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!
Many of us have hearts that have been deeply wounded by a person or persons who have looked down upon us and treated us as though we are inferior. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns of the judgment that awaits those who inflict such injury on others: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
The closing verses of Psalm 123 cry out over such hurt: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.”
Writing for iBenedictines.org, Digitalnun discusses the dangers of arrogance: “In my experience, arrogant people tend to twist and turn facts to suit their own purpose; they are supremely self-confident; and they do not really listen to others because such engagement would show up flaws in their own arguments. What they say and do is all about drawing attention to themselves—see how brilliant/beautiful/superior I am! It is indeed making a claim for oneself, and put like that, it looks rather childish doesn’t it? There is a danger in arrogance, however, as there is in most forms of childishness. One hesitates to name any individual as arrogant, but one can see the effects of arrogance all around: Many of our political and economic woes can be traced back to arrogance: to an exaggerated sense of self which disregards any check or balance. It is arrogance which makes it fashionable to decry needy people for being needy—why should I be compassionate when to do so I must step beyond myself and feel the pain of another? It is arrogance which makes it easier to fire bullets at one another rather than sit down and discuss, for why should I listen to you when I know I’m right and you are wrong?”
Psalm 123 is clear about the fact that God is above us. Verse 1 speaks of looking up to God whose throne is in heaven. Verse 2 likens our status with God to that of a servant to his master or a maid to her mistress. The critical difference, however, is that the arrogant treat us with contempt and ridicule, but God treats us with mercy. The arrogant are obsessed with the need to make themselves look good; God is driven by a love that seeks to do good to us. The arrogant put us down; God lifts us up. The arrogant, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally, strips away our sense of worth; God consistently affirms our belovedness and our value.
David Benner remarks, “Neither knowing God nor knowing self can progress very far unless it begins with a knowledge of how deeply we are loved by God…. In order for our knowing of God’s love to be truly transformational, it must become the basis of our identity…. An identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.” (The Gift of Being Yourself, p. 49)
Jerry Sittser adds, “To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.”
Though our souls may have been deflated by those who are arrogant, we are lifted up by the God who shows us mercy!
David begins the 122nd Psalm with the words, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to….’”
That opening line gets me thinking: What place on earth might generate such an exclamation from me?
Two places come immediately to mind:
I would rejoice any time someone would say to me, “Let us go to Yosemite National Park.” I feel such a thrill inside of me every time I descend into that valley and catch my first sight again of those amazing peaks and waterfalls. The beauty of that valley makes my senses spring to life and makes my heart leap within me. I have such wonderful memories of hiking to the top of Half Dome (several times), of swimming at the top of Yosemite Falls, of watching deer and bears, of ice skating under stars in winter, and of playing cards under lantern light in the summer. Every time I go there I am flooded with memories from the past, and I am filled with the anticipation of making wonderful new memories.
And I would rejoice if you could say to me, “Let us go back to your parents’ home on Golden Gate Avenue in Oakland, California. When my mom was alive, every trip to our family home was filled with the joy of her love and the delight of her baking. She always welcomed me warmly, telling me that I was “the light of her life and the joy of her heart.” In her later years, she repeated her stories often, but I never minded hearing them again because they were always filled with love and joy and affirmation. Though the house has been sold and gutted and transformed from the home I grew up in, I still get a thrill driving past it because it remains filled with so many wonderful memories.
My reminiscing helps me to understand and appreciate this psalm more fully. David is not referring to Yosemite or my childhood home in this psalm, but the thrill of those places touches on what David has in mind when he sings, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
When we come to the Lord’s house to worship we get the opportunity to behold a beauty that is beyond the natural. We open our souls to something bigger and greater than ourselves. We are filled with anticipation of great things to come. Our senses spring to life, and our hearts leap within us. I think that is a bit of what David had in mind.
And when we come to the Lord’s house to worship, it’s like we are coming home to the One who will welcome us warmly and will assure us that we are the apple of His eye and the joy of His heart. Yes, we might hear some stories over again, but each of those stories is filled with His love for us. Worship connects us afresh with the true source of love in our lives. I think this is also a part of what David had in mind.
Interestingly, the psalm goes on to say, “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.” That may strike us, at first, as a strange comment, but Derek Prince points out, “Now that word translated ‘closely compacted together’ is formed from a root that means, ‘a fellow, a comrade, somebody very close to you.’ It’s one of the most affectionate words describing commitment between two persons that you can find in the Hebrew language. It’s still used that way in modern Hebrew…. The mortar that binds God’s people together in true unity is not doctrine, it’s not the time or the place of a meeting, but it’s that personal commitment, heart-to-heart, that makes each of us fellows, comrades, brothers together, brothers and sisters, members of the same home, members of the same family, committed one to another.”
Part of the life-transforming nature of worship is in how it binds us together with one another. F. Arlin Nave shares one example: “One time, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in a Soviet prison in Siberia, he was exhausted from the hard labor, weak from starvation and suffering from an untreated illness. He felt that he could not go on. He stopped working, knowing that the guards would beat him severely and maybe even kill him. Then, another prisoner, a follower of Christ, took his shovel and in the sand at the feet of Solzhenitsyn drew the sign of the cross and then quickly erased it. Solzhenitsyn says that the hope and courage of the gospel flooded his soul, and it enabled him to hold on. Was he saved by the sign of the cross? Yes! But was he not also saved that day by that caring fellow, a Christian person who cared enough to remind him of hope? Of course.”
