Psalm 124/Like a Bird in the Bracken

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The Thirteenth Decade of Psalms


When you consider the peril our nation is currently in, and you reflect on the fact that this psalm came up as the text for this Lord’s Day purely by happenstance, your conclusion needs to be that it is almost as though a higher power were at work.

In 1582, in Edinburgh, an imprisoned minister named John Durie was released from prison. He was welcomed on the edge of town by several hundred of his friends, and as they walked along, that number soon swelled to several thousand. Someone began to sing—Psalm 124—and they all, much moved, sang it together in four parts, much as we will be singing it later in the service. “Let Israel now say in thankfulness . . .” One of the chief persecutors was said to have been more alarmed by this spectacle than anything else he had seen in Scotland, which is very likely saying something.

The Text

“A Song of degrees of David. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, now may Israel say; If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us: Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us: Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: Then the proud waters had gone over our soul. Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: The snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124).

Summary of the Text

This psalm of gratitude for deliverance begins with a fragmented joy (vv. 1-2). Instead of trying to smooth it out, try reading it this way:

“Had it not been Jehovah! He was for us, oh let Israel say! Had it not been Jehovah! He who was for us when men rose against us.”

If Jehovah had not been our deliverance, we would have been gulped down, and that right quick (v. 3). The wrath of man would have burned us up right now (v. 3). The flood waters would have overwhelmed us, and the stream would have drowned our soul (v. 4) when those proud waters went over our soul (v. 5). Notice that the water here is proud water, haughty water. Blessed the name of Jehovah, who took us away from their ravening jaws (v. 6). We escaped the way a bird would flash away from a broken snare (v. 7).

Had it not been for Yahweh, we would have been swallowed, burned, drowned, eaten, and captured. But our help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and earth (v. 8). Notice here how the doctrine of creation is full of comfort. Our help is in the name of the one who made Heaven and earth. And reflect for a moment on how the teaching of evolution necessarily robs you of that comfort. Our help is in nothing much.

When Men Rise Against Us

The key to understanding the long war that is human history is found in the first chapters of Genesis. In Gen. 3:15, as God is pronouncing the curse on the serpent, He declares a necessary and permanent antipathy between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. This is the key to understanding this perpetual conflict—this is the antithesis between up and down, white and black, righteousness and unrighteousness. It is why the Lord clashed with the brood of vipers when He found them running the Temple. In this life we are therefore necessarily the church militant.

So what God has promised to do through the seed of the woman (Christ), He also promises to do through us who are in Christ. “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” (Rom. 16:20). So remember this antithesis. The fact of an ongoing and necessary conflict here is a fact of life. It is not an indicator that something has gone wrong. In fact, the indication goes the other way (Luke 6:26).

And remember that the waters that would drown you are proud waters. This means that they accuse you of being the proud one, that you are the fanatic clinging to your obstinate ignorance. Why don’t you believe in science? Why don’t you submit to all the current authorities, who require us to say that a boy can become a girl? But if this is science, why didn’t all of this start in the vet schools, with them turning bulls into cows, thus augmenting our dairy production?

Sing Like a Bird in the Bracken

As I have reminded you before, you must remember also how much God loves cliffhangers. God delights in last minute deliverance because there is no joy like the joy that follows a last-minute deliverance. Chesterton put it marvelously: “The one perfectly divine thing, the one glimpse of God’s paradise given on earth, is to fight a losing battle—and not lose it.”
Imagine a bird in a snare, and how it flutters in the net in a desperate panic. And then imagine that snare broken, and if you blink you will not see the bird darting back into the bracken. But you will hear us all back there in a moment, singing our hearts out. And you haven’t lived until you hear birds singing Psalm 124.

A Universal Psalm

We are not given any particular circumstance that occasioned the composition of this psalm. But because the antithesis is a constant reality in this fallen world, there have been many occasions where God’s people have wanted to sing it—and there will be many more. This is a universal psalm, suitable for every age. We would be hard pressed to find a river in the world that did not at some point have the saints of God gathered on the banks of it, singing about their deliverance in this way. Whether we are talking about the Ohio, or the Ganges, or the Tiber, or the Jordan, or the Tigris, or the Nile, we can see that the proud waters were tamed and humbled. Wherever God’s people have gone, they have eventually had to deal with the fact that their soul was among the lions. And when God delivers, as He loves to do, He delivers us like we were Daniel. Let us trust Him like we were Daniel.

As Alfred Edersheim once noted, this psalm contains sweet doctrine concerning the past, present, and future (1, 2, 8). The Lord was on our side, which is past. The snare is broken, which is the present. Our help is in the name of the Lord, which is going to be true out to the end of the world, meaning that it applies to every possible future.

So Look to Christ

If you are alive and here with us now, that means you were born for this time. And because Christ is constantly at the right hand of the Father, set your minds on the things which are above (Col. 3:2), where He is. Set your minds on Christ, and He will bestow on you exactly what you need for this moment. And unless I miss the mark, that gift, available now for you, will be the triadic outpouring of faith, courage, and joy.

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Richard Ellis
Richard Ellis
3 years ago

Fantastic! I just recently “discovered” you, and I am eternally grateful for your wisdom and your wit!

Brenda Price
Brenda Price
3 years ago

Thanks, Doug.