Monthly Archives: August 2010

A song for the darker paths – Psalm 124

I’m writing a talk this week on Psalm 124 – one of the Songs of Ascent. I thought I’d write this in an attempt to express my thoughts on the psalm concisely.

Here’s the Psalm (NIV)

1 If the LORD had not been on our side—
let Israel say-

2 if the LORD had not been on our side
when men attacked us,

3 when their anger flared against us,
they would have swallowed us alive;

4 the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,

5 the raging waters
would have swept us away.

6 Praise be to the LORD,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.

7 We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.

8 Our help is in the name of the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

The key verse – the chorus if you like – of this psalm is the last one. ‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.’ The aim of this song is to help us as God’s people to sing this tune on our dangerous journey towards the new Jerusalem.

We’ve already had this line in another song of Ascent, number 121. The song we sing there is a song about God’s character. We’re encouraged that ‘our help is in the name of the LORD’ as we sing about our God’s character, the God who ‘neither slumbers, nor sleeps.’

Here we’re singing the same chorus, but we get there a different way. It’s like a hip hop song that’s sampled a pop song. We get to the feel good chorus by reminding ourselves of the difficult times. We share our memories of the times God has delivered us, and so we end up singing together ‘our help is in the name of the LORD.’

So imagine you’re on your way up on your yearly journey to Jerusalem, to go and celebrate the Feast at the temple of the LORD. But it’s a dangerous journey. Robbers lie waiting in the woods to ambush defenceless pilgrims.

As you walk through the dark forest, and find yourself peering desperately into the black spaces between the trees, you strike up this song to encourage your little group. The song looks back to a time when the danger was even greater.

In fact, the odds were overwhelming. Disaster was a split-second away.

“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 poet uses a particular technique to remind us how bad the danger was. He uses a group of three lines, all saying the same thing, but increasing in intensity.

When men attacked us
When their anger flared against us
They would have swallowed us alive

In the next group of 3 lines, the enemy horde that threatens to swallow up God’s people is compared to a flood. Again, note the increase in intensity:

the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters would have swept us away.

We go from flood to torrent to raging waters. They threaten to engulf, to sweep over, to sweep away.

The next line comes like an oasis of calm:

“Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth”

The waters are stilled, the lions’ mouths are shut. The LORD has intervened.

V7 gives us a final image, impressing the psalm’s wonder at our miraculous escape on our minds.

There’s nothing as free as a bird. And there’s nothing as pitiful or vulnerable than a trapped bird. The bird flies blindly into the netting and is trapped. As it wriggles and flaps it only tangles itself up even more. All it can do is wait for the fowler to snap off its life. And Israel was like that. Caught in a net. No human hope.

But incredibly, Israel escapes! Did you notice how the poet uses a mirroring technique to emphasise the feeling of unexpected freedom?

We have escaped like a bird
out of the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.

And the deliverance is all God’s. His people were completely trapped, but God intervened and his people escaped.

Which leads us back to our chorus, and a tune we can hum even in the darkest forests and deepest valleys:

Our help is in the name of the LORD
Our help is in the name of the LORD
Our help is in the name of the LORD
The maker of heaven and earth

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