clear concept of its true meaning. ‘To fear,’ with regard to God means to reverence, to respect, to regard with awe and affection, to hold in such loving esteem as to be afraid of offending or grieving the One so admired. This was the attitude Lass held toward me. It had been built on trust. It had grown gradually with the realization she could count on the consistency of my conduct and credibility of my character. She had come to see me as more than just her master, but also her friend. We were fellow-workers in the great responsibilities of running the ranch. Her loyalty was grounded in love.” (p. 76-77)
That’s the kind of fear God calls us to: Not the kind of fear that leaves us suspiciously snarling at God, but the kind of fear that causes us to honor and revere God so highly that we bow before Him in worship and seek to honor Him with our obedience.
The fear of gravity is similar. I hope you are not awakened at night from nightmares of gravity chasing after you like a malevolent monster who keeps trying to throw you to the ground. But I hope that if you are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, gazing into the chasm below, that you will have a healthy fear of the law of gravity. I hope the fear of gravity will keep you from leaning over too far so that you are free to enjoy the Canyon’s amazing beauty without plummeting to your death.
That’s the kind of thing Psalm 128 has in mind when it counsels us, “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord….” When we revere God our lives are enriched.
Journalist Bernard Levin once observed, “Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with non-material blessings like a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet and, at times, noisy desperation, understanding nothing but the fact there is a hole inside them, and that however much food or drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many children and friends they parade around the edges of it…IT ACHES.”
Out of his own personal experience with such an ache, King Solomon wrote the opening verses of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for He gives sleep to His beloved.”
It seems that the “you” in verse 2 is not so much aimed at the reader as at himself, for in Ecclesiastes 2:11 Solomon confides, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Solomon started off well. He began his reign by seeking the leading of God for his life and for his kingdom. But over time, he became more and more enamored with foreign wives and with the international clout they brought him. Over the years, he took 1000 wives and had 300 concubines. He became less and less faithful to God, and more and more welcoming of foreign gods. His kingdom ceased to be a kingdom built by God and filled with the goodness of God. It became a nation driven by his self-absorbed heart, and consumed with displays of his power and prominence.
As this went on, Solomon became increasingly and painfully aware of the truth that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” And he became increasingly and painfully conscious of the reality that his self-absorbed life was “vanity and a chasing after wind.”
The movement in this psalm from verses 1-2 to verses 3-5 is significant. Don’t be misled, though, by a fantasized perspective of what verses 3-5 seems to say. The mere production of sons is not always a blessing. Solomon knew this well from his own family of origin: One of Solomon’s brothers raped a half-sister. Another brother killed the rapist. That same brother staged a rebellion against their father. Another brother tried to steal away Solomon’s crown. Then, at Solomon’s death, his own son broke apart the kingdom of Israel by trying to exploit even greater personal wealth from his subjects.
It is not simply that the production of sons and/or daughters creates happiness, but we learn two vital lessons from raising children:
1: Children teach us that life is not about what we toil after.
Bob Deffinbaugh points out, “Some scholars have suggested that this Psalm was originally two separate psalms. They propose this because the connection between verses 1 and 2 and verses 3-5 is an enigma to them. I personally am convinced that there is a very clear sequence and progression of thought. Children provide an excellent conclusion to the argument of verses 1 and 2…. The provision of children differs from that for which men toil. When men work they are striving for wages, not a gift. Wages are what we produce with the work of our hands. Gifts are those things generously and graciously given to us by another. Children, verse 3 informs us, are a gift from God….
“Isn’t it interesting that children, while given by God, are conceived when we are at rest, not when we toil. Children are normally conceived in bed. What a beautiful illustration, then, of what we are told in verse 2, that God gives to His beloved in his sleep.”
2: Raising children teaches us that contentment comes from the giving of love rather than the amassing of fortune or power.
I want to be careful with my words here, because verses 3-5 can stomp painfully on those who have longed for children but not received such a blessing, or who have lost a child, or who are estranged from a child. But the general principle of verses 3-5 is vital: satisfaction in life comes not from what we amass for ourselves but from the love we give to others.
