Summary: God often shows up when all other hope is gone.
Today we conclude our series of messages on the "Songs of Ascent," Psalms 120 – 134. These are traveling songs, sung by the people of ancient Israel on their journeys up to Jerusalem, as they made their way to the capitol city for the three annual feasts. Taken together, these Psalms form a kind of catalog of the life of faith; they deal with issues that God’s people have been struggling with for thousands of years; issues like hope, and joy, and perseverance, and humility. And that’s why we’re studying them; because they are so timelessly relevant. Even today, they can aid us in our spiritual "ascent"; they can guide us in our lifelong journey of discipleship to Jesus Christ.
This morning’s selection is number 124, a Psalm of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance:
If the LORD had not been on our side--let Israel say--if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away.
Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
Now, we don’t know which event in Israel’s history the author is referring to. Certainly there were many times when God intervened to rescue his people from calamity, many times when he saved them from certain destruction at the hands of foreign kings and armies. If you watch "The Ten Commandments" on television this week, you’ll see Cecil B. DeMille’s version of one such deliverance, the Exodus. In that story, taken from the Old Testament, we see the Israelites suffering under cruel slavery in Egypt. Through Moses, God demands that his people be set free, but Pharaoh refuses. And so God brings Egypt to its knees by a series of increasingly destructive plagues – frogs, gnats, boils, hailstones, locusts, and finally, the death of every family’s first-born son. At last, Pharaoh is forced to allow Israel to leave. But almost as soon as they’ve gone, he changes his mind. He orders his army to pursue them. As the Israelites are camping by the Red Sea, they hear the sound of a great army approaching; they look up, and as if in a nightmare, they see horses, and chariots, and armed warriors, bearing down on them with terrifying speed and murderous rage. Fear grips their hearts! They have no weapons. They’re trapped, with no possibility of escape: the swords and spears of the Egyptian army are before them; the shores of the Red Sea are behind them. They are completely defenseless. A bloody massacre seems certain. The people panic! They cry out to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?"
And then, just when it seems that all is lost, God shows up. He sends a great wind to divide the sea. His people walk through on dry land, but when the Egyptians try to follow, the water rushes back over their heads, and every one of them drown; soldiers, horsemen, and horses. Pharaoh’s army is destroyed! The Israelites are saved! They rejoice, and sing, and dance! Certainly they would have agreed wholeheartedly with the words of Psalm 124. They knew that if God had not been with them when they were attacked, they would have been annihilated. They would have been cut to pieces. They were trapped, defenseless, their situation completely hopeless. But then God intervened, and suddenly, unbelievably, everything changed. They were free, like a bird escaping from a snare. They were saved! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
The interesting thing, you realize as you read through the Bible, is that this is not an isolated incident. Unexpected deliverance is a recurring theme, in both the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly, we see God intervening in apparently hopeless situations, turning defeat into victory, loss into gain, failure into success, death into life. Over and over again, when disaster seems the only possible outcome, suddenly God shows up. And that changes everything.
For instance, we see Abraham and his wife Sarah, both of them old, advanced in years, well past any possibility of child-bearing, and yet God allows Sarah to bear a son, Isaac.
Or Daniel, thrown into a den of lions because he prayed to God, and disobeyed the king’s edict. Death seems certain. But God sends an angel to shut the lions’ mouths, and his life is spared.
Or Peter, thrown into jail, bound with chains, guarded by soldiers. Escape is out of the question. And yet, he does escape. God sends an angel, and Peter simply walks out of the prison.