Psalm 128

Structurally, Psalm 128 has two sections: vv. 1–4 and vv. 5–6. The first 4 verses cohere as a result of the repetition (i.e., an inclusio) in v. 1 and v. 4, as shown below:

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1 Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!
2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD. (ESV)

I did not highlight the term “blessed” in these two verses because we are dealing with two different words. The first (אַשְׁרֵי) is the same form used in Psalm 127:5 (“Blessed is the man …”) among other places in the Psalter (such as Pss. 1:1; 2:12). It is used here in Psalm 128:2, as well, in the phrase “you shall be blessed.” These verses imply a tangible happiness (or satisfaction) for the one who fears the Lord. Likewise, the psalmist describes the fear of the Lord tangibly as walking in the ways of Yhwh. Just as the one who fears the Lord—manifested by following his word—is blessed, so the reader is again invited to relate this to the opening two psalms. In Psalm 1, the one who mediates upon the teachings of the Lord is blessed; in Psalm 2, kings are exhorted to worship Yhwh “in fear” (v. 11), and blessing is found for those who take refuge in the Son. Moreover, the tangible evidences of this blessing in Psalm 128 (eating the fruit of the land as a result of work, a fruitful wife, prospering children) set this hope within the context of Genesis 1–3. These blessings show a virtual reversal of the curses of Genesis 3 within the context of the original creation blessing and mandate to “be fruitful and fill the land” (Gen 1:28).

The second term for blessing (יְבֹרַךְ) refers to blessing that is bestowed upon the one who fears the Lord. The presence of this term here prepares the reader for the second section of the psalm (vv. 5, 6), where such blessing is spoken over the individual. It thus links the physical blessings of vv. 2, 3 with the act of blessing done by Yhwh (v. 5, see below). This ensures that the source of this blessing is not missed.

4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.
5 The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!
6 May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel! (ESV)

The promise of blessing upon the one who fears Yhwh in v. 4 has become the request for blessing upon the one over whom this blessing is spoken in v. 5. This request for blessing in v. 5 is echoed later in Psalm 134:3 verbatim.

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Throughout the Songs of Ascents, there have been a number of connections with the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6, and that trend continues in Psalm 128. Just as the priests were commanded to “bless” (using the latter term) the people of Israel, so the writer of Psalm 128 speaks with confidence of Yhwh’s blessing on those who fear Yhwh (v. 4) and also speaks a blessing upon the reader(s) (v. 5). As such, Psalm 128 acts as a rehearsal of the Priestly Blessing (in much the same way was Psalm 134 will also) but carefully places the origin of that blessing from Zion. The phrase, “peace upon Israel,” both enhances the connection to the Priestly Blessing and brings coherence within the Songs of Ascents as it echoes Psalm 125:5.

One of (if not the) central point of the psalm is to show that the blessing of one who fears Yhwh (vv. 1–4) manifests itself within the promise of a peaceful Zion/Jerusalem/Israel (vv. 5–6). As such, within the context of the Songs of Ascents and the Psalter, the blessing comes as part of the eschatological Messianic kingdom, which will continue to be described in the rest of the Songs of Ascents (see especially Psalm 132).

Psalm 127

Psalm 127 is the only Song of Ascents attributed to Solomon. As such, it invites the reader to interpret the psalm in relationship to Solomon, the son of David, the one with whom Yhwh has made a covenant. As Psalm 132 makes clear, the Songs of Ascents are concerned with the welfare of the land, people, nation within the context of the promises made to David, and in the context of the Psalter (e.g. Psalm 72) and the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Kings). Here, Solomon complements David in portraying the messianic hope of the writers of the Hebrew Bible. As such, when Solomon speaks of the house, city, and sons, the Solomonic context is important.

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Like other Songs of Ascents that have been discussed, the author of Psalm 127 uses varying degrees of repetition and parallelism to highlight the theme of his song. Consider the repetition of the first two lines:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Verse 1 demonstrates not only repetition of vocabulary (“if Yhwh does not” and “in vain”) but also repetition of grammatical structures. Even though he shifts from “builds the house” to “watches over the city,” the poet still uses the same verbal forms complemented with a direct object. Similarly in the second half of both lines, the term for “in vain”—which is placed first in the Hebrew text—is followed by the same verbal tense and a participle. As such, v. 1 serves as a great example of the way the psalmists employ different types of poetic parallelism. But the important interpretive question is why the parallelism is used.