Even in a Siberian prison, even with a call to worship that is as brief as a cross traced in the sand then erased almost immediately, life-saving hope can be passed along from one believer to another. No wonder David declares, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
I wish I had greater self-confidence. I wish that I felt certain that I could handle every challenge that comes my way. But the truth is that when struggles mount up against me, I have a tendency to get discouraged and afraid. I look at the problems and they seem huge and intimidating; I look at myself and I find that my weaknesses and incompetencies are glaring.
Where can I look for help?
Psalm 121 tells us, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—He will watch over your soul; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
Psalm 121 seems to have been written for people like me—people who want to know where to turn for help.
For me, I look up at the mountains of problems that overwhelm me, and I wonder: Where can my help come from? For those in ancient Israel at the time this psalm was first sung it was a bit different. They, too, faced immense troubles and fears: Would their crops grow? Would their sheep and goats thrive? Would their families be healthy? Would they be safe on their travels? But they imagined that their help could actually be found in the hills above them.
Eugene Peterson explains, “During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil. There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road. Do you fear the sun’s heat? Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god. Are you fearful of the malign influence of moonlight? Go to the moon priestess and buy an amulet. Are you haunted by the demons that can use any pebble under your foot to trip you? Go to the shrine and learn the magic formula to ward off the mischief. From whence shall my help come? From Baal? From Asherah? From the sun priest? From the moon priestess?…. A look to the hills for help ends in disappointment. For all their majesty and beauty, for all their quiet strength and firmness, they are, finally, just hills. And for all their promises of safety against the perils of the road, for all the allurements of their priests and priestesses, they are, all, finally, lies. As Jeremiah put it: ‘Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains’ (Jeremiah 3:23).” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 36-37)
This psalm told the people of long ago to look beyond the hills—beyond the counterfeit help they offered—to the One who made the heavens and the earth. And this psalm tells me to look beyond my apparent mountain of troubles to the One who actually made the towering mountain ranges.
Amidst all of our troubles, this psalm invites us turn our eyes toward God, for this psalm describes God as
– The Source of our help (verse 1)
– The Maker of heaven and earth (verse 2)
– One who will not let our foot slip (verse 3)
– One who watches over us without slumbering or sleeping (verses 3-4)
– The One who shades you (verse 5)
– The One who keeps you from all harm (verse 7)
– The One who watches over your coming and going both now and forever (verse 8)
The promise of this psalm is that troubles of this world may come against us but, with God’s help, they will not bring us down. Eugene Peterson argues, “All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside. Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us. that is the promise of the psalm…. ‘The Lord will keep you from all evil.’ None of the things that happen to you, none of the troubles you encounter, have any power to get between you and God, dilute his grace in you, divert his will from you.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 38-39)
Anyone paying attention to the news this week knows that the world is in a mess! More mass shooting murders across our nation, fueled by prejudice and bigotry. Deepening threats of war with Iran. The world’s hottest year on record, stirring up growing anxiety over the dangers of climate change.
What are we to do with our angst over the fears and the troubles that surround us?
For centuries, the Jewish people have identified Psalms 120-134 as the Songs of Ascent, the psalms to be sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem. The first of these (Psalm 120) sounds like it was written in response to present-day news coverage. The psalmist speaks of personal distress, of lying lips and deceitful tongues, and of being surrounded by those who hate peace and are for war. The psalmist declares “Woe to me” for living amidst such turbulence.
As gloomy as this psalm may be, it is actually the fitting start for a pilgrimage journey, for the journey toward God begins with the recognition that my world is a mess and with the longing for something better.
In his book about the Songs of Ascent (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction), Eugene Peterson writes, “People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel like they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world-as-it-is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.
“A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.
“Psalm 120 is the song of such a person, sick with the lies and crippled with the hate, a person doubled up in pain over what is going on in the world. But it is not a mere outcry, it is pain that penetrates through despair and stimulates a new beginning—a journey to God which becomes a life of peace.” (p. 22)
This first Song of Ascent expresses the reality of our spiritual lives: The movement toward God begins with a level of disgust over one’s present situation and taking a step in a new direction.
James Colaianni shares, “A number of years ago a man picked up the morning paper, and, to his horror, read his own obituary. The newspaper had reported the death of the wrong man. The caption read: ‘Dynamite King Dies.’ The story identified him as a ‘merchant of death.’ He was the inventor of dynamite and he had amassed a great fortune from the manufacture of weapons of destruction. Moved by this disturbing experience, he radically changed his commitment to life. A healing power greater than the destructive force of dynamite came over him. Thereafter, he devoted his full energy and money to works of peace and human betterment. Today he is best remembered as the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize—Alfred Nobel.”
Charles Krieg writes, “There is a legend that says that once upon a time the angel Gabriel called all the angels together. Each one was asked to visit earth and bring back to heaven the one gift that he thought would be most pleasing to God. One angel saw a martyr dying for the faith—he brought back a drop of his blood. Another brought back a small coin that an old destitute widow had given to the poor. Another returned with a Bible that had been used by an eminent preacher. Still another brought back dust from the shoes of a missionary laboring in a remote wasteland for many years. One angel, however, saw a man sitting by a fountain in a town square. The man was looking at a child playing nearby. The man was a hardened sinner, but looking at the little child playing he remembered his own boyhood innocence. As he looked into the fountain he saw the reflection of his hardened face, he realized what he had done with his life. Now recalling his many sins he was sorry for them. Tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. At that point the angel took one of these tears and brought it back to heaven. And, according to the legend, it was this gift that God chose above all the others as the one most dear to Him, the one that pleased Him most of all.”
The movement toward God begins with a level of disgust over one’s present situation and taking a step in a new direction.