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In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Prayer for Divine Help (Psalm 123)

Verse 1 of this psalm is spoken by an individual and the other three verses are spoken by a group. This points to the psalm being used in a response setting, with a leader singing the first verse and the congregation responding with verses 2–4. The psalm is basically two prayers – the prayer of the individual and the prayer of the group.

Verses 3 and 4 are clear that the psalm was composed during a time when God’s people were enduring strong derision. This was not a pleasant experience and the people of God were not expected to cope with it in a stoical manner. Instead they were to take their distress to God. A stoical attitude is often an expression of confidence in one’s own ability to cope with a difficult situation and is not a commendable response as far as spiritual matters are concerned.

Verse 1 is the declaration of an individual that he is looking away from the mockings and turning his eyes towards God. In the liturgy of the Jewish worship, this verse may have been sung by a priest or Levite; when he sung it, the other verses would be sung as a response by the congregation or other priests and Levites.

This leader showed he was entirely dependent on God. I think we can see his total reliance in the image that he uses, which is that both his eyes were focussed on God. A false leader would have both eyes fixed on some form of earthly help; a fickle leader would have one eye on God and the other eye on another possible source of help; but a true leader looks only to God.

Not only was the leader in verse 1 entirely dependent on God, he also reminded the people that God was on the throne, that he was the sovereign God. It is useful to remind a weak group of believers that God still loves them, but it is important to stress that he is strong, that he is in complete control of a hostile situation. The taunting opponents may seem strong, but in reality they are pygmies in comparison to God. Weak believers are encouraged when they are reminded that they have a strong, sovereign God.

In verse 2, the people copy the example of the leader in verse 1 and each of them sets both their eyes on their great God. Using the imagery of a master and slaves they confess his sovereignty.

This picture of master and slaves reminds us of the humility of these believers. The sovereignty of God does not only mean that he is in charge of all that takes place; it also requires every believer to live under his authority continually, in a way similar to how an ancient slave responded to his master.

The imagery points us to the hand of God. The male and female slaves in a household would stand in a room with their eyes permanently on their owner’s hand. It was usual for the owner to beckon commands rather than to vocalise them, therefore it was very important for their hands to be observed.

The author takes this imagery and says that what the humble slaves of God want is mercy. It is not so much mercy for their sins, although believers often ask for mercy in this sense. Rather they want mercy to be shown by the removal of the sources of contempt.

Those believers had holy resolution. They were not going to stop praying until God delivered them. Their prayers were simultaneously persistent and patient. This is how we show we are putting God first – we bring the matter to him and plead humbly and expectantly with him until he answers. The Lord is full of pity towards us and he will listen sympathetically to such a cry. Eventually he will answer if we persist in our prayers.

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