If you would like to take up a copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Psalm 123, that would be wonderful. For those of you who are using the pew Bibles, it’s going to be found on page 517 this evening. Just as you’re turning there, this past year at First Presbyterian Church we have been immersed in our theme of “Rooted.” What does it mean to be in union with Jesus Christ? More specifically, we’ve been looking at some of the questions – How do I get into union with Jesus Christ? How does our union impact our identity and our ongoing transformation into the likeness of Jesus? And on top of that, what are the right covenant blessings that are ours as a result of our union with the Lord Jesus? And one of the great benefits, one of the great benefits that does arise from our union is the beautiful if not magnificent doctrine of the believer’s adoption into the family of God – a doctrine which teaches us that we are no longer enemies but we are now friends; more than friends, we are sons and daughters of the Most High, never to be discarded into exile once again. At the same time, it also teaches us and reminds us that we have received the Spirit of Christ and we are recipients of every spiritual blessing in the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And it’s out of our adoption into the family of God that we are able to confidently cry out, “Abba, Father!” knowing full well that He hears us, He assures us, and He will respond to us as His children according to His perfect plan in His perfect timing.
And part of the reason for starting looking at this doctrine and being reminded of this doctrine is that’s partly what we’re going to encounter. That’s the expression of where it emerges from in Psalm 123 that we’re going to read in just a short moment. And so turn with me to Psalm 123. Let’s read God’s Word and then we’ll commit this time to the Lord in prayer. This is the Word of God:
“A psalm of ascents.
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.”
This is God’s Word. May God bless it to each of our hearts this evening. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer, shall we? Let’s pray.
Our gracious and loving heavenly Father, it is before You that we once again bow our heads. This is Your Word. It’s been given as a means of grace to minister, to correct, to teach, to encourage and to assure us as Your children. And so Father, we pray this evening that by Your Spirit You would take Your Word and You would drive it down deep into our hearts, apply it so that we may go from this place having a greater understanding of who You are, who we are as Your children, and how we can best serve You and what we can do in accordance with the desires of Your will for our lives. Bless this time that we have, for Christ’s sake and honor. Amen.
Now before we get into the particulars, or some of the particulars of Psalm 123, let me start off with just a couple of points by way of introduction. The first one is to mention, and many of you will know this, that the psalms fall within the ambit of poetry. In other words, poetry, it’s very essence, it’s aim, is to communicate truth through the depiction of images. In other words, they paint literary pictures for us in order to grab ahold of our heads and our hearts, in order to stir our imaginations and our affections with the purpose of mobilizing our wills and our feet in our obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and in accordance with the Word of Truth.
And part of what the psalmist’s purpose is – and you’ll come across this time again as you read the Psalms – is that he has a way of expressing what the reader is truly struggling to verbalize himself. I mean how many times have you read the Psalms and you’ve come across one and you think to yourself, “Man, this guy gets me!” It’s almost as if we’re able to identify with what the psalmist is engaging, what he’s struggling with, and of course God uses that to re-orient our gaze and to gaze upon the One who is enthroned in the heavens. And so when one reads the Psalms we come across image after image after image. And these images are constructed in such a way that they peel back the self-constructed defenses that we’ve put up in order to show us ourselves, to capture our hearts, and ultimately to stir our affections for eternal realities. That’s what God does in the Psalms. This psalm depicts a picture. You want to know life in all its abundance regardless of your circumstances, regardless of the degree of suffering and the challenges you’re facing? Look to the Lord. Look to the Lord.