On the one hand, the repetition of vocabulary highlights an important element, which is the vanity of being part of a house or city that Yhwh has not had a part in building. Interpreted in light of the author, Solomon, the theological importance of this strategy comes clearly to bear, namely that the building of David’s house by any other means than with Yhwh’s help is useless.

On the other hand, the author also focuses on the one who builds and watches in vain. Even well-meaning efforts to build a house and watch a city are done in vain if done without the presence and power of the Lord. Yet, by bringing attention to those who build and watch, even though with vanity, the author prepares the reader for the next verses, which begin by returning to the same term “in vain.” As such, v. 2 demonstrates clearly what it means to live in this house 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 to his beloved sleep.

Without the security of a house that Yhwh builds and a city that he oversees, Yhwh’s beloved is left with nothing but anxiety. But in contrast to the anxious toil of the one who has no recourse to Yhwh, Yhwh’s “beloved” sleeps well and with purpose. Yet, the hope of the beloved one is provided by Yhwh, the one who builds and protects the house. This is similar to the hope that David expresses in Psalms 3 and 4. Moreover, it is also similar to the hope of the Priestly Blessing that is echoed in v. 1 with the phrase “watch over” (literally, “keep,” as in “Yhwh bless you and keep you”). So again, Numbers 6 is being expounded upon within the context of the Davidic household. Recognizing the significance of Solomonic authorship and its impact on the theological interpretation of the psalm makes the difficult task of reconciling the rest of the psalm with its first two verses slightly easier.

The psalms transitions in v. 3 with “behold,” which is used several other times in the Songs of Ascents (121:4; 123:2; 128:4; 132:6). In each case, this small element intends to draw the attention of the reader. In this case, it also functions as a transitioning element to a new topic, namely the sons that populate the household. The importance and blessing of sons will be painted in several images.

Beginning in v. 3, leveraging poetic parallelism, the writer turns to the description of “sons” or in parallel “fruit of the womb” as “a heritage from the Lord” and “a reward.” The first image is that of an inheritance (or heritage), which is used often in the OT to describe the land that Yhwh gives to Israel. As such, children are something that are deeded over to the parents by Yhwh himself.

But at the same time, they are described as a “reward,” which is used of Abraham (Gn 15:1) and in the explanation by Leah of the name for Issachar (Gn 30:18). On the one hand, the term can refer to a payment or wage that is earned as a servant (Gn 30:28) or soldier (Ezek 29:18); on the other hand, the term insinuates more of a reward for faithfulness. Placed in parallel to heritage, the implication is that sons are a gift from Yhwh but at the same time are a reward for faithfulness. Thus, the inheritance imagery fits, for the land of Canaan was given over to the people as a gift by Yhwh while at the same time there was a level of faithfulness that was expected.

In relationship to the household of Solomon, this psalm implies that the children of the Davidic household are gifts from Yhwh within the context of a faithful household (as in the story of Ruth).

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Employing another analogy, the author describes in v. 4 the usefulness of these sons when they are described as “arrows in the hand of a warrior.” The sons of one’s youth are like implements of war that are wielded in battle. With such usefulness, the psalmist encourages the reader with the note that blessing is found when the quiver is filled with these arrows. A household of children brings blessing and a good reputation. Granted, the psalmist does not address the complexities of raising children. As was apparent even within the household of David, sons sin, rebel, and cause great commotion at times within even the kings household. Yet, Solomon is convinced that children are a source of great blessing and reputation.

As earlier, the psalm continues the connections to the Priestly Blessing by interpreting blessing (“Yhwh bless you and keep you”) within the context of the household, particularly within the auspices of the house of David/Solomon. Psalm 128 continues this pattern.

Psalm 126

Tears sown by the righteous in the wilderness will reap bountiful fruit.

Such is the message of Psalm 126. Before diving into the message in detail, I wanted to make sure that this truth rings clear.

