How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent: Getting the Focus Right: The Adoration of the Lord

Sermon by Derek Thomas on September 16, 1999

Psalms 123:1-4

Let’s turn now to Psalm 123. We’ve been looking together over these last two weeks at this collection of Psalms beginning with Psalm 120 and running through to Psalm 134: fifteen Psalms, all of them bearing the title “A Song of Ascents” or “A Song of Degrees.” And we suggested that the interpretation of this collection of Psalms is that they belong to a group of psalms that pilgrims would have recited or sung, perhaps, as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of the three great festivals. And as they did so, and as we examine these Psalms, we discern that they cover the ground not simply of personal worship and the disciplines of personal worship, but they cover the ground especially of corporate worship in its corporate identity.

And we saw in the very first Psalm, in Psalm 120, how the psalmist is miles and miles away from Jerusalem and longs that he might be with the people of God in the house of God; and in Psalm 121, he is on the outskirts of Jerusalem with the hills of Mount Zion before him, perhaps filled with marauders and bandits, and he sends up this prayer asking where will his help come from. And the answer is that his help comes from the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth.

And then last week in Psalm 122, the psalmist is evidently standing now in the very city of Jerusalem – verse 2 of Psalm 122: “Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.”

And now in Psalm 123 it appears as though he comes to his senses again and realizes that despite the joy of being found in Jerusalem, he’s also surrounded by a great deal of trouble and difficulty. So let’s turn to this very short, but sweet, Psalm…Psalm 123.

“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.”

May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and infallible word. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we ask again that by Your Spirit You would illuminate these words to our minds and to our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Getting things into focus is what this Psalm is all about.

You all know the condition, as I do…the condition of myopia, in which without the aid of lenses everything just seems to be a blur. And without those corrective lenses you are in danger of losing your way, or of tripping up and causing yourself some personal injury. Well, this Psalm is saying, “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes….” What it’s saying is this: ‘Keep your eye on the Lord. Keep your eye fixed upon God.’ It’s the Old Testament Psalm that parallels Hebrews 12:2, that we are to “run with perseverance [you remember?] looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”  A Psalm a day keeps the devil away—that’s what this Psalm is saying!

Having made, then, his way to Jerusalem, he suddenly comes down to earth with a bump and you see, at the end of verse 3 and especially in verse 4, he’s surrounded by trouble…surrounded by those who hate him, who mock him, who hold him in derision. He’s held in contempt by the proud. That’s the setting in which he sends up this prayer as he now finds himself in the city of Jerusalem. He’s amongst the people of God; he’s excitedly, eagerly looking forward to the worship of God with God’s people, but he’s aware of this trouble, he’s aware of these trials, he’s aware of these pains.

Well, what are you to do when you find yourself in trouble? Well, it’s the old, old formula, isn’t it?

“Have we trials and temptations?

Is there trouble anywhere?

You should never be discouraged;

Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

And that’s the formula of this Psalm. It’s a Psalm about prayer, the blessings of prayer. Now what is prayer? Prayer (as you all know!) is

“an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of His mercies.”

Well, that’s one definition of prayer, and it’s a beautiful definition of prayer. It’s perhaps the best definition of prayer.

But here’s another one: What is prayer? Lifting up our eyes to the Lord. It’s a simple definition; it doesn’t say everything that needs to be said, but it says something very profound and very significant. It’s looking to God; it’s coming to God in all of our helplessness; it’s coming to God as servants, and looking to Him for blessing.

What does this Psalm teach us about prayer? Well, I think it teaches us at least five things about prayer, and I want to put them before you.

First of all, it teaches us that prayer ought always first to focus upon God.

That sounds right, doesn’t it? It sounds so elementary. It sounds like something you’d learn in kindergarten, but those are the things we need to learn and relearn, aren’t they, so very often? The kind of thing that we tend to forget: that in prayer the first thing that we ought to do is to focus upon the Lord. “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes, O Thou that dwellest in the heavens.” He’s lifting up his eyes to God. He’s addressing God. He’s going to God in prayer.

When the disciples came to Jesus asking for help and instruction about how to pray, you remember what He taught them: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” You begin with God. From the trouble, from the pain, from the distress, from the hurt, from the turmoil of this world, you redirect you mind, you redirect your heart, you redirect your soul and you focus upon the Lord. You look to Him, to a God, the psalmist says, who dwells (or perhaps better, who is enthroned) in the heavens…whose throne of glory is in heaven itself.

Though His earthly throne is in Jerusalem (he’s already said that in the previous Psalm in verse 5), there in Jerusalem are set thrones of judgment…God was indeed to be found in Jerusalem. That was the significance of Jerusalem. But God’s real throne, the real powerhouse of God’s glory, if I can put it that way, is in heaven itself. And the lesson here is that true prayer always seeks the glory of God.

Of course, what you have here in this Psalm is merely an embryonic allusion to that. It doesn’t fill it out in all of its wondrous details. You have to go elsewhere in the Bible to fill that out and to see how Bible characters took this lesson and took it to God in prayer, expounding on the nature and the character and the being of Almighty God. I’m thinking of those wonderful prayers in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9; those wonderful and glorious prayers of the Apostle Paul.

Here’s a man who knows that God is majesty: “The Lord reigns and is clothed with majesty,” the psalmist says in Psalm 93. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,” he says in Psalm 48. Here’s a worshiper, then, fixing his thoughts, his focus, on the God whom he knows to be King, the God whom he knows to be sovereign and in control; who is infinite and eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, and power, and holiness, and justice, and goodness and truth.”

The Bible teaches two steps to effective biblical prayer, the first being that you remove from your thoughts every limitation that makes God too small, so that when you think of God’s presence you say to yourself, ‘There isn’t a location in this entire created universe in which God cannot be found. God is everywhere.’ Then you think of His knowledge. You say to yourself, there isn’t one iota of knowledge that God doesn’t know. When you think of His power, you say to yourself there isn’t a force in this universe that is greater than God.

God is in the heavens. He reigns in the heavens. He rules in the heavens. God is sovereign.

And then the Bible tells us another way to do it is to compare Him and His power with every other thing in this world that we consider to be great, and to compare them just as the prophet Isaiah does in Isaiah 40: “Who has measured out the waters in the hollow of his hand, or measured the heavens with a span?” Well, God, of course. God, of course, in His greatness. Look at the tasks that God has done, the prophet is saying.

Look at the nations of Assyria and Egypt and Babylon, and what are they? The prophet says they are but as a drop in a bucket in comparison to the majesty and greatness of God. Look at the world in all of its complexity—three thousand million in population, and the prophet says to God “they are like grasshoppers”…dwarfed by the majesty and the greatness of God. God is great, and here in this Psalm that’s what the psalmist is doing—extolling the greatness of God, that’s his primary focus.

Well, that’s what we need to do in our praying, and there were wonderful examples of it earlier on this evening as some of you led in prayer and began to focus our thoughts and our hearts, and took our souls into the very presence of the majesty and the glory and the greatness of God.

But a second truth that this little Psalm teaches is that prayer is the expression of our helplessness.

What is he saying in verses 3 and 4, when he cries out for mercy and speaks of his present condition as being one filled with contempt? Well, he’s saying basically this: ‘Lord, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it! This problem, this situation in which I find myself, I cannot change it. I cannot do one single thing to alter it. I bring it to You. In all of the helplessness of my condition, I stretch out my empty hands and ask You for mercy.’

Do you remember what Hezekiah did when Sennecharib sent him that letter threatening him with that invasion? You remember what the king did. He took it into the temple and spread it out before the Lord. Isn’t that a marvelous description of what our prayers are sometimes like, when we feel our helplessness, when we feel as though we are being fought at every side? ‘Lord, there’s nothing I can do. I’m hemmed in on every side. This problem is too big for me. Lord, You take it. You deal with it. There’s nothing that I can do.’

Matthew Henry says on this passage, “The greatest of men must turn beggars when they have to do with Christ.” Well, I wonder is this where you are tonight? You feel hemmed in, you feel pressured, you feel the onslaughts of the world and the flesh and the devil, and you cry out to God in your helplessness. Well, cry out to Him! Cry out to Him in this prayer meeting! Cry out to Him now, as this Psalm reminds you what to do. This is what prayer is all about—an expression of our helplessness.

Then, in the third place, not only does it teach us to focus on God and not only does it say that prayer is an expression of our helplessness, but in the third place prayer appeals to the mercy of God. 

And you see it at the end of verse 2, and again on two occasions in verse 3: “Have mercy upon us, O Lord. Have mercy upon us, O Lord.”

And you ask yourself tonight as you’ve come to another prayer meeting here in First Presbyterian Church, what kind of God is God? What is the nature of God? What is His character? What is the heart of our God? And you remember that beautiful description of the prophet Micah in chapter 7: “He delights in mercy.” He delights in mercy, and that’s what the psalmist is doing, realizing that at the heart of our covenant God is a pledge that He has made that He will show mercy. He will show mercy to penitent sinners; He will show mercy to those of His children who cry out in all of their need for help. And that’s what the psalmist is doing, touching, I think, a raw nerve in God Himself, because when God hears, as when you as parents hear your children crying out for mercy, there’s nothing else that you can do but show mercy—even if you intended to discipline, that discipline is going to be tempered by mercy as soon as you hear those cries and those pleas. And at the very heart of our covenant God is this beautiful attribute, that He delights in mercy.           

The psalmist doesn’t forget the majesty of the presence of God; he doesn’t forget that God is sovereign; he doesn’t forget that God’s throne is in heaven; but he remembers, too, that God is filled with mercy and filled with compassion, and He delights to extend that mercy and that compassion to His people.

And then in the fourth place, this beautiful Psalm has something else to teach us about prayer: that prayer is always, I think, a struggle.

And it’s right here, I think, as you read through verse 2 and into verses 3 and 4. Look at what he says at the end of verse 2:

“So our eyes wait upon the Lord, until that He have mercy upon us. have mercy upon us, O Lord. Have mercy upon us, O Lord; have mercy upon us, for we are exceedingly filled with contempt.”

And don’t you get the impression in reading this Psalm that he’s been praying this prayer for some time? This isn’t the first time he’s prayed this prayer. He’s been here before. Got the T-shirt, and he’s worn it! He’s known what it is to come before God with a particular issue and a particular problem. And prayer is a struggle, and prayer is a fight, and what I think this Psalm is saying is something very sublime—and hear it, my friends, hear it!—that even in the most holy of our acts, right there at the very center of prayer itself is an issue of struggle and an issue of fighting.

You see, it says something to us, I think, that views about spirituality and piety that primarily focus on us becoming in some way passive are missing the very biblical emphasis about prayer: that prayer is not essentially becoming passive and quiet, and simply emptying our minds of everything in order that God may fill them. That’s got more to do with Buddhism than it has to do with the Bible. Prayer is a struggle, and it’s a fight, and the very praying itself can sometimes be a struggle. The very struggle itself may be the way that God isn’t answering our prayers, and that’s the struggle, and that’s the concern, and that’s the hurt at the center of our hearts. And don’t you think, don’t you perceive just a little, that that’s what the psalmist may well be hinting at in this Psalm? “Lord, I’ve been here before. I’ve prayed this prayer before, and again I’m coming to You pleading for mercy.”

And some of you have been down this road, too, and you’ve got issues in your life…in your personal life, in your family life, in your marital lives, in the places of your work. And you’ve brought this burden and you’ve brought this concern before the Lord, and it seems that every time you pray that God would bring His mercy and show His compassion, it seems as though the problem is getting worse and not better. And my friends, hear me tonight, because this is the experience of many a child of God, and I think it’s the experience of the psalmist that he’s echoing here: ‘I’ve prayed this prayer before, and now I’m coming to You again as I find myself in Jerusalem, and in this city of God, and Lord, hear me again as I bring to You this prayer.’

       You know that beautiful hymn…it’s actually a poem by John Newton…

“I asked the Lord that I might grow

In faith and love and every grace;

Might more of His salvation know

And seek more earnestly His face.

I thought that in some favored hour

At once He’d answer my request,

And by His love’s constraining power,

Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel

The hidden evil of my heart,

And let the angry powers of hell

Assault my soul in every part.

‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried.

‘Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?’

‘T’is in this way,’ the Lord replied,

‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,

From self and pride to set thee free,

And break thy schemes of earthly joy,

That thou may’st seek thy all in Me.’

And you hear what John Newton is saying in that poem: that sometimes when you ask God to make you more sanctified and to make you more Christ-like He sends you pains, and He sends you troubles, and He sends you hurts, because it’s through your struggle with those hurts and pains that you become more Christ-like and more God-like.   And I think the Psalm is here reflecting something of the pain and something of the struggle of that.

And fifthly, and briefly, this Psalm has something else to teach us about prayer: that prayer has as its aim submission to the timetable of the Almighty. 

Look at the end of verse 2. After speaking in terms of a servant or a slave looking to the eyes and the hands of the master, so that they are ready to do whatever it is that their master is going to ask them to do, in that condition of submission and trust and obedience, in that condition the psalmist says “…until that He have mercy upon us.” I’m going to wait in that condition of obedience until God has mercy.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s the “until.” Because we want that mercy now, we want that mercy tonight, we want that pain eradicated this very hour. But God’s timetable is not our timetable. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. And what this Psalm is calling upon us to do tonight is to wait upon the Lord, that we might renew our strength and mount up with wings as eagles, and run and not be weary, and walk and not faint, as we see and discern His timetable working itself out in the pattern of our lives. And may God teach us those profound but simple lessons that I think will help us in our pilgrimage to heaven.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, from this beautiful Psalm You teach us about prayer, about communion with You, about the trials and losses and crosses of this life. Give us, O Lord, that patient endurance, that submissive heart, that look of filial love and adoration as we lift up our eyes and look to You in all of Your glory, in all of Your majesty, in all of Your beauty. Have mercy on us, we pray. And if that mercy must wait until we get to heaven, so give us patience to wait. And bless us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now would you please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.


Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Sprit, be with each one of you now and forevermore. Amen.

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