The second point, just by way of introduction, is to mention that Psalm120 through 134 comprises the Psalms of Ascent. Psalm 123 is the fourth of the Psalms of Ascent. And these psalms would have been sung by the Jews as they were on pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem as part of their preparation to worship the Lord and the gathering of the communion of the saints as part of the sacrificial offerings, and of course as they come to the One who is located in the holy of holies. It was Charles Spurgeon who I think quite incisively noted that there is an ascending progression in the Psalms of Ascent up until this point. He noted that in Psalm 120, the psalmist looks up from his despair. In Psalm 121 he looks to the hills. In other words, the hills around Jerusalem. In Psalm 122, he looks to the temple, the place where he will be gathered with his fellow believers to worship around and in the holy place. And then Psalm 123, he looks to Yahweh; he looks to God Himself. Do you see the ascending progression moving from self out towards the created order, to the place of worship, and ultimately to Yahweh, to God Himself?
Friends, to know and experience the fullness of God’s mercy and grace, it’s not about merely lifting your head from the circumstances, being stoic, putting your hand to the plow so to speak. It’s not simply about looking to the created order. And yes, there is beauty and there’s a shadow of the glory of God that ought to grasp us and cause us to worship Him, but it’s also not about simply gathering and looking forward to the place of worship. It is all of those things, but it’s more. It’s about looking to the One who is enthroned in the heavens. That’s what the psalmist is driving home here. And so this evening, I want us to look at our text in Psalm 123 under two headings – a servant’s posture and a servant’s plea. A servant’s posture and a servant’s plea. And the two actually dovetail; they do go together.
A Servant’s Posture
So, let’s have a look at that first one – a servant’s posture. Look at verse 1 with me. “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” And then verse 2, “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.” Psalm 123 is a prayer. More specifically, it’s a prayer of lamentation. The cause, and of course the reason for the lament, is given for us in verses 3 and 4 and we’ll touch on those details in just a few moments. But one commentator noted that what the psalmist is enduring here, the degree of suffering and anguish of the soul, is very similar to what has been termed, “the dark night of the soul.” In other words, it’s very difficult to really put it into words what is going on in the inner recesses of his own heart here. And yet, the soul that is in anguish gives birth to a remarkable expression of faith in verse 1. And it reminds us as believers that our rest, our hope, our peace in all circumstances, more particularly in difficult times, it looks beyond our self, it is beyond the created order, it is the One who is enthroned in the heavens who is the Lord of heaven and earth. And we know that mentally, but we need to be reminded of that constantly.
So what is the psalmist doing in this verse, in verse 1, “To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens”? Well we need to remember that the psalmist, when he is writing this, he is going through anguish; he is in trauma. And a lot of those who are on the path to Jerusalem to gather at the temple, it’s a well-trodden path. They would have been reminded of this as they sing it together. On this occasion, as the psalmist has written it and as the various travelers, as they sing this, the implication is that they are weighed down by the world and the flesh and the devil. His eyes are cast down. That is the reason he’s having to instruct himself. “To you I lift up my eyes. To you I gaze.” Perhaps he’s focused on the anxieties of life. I mean, who here cannot identify with some of the anxieties of life that perhaps you’re even in the midst of struggling with at this very moment? Perhaps he’s focused on the numerous idols that continue to distract and beckon for his attention. Perhaps he’s focused on his sinful indulgences over the last couple of days and now that he is alone on a path, aiming towards the worship of God at the temple, he’s reminded of that sinful disposition in his heart, that which he’s been entertaining.
But beyond all of those things, verses 3 and 4 seems to indicate very clearly that he’s focused on the belligerent animosity that he’s been on the receiving end from those who have shown their hatred towards God and God’s Word and God’s people. There’s contempt and scorn. Those are very strong words that are used to drive home what he’s going through. You know one of the things that we know from the Psalms from the very outset, from Psalm 1, is that there are only two groups of people. There are the righteous, those who have been declared righteous – and there’s only one perfectly righteous man, Jesus Christ Himself. And then there are the wicked. And of course Jesus picks up on this at the end when He comes back on the clouds of glory and there’s the great judgment, there will be the separation into two groups. There will be the sheep and there will be the goats. And we are told that this psalm, Psalm 123, and of course in Psalm chapter 1 as well, they really remind us that there have always been scoffers. There have always been those who maliciously poke fun at the Word of God and strive and aim to humiliate Christians, whether that be through humor and invectives or whether that be through just silence and the sheer dismissal of the Christian and the message. In fact, we must not forget that at some point or another we ourselves were scoffers and mockers of the Word of Truth until the Lord in His grace opened our eyes to be able to see Him for who He truly is as the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father.
