YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between November 13 and November 19)
Psalm 123, with its emphasis on God’s mercy is a fitting companion to the reading from Judges 4. The psalmist has had enough of the contempt they have received from others, the psalmist pleads with Yahweh for mercy. The psalmist lifts their eyes as they did in Ps 121:1, but this time it is not to the hills with the concern of safety and help. Now they lift their eyes ‘to you’, i.e. to the Lord.
The expression used to describe the Lord in v. 1 is ‘you who are enthroned in the heavens!’ It expresses the sovereignty of God over all, drawing on royal language and imagery. It is quite natural then that the psalm speaks in v. 2 of servants and maids. Just as those who serve in the royal palace or in the residence of someone who is extremely wealthy and of high station, look to their master or mistress for favour, so the servant of God looks to God for mercy. Mercy is a quality given by those who in a position of power or authority to one who is not in a position to help themselves. The psalmist and their community have received scorn and contempt from others. They look for mercy in the one place where they expect it to be given, from God. The reference to the proud in v. 4 is another reference to those who are powerful or wealthy and have servants and maids to rule over. While the imagery of kingship and mercy are drawn from the highest levels of society it is nevertheless clear that the God to whom the psalmist prays is not one whose action is determined by their status or pride. Mercy is freely given by this God to the one who earnestly seeks it.
Psalm 123 is part of the collection of psalms we have met on other occasions called the ‘songs of Ascents’ (Psalms 120-134). They have the common superscription ‘a song of ascents’. Just what that means is debatable. It could be related to the use of the verb ‘to go up’, in regard to the exiles returning to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:1; 7:9). It could indicate the collection is related to pilgrimage in general. Alternatively, the Mishnah implies a liturgical function seeing one psalm sung on each of the fifteen steps between the women’s court and the court of Israel in the Jerusalem temple complex. The collection has traditionally been used in the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) recalling the wilderness wanderings.
The unity of the collection lies in their common superscription as well as in repeated themes through the collection. A number of phrases repeated throughout the collection helps bind the collection. These include: ‘I lift up my eyes’ (Pss 121:1; 123:1); ‘who made heaven and earth’ (Pss 121:2; 124:8; 134:3). Several different types of psalms are found in the collection. Psalm 123 is a prayer for help and could be associated, through the use of the plural pronoun forms ‘we’ etc. in vv. 2-4, with Israel’s experience in exile.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
Verse 1 can be used as a call to worship, even responsively:
To you I lift up my eyes,Clauses from v. 3, ‘Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us.’ can be used as a congregational refrain in the prayer of confession.
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Clauses like ‘those who have had more than enough (of contempt etc.)’ or ‘those who have had more than their fill (of suffering/hardship etc.)’ could be used in the prayers of the people partly as a refrain by the one leading the prayers but also as a way of connecting the various people for whom the congregation prays.
Old Testament reading: Judges 4:1-7
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