This summer, I want to invite you to come with me on a journey. The good news is that we won’t even have to leave sunny Dundonald, yet we’ll join with believers as they journey towards Jerusalem. Over these summer nights, we’re beginning a series in the Songs of Ascents. These are a collection of short Psalms, from 120 to 134, which were sung by the pilgrims as they travelled along to Jerusalem for the great festivals of the Jewish year. In recent times we’ve looked at some of them, so this year we’re going to do from 124 to 131.
The pilgrims didn’t have their iPods in their ears, ignoring everyone else on the train or the bus. No, the pilgrims are together, singing together as they urge and encourage one another along the way, climbing the hills as they get closer to Jerusalem, and as they watch for the first sighting of the temple in the distance. (Reminds me of when we were younger and out for a drive, looking out for the water tower at Rathfriland, or the big yellow cranes at Harland and Wolff).
As they sing, they recall their history, and praise the LORD who watches over them - especially as they travel through dangerous territory along the way. This is particularly the case in our Psalm tonight. As they reflect on their history, they recognise just what the LORD has done for them. It appears as if someone would lead off: ‘If it had not been the LORD who was on our side’ then call for everyone to join in: ‘Let Israel now say - if it had not been the LORD who was on our side...’ As we’ll see, the people of God had been threatened, but God has worked to save them. We’ll see this under three headings: The risk to the people of God; The rescue of the people of God; and The rescuer of the people of God.
First, then, the risk to the people of God. We see this throughout verses 2 to 5 in a series of vivid word pictures. The precise historical events are unclear, although as we’ll see later it might be early in David’s kingship - while it’s hard to pinpoint one particular point in Israel’s history, the threat is nonetheless very real. Enemies of the people of God are never far away - and it’s clear that they can produce a vicious blow when they rise up against God’s people. There’s the image of God’s people being swallowed up alive, in the fires of anger - anger being kindled against them. From fire, the picture changes to water - the flood sweeping them away, raging waters.
The threat to God’s people is never far away. Just think of what Jesus said: ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.’ (John 15:18 ff) Opposition is not something to be sought out, and yet it will inevitably come because we are following Jesus and not joining in with the wicked ways of unbelievers.
The Psalm reminds us that opposition is real, the risk, the threat to God’s people is fierce. We see that in verses 6 and 7, where the threat is portrayed as being prey to their teeth - food for wild animals; and as being trapped in the snare of the fowlers. (Now this isn’t talking about Robbie Fowler, who used to play for Liverpool, but about a hunter of wildfowl). When I was preparing, a line from an Elvis Presley song came to mind - ‘we’re caught in a trap’. One of the commentaries noted that when an animal is trapped, any movement, any attempt to get free only makes the situation worse. Helpless, hopeless, and hunted.
Yet into the desperate situation, the LORD works for the rescue of his people. Rather than being swallowed up alive and being prey for their teeth, the LORD has not given us up! Rather than being swept away by the flood and torrent of waters, we have been saved. Rather than being trapped and caught, the LORD has broken the snare and enabled escape.
The bird can’t free itself, and nor could the people of Israel from the position they found themselves in. Yet rescue has been achieved, and freedom is accomplished. No wonder the people celebrate and encourage each other with these words!
It could be that this refers to David’s kingship, and the threat of the Philistines. Remember, David became king in Judah and (later) Israel when Saul died in battle against the Philistines. The Philistines hear about the new king, and set out to destroy him too. Flip over to 2 Samuel 5:17. ‘And David came to Baal-perazim, and David defeated them there. And he said “The LORD has burst through my enemies before me like a bursting flood.”’ (5:20) The psalm might reflect this period, then, as the flood has been turned back upon God’s enemies, leading to his people’s rescue.
As we’ve seen, whatever the situation, the people couldn’t rescue themselves - it took a rescuer. Here, as elsewhere, the only one to save the people of the LORD is the LORD himself. So what does this Psalm teach us about the LORD? Look at verse 8.
‘Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’ The rescuer, the help is bound up in the name of the LORD. Two things to notice here. First, the actual name used. You see, in the Bible there are many names of God - God, or King, or the Holy One of Israel. The use of particular names is usually significant. Here, it is the name of the LORD - capital letters LORD. So what is the significance of this? LORD in capital letters is the Covenant LORD (Yahweh / Jehovah), the covenant making God. The LORD who has made promises keeps them. but second, it is the name of the LORD in which there is help. The name signifies the power, the character, the very nature of the LORD. We see this as David reminds us that the LORD has made heaven and earth. Our enemies might have power over us, but they can’t triumph over the one who made all things (including them!).
As we continue to think about the rescuer of the people of God, we’re led to a comforting, but also challenging discovery (which we notice in the very first line of the Psalm). The LORD, the rescuer of his people, is on our side. He must have been - otherwise the people would have perished ‘If it had not been the LORD who was on our side...’ So because the people of God have been rescued, then he must be on our side.
I don’t know how that sits with you. To have God on your side. Maybe it sounds a bit too militaristic or tribal, when rival armies both invoke God to give the other side a good hammering... We’re more comfortable with the encounter of Joshua before Jericho was conquered. ‘When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said “No, but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” (Joshua 5:13-14) Not is God on our side, but who is on the Lord’s side?
Yes and yes, and yet still, the Psalm declares that the LORD is on the side of his people, working to rescue them from their enemies. The LORD is portrayed as the husband of his people, the Lord Jesus the husband and head of the church. Husbands, is there anything you would not do for your wife? If you love your wife, then how much more the Lord Jesus, who died for his bride (Ephesians 5:25). The Lord is on your side, if you are on his side!
I want to give you two examples of the LORD working rescue for his people, one scriptural, and one from more recent history. Remember when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt? Pharaoh suddenly realises that if all the slaves have gone, there’s no one to make the bricks and build the houses. So off he sets with his chariots and horsemen to capture the people of Israel again. Moses has led the people to the edge of the Red Sea, water in front, and desert behind. Then they notice the dust cloud behind them. Egypt in pursuit, and they’re trapped. Water in front, Pharaoh behind, his anger kindled, ready to swallow them up, and force them into the flood. And what happens? The LORD rescues his people, creating a way through the water, so that again, rather than his people being swept away, the flood is turned on the enemies of God’s people. The Egyptians follow them into the sea and are drowned. ‘I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.’ (Exodus 15:1)
Or think of the state of the people of God during the 1500’s. The Roman Church had lost sight of the gospel, caught up with indulgences and good works. But a remnant of the Lord’s faithful people were left, including Martin Luther who rediscovered the gospel of justification by faith. Such opposition he encountered, and yet the Lord rescued him from popes and princes and brought about a reformation and revival, which spread abroad bringing many to be converted. God had not abandoned his people. Two English bishops were martyred, and yet their prayer was answered mightily: ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’
And what of us? We are the people of the LORD, so that these Psalms are our Psalms. That means that we too will face opposition - remember Jesus’ words from earlier. This opposition comes from those on the outside, who set themselves against the faith and against believers - maybe a Dawkins, a fundamental athiest. But opposition can also comes from within. The troubles in the Anglican Communion have come about through the opposition to the gospel, with faithful Anglicans facing opposition and persecution within The Episcopal Church (in the USA) and in Canada. Faced against the power of the liberal media, scholars and churchmen, what hope for the people of God? Within ourselves, not much, but our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
As the Lord has rescued his people in the past, we can be confident in the name of the LORD. As Paul writes to the Romans, ‘What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’
This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Halls on Sunday evening 28th June 2009 at a celebration of the Lord's Supper.