Now in some sense, the American South – and we give praise and thanks to God for this – but we’re still influenced by and do enjoy the Christian heritage of your past. Much to be thankful for. But many of you have noted and have expressed to me in the last five years that things are changing rapidly, especially with the increasing invasiveness of technology and social media where the agendas of the culture are being promulgated and are basically forced upon us, and at the same time, there is a denigration of Christianity. I mean all you need to do is write something on social media that does not conform to the cultural narrative of our day and you may go viral, and not in a positive sense, in a negative way. And going viral, being the unsuspected recipient of the malicious contempt of those who wish to silence you, humiliate you, and get rid of the message of truth.
Here’s the thing. Here’s the point. To the believer, to the Christian, all of this can be exceedingly weary and tiresome. Doesn’t it get to the point where your soul is vexed by society’s opposition to the message of truth that has become such a treasure to your heart? You long for the fullness of that which you have tasted a little bit of. You’ve tasted of the glory of who Jesus is, you’ve tasted of the communion of the saints, and you long for the fullness of that but we’re not there yet. And between now and when that comes to pass, in all its fullness, this psalm actually helps us to understand how we get there – one day at a time how we get there.
So here you have the psalmist, you have the travelers; they’re on the journey, and eventually they’re joined by fellow pilgrims. And as he’s joined by fellow pilgrims on the way to the temple in Jerusalem, they begin interacting. They start to talk and share about life, talking about the goodness and the kindness and the providences of God. And then they begin singing some of these very psalms that are before us as part of the Psalms of Ascent in preparing their hearts to worship at the temple. And between their interaction and between their discussing of the goodness and the gratefulness that they have towards the Lord our God and then singing His praises, he realizes that he has to reorient his gaze – “to You I lift up my eyes.”
Embedded in that simple statement is one of the clearest and I think most profound expressions of faith. It’s not elaborate. It’s not detailed. It’s not a Nicene Creed or an Apostles’ Creed, but it is filled with humility and contriteness. And we’re told throughout the Scriptures that the Lord is pleased to hear those who pray from a place of humility and contriteness of heart. He’s acknowledging that God alone is sovereign, that He alone is the One who is enthroned on the great throne of heaven and earth. The One who created the heavens and the earth in six days is the One who rules and who reigns, who is intricately involved in every facet of life and everything takes place, every bit and detail of our lives transpires, and it will be for His glory. And he acknowledges that, humbly dependent on the Lord.
And then just in order to try and reinforce how his disposition, his posture is changing, he then gives us this analogy in verse 2, an analogy that actually comes straight out of ancient near eastern culture. It’s similar to the employee-employer relationship; not exactly the same but there are some similarities. So, let me read verse 2. “Behold, Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us.” What is he doing here? Part of what happened and which was very well known in ancient near eastern culture was it was less of an oral instruction culture and more of a gesture culture in the relationship between a master and servant. And so the longer the servant was working with the master, the more easily he would be able to recognize just a turn of the hand indicated something that the master wanted done for him. And so he’s looking to the hand of the master to receive guidance on what work needs to be done.
Believer, the hand of our Master, in some sense, is His Word. He has given this as an instruction manual, not an oral manual but something that we read and that we turn to in order to be guided with regards to our lives. And so like that of a servant to a master to receive guidance, God’s Word tells us what He desires of us – and that is to love God, to do justice, and to walk humbly. That’s what we’ve been looking at in Micah over the last few weeks.
