Psalm 130 - Forgiveness

This psalm was one of the favourite psalms of Martin Luther because of its emphasis on forgiveness. He sang it on many occasions no doubt, but one well-known incident took place during a period of severe trial when he was in the castle of Coburg and had fallen into a swoon. On recovering, he asked his companions to sing this psalm in spite of the devil.

In verses 1 and 2, the psalmist says that he is in the depths, a graphic picture of a man overwhelmed by powerful waters. The verb indicates that he has been there for a while. There are several reasons why a believer could be in the depths: difficult providences in his personal life, denial of hopes that he may have anticipated, a sense of desertion by God. The psalmist’s mention of sin in verse 3 tells us what the cause of his dejection was. Nevertheless, he knows where help could be found, and it is in the God against whom he and others have sinned. Therefore, he turns to the Lord and asks for mercy.

In verse 3, the psalmist confesses the holy character of God and says that if the Lord treated him as he deserved he would have no expectation of help. Of course, it would have been foolish for the psalmist to look to the justice of God by itself. Yet he knows something wonderful about God, an aspect of his character that brings comfort from all of God’s other attributes and abilities. This aspect is God’s desire to forgive. As another psalm says, ‘The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy’ (Ps. 145:8).

It is the knowledge of this characteristic of God that makes a sinner bold and confident in the presence of the God whom he has sinned against. We only need think of David in Psalm 51. How bold he is, and yet how humble, as he confesses his sins and anticipates being restored to God’s service.

In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist likens the posture of his soul to the watchmen who stood on the walls of a city looking for the coming of daylight. There was expectancy of deliverance in the heart of the writer. The reason for his confidence was not in his earnest prayer but in the sure word of God. The reason why faith perseveres is that the believer knows that what God will give is worth waiting for. When deliverance comes, it will be marvellous.

Out of his own experience, then, the psalmist can comfort others (vv. 7-8). His words in these verses are a reminder that although each Christian has an individual path, it is a similar path to other believers. Because he has been forgiven much and rescued from great danger, he understands the needs of every other believer and he is sympathetic to them and confident about their deliverance and forgiveness as well. 


Psalm 129 - Prayer for deliverance

This psalm is a reflection on the history of Israel by those who gathered in Jerusalem for the annual feasts. As they looked back to the beginning of their history (‘youth,’ v. 20), they saw that even then those who began their nation had been afflicted – in Egypt. Since her youth in Egypt, there had been many other powerful enemies. Yet although the enemies were so many, they had not prevailed against Israel.

As the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem, they were aware of the weakness of God’s people because the nation of Israel was no longer a world power. She had become under the control of other empires after the Babylonians – such as the Persian and the Roman empires.

What this psalm calls for is a sense of realism among God’s people. This psalm is a reminder that believers living in this world are travelling through enemy country. In verse 3, the psalmist uses the illustration of a ploughman digging a furrow repeatedly on a person’s back to describe the troubles of God’s people. Obviously it is painful, but the illustration also suggests that the troubles are malicious.

It is important to note the communal aspect stressed by the author. When his enemies attacked him, they were adding to a deep wound that he already possessed because of the spiritual link he had to previous generations of God’s people. The psalmist identified with their troubles. It should be the same with us, we should have this sense of identity with those before us who suffered for the faith. Of course, this sense of community embraces other believers who are alive today and who are suffering for their faith.

The psalmist’s comfort is that the Lord is righteous, that he will remember his covenant commitments as he did when he came to deliver Israel from Egypt, that eventually he will come to our help in a public way (although we must also remember that he has been helping each of his people to go through his or her particular difficulty).

In verses 5-8, there is a prayer for retribution. Many find fault with this kind of prayer, even although they are common in the Psalter (about 36 psalms come into this category, known as the imprecatory psalms because in them the authors call down divine judgement on their enemies). Critics suggest that they lack the spirit of love that was exemplified by Jesus when he instructed his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44-45). Of course, such sentiments are not confined to the Old Testament. Note Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-8.

The writer prays that the influence of evil people will be brief. He likens them to seeds of grass that are blown on to a flat rooftop and somehow take root in the small amount of ground that may also have been blown there. Fortunately for the householder, such grass soon withered away.

The people the psalmist is praying against hate Zion (v. 5) and are determined to destroy her. If God does not stop them, they will destroy Zion. It is preferable that Zion be preserved, and her enemies removed. The reason why they are going to be destroyed is not because they are sinners in general but because they sin in a specific way. If they left Zion alone, then this prayer would not have been offered. The psalmist does not want anyone to wish success to such persons (v. 8).

We see similar attempts made today by the enemies of the church (Zion). As we pray about the situation, we only have two choices: one is that God would convert them; the other is that, in one way or another, God would cause their enmity against his kingdom to cease. We should pray that their influence would be as minimal as grass growing on a housetop. When we pray earnestly for this, it is evidence that we love Zion.


Psalm 128 - The blessing of fearing the Lord

The  primary focus of the psalm is not the blessings of family life (of which some are mentioned), but the blessings that come to believers through fearing the Lord. The English word ‘blessing’ or similar terms occur four times in the psalm (vv. 1, 2, 4, 5).

It used to be common for a Christian to be described as ‘God-fearing’. Fear of God does not mean to be frightened into spiritual paralysis by the thought of God. Nor does it mean a servile fear, which is a response of a person who is trying to please God but who does not understand the meaning of grace.

How can we know that a person fears God? He will walk in God’s ways. The imagery of walking illustrates progress and a destination, and such have God as their upholder, teacher and guide along the path to heaven.

But why does a person fear the Lord? He does so out of his experience of the goodness of God. Because he has been pardoned his sin, he reverences the Lord; because he has been accepted into God’s family, he adores the Lord; because he can enjoy the Lord’s presence, he is careful about his behaviour; because he has been given the promises of God, he venerates the Lord. We could expand the list endlessly. What is important to note is that reverence arises from experiencing the goodness of God.

What blessings are given to such? When this psalm was written, the husband usually worked from home (v. 2). If he was a baker or a carpenter, the bakery or workshop was attached to his house. Even if he was a fisherman or a farmer, he was still regarded as working from home. In biblical times, one could walk past a house and see the husband working at his trade, his wife busy in the home, and the children sitting around the house. Work in the ancient world was usually done in order to provide the basics of life. The psalm promises that such will be provided to the person who fears God.

The next blessing concerns the man’s wife who is described as a fruitful vine (v. 3). The vine in Israel was regarded as a source of refreshment, shelter and fragrance. That is how the man who fears the Lord will regard his wife. And just as the vine also symbolised joy, so such a man finds great joy in what his wife brings to their home. His contribution is to work for the security of their needs, her contribution is to provide the beauty of their home.

When there is such a husband and wife, then there will be happy children. The father is likened to an old olive tree around which younger plants are growing, partaking of his wisdom and knowledge. The imagery also suggests that as the plants grow, they protect the older tree which has become weaker through age. They learn from the way their parents interact with one another, implying that they too are fearing the Lord.

Such a home is worth observing says the psalmist in verse 4. We are to behold it, to contemplate with wonder what the Lord can do in a home inhabited by sinful parents and children. A happy home is the blessing often given to those who fear the Lord.

In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist describes public blessings in addition to the private ones he mentions in the previous verses. The statements in verses 5 and 6 can be interpreted as definite promises or as prayer requests; probably both ideas are in mind because promises often are fulfilled through earnest prayer.

The psalmist also mentions that the man who fears the Lord will see his grandchildren. No doubt, there is the family joy of descendants included in this promise. Further, and probably more important for the psalmist, is the fact that the presence of grandchildren would indicate to him the continuation of family inheritance, which was very important to a devout Israelite because it indicated ongoing possession of the land God had promised.

The psalm closes with a benediction, probably originally announced by a priest in the temple. We are assured that the Great High Priest in heaven is also raising this benediction over us, ensuring that the blessings promised to those who fear God will come to us. May he say to us at this time, ‘Peace be upon Israel.’


Psalm 127 - Thoughts on divine providence

Some have noticed that the contents focus on providence in civil life. The psalm is concerned about the healthy functioning of society, and it tells how to relate to political authority, military power and family responsibilities. The political authority is described in the words of verse 1: ‘Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ The military authority is described in the words of the second clause of verse 2: ‘Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.’ The watchmen were those who stayed awake while others slept in the city. The point stressed is that the mere presence of political leaders and military strength does not remove worry.

The psalm teaches that nothing happens without our contribution or without God’s contribution. In all that we do we are co-workers with God, be it in our personal spiritual growth or in our families or in any other legitimate aspect of life. There are three applications of this psalm at a personal level: (a) the Christian and work; (b) the Christian and worry; (c) the Christian and his family.

In verse 2, the writer is not saying that there is anything wrong with getting up early or staying up late. What is wrong is the assumption that such personal sacrifices will have any benefit if God is omitted from the person’s perception of life. Work has been affected by the curse given in Eden because of Adam’s rebellion and therefore much work is difficult, tedious and uncertain. This means that they should pray for divine help in their employments.

The great benefit that the Psalmist has experienced is that of sleep. Spurgeon commented that ‘sleep is the gift of God, and not a man would close his eyes, did not God put his fingers on his eyelids’. Again the psalmist is not saying that lack of sleep is always the result of sin. Yet it is the case that unnecessary worry deprives us of sleep just as much as justifiable concern. We cannot expect to have pleasant sleep in general if we do not trust in God day by day.

Verse 3 teaches that the children of believers belong to the Lord and are given by him to be prized by their parents (the word ‘reward’ does not mean that they have earned their children by right living; it means a ‘precious gift’). In Old Testament times it was essential for families to have children in order to ensure the continuation of the family inheritance.

In verse 4, children of believers are likened to arrows that believers shoot out into the world. Arrows have to be made from branches by being shaped and smoothed. Similarly, believing parents have the God-given task of shaping and smoothing the characters of their children. An arrow was not designed to look pretty in a quiver but to have an effect (defending against one’s enemies or providing food). 


Psalm 126 - Prayer for revival

In verses 1 to 3, the psalmist describes what was said when the Jews were allowed to return to their land after the collapse of the Babylonian Empire. Their return had been predicted long before the exile commenced by prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. But it had all seemed so unlikely to happen from a human point of view.

So it is not surprising that those who returned to the Promised Land were overjoyed, and even other nations observed the incredible nature of it, even accepting that the restoration indicated that the God of Israel is immensely powerful. No doubt, both the Jews and the Gentiles mentioned in these verses would have anticipated further progress.

But that did not happen, as we can see from verse 4. Instead of growth, there had been decline. We can read about aspects of their situation in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah. The situation was so weak that only the Lord could restore them. It was not enough for them to be in the Promised Land. They needed the Lord to work on their behalf.

In what way did they want the Lord to work? We can see their expectation in the reference to streams in the Negev, the southern area of Israel which is a desert for most of the year. But in times of rain, the water descends suddenly and in copious amounts, and in a matter of hours streams and rivers form, and the consequence is flowers and plants appear. The area briefly becomes fertile. Since God can do this in the natural world, he can also bring refreshment and prosperity in the spiritual experience of his people.

The psalmist refers to farmers sowing seed in anticipation of the rain coming. Sowing in a hot climate was arduous work, and no doubt caused tears for the sowers. But they knew that joy would be experienced when the rains came and brought a harvest. If they did not sow, there would not be a harvest. The lesson for us is obvious – if we want a harvest in the future, we need to sow in the present.

One frequent problem we have is that we want the harvest without the sowing. Yet that outlook is not wise, and often is only an expression of unbelief in God’s way of providing growth. We are to sow the seed of the gospel and anticipate God’s blessing that he will send in his own time.


Psalm 125 – Praying with confidence

Mount Zion or Jerusalem looked secure because of natural defences provided by the mountains situated round the city. It seemed immovable. As the author looked out on those mountains, he saw them as a picture of the Lord who provides security for his people (vv. 1-2). They are safe because he is on their side.

Yet their sense of protection raised a couple of questions. First, is there a reason for this divine protection as far as his people are concerned? Second, what should they pray for in situations where his protection is obvious?

A reason for their divine protection was prevention of sin by them (v. 3). If an invasion occurred, there would have been the possibility of the righteous engaging in sinful practices as they sought to protect their property and inheritance. That is what other nations would have done, but they had to do so because their gods were powerless to help. In contrast, the people of God knew that he possessed a mighty sceptre, that he ruled the nations, and they could depend on him. But they are reminded here that God is also concerned about their sanctification, that he wants them to be kept from sin.

Consideration of this truth led the psalmist to pray for God to bless the good and punish the wicked. Such a prayer is an appropriate response to knowing that the Lord is the almighty protector. The travellers to the feasts could use this psalm because they wanted righteousness to increase and wickedness to be dealt with. Answers to this kind of prayer will occur in providence. But pthere is a possibility that those living in calmer times will fail to pray earnestly for such growth of righteousness and decline in wickedness.

When the Lord answered in this manner, the outcome would be peace for Israel. They would have spiritual and temporal prosperity because their circumstances were in the Lord’s hands.

This psalm is almost the opposite of the previous psalm, a reminder that the church can face different circumstances at various times. In Psalm 124, the enemy was powerful and attacking; in Psalm 125, circumstances were calmer. Yet in both kinds of situations, prayer to God and trust in him were essential.


Psalm 124 – Deliverance by God

David wrote this psalm to describe a God-given deliverance provided at some stage in his reign over Israel. The deliverance was given in unlikely circumstances because the military superiority of the enemy seemed so great and their intention to destroy Israel was very strong (as we can see from the illustrations David uses of them – they were like wild animals devouring prey or a river in flood removing all in its path). But the Lord was with his people, and he rescued them (vv. 1-5).

Therefore, David wrote this psalm to celebrate God-given deliverance. Yet he also indicates that the deliverance came at the last minute. They could see the teeth of the attackers and they were in the snare of the trappers (vv. 6-7). The Lord had waited until then to rescue them in order for all to see that he alone had done it.

His deliverance was a reminder of his covenant faithfulness as David points out when he says that their help is in the name or character of the Lord. He does not change, which is why his people were not consumed. Although he allowed trouble to come for a variety of reasons, he eventually delivered them. And his deliverance is in line with the power that he possesses as the Creator of the universe.

The travellers to Zion who used this collection of psalms lived centuries after David. Indeed, they were aware of greater deliverances that the Lord had provided from more powerful enemies than David had. Military methods had moved on and godless regimes had more sophisticated methods. But a visit to Jerusalem reminded the pilgrims that their God was still in charge and knew when to deliver his people.

This reality is even greater for us. We know the history of the church and how it has often been in great trouble. But eventually the Lord has rescued his cause, and since he is the almighty covenant God, we can expect him to do so repeatedly until Jesus returns.