Psalm 124

The next Song of Ascents claims to be another psalm of David. But in this case, unlike Psalm 122, the psalm does not begin with a personal expression by the speaker. Rather, Psalm 124 reflects the hopes of the community, as David calls upon Israel to remember what Yhwh has done for them when they encountered difficult situations.

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Qumran

The poet begins with a type of parallelism that will be seen in other Songs of Ascents where a portion of a line is repeated with different complementary lines. Note how vv. 1–2 are designed:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us …

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Megiddo

Such a poetic technique arouses the attention and curiosity of the reader by highlighting the theme of the psalm. The focus of the writer falls upon the presence of Yhwh with Israel, and he calls upon the reader’s to consider their fate if Yhwh were not on their side. They were Yhwh’s people and as such he was their hope as other men rose before them as enemies.

Yet, vv. 1–2 are incomplete sentences. They are merely setting the stage on which Yhwh’s work on behalf of Israel might be rehearsed in vv. 3–5, which serve as the complement to the sentence in v. 1:

then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone the raging waters.[1]

Although far removed from the actual events during the time of Moses, Israel is invited to remember the texts of the Pentateuch concerning how their enemies would have easily gained victory over them and the waters of the Red Sea would have easily swept over them if it had not been for the help of Yhwh.[2] He was “for” them, and therefore they enjoyed victory. Of Yhwh’s mighty work in the past, they should now speak (v. 1). The psalmist joins the chorus of the rest of the Hebrew Bible in its emphasis that Yhwh’s deliverance in the past serves as an example of his work in the present and future.

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Tel Dan

So in response, David says in v. 6, “Blessed be the Lord.” This is the only occurrence of the phrase in the Songs of Ascents, but it plays an important role in the Psalter as a whole. The phrase appears at the seams of the Psalter as part of the doxologies that close each portion of the book.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen. (Ps 41:13)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen! (Ps 72:18–19)

Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen! (Ps 89:52)

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord! (Ps 106:48)

Throughout the Psalter, meditation on and singing about Yhwh’s mighty deeds serves as a clarion call for his people to bless his name (see especially 72:19). As the Priestly Blessing ensures the people of Yhwh’s blessing upon them, so the Psalter calls upon them to respond with the appropriate act of praise/blessing. The phrase is also present in the last verse of the psalm following the Songs of Ascents as part of its taking up several important elements of the Songs:

Blessed be the Lord from Zion,
he who dwells in Jerusalem! Praise the Lord! (Ps 135:21)

Yhwh deserves to be spoken well of because of his personal care on behalf of his people, especially because of his presence with them. In this, Ps 135:21 echoes the teaching of the psalm at hand, which lauds Yhwh because of his presence with his people. This joins the chorus of the Songs of Ascents as a whole as they focus on Jerusalem/Zion as the place where Yhwh dwells. And this means something hugely significant for the welfare of his people. So vv. 6–7 continue:

Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken, and we have escaped!

Using the imagery first of prey and then of a bird escaping from a net, the psalmist paints a practical picture of the deliverance Yhwh provided. In doing so, he again uses the literary device of step parallelism with the term “snare,” focusing attention of imminent danger from their enemies.

The conclusion to the psalm in v. 8 continues the psalmist’s intention of connecting his petitions to Psalm 121. First, just as the lifting of the eyes toward the mountains produced the certainty of Yhwh’s help, so here the theological conclusion is that help for God’s people was “in the name of the Lord.” The name Yhwh reminds his people that he is there with them; he is their covenant God who is loyal to his promises. Second, and integral to the author’s conclusion, Yhwh’s fidelity can be trusted because he is none other than the one “who made heaven and earth.” The speaker of Psalm 121 was certain that his “help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” So with this echo, the song ends by bringing the argument to its proper conclusion: Yhwh is on their side (vv. 1–2) as their helper (v. 8). Moreover, plots by mere humans (v. 2) are no match for help stemming from the maker of heaven and earth (v. 8).[3]

In looking back to Yhwh’s past deliverance as hope for his future redemption, Psalm 124 serves as an appropriate complement to Psalm 123. In Psalm 123, the psalmist lifted his eyes to the one enthroned in the heavens, waiting patiently for Yhwh to show his mercy to the community. This psalm likewise uses language reverberating with Psalm 121. While waiting for the grace requested, Psalm 124 reminds Yhwh’s people of how he came to their rescue in the nick of time, broke the snare, and provided their escape. Yhwh’s people can bless him because he is their deliverer, and they can be confident in his name because he is enthroned in the heavens (123:1) and is the maker of the heavens and earth (124:8).

Notes

[1] Note also the repetition in vv. 4, 5 of the phrase “would have gone over us,” which is highlighted by means of step parallelism. In fact, the author has produced somewhat of a chiasm with these verses, also repeating “waters.”

[2] The Psalter often returns to the Lord’s victory at the Red Sea both as a demonstration of his power and a call for God’s people in the present to trust him.

[3] On this inclusion, see Allen, 165.

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Author: Randy McKinion

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

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