If you think back over your life, there are a few key life-shaping events—choices or happenings that set the trajectory of your life. They are forks in the road, where you decided to choose the right path over the left. But, every once in a while, you wonder what could have been if you had only turned left. You were engaged, but you broke it off and ended up marrying someone else. What would your life be like if you had married your first fiancé? How different would things be if you had taken the job in Chicago instead of moving to Salt Lake? With a full-ride scholarship, you were set for a life in sports, but you got injured and ended up in finance. At the time, you prayed with all fervor to go right. Providence, however, took you left, and you look back and think, “I am glad God did not answer that prayer.” Pondering what could have been can be a frightful, a grateful, or a fascinating pastime. Psalm 124 reflects on what could have been, so that we might lift up our voices to bless our gracious Lord for being on our side.
This psalm is credited to David, but this psalm is not about David. David did not pen this psalm about something that happened to him as an individual. Rather, this is a corporate song—it mulls over a calamity that struck the people as a whole. The mass of Hebrews joined their voices as one to praise and testify about the Lord. This is also a song of blessing—it is the musical fragrance of thanksgiving, like the sweet smell of BBQ wafting to heaven. Yet, our feline curiosity quickly raises its hand. What was this calamity? What disaster fell upon Israel for which they praise the Lord for his deliverance? The answer is, to the dissatisfaction of many, that we do not know.
Indeed, David displays his gift of ambiguity. He spits a beat of generalness and vagueness. He writes, “people rose up against us,” which is about as nuanced as saying, “pass the thingamajig.” If you flip through the pages of Old Testament history, you will find many examples of when people rose against Israel. This is practically every other story, and this is the very purpose of the ambiguity. Within the vagueness, we find the application, our own story. David leaves the danger unspecific because this is a regular experience for God’s people throughout the ages, and it is that very habitual nature of the hazards that magnifies the constant and faithful help of our God. Let us, then, examine the anatomy of this reoccurring peril.
Twice the curtain opens on this psalm with, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” or more literally, “If not Yahweh, who was for us.” This is a birthday cake line, for it has layers. First, this acclaims that the Lord was for them; he was on their team. The Lord’s grace, love, and favor rested upon them to act for and protect them, to rescue and defend. Second, “if not Yahweh,” has the force of: it could only be the Lord. If you switched Yahweh out for someone else, it would be no good. If you put Baal or Marduk here, or swapped in an earthly king, then there would be nothing to give thanks for. Yahweh is the only teammate that counts.
Finally, this “if not” sets up a grammatical structure. If not means the Lord prevented something from happening. “If not” holds you in suspense for a “then.” If not for this seatbelt, then I would have died. If not for the police, then the criminal would have got away. If not for your wife, you would be fat. Hence, Israel is praising the Lord for something that didn’t happen. The disaster hit, but the Lord stopped it from destroying his people. The hurricane blew through Israel, but the Lord kept the roof on. Sandwiched between these two “if nots,” there is a call for Israel to speak—”Let Israel speak up.” This is David the pastor saying, “Can I get an Amen?” This exhorts Israel to testify; they cannot keep quiet. The people must speak up and announce with gratitude what Yahweh did for them.
Yet, what disaster struck God’s people? We heard the “if not,” so where is the “then”? The occasion was when people assailed them. Violent men attacked them. This line literally calls them humans. With Yahweh for you, a vicious mob is only mere humans. This humanity also colors the hostiles as worldly. Yet, these junkyard dogs were burning with anger against the sheep of the Lord. Their fury belched forth as fire. It is not uncommon for the world to churn with anger at the church. But this idiom to “burn with anger” is most often applied to the Lord’s holy wrath. This means the world attacks with a proud sense of self-righteousness. It adds a judicial tone to the imagery. The world thinks it is right and the church is despicable. And the imagery continues to evolve.
Next, frenzied enemies wanted to swallow up the saints alive. Only monsters have a gullet large enough to gulp down the alive. This human army has become bestial, or to be more precise, swallowing alive is the unique talent of Sheol in the Old Testament. Sheol is the colossal swallower. Death ever slurps up and never gets full. And where there is Sheol, chaotic waters are nearby. The onslaught of the enemy now morphs into raging and seething waters. The image here is particularly of a flash flood.
Imagine you are hiking in a beautiful Utah narrow canyon, when suddenly you hear thunder. You turn and a twenty-foot wall of water charges at you. There is nowhere to go. The rapids, looking like furious bulls, are running you down. The flood smacks you and after what seems like an eternity of underwater chaos, you find air. Your head bobs on the surface gasping for the oxygen of life. Indeed, the word here for “us” is more literally “our throats.” The turbulent currents have the saints by the neck. This is terrifying poetry. The chaotic powers of death have their tentacles twisted around the church.
