Psalm 123

While very short, this Psalm of Ascents is far more intense than any English translation can convey. It echoes of someone in deep distress from oppression, implying a persecution for one’s faith in Jehovah.

The first word in the Hebrew here points to God as the obvious focus; there is no other. We are bowed down under the pressure of a world that dehumanizes and tries to own us, but we recognize no Sovereign but Jehovah. He is the One who dwells in the Heavens as His natural home, built by His hand.

In a related figure of speech, the psalmist cites a protocol whereby the servant watches the right hand of his master, or her mistress. Many Ancient Near Eastern potentates would establish subtle hand signals, training their servants to respond immediately. Just the slightest twitch from Your finger, O Lord, and we are ready to jump. We are watchful and eager. What is not easily translated to our culture today is how such a servant was utterly convinced that the whims of their lord were always in their own best interest. In this case, it’s all the more so true when we seek His mercy and favor for deliverance.

And what favor do we seek? The psalmist includes everyone, emphasizing it by repeating it. We burdened by the hideous moral distress of contempt we face from those bearing worldly authority over us. The obvious implication is that God is not like that; we are His family and His treasure. Who compares to the greatness of God? Yet men with piddling authority over a few others so quickly forget humility before God, and oppress His people.

This prayer doesn’t seek revenge, only deliverance.

Psalm 119: Qoph 145-152

Here we have the Song of Assurance. Prayer works.

As the psalmist notes, genuine effective prayer requires a fully committed heart first, but the heart knows what to ask because the heart knows what God wants to do. And it is from the heart that we are loyal to the revelation of what God has appointed in Creation. So he cries out, ever renewing his personal covenant of loyalty, not calling on any other power. He knows that Jehovah is his salvation and the power to obey.

Even before dawn, his heart awakens him to spend time in the divine Presence. He cries out for the freedom that comes only from enslavement to God. He knows the precious promises of God’s Word. When something keeps him awake at night, when his soul is churning without sleep, he knows this is the call to ponder the revelation of Jehovah.

His experience thus far trusting in God has taught him that God is merciful when we call on Him, and that it is the nature of His justice to restore a vivid life. Such is the moral character of Jehovah. He makes a play on words: The wicked are too close to him and too far from God’s truth at the same time.

Yet God is also near at hand, in his own soul. With His divine Presence comes all of His truth burned into our souls. As he takes a fresh look at the record of God’s revelation, he recognizes that same ancient power that spoke to his heart long ago. So ancient and yet forever fresh is the Word of God.

Call on Him

It’s the biggest compliment you can offer.

Our culture arises from Western feudalism, where a man’s pride and glory was in the property he owned, and the power he wielded. The more important he is, the less important others are to him. Thus, we are all used to petty bureaucrats flexing their importance and reminding us of our impotence. Debase yourself and beg, and maybe they’ll pay attention when the mood strikes them.

That’s totally different from the culture of the Bible. In Ancient Near Eastern feudal culture, a man’s power and glory rested on the number of dependents who served in his household. More people calling on him to exercise his power meant higher prestige. It was blessing that others came to you for help. In fact, a man who had to train up servants to sift through all the petitions brought into his courts was very important, indeed.

Call on Him; He takes it as a blessing when we seek His face.

Psalm 109

We are hard put to understand an individual imprecatory psalm in this final book of public worship songs, but must trust the wisdom of those who acted within that ancient culture. It’s for sure that all of us have experienced the underlying core of this prayer — a betrayal by someone we trusted, and for whom we cared. At least in that sense, we understand using this as a common ritual, since it is such a common experience, and the solution modeled here is clearly seeking a pure heart.

It is this business of heart-led faith that remains so foreign to our Western sensibilities. It is so very central that there is no need to speak of it directly here. Yet without it, we would miss the meaning of the curse David prays on his enemies. It seems a little extreme. On the one hand, we cannot forget that hyperbole is rather the norm in dramatic poetry like this. On the other hand, if this symbolic enemy has truly closed off his mind to the moral leadership of his heart, then the curse simply lays bear the awful things this man has done to himself and to those who depend on him for life. Thus, the attitude of the psalm is, “Lord, let him have the fullness of the evil he has chosen!” David prays this for the very reason that it reveals the moral character of God most clearly.

The format presumes at least some political authority. The office of king is merely the chief elder of the nation. It is his duty to take some risks in parceling out the vast moral duties of shepherding to feudal servants. With all the care he could take, David still finds himself suffering the presence of fakes who seek unjust personal gain. Sadly, he doesn’t always find out until rather far down the line of trust. Thus, David begins by setting the scene of betrayal of a trusted subordinate, someone he elevated to high trust and some power. This person used their position to bring David down for personal gain. In particular, they have falsely accused David in a very public manner. We presume David would hardly balk at a justified accusation, as we know from the record of Scripture, but this was something that was done all completely wrong, and it was false in the first place.

David responds with a detailed curse. We note that it is a long string of common images and standard idioms from those times. It starts with asking God to make his life hard, and then to make it short. And to ensure that no one learns from his evil ways and takes up his selfish thinking, David prays that his family suffer as well. We forget how dangerous it is to the whole nation if people who close up their hearts and commit themselves to mere human comfort are allowed to prosper and multiply. It is a common presumption of the Ancient Near East that the bad morals of a head of household corrupt everything he rules over — people, property and all. David goes further in asking God to withhold mercy and not forget the moral evil that brought forth such a traitor.

Such a man is presumed to curse vainly at others, since it was so common. Without a heart-led moral awareness, all that’s left is the lusts of the fallen soul. David prays that God return all those vain curses back on the man who uttered them. Let them wrap themselves around his soul, and soak into his very being — like excessive water a man drinks that overflows his stomach and is absorbed through his bowels, like oil wastefully lavished on everything until it soaks through his clothes and skin into his bones.

By contrast to this, David looks to his Master to save him from such accursed people. Better to face the wrath of God on his genuine sin than the “help” from people like that. David pours out the depth of sorrow and pain from this awful betrayal. There is also that common note, “O Lord, how long shall I endure this sorrow?” Then David asks the God deliver Him in such a way as to let people see he stands in God’s favor. Let them be ashamed of all their unjustified cursing and plotting secretly against him; expose them as liars. But as for David, his focus is on reflecting back the glory of God before a watching world.