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September 27, 2009
Psalm 124

Psalm 124 is another in the collection known as the ‘Songs of Ascents’ (Psalms 120-134). It is not certain why the title stands over each of these psalms. It could indicate either pilgrimage or liturgical connections. As noted when we looked at Psalm 125 (Pentecost 14) the group falls into three sub-groups: Psalms 120-124; 125-129; and 130-134. Psalm 124 brings the first sub-group to a close. There is constant stress within the group on reliance upon Yahweh and on Zion or Jerusalem as the place of blessing. The first five psalms in these Songs of Ascents could give a combined picture of the pilgrim, thankful for deliverance from distress in foreign places, journeying back to Jerusalem.

Psalm 124 is a psalm of thanksgiving for Yahweh’s presence with his people and deliverance of them in times of danger. By itself it could imply a military context but the coupling of the psalm with the reading from Esther affords it a new context where the very existence of a people is threatened by the jealousy and spite of powerful individuals or by systems that do not cater well for minorities or those who stand outside the ‘norm’ in one way or another. The psalmist’s proclamation is that it is only through Yahweh that they have been delivered. This is expressed both through mythic allusion (the flood or raging waters) or by metaphor from the world of fowlers (prey, snare and escape).

The psalmist’s assertion is striking in the context of the Esther reading which, as we noted, has no clear reference to God in the entire book. The psalm in contrast is insistent on trust in Yahweh as the mainstay of deliverance from earthly problems. Maybe the preacher can reflect on these two texts together and the complementarity they offer, stressing human struggle against injustice and oppression using the skills and intelligence available, and the need for trust in the Lord. That raises important questions to address, such as just how far can human intelligence and skill be employed in difficult situations without stepping over into ethically questionable territory. How far might Esther have gone to save her people? Bearing in mind this is a fictional story we can easily posit possibilities for discussion. But the problem is not an abstract one as the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the scheme to assassinate Adolf Hitler suggests. Recent films like ‘Inglourious Basterds’ also raise that question.

On the other hand, a trust in the Lord which allows little relation to human endeavour in situations can be just as questionable as extreme action on our part. We cannot discharge our responsibility for justice, peace and healing simply by handing solutions back to the Lord, at least not in circumstances where we can do something about them. We are cooperative partners with the Lord in this world of ours. Keeping the story of Esther and the psalm before us is one way to address this balance. Keeping the vision before us of a Lord who seeks to deliver his people is essential as we address the problems with which we are faced in this world.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

The military overtones of some of the language might seem to prohibit the use of the psalm fully in worship but parts of it lend themselves to liturgical use. The final verse, v. 8, could be used as a suitable sentence in the call to worship.

Verse 6 could be adapted as part of the final blessing:

Blessed be the Lord,
who does not give us over
to the powers that destroy.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be with you now and forever.
Finally the congregational refrain at the start of the psalm could be used in a similar way in a prayer or service of thanksgiving:
If it had not been that the Lord was on our side
then we may have been swallowed up
when forces raged against us.
Old Testament reading: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

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