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Our Sovereign Lord: Keeping God at the Center of Worship

Series: How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Sep 29, 1999

Psalm 124:1-8

Turn with me to the Psalm 124. We’ve been looking together at these wonderful “Ascent Psalms,” fifteen Psalms (from 120-134), all of them bearing this title A Song of Degrees or A Song of Ascent.  We believe these Psalms were psalms sung by pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of the great feasts. They made their way from various parts of Israel and beyond, and they would come together in great numbers to worship God in Jerusalem.

       Psalm 124:

“A Song of Ascents, of David.

‘Had it not been the Lord who was on our side,’

Let Israel now say,

‘Had it not been the Lord who was on our side,

When men rose up against us;

Then they would have swallowed us alive,

When their anger was kindled against us;

Then the waters would have engulfed us,

The stream would have swept over our soul;

Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.’

“Blessed be the Lord,

Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.

Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper;

The snare is broken and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,

Who made heaven and earth.”

So far, God’s holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it, for His name’s sake. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You now for Your word. Speak to us, O Lord, by the ministry of Your Spirit, illuminating the meaning of these words; and grant, O Lord, that as a result we might not just be hearers, but doers also. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

If God hadn’t intervened in your lives, where would you be tonight? If God hadn’t stepped in and delivered you...delivered you from the bondage of sin and corruption, brought you into the kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ...brought you in providence into the covenant community of God’s people...brought you under the sound of His word...answered your prayers? If God hadn’t done these things, where would you be tonight?

Well, that’s the question that the psalmist is asking here at the beginning of this 124th Psalm. He’s thinking about the hand of God, the intervention of God in his life. He’s thinking about all that God has done: those mighty acts of God where God has demonstrated His power in his own life.

It’s a song of deliverance, and it’s been a favorite Psalm of many a Christian down