Summary: Waiting faith and expectant trust,
AN OPEN-ENDED PRAYER
This is a short, impassioned prayer: a plea for help in the face of adversaries. It begins with adoration, with an abrupt “Unto You…” (Psalm 123:1).
This is a song of Ascents and its opening may be paralleled to another: ‘I to the hills will lift mine eyes, from whence doth come mine aid?’ (Psalm 121:1). Our help is not to be found in the high places, however awesome they may seem. The answer follows, ‘My safety comes from the LORD, who heaven and earth hath made’ (Psalm 121:2).
“Unto You,” then, “I lift up my eyes” (Psalm 123:1). Another Psalm takes it a step further: ‘But unto thee, O God the LORD, mine eyes uplifted be: My soul do not leave destitute; my trust is set in thee’ (Psalm 141:8).
But “Unto You”, who? Answer: “O Thou that dwells in the heavens” (Psalm 123:1). The LORD says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool’ (Isaiah 66:1; cf. Isaiah 57:15). ‘The throne of the LORD is in heaven’ (Psalm 11:4). Are you worried about powerful, scornful people? ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; He shall have them in derision’ (Psalm 2:4). ‘Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases’ (Psalm 115:3).
The lifting of the eyes is compared to the lifting of the eyes of servants to their masters’ hand, and of a maid to the hand of her mistress (Psalm 123:2). We should be willing to obey the hand that directs, and to accept of the hand that disciplines: but we should also be ready to receive from the hand that graciously gives ‘all good things’ (Matthew 7:11). ‘My eyes are ever toward the LORD; for He shall pluck my feet out of the net’ (Psalm 25:15). ‘My eyes long for your salvation’ (Psalm 119:123). So, “OUR eyes look to the LORD our God, until He has mercy on us” (Psalm 123:2).
The subject of mercy continues over into the third verse. Here the Psalmist twice invokes God’s mercy in the context of his prayer. He is no longer speaking only for Himself, but for the whole community of God’s people: “Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy upon us” (Psalm 123:3a)! This is the corporate form of the language of the taxman in the Temple: ‘God be merciful to me, the sinner’ (Luke 18:13); and of David in the cave (Psalm 57:1).
Now we (at last) get to the petition, to the reason for the prayer: “for we are exceedingly filled with contempt” (Psalm 123:3b). The pride of enemies was also in the purview of David (Psalm 56:1-2). The servants of the LORD are mocked (Psalm 89:50-51). They are the taunt of their neighbours and are surrounded by derision and scorn (Psalm 44:13). When Nehemiah began to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he spoke of enemies ‘who laughed at us, and despised us’ (Nehemiah 2:19); who were ‘furious and very indignant and mocked the Jews’ (Nehemiah 4:1). Nehemiah turned this into a petition: ‘Hear, O our God, for we are despised (Nehemiah 4:4).
I imagine Ezekiel knew this kind of contempt, too, when he was commissioned to preach to what the Voice from heaven called, ‘impudent and stubborn children’ (Ezekiel 2:4); ‘a rebellious house’ (Ezekiel 2:5). But the ultimate sufferer of such scorning was the One who took it all upon Himself: our Lord Jesus Christ. The Pharisees ridiculed Jesus (Luke 16:14); the onlookers at the Cross scoffed at Jesus (Luke 23:35); Jesus was despised, rejected, and held in low esteem (Isaiah 53:3).
“Our soul is exceedingly filled,” repeats the Psalmist. This time it is “with the scorning of those who are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123:4). If we return to the servant image, then we have here those who despise them. ‘In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune’ (Job 12:5). ‘Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,’ cries Amos (Amos 6:1). Why? Because ‘they are not grieved over the affliction of Joseph’ (Amos 6:6).
One of the amazing things about this Psalm, is that it ends just here. There is no evidence of the prayer being answered, but we all own it. It spans the history of the church, and cries in unspoken words (that are spoken in other parts of the Bible) ‘How long Lord?’ (Psalm 13:2; Habakkuk 1:2; Revelation 6:10).
The Psalmist has now presented his petition. Like the lawyer who says, ‘I rest my case’, he leaves it at the feet of Jesus (so to speak). Then he rests. Thus, the godly express their confidence in God. There is no reason to go back over and over it. Will not God speedily answer (Luke 18:7-8)? We know that He will, though the time seem long to us. ‘The LORD will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants’ (Deuteronomy 32:36).