One of the other things with regards to a servant keeping his eyes on the hands of the master is to receive the tools and supplies that are required for the task at hand. A servant is not a contractor who brings his own tools to the job. No, he is dependent upon the master giving him the tools in order that the task may be done. Christian, we are not our own. We belong to another. We look to our Lord for the gifts and graces each new day that is required to go and do what He’s asked us to go and do – to love God and to love our neighbor. If we’re left to ourselves, we cannot do that. We are dependent upon Him to provide what is required. A servant also looks to their master for protection. I don’t think I need to explain that. But as a believer, God is our rock and our refuge. He is our shield and defender. He is our fortress. He is the one who not only saves us, but He keeps us, and He will keep us until that day when we see Him face to face in glory.
A servant also looks to their master for correction. And it would be just a turning of the finger or turning of the hand which would indicate that, “That wasn’t done the way I asked you to do it.” Isn’t that exactly what the Spirit of God does with regards to His Word as we’re reading it? And it comes alive and it’s almost as if God by His Spirit puts the finger on exactly the issue that we need to deal with that we’ve been running away from. He corrects us. And I’m sure there’s more, but let me say this is the last one. The servant looks to the hand of the master for reward. It is from their master that they receive their living. It is not something that they can demand, but it is something that results from the kindness and generosity of the master. Brothers and sisters, you’ve tasted somewhat of the reward of God our Father through Jesus Christ. Your sins have been forgiven. They have been removed as far as the east is from the west. You have been made a child of God. All of those great promises in Scripture is part of the reward that has come our way and yet we have only tasted a fraction of that which still awaits us. You see, the posture of the servant of God is one of utter dependence, looking to Him anew each new day.
The question that confronts us at this point is, “Do we even recognize our need and our dependence upon the Lord of glory?” Not just for salvation – yes, absolutely. And we ought to give thanks and praise to God every single day for what He has done for us and the grace that has been extended, but I’m also talking about life and breath and wisdom and patience and kindness and love and all the rest of the fruit of the Spirit. And what about daily bread?
You know, I remember a situation in South Africa twenty-five years ago or so. I was on a Youth for Christ camp and it’s usually for about a week at a time and you get assigned to certain groups. And one of the co-leaders was this lady in her forties. And she got to share a little bit of her testimony with us as a group. And she shared that she had been unemployed for about three or four years at that point. Before that, she had been on the streets for about three months or four months. Eventually someone had opened their garage to her. They converted it into somewhat of a living space for her and her three children. And the one thing that struck me is that every morning her and her three children would wake up and they would pray for their daily bread; the daily provision that was required. And without fail, there would be a package at the door outside the garage. And no matter how early she got up, she could never find out who was delivering the package, because she was obviously interested. She could never find out who it was. And on this day when there was no package, her and her three children realized that the Lord was not asking them to eat, but rather to fast that day and to spend the time in prayer and in the study of the Word. And yet the one thing that struck me in all of this, in the midst of all her struggles and her suffering, was the joy that beamed across her face to know that God was taking care of her each new morning. It was astonishing.
Friends, is it possible, is it possible in our pursuit to maintain our lives of material comfort and ease that we have taken the gifts of God’s goodness from His hands of grace and we’ve turned it into an idol that somewhat defines us and we will not go back and we do not look to the Lord daily for His mercy and grace? That’s kind of what Corey was mentioning last week, isn’t it? Elijah and the prophets of Baal. have we taken that which is a blessing, a kindness of God, and made it into a baal, a baal? May the Lord revive us to grasp even what Martin Luther wrote in one of his hymns. He said, “The Spirit and the gifts are ours,” they are ours because we are in union with Jesus. And then he continued in the same hymn and he said, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever!”
There is a freedom in not being weighed down or detached or with lines or ropes that are holding us to the things of this world as if that’s what defines us. Our definition of who we are is because of what Jesus has done and it’s for His kingdom that we are called to live and to sacrifice and go forth. And so the servant of God, by faith, assumes this posture – eyes upon the Lord, humbly looking to Him in His Word, seeking to grasp the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That is what satisfies us.