The Holy Spirit is busy growing Christ’s character in us. At the very core of who Christ is is the giving of Himself to those whom He loves. Children are natural recipients of a parent’s self-giving love, but even without children the principle holds true: We are most Christ-like and most content when we are giving of ourselves to another in love. May we focus more on giving love than on toiling for ourselves.
Psalm 126 is a psalm that is written for those who are going through tough times. It is written for those who know what it is like to wander in the desert (literal or figurative), tired and thirsty, with your energy depleted, longing for water, praying for rain, and waiting and waiting and waiting.
It was written for a people who endured hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, who faced hundreds of years of harassment from surrounding nations, who went through internal schism that ripped their nation apart, and who were dragged away as captives to live in exile for decades in the land of the nation that conquered them.
It is written for people who deal with personal hardships, with chronic pain, with disappointments in life, with tragedies, with prayers that remain unanswered day after day or month after month.
The psalm begins with rejoicing over the return of exiles to Jerusalem. It declares, with joy, that God “has done great things for us!” But the hope this psalm presents is actually the kind of hope that is like streams in the desert (verse 4), and it is the kind of hope that involves sowing our tears (verses 5-6).
On most days, “streams in the desert” are dry ruts—rocky and sandy creases in the barren land. But on those occasional times when rainclouds build up overhead and release their contents, the otherwise dry riverbeds fill with life-giving water. The water brings plants to life and provides life-giving sustenance to desert creatures.
Psalm 126 is the hope of those who live in a desert, who recognize that life will not be a perennial outpouring of blessings upon them, but who continue to pray throughout those long, dry stretches that God will send the refreshment they need before it is too late. Psalm 126 reminds us that we must become the kind of people who learn how to live not with the expectation of perennial blessings but by retaining and preserving every precious gift of refreshment God sends our way.
Many people live under the false impression that a crop of joy grows out of a commitment to face all of life’s troubles happily. They would expect this psalm to advise us to put on a happy face no matter what problems might confront us. They would suggest that if we sow our masks of happiness, we will eventually reap the happiness we were pretending was there. However, if we sow a pretend smile, all we will get back is more pretension. If we sow hypocrisy, hypocrisy is what we will reap.
If, on the other hand, we want to reap a joy that is real, we need to plant that which is real. If our tears are what is real to us as we go through those desert times in our lives, then what we need to do is to plant our tears in the good soil of God’s love. It is that soil of God’s rich love that will bring forth the fruit of joy in our souls. As the apostle Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 15, the seed that is sown dies and comes up from the ground in a gloriously new form. The tears we deposit in the soil of God’s love will come to new life in the fruit of joy—a confidence and well-being at the core of our soul that knows that God is with us, that He loves us, and that He will walk through it all with us until He brings us to the home He has prepared for us in heaven.
God calls us to a life of trusting in Him not because God’s ego will be boosted if He can recruit more followers, but because our lives are enriched tremendously through a life of faith.
That’s the point that is made in the opening verses of Psalm 125: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people both now and forevermore.”
The focus here is not how strong or consistent or courageous our faith is, but how dependable and good is the One in whom we put our faith. It is not that we will be unshakeable if we can learn to hold onto God tightly enough; it is that we are unshakeable because God surrounds us now and forevermore with His care and goodness.
Eugene Peterson points out, “We wander like sheep, true; but He is a faithful shepherd who pursues us relentlessly. We have our ups and downs, zealously believing one day and gloomily doubting the next, but he is faithful. We break our promises, but He doesn’t break His. Discipleship is not a contract in which if we break our part of the agreement He is free to break His; it is a covenant in which He establishes the conditions and guarantees the results.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 85)
J. Alistair Brown shares a helpful illustration: “The 3-year-old felt secure in his father’s arms as Dad stood in the middle of the pool. But Dad began walking slowly toward the deep end, gently chanting, ‘Deeper and deeper and deeper,’ as the water rose higher and higher on the child. The lad’s face registered increasing degrees of panic, and he held all the more tightly to his father, who, of course, easily touched the bottom.
“Had the little boy been able to analyze his situation, he’d have realized there was no reason for increased anxiety. The water’s depth in any part of the pool was over his head. Even in the shallowest part, had he not been held up, he’d have drowned. His safety anywhere in that pool depended on Dad.