This raging river, though, also evokes the river ordeal—the judgment by water. The world was angry for its justice. By these waters, the world wants to condemn and execute the church as criminals, unworthy of the very breath of life. Yet, all these terrors were preceded by that wonderful “if not.” If not for Yahweh, the fluids of Sheol would have filled the lungs of the saints. The Lord prevented the monster from swallowing.
Yet, with such ferocious imagery, we wonder how far the enemies got. They did not win, but what ground did they gain? The flood waters entered the church, but how deep did they swell—ankle, knee, chest? Well, David loves to mix his metaphors. The human army became the Death monster, morphed into a flood, who now transforms into a lion, verse 6: “The Lord did not give us as prey to their teeth.” Israel was the deer. The lion had its claws stuck tight; its teeth were just about to clamp down on the jugular, when a tree branch smacked the lion in the head and the deer got away. This was how close of a call it was. Yahweh snatched his people out from the lion’s fangs. The church was flooded up to its gullet.
To make it especially heart-wrenching, David gives us one more close-call image. We were like a bird. We flew into the fowler’s snare. The wire trap cinched down tight on our robin throat. We struggled and flapped, but the wire got tighter; it cut into our flesh. Feathers splattered everywhere. It was all done for the birdie, but suddenly the trap broke. The snare snapped. The trapper had an equipment malfunction. The bird escaped because the snare failed. The church escaped the faulty trap to fly another day.
He did not stop the hurricane from coming ashore. He did not forbid the enemy to invade. He gave the lion an appetizer of our flesh. The birdie was hanging in a noose. But the Lord was in the broken trap. He saved us from death, and to rescue us from the death-waters is to declare his people innocent. It is to vindicate his people as righteous over against the counterfeit justice of the world.
With the picture now fully painted, it is clear how both this danger and deliverance are so common for God’s people. Within the history of the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and throughout church history, these close calls are a regular habit. Worldly foes rise against the church; they inflict harm upon the church; it appears as if the world will triumph—but the Lord comes to the rescue. He preserves his people. His never-ending help provides an escape; it grants life. And the Lord’s ongoing help for his people, so constant throughout history, is something that local congregations know first-hand today. In these past few years, dangerous waters have flooded into churches. Congregations have been in the media; the world is eager to condemn us as bigots. Articles are written that call us unrighteous, that blame our theology as the problem. Hate mail full of rage is put in our mailbox. Sin cuts into our communions hoping to divide and kill. Amid such challenges, the thought pops into our minds—will we survive? Will our heads go underwater? Will the onslaughts snap the cord of life? We have felt the snare tightening. Yet, the Lord has been our help, the trap broke. If not for our Savior, victory would have gone to the world. Our help is the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.
The chief expression, however, of our Lord’s help during stormy seasons is keeping before our eyes the gospel of Jesus. Christ is our chief helper because he passed through the flood waters of judgment for us. Yes, the dangers pictured here are a regular occurrence for the church, but this calamity especially fits the cross of our Savior. Humanity rose against the Son of God with fiery anger. The world sought to condemn Jesus as the king of criminals. The death waters rose not just to Christ’s throat but over his head. Jesus passed through his river ordeal on the cross to the point of death. The lion’s teeth closed on him; Sheol swallowed Jesus down. For our sin, Jesus was swept away in the flood of the world’s hatred. But the grave broke. The death snare snapped. By his righteousness, death could not hold our Lord. By his merit, Christ rose victorious over death and judgment.
Thus, in Christ, we are declared the righteousness of God. Christ grants to us the resurrection as our all-powerful and constant help. Our help is in the name of Jesus Christ, who did not just create this world, but who particularly is the author of new creation. Jesus grants us resurrection as his eternal help and aid. Why is resurrection our unbeatable help from Jesus? Because sometimes the world kills us. The ultimate weapon of the world is death. Just as the Lord allowed the waters to rise to the throat here, sometimes he lets those waters drown us. But because Jesus is the Resurrected One, death is no longer the world’s victory. Death cannot separate us from the love of God. To die is gain in Christ. It is our entering our Sabbath rest. Hence, the resurrection of Christ is our help in life and in death, in times of peace and in moments of turmoil and rising tides.
Let us, then, heed David’s call. Let us, as the true Israel of God, speak. May we testify to the greatness and grace of Jesus Christ. Let us bless our Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May our gratitude ever rise with loving tunes to our Blessed Savior. For, our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Our aid is in the name above all names, Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead, creator of new creation.
©Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.
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