A Servant’s Plea
And the question that obviously arises – How long do you look to your Master? How long do you look to your Lord? And it all hinges on a single preposition, and that brings me to the second point. And as you know, the second point is always the shorter of my two points, so you can relax! So let’s consider a servant’s plea. In fact, it’s an expectant plea that we see in verses 2 and 3. Let’s read that together. “So our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us.” Friends, that little word “till” is actually better translated from the Hebrew as “until” because it’s got a time continuum dimension to it. In other words, “I will continue in this posture until You shower down, and You bring the relief of mercy and grace that is required, that I need.”
So one thing, by the way, that differentiates an earthly master from a heavenly Master, an earthly master can take care of many of your earthly requirements, but an earthly master can’t take care of the mercy both that your soul requires at the new birth but also the mercy that is required for each new day. And so our eyes look to the Lord our God until He has mercy upon us. In other words, we humbly expect it – that God our Father will hear us, and He will listen, and He will answer in accordance with what is good and pleasing in His sight.
Now at that point you should be immediately thinking on Luke 18. You know the passage. It’s a passage, a parable that Jesus tells which literally highlights the posture and the plea that Psalm 123 is giving to us. It’s the parable of the persistent widow, the persistent widow who’s seeking justice and mercy from the unjust judge – someone who couldn’t care about God and couldn’t care about man and yet because of her persistence he answers her request. She’s like a yapping chihuahua! Sorry if that causes offense to chihuahua fans! I have a bad memory from South African days! She’s like a dripping faucet, like a fly that buzzes around the food that will not go away. That’s the persistence that she keeps on coming back to the judge.
And what’s interesting here as we move from the end of verse 2 to the beginning of verse 3, as he says, “so our eyes look to the Lord our God till he has mercy upon us,” it’s almost as if it’s a mental statement, something that he has rotely memorized, and he’s recounting for himself, he’s speaking to himself. But by the time we reach verse 3, it’s traveled from his head to his heart. He’s no longer saying this is a statement of faith, but he’s crying out to the Lord, “Have mercy upon me, O Lord. Have mercy upon me.” It’s starting to move him. It’s starting to make sense. It’s become real. Jesus teaches us to be persistent in prayer, to express the anguish and the concern and the frustration and not to lose heart. You are not a nuisance when you come back to your Father. He has given you a listening ear and there are an immense fountain of riches that await you beyond what we can begin to comprehend and imagine for those who look to Him and desire to be conformed to the image of His Son.
Here’s the thing, the point. The more you immerse and consume and keep your eyes on the One who is enthroned in heaven, getting to know Him in His Word, so the more you recognize the need to keep coming back for guidance, for wisdom, for protection, for correction, for assurance and all the other details of the servant to the master. You see, as we grow in our knowledge of the Father, Son and Spirit, as we grow to understand ourselves, we begin to grasp our own frailty and the easy by which we assimilate, and even adjust to this world, sometimes even dare I say compromising on the way, the more we get to grasp all of that we may find a renewed desperation in our posture and our plea. It may result in a heightened understanding of the contempt of the proud, you know, the religiously arrogant. We may also get to the point where our soul has had enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, those people that you have conversations with, and they don’t believe that they have anything to worry about – “God loves all people.” The scorn of those who are at ease, disregarding the fact that there is a judgment, there is hell, there is the wrath of God. It’s part of His justice and it matches perfectly with the love of God.
Here’s what Derek Kidner, a commentator on the Old Testament, he says regarding the affliction that we as Christians sometimes experience, this of scorn and contempt. And I quote, “It is illuminating. Other things can bruise, but this is cold steel” – contempt and scorn. “It goes deeper into the spirit than any other form of rejection. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount it ranks as more murderous than anger. It is particularly wounding when it is casual or unconscious. But if it is deserved and irreversible, it is one of the pains of hell.” And he quotes from Daniel 2. In other words, to be inflicted with this type of hatred and scorn, this contempt, the antidote can only be the mercy and the grace and the love and the kindness of God. In other words, when the world is heaping the coals of contempt and scorn upon you, it must be the fresh rivers of living water that flow over you to wash out those fires, but also to renew the soul.
Let me say this in closing. Speaking to a congregation this size, chances are that many of you can identify with what the psalmist is speaking about in verses 3 and 4. This Scripture reminds us that there is One, there is One who was despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows, He was well acquainted with grief. He was despised and mocked by the chief priests and the scribes and the soldiers. He understands you. The Lord our God in Jesus Christ understands your anguish. He understands what it means to be on the receiving end of contempt and scorn, to be misunderstood at times even. And the solution is not retaliation, brothers and sisters. The solution is actually not harboring resentment against the person. It’s not even capitulating to the culture’s whims, but in actual fact it is to gaze and look and lift up our eyes to the Lord, to the One who is enthroned in heaven who will make all things right one day.
When you look at the life of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, there was no one who was scorned and hated and on the receiving end of contempt quite like Him. And yet Jesus would start His days in prayer – the posture of kneeling and coming to His Father, asking for daily graces, daily mercy, daily guidance. Oftentimes He would withdraw during the course of the day – go and spend time with His Father. And then a little later in the last day of His life, in that remarkable moment that He spends with His disciples as He’s sipping from the cup, He’s newly conscious that the time has arrived – the time to fulfill the will of His Father. That moment had arisen where the full measure of scorn and contempt of the religious leaders would be vented, where the hatred of the world and of course the enemy, the devil, towards the way the truth and the life would be actioned. And in that moment of intense weight pressing down upon Him, the anguish of His soul, He excuses Himself from the table and He makes a way out to the Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, have mercy upon Me. Have mercy upon Me. Father, if there be any other way, but not My will. Let Your will be done. Have mercy upon Me, O Lord. Have mercy upon Me.” Part of what He’s saying in the Garden of Gethsemane is picking up on the theme here in Psalm 123. And He comes back three times to pray. When the time of His betrayal was at hand, He got up, knowing that He’s been prepared, and He went out to face those who were His opposers.
Brothers and sisters, there are times when the reading of the Word of God and the pouring out of our hearts is what we must return to regularly. You’ve had those moments where you spend the time in the Word and spending time in prayer, early morning, and the Lord has secured you, He’s assured you. And you get into the course of your day and just something happens or something is said and the anguish begins to rise up once again. There are times when we just need to withdraw and we need to spend more time in the Word, looking to the Lord our God and praying that the Lord would secure us and give us the grace and mercy for the next few moments if that’s all that’s allowed. When we’re worn out, when we’re fed up, when we’re crushed and perplexed by the world and the flesh and the devil, the psalmist, the Lord Himself, our heavenly Father, He says to you, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens. That’s where your help comes from. Your help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The Lord is your keeper. He is the one who will keep you from all evil.” And just as the promises came to pass for the Lord Jesus Christ, because of our union with Him, because of our adoption into the family, they will come to pass for each and every one of us as well. And so we look to Him for mercy and grace. And as we look to Him, He will not give you a stone when you ask for bread. He will give you the mercy that is required for each new day.
May the Lord impress upon us to be a people who know how to lament that which is really going on in the inner recesses of our heart, but also to know where to look to. It is to look to the Lord our God who is enthroned in the heavens. May God bless this to us this evening. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer. Let’s pray.
Our Father in heaven, we give You thanks and praise for the magnificent truth of Your Word and how it’s able to get to the inner recesses of that which we would rather have remained hidden. And Lord, it’s able to excavate it and bring it to the surface. Father, I pray that You would once again remind us and teach us what it is to come to You as children, dependent; sheep looking to a shepherd for constant nourishment and guidance and wisdom. And Lord, may we do it as a people looking to Jesus every day. Lord, be pleased to us this, to encourage us as a body. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
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