“At various points in our lives, all of us feel we’re getting ‘out of our depth’—problems abound, a job is lost, someone dies. Our temptation is to panic, for we feel we’ve lost control. Yet, as with the child in the pool, the truth is we’ve never been in control over the most valuable things of life. We’ve always been held up by the grace of God, our Father, and that does not change. God is never out of his depth, and therefore we’re as safe when we’re ‘going deeper’ as we have ever been.”
That’s the message conveyed to us in the opening verses of Psalm 125: God surrounds us with His care, and that care will never fade away. We can live in peace because God holds us securely.
Another benefit of a life of trust is that as we trust God, He will lead us in the right way to live.
Psalm 125:3-5 states, “The scepter of the wicked will not remain over the land allotted to the righteous, for then the righteous might use their hands to do evil. Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, to those who are upright in heart. But those who turn to crooked ways the Lord will banish with the evildoers. Peace be upon Israel.”
Henry Ward Beecher stresses, “The strength and the happiness of a person consist in finding out the way in which God is going, and in going in that way, too.”
Ted Koppel adds, “There’s harmony and inner peace to be found in following a moral compass that points in the same direction, regardless of fashion or trend.”
That’s what a life of trusting in God does. It points us in the right direction regardless of fashion on trend. It leads to a life of greater strength and happiness.
Psalm 124 makes a wonderful promise to us about God: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
The word translated into English as help is the Hebrew word Ezer. Ezer appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 21 times. Generally the word is used to describe God as the Help of Israel or as our Help, as it does here.
Three times the word ezer refers to a supporting army coming to the rescue. To a significant extent, that’s what Psalm 124:8 tells us about God: Are you in danger or trouble? Call out to God in prayer, and God will rush to help you like a rescuing army would.
Bryan Chapell shares, “One of the most powerful images of my wife’s childhood came when she and a neighbor girl were playing in some woods behind their homes. The neighbor girl wandered from the path and stepped into a nest of ground bees. As the bees began to swarm and sting, the girls began to scream for help. Suddenly, out of nowhere—like Superman, my wife says—her dad came crashing through the woods, leaping over fallen logs, hurdling vines and bushes. He swooped up a girl under each arm and tore through the woods at full speed to get away from the bees. As he ran, the father’s grip bruised the children’s arms, branches scratched their thighs, and thorns grabbed at their clothes and skin. The rescue hurt, but it was better than the bees. The image is not so unlike our heavenly Father’s work. He sees the danger and, at times even before we call out, comes crashing into our worlds. From some throne above the universe, he hurdles galaxies and the infinite expanse of time to enter our realities and take us from spiritual danger. His rescue may hurt, but the goal is always our safety, and the motive is always his love.” (Holiness by Grace)
Two other uses of the word ezer come up in Genesis 2:18 and 2:20, where the word is used to describe Eve as the help and the rescue for Adam’s loneliness. Ezer retains its sense of a strong army rushing to the rescue of one in need, but here it is combined with a sense of intimacy and love. The rescue Adam needed was a rescue of intimate connection and abiding love—which is actually the rescue we are in greatest need of in our lives.
When we combine these two aspects of ezer, we see that the help God promises us is the help of a rescuing army and the help of a loving partner who comes alongside of us to stand with us through the most difficult struggles of our lives.
When a couple gets married, they share vows in which they promise to love and remain faithful to one another in sickness and health, in sorrow and joy, in poverty and wealth—for better or for worse. By using the word that described Eve as the loving, rescuing life-partner to Adam, this verse reminds us that God is the One who will stand by our side, faithful and loving, in sickness and health, in poverty and wealth, in joy and in sorrow through all of eternity.
It has been written about Jesus:
He gave away everything, that we might have God’s best.
He wore a yoke, that our burdens might be lifted.
He wept, that our tears may be wiped away.
He cried, that we might rejoice.
He was rejected, that we might be accepted.
He was shamed, that we might have dignity.
He became poor, that we might be rich in Him.
He had no place to lay His head, that He could prepare a mansion for us in heaven.
That’s our Ezer. That’s our rescuing and loving help from above!