Psalm 123/Obedience and Vindication

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The Thirteenth Decade of Psalms


This psalm contains a marked contrast between the eyes of faith, which look to the Lord, the God of all heaven, and the blind eyes of insolent unbelief, which see nothing as they ought to. Unbelief and pride are the chains that anchor the ungodly soul to this earth, such that the entire globe becomes the great ball in their particular ball and chain. From this benighted position, they heap abuse on the faithful, who see the position of affairs, and feel it acutely.   

The Text

“A Song of degrees. Unto thee lift I up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; So our eyes wait upon the Lord our God, until that he have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us: For we are exceedingly filled with contempt. Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123).

Summary of the Text

In the previous psalm, David lifted up his eyes to the hills, with this serving as a metaphor for lifting his eyes up to God. Here the psalmist lifts his eyes again, but does so directly to the one who dwells in the heavens (v. 1). Just like servants looked closely to the hands of their masters or mistresses, for any slight indication that they might want something, so our eyes are fixed on the Lord our God (v. 2). Now this looking is two-fold. The servants do it so that they might be prepared to obey at an instant’s notice. But the desire here expressed also is so that the Lord might have “mercy upon us” (v. 2). In the next verse, the need for mercy comes pouring out. Why do we need God to show mercy? Because we are “exceedingly filled with contempt” (v. 3). We are despised. Our souls are filled to overflowing with scorn from those who are fat and sassy, from those who are haughty and proud (v. 4). God, please vindicate your servants now.

Directed by a Mere Finger

The picture comes from male and female servants both. In the ancient near East, it was customary to have servants on constant stand-by, and to have them available to respond instantly to whatever the master or mistress desired, with that desire expressed with something as slight as the merest movement of a finger.

There is obviously eagerness to obey that is being expressed here. An additional possibility is that the servant is in disfavor for having done something wrong, and the servant is looking for the slightest indication that he is forgiven. This fits with the petition that follows—“have mercy on us.” Or perhaps the tension is between a dutiful servant and a slothful one, with the slothful servant thinking that the attentive one is a total goober. But in any case, the desire to obey and the desire to experience God’s vindication in the face of an adversaries’ contempt are twin desires that are woven closely together. It is not possible to earnestly yearn for God to deal with their disobedience toward us while continuing to be indulgent toward our disobedience toward Him. It doesn’t work that way.

Exceedingly Filled

The ungodly, who have no eyes, look on us with contempt. We, who have eyes, look to the God who dwells in heaven. Our eyes look to the heavens (v. 1). A servant’s eyes look to his master’s hand (v. 2). A maiden’s eyes do the same (v. 2). Our eyes wait on the Lord our God, desperate for mercy. Our eyes see, but they do not yet see deliverance. We can see what is actually going on, and one of the things that appears to not be going on is a divine intervention on behalf of those who see what is going on. It would be difficult to find a better picture of the way it is for faithful believers today.

And one of the things we can see is that the people who can see nothing nevertheless look down on us with disdain, contempt, arrogance, and an invincible ignorance. But they are nevertheless at ease. They are content with their cosmic stupidity, and in their magnanimous moments they sometimes even feel sorry for us.  

Christ our Only Wisdom

Now we need to learn how to respond to situations like this one, and our model, of course, should be the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus was entirely obedient throughout the course of His entire life. When He was tempted in the wilderness, as the new Israel suffering for forty days there, He stood firm, unlike the older Israel (Matt. 4). He learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8). Throughout the course of His ministry, He did nothing but what He saw His Father doing. “Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19). So the Son always had His gaze fixed on His Father’s fingers. He was, always and everywhere, poised for obedience.

And He also looked to God for mercy—for just this sort of mercy. He, whose name is Wonderful, was born into a race of moral idiots. He was the Wisdom that spoke the galaxies into existence, and yet He was harangued by Pharisees, who called him a glutton and a drunkard, and demon-possessed, and His accusers were men whose ethical obtuseness was oceanic. The Lord walked the earth as a model of heavenly perfection, and in response they spit in His face (Matt. 26:67), pulled out his beard (Is. 50:6), jammed a crown of thorns on His head (Jn. 19:5), and yelled taunts at Him, on the same intellectual level of neener neener, while He was on the cross (Matt. 27:42). So Jesus modeled this perfectly for us—He, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross and despised the shame (Heb. 12:2). He was truly filled with contempt.

We find it tedious when we have to put up with someone whose IQ is five points lower than ours, or if we are driving behind someone who is driving five mph slower than he ought to be. How long, O Lord? is our lament. We believe that we are monuments of towering charity whenever we cut anyone two degrees of slack.

And so what we need is this. As believers, we are exceedingly filled with contempt. We need to pray the way this psalm prays, and we must do it without becoming the kind of people the psalmist is praying about. Aye, there’s a trick for you.

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3 years ago

My favourite rendition of this psalm

3 years ago

Thanks Doug! This was great and in this age I feel the universal pull of the psalmist. Please write more thereof.