Just as Psalm 125 began with a reference to Mount Zion, so Psalm 126 refers to Zion. As such, these two psalms bring to the forefront the importance of Zion to the theology of the Songs of Ascents.

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Once again, the poet has wielded great skill in composing his song. The message of the psalm is carried along on parallelism between successive lines as well as larger structure of the whole. These comments will begin with the larger structure before moving to an explanation of the meaning and contribution of the individual lines. Consider first the following presentation of the first 4 verses, where the lines have been numbered to make discussion more clear [note that the numbers are not verses]:

1   When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

2   we were like those who dream

3   Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;

4   then they said among the nations,

5   “The LORD has done great things for them.”

6   The LORD has done great things for us;

7   we are glad.

8   Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

9    like streams in the Negeb!

Several observations are pertinent.

First, in lines 1 and 8, the author has turned a recollection about Yhwh restoring the fortunes of Zion into a plea for Yhwh to do the same thing again. Using the same vocabulary enhances this connection.

Second, line 2, which describes the state of those to whom fortune had been returned, is complemented by line 7, which describes the state of the people for whom Yhwh has done great things. The same verb form is used “we were”;[1] plural descriptions (specifically participles) are used (“dreamers” and “rejoicers”[2]). Structurally, the verses seem to work from the outside in, like a chiasm, in that lines 1 and 8 are complements like lines 2 and 7.

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Between these sets of “bookends” are four other lines of poetry (lines 3 to 6). So, third, lines 3 and 4 both begin the same way with “then” followed by the same tense verb. The restoration of Zion’s fortunes had two responses. One by the people of God, whose tongues shouted for joy at what Yhwh had done. The other by the nations, who responded with recognition of what Yhwh had done for Israel.

Fourth, the announcement by the nation in line 5 is immediately echoed by the psalmist in line 6, the only change being “them” for “us.” The poet personalizes the statement for the congregation.

Yet, what is interesting about the author’s use of structure here is this. After returning in v. 4a to the vocabulary of v. 1a (i.e., restore, Yhwh, fortune), the plea to Yhwh, “Restore our fortunes,” is set in parallel with the line, “like streams in the Negeb,” in v. 4b. This phrase also makes a connection to “like those who dream” in v. 1b. Thus, the conclusion can be drawn that v. 4a, which along with v. 1 and 3b encloses statements in vv. 2 and 3, also functions to begin a new section that is initially carried on by v. 4b. In other words, v. 4a strategically closes the first half of the psalm while beginning the second. What could easily be missed here is the enclosing aspect of this structure. It is quite simple to see that the author makes the statement of v. 1 personal to the congregation by shifting to the imperative.[3]

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By linking the second half of the psalm so tightly to the first, it invites the reader to understand the second half in relationship to the first. In this light, then, the second half of the verse is an extended analogy of the expectation of the psalmist that is less about literal sowing and reaping and more about Yhwh’s accomplishing a work among his people that correlates to the work in bringing them back to Zion (v. 1).

But the next two verses break from this design and contain their own forms of parallelism and imagery. As such, v. 5 could be structured this way:[4]

Those who sow

in tears

with[5] shouts of joy

shall reap!

As has been seen other places in the Songs of Ascents, this chiasm highlights the sharp contrast between “tears” and “shouts of joy.” Moreover, it highlights the importance for the psalm as a whole for the term “shout of joy,” which also appears in v. 2 in reference to their tongue and in v. 6 about those returning from the harvest.

The psalmist also leverages poetic parallelism but in a way that differs from v. 5 Note the repetition:

He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing [lit. bearing] his sheaves with him.

Although not as apparent in translation, the grammatical form for the first part of both lines is the same in Hebrew. Thus, the author does not repeat vocabulary; rather, the author repeats grammar. This is quite typical in Hebrew poetry.

Taken together, then, the author uses various poetic parallelism in vv. 5 and 6 to highlight different things. V. 5 focuses the reader on the tears and shouts of joy. V. 6 seems to bring focus primarily on the individual, who first sows with weeping and then reaps with shouts of joy. Moreover, the author also highlights the positive return by contrasting what is borne (or lifted up). The weeper goes out bearing seed; the rejoicer returns bearing sheaves.

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The theological richness of this Song of Ascents avails itself to the one who reaches beyond this psalm and the Songs of Ascents to the larger hope of the Psalter. For there, the author of the book of Psalms has left the reader with the hope initially framed in Psalms 1 and 2. In those psalms, the gateway to the Psalter was framed by a wise, victorious king through whom refuge was promised to those who would worship him. As such, the hope the Psalter is not a hope in a return from Babylonian exile (see those psalms that imply that return was in the past) but rather in an eschatological return in which the kingdom of this king would be established. Yet, as is common in the OT, hope for such a return is patterned from past acts of Yhwh. Thus, those who long in tears for their redemption can place their faith in the one who has already demonstrated his power to do great things for them. The psalmist has penned a lasting paradigm: Sowing in tears means reaping with a ringing cry.[6]

While we wait for the figurative “streams in the Negeb,” a potent image of hope for our redemption and satisfaction, we should remember that our tears sown even while in the wilderness will reap bountiful fruit. And we will return from that wilderness carrying our harvest of sheaves.

Notes

[1] This is not clear in the ESV, since it translate the same form as “we were” in v. 1 and “we are” in v. 3.

[2] Again, this is not clear in the English. Perhaps a more literal translation would be “we were rejoicers.”

[3] What makes this argument compelling is that vv. 5 and 6 contain their own poetic structures. That is, the overwhelming structure of the first half is abandoned for different types of parallelism in the final two verses.

[4] Note that this does not maintain the order of the ESV.

[5] The same preposition is used before “tears” and “shouts of joy.”

[6] I found the following summary helpful: “The song poignantly expresses the mourning of God’s people and their subsequent return to the land as a fulfillment of their hope in Yahweh’s deliverance and the tangible realization of their return as a manifestation of their special relationship to God as his covenant people.” (Klouda, 939)

Psalm 125

In an earlier post, I made the supposition that the Songs of Ascents encourage the faithful to look forward to the end-of-days fulfillment of the Lord’s promises to David at Zion. This theme continues in Psalm 125, which accents the posture of the faithful as they await this forever kingdom as those who have proclaimed in the previous psalm: “Our help is in the name of Yhwh, the Maker of heaven and earth” (124:8).

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As in Psalm 124, connections to Psalm 121 continue as the author compares those who trust in Yhwh to the mountains that surround Jerusalem/Zion. As a complement to the psalms that preceded, Psalm 125 opens by reminding the congregation that trusting in Yhwh is not in vain.

Those who trust in Yhwh are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so Yhwh surrounds His people,
from this time forth and forevermore.

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Furthermore, like all biblical poetry and especially the Songs of Ascents, the psalmist uses parallelism and repetition to ensure that the readers focus on the point of the analogy. In the span of two verses, each of the terms “mountain(s),” “surround,” and “forever” appears twice. From a poetic perspective, three observations are important.

First, repetition, which is common in the Psalter, serves both to structure the lines of psalms and to highlight the importance of a concept. In this psalm, then, these two verses highlight the permanence of the mountains of Jerusalem that surround the land as part of a pair of similes.

Second, the literary device of a simile (or metaphor) also occurs often in the Psalter. Here, there are two (strong Mount Zion and surrounding mountains), which combine to make profound theological points.

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Third, poets also use unbalanced lines to bring attention to an element. In these two verses, there seems to be an extra line. Balance is part of the nature of Hebrew parallelism, so when it is broken, the reader should give pause. In this case, the phrase “from this time forth and forevermore” seems to be added here, breaking the balance of the verse, to ensure that the reader knows how permanent Yhwh’s protection is. Moreover, this phrase is found elsewhere in the Songs of Ascents, of which one occurrence is Psalm 121, which seems to take a prominent position in this collection.

Yhwh will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore. (121:8)

O Israel, hope in Yhwh
from this time forth and forevermore. (131:3)

In v. 1, the focus falls upon the immovability of Mount Zion, which should be associated with Jerusalem, especially in light of its connection with the temple. The simile developed is simple: Trusting in Yhwh breeds permanence. That is, those who believe are provided eternal stability. In v. 2, another simile builds on the first using the mountains as analogous to the way Yhwh surrounds His people.

Combining these two similes gives a comprehensive picture of the author’s intention. Just as Jerusalem, whose central focus is Zion, the mountain on which the temple dwelt, is surrounded by other mountains that protect it, so those who trust in Yhwh have personal, eternal stability rendered by their ever-present protector, namely, Yhwh.

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Yhwh’s surrounding of His people is given practical expression in v. 3:

For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous,
lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong.

This verse extends the analogy of Yhwh’s protection to the literal land that he gave them. The speaker describes a situation that is unnatural, namely, wickedness ruling over the land apportioned by Yhwh to His people. If this were to happen, then those who are righteous might stretch forth their hand in injustice. This good land was made for the righteous to inhabit as they fellowship with their Lord. The implication seems to be that a situation in which the wicked rule over Yhwh’s land is inconsistent with what was expressed about Yhwh in v. 2. Yhwh surrounds His people; therefore, a rule of wickedness in the land should not occur.

As a response, the psalmist calls upon Yhwh to respond in v. 4 by doing good to those who are good and upright in heart. Moreover, in v. 5, the psalmist expresses a desire for the Lord to rid them of their enemies, namely, those whose ways are crooked. Once again, the psalmist reveals his focus by use of a common literary device, a chiasm:

A  Do good, O Yhwh, to those who are good,
B  and to those who are upright in their hearts!
B’  But those who turn aside to their crooked ways
A’  Yhwh will lead away with evildoers!

The writer contrasts the good with the bad. The good ones are those who are upright in heart; the evil ones are those who turn aside to crooked ways. The evil ones are those who choose to follow the crooked and are therefore given up to their pursuit by Yhwh. He leads them into the paths that they are following. In making this comparison, the psalm takes up a common theme in the Psalter, extending back to Psalms 1 and 2.

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The psalm concludes on a interesting note. Out of nowhere, it seems, the phrase, “Peace be upon Israel!” appears. On the one hand, this phrase completes the triad of mentioning all three names that are significant in the Songs of Ascents: Zion, Jerusalem, and Israel. On the other hand, the writer again uses poetic parallelism advantageously. In much the same way that the poet has placed the phrase, “from this time forth and forevermore,” at the end of v. 2 in order to draw attention to the perpetuity of Yhwh’s protection, so here he concludes his poem by returning to a major theme within the Songs of Ascents. This theme is the welfare (shalom/peace) in Jerusalem/Zion that will accompany Yhwh’s deliverance of His people. Part of this peace will be the (re)establishment of the Davidic kingdom as part of the larger promises that will come about to fulfill the promises to David in 2 Samuel 7 (see also Isaiah 2).

In summary, Psalm 125 calls upon Yhwh to act on behalf of His people, bringing resolution to the unnatural reality that the land allotted to His people needs peace. Those who long for that promise, described here as those who trust, who are good, and who are upright in heart, should persevere with the realization that Yhwh has eternally procured their protection through the plans He has made for David’s kingdom.

Putting the pieces together … Psalms 120-124

I thought it might be helpful to take a brief respite and review how Psalms 120-124 sound a harmonious song to our Helper.

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The Shepherd’s Field

Psalm 120

Though distressed by circumstances absent of peace (shalom), we call to the Lord who answers our cries.

To whom do our cries rise? To the Helper of Psalm 121 …

Psalm 121

Because our help comes from the Maker of the heavens and earth, who is our keeper (guard) we can be confident that He will keep (6x) us forevermore.

Psalm 122

The proper response of we who seek help from our Keeper is to give thanks to the name of the Lord, longing for worship and satisfaction in a peaceful, New Jerusalem, the place where our God dwells.

Psalm 123

But while waiting, we continue to lift up our eyes to the Lord our God, the One in the heavens, and ask for His grace when confronted with the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 124

Our Helper is none other than the Maker of heaven and earth. Blessed be the Lord who is for us and gives us victory.

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Sea of Galilee

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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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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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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

Notes

[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.”