Psalm 123

Like the three previous Songs of Ascents [see previous posts on Psalms 120, 121, 122], Psalm 123 opens in the first person singular, meaning that an individual is speaking using “I” or “me.” Also, like Psalms 120 and 121, the psalm does not identify the speaker. In these cases, they are written as expressions of any of the faithful who are personally committed to Yhwh and find themselves on a journey to meet with him. But, like the speakers in the previous psalms, the unnamed speaker of Psalm 123 is addressing a prayer to Yhwh because of a precarious situation. In this case, as vv. 2–3 make clear, the speaker joins with the congregation as one seeking the grace of Yhwh, and about this request, they are desperate.


So the poet begins: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” As is readily apparent, there is somewhat of an echo here with Ps 121:1–2 both in the lifting of the eyes and in the use of heaven(s).[1] In Psalm 121, the psalmist expressed confidence in lifting the eyes to the mountains because help was coming from Yhwh, who is the maker of heaven and earth. Here the psalmist directs an address to Yhwh in a personal way (“to you”) but then identifies the object of that gaze as the one who sits in the heavens. He is both the one who made the heavens, and he is the one who dwells above mankind in the heavens, perhaps metaphorically speaking. Thus, lifting the eyes is the certain posture of the one who directs his or her attention to Yhwh.[2]

Elsewhere, the Psalter describes Yhwh as the one dwelling in the heavens (among other places, such as 11:4) in Ps 2:4, where the one sitting in the heavens cannot but laugh at those who would dare try to usurp him and his king. But much in the same way that Psalms 1 and 2 laid out a definite relationship between Yhwh and the righteous versus Yhwh and the wicked, so here the speaker does not find a God who scoffs at him, rather, the speaker looks with hopeful expectation at this God.caesarea-051.jpg

The poet further describes what is meant by the lifting of the eyes and the significance of such by making an analogy in v. 2a: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.”

And the psalmist’s point is driven home by a clear use of repetition in the parallelism throughout vv. 1–2. Consider the following (my translation for clarity sake):

To you I lift my eyes.
Like the eyes of servants to the hand
Like the eyes of a maidservant to the hand
Thus our eyes to Yhwh, our God.[3]

The you of “to you” in v. 1 has now been identified as (1) the one who is enthroned in the heavens and (2) Yhwh our God. Yhwh, the covenant God, is both the majestic king of the heavens and the personal God of Israel. As such, the writer pens a request by the people reasonably founded upon their knowledge of Yhwh as the mighty King of heaven and the personal God of his people.

With their God properly identified, the congregation commits to lift their eyes to Yhwh their God “till he has mercy upon us” (v. 2b). They long for grace, and they are confident that Yhwh has the ability and desire to bring it about. They will not turn their eyes until he does it. They desire mercy so intently that the author uses step parallelism (or anadiplosis) once again to focus the reader’s attention upon it. V. 2 ends with the phrase “he has mercy upon us,” and v. 3 begins with the imperative, “Have mercy upon us.” What is more, the imperative is repeated, “Have mercy upon us.”

Mt of Olives 023

But why do they need the grace (or mercy) of Yhwh? According to v. 3b, because “we have had more than enough of contempt.” The people of Yhwh feel satiated with the sins of those with whom they dwell (see also Psalm 120). Although there is not a specific setting that is described here, it seems that the psalm is intended to fit any situation in which the people of God are the object of contempt.

Moreover, 3 of the 4 (Hebrew) words of v. 3b are repeated in v. 4:[4] “Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” The writer echoes a complaint of Asaph in Psalm 73.

While waiting for worship and satisfaction in a peaceful, New Jerusalem (Psalm 122), the people of God ought to continue to lift up their eyes to the one who dwells in the heavens and to ask for his grace.[5] David will reflect on this, as well, in the Psalm 124.


[1] As such, Pss 121 and 123 form a kind of parenthesis around the center of this third of the Songs of Ascents, namely, Psalm 122. It should be noted that 121:1 uses the yiqtol; 123:1 the qatal.

[2] A good example of this is also seen in Dan 9:3: “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and please for mercy….” The first phrase is not the same, but note how the face is being turned toward the Lord looking for mercy.

[3] Psalm 122 also spoke of “our God” (122:9). These are the only 2 occurrences of this phrase in the Songs of Ascents. It occurs also in Ps 135:2 in the phrase “house of our God,” which only occurs in Ezra-Nehemiah.

[4] With the other being implied (“for”).

[5] Zenger, 468 believes that Pss 123 and 124 form a unit: “Dass JHWH seiner Fürsorgepflicht nachkommt, wird freilich im folgenden Ps 124 feierlich proklamiert. In dieser Hinsicht bilden Ps 123 and Ps 124 eine kompositionelle Einheit.”


Author: Randy McKinion

Besides being a husband and father, I teach at Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH.

One thought on “Psalm 123”

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