Summary: God helps those who rely not on themselves but on Him.
“God helps those who help themselves”
Have you ever heard the expression, “God helps those who help themselves”? What does this saying mean? Does it mean that God only helps those who can help themselves? At the very least this saying seems to suggest to me that we can help ourselves somewhat. It suggests that when we try and make the effort ourselves God will then step in and make up the difference.
Of course, some people would even go further and say that God’s help is unnecessary. If can help myself at all, can’t I help myself the whole way? We live in a world filled with self-help products and motivational speakers that tell us how we can change our lives and handle our crises with our own strength, an inner strength we need only tap into with the help—of course—of the many self-help books, videos, conferences, seminars, and gurus that are out there. One research firm predicts that the total market size of the “self-improvement” industry will grow to over $11 billion by 2008. I would never say that no good is done by such self-help products, but if God indeed helps those who help themselves, perhaps some of this money should be given to churches through tithes and offerings!
Psalm 124 is a song that reminds us that we need help. It is a song that reminds us that God is our help. It tells us that without the Lord as our help we are more than likely to be swallowed by our enemies.
Hazards along the road
So we read Psalm 124 and what do we see? “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side . . . when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive.” Verses 1 – 5 describe what it would be like if God were not our helper. If the Lord was not our helper, then we’d be swallowed alive, the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us, and over us would have gone raging waters. Without God, my enemies would overwhelm me. Notice that it doesn’t say if our enemies attack us, but when. Our Psalm assumes enemy attacks will come.
The Psalm gives three examples of enemy attacks. The first is being swallowed alive—based on how this word “swallow” is used elsewhere in Scripture this is the image of Leviathan, the great beast or sea monster. This monster or dragon represents evil, a creature from which there is no escape. Such a creature represents all that can threaten and hurt us, and we all have things which can do that.
The second is a flood. In the Middle East watercourses which have eroded the countryside are all interconnected by an intricate gravitational system. When a sudden storm fills these little gullies with water, they feed into one another, and in a very short time you have a torrential flash flood. During the rainy season people who live here are in danger because of such unannounced catastrophes. They come on too quick to escape. One minute the world is wonderful and things are fine; the next minute the entire world is devastated by a flash flood. It can happen to any of us.
The last image is that of a bird trapped in a snare. Those who snare birds know what they’re doing; if a bird gets caught in a snare, it’s not getting out. And no doubt each one of us has been in a situation where we had no idea how we were going to escape.
Each of these examples paints a vivid picture of getting trapped and not being able to get out and of catastrophes that arrive without warning. And each example is one of being in desperate need of help precisely because you can’t help yourself. Just because we are the people of God doesn’t mean we don’t have ordeals. We never know what’s coming. As we all walk along the road of faith we can each expect to encounter any number of unexpected hazards along the way. When Eugene Peterson was still an active pastor and went to give blood to the Red Cross, he was asked if he did hazardous work. He replied, “Yes.” The nurse, seeing his clerical collar, smiled and replied, “I don’t mean that kind of hazardous.”
“Let Israel now say”
But despite the hazards of the walk of faith the Psalm mentions, they are not the focus of our passage—this is not what he wants us to dwell on. Sure, he acknowledges that there are dangers in following God; but he doesn’t stay there. He doesn’t get bogged down in his troubles. The focus of this Psalm is not the hazards but the helper. He tells us that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the floodwaters and was able to escape the snare because of the Lord’s help—“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side.” He acknowledges the hazards and he acknowledges that apart from God they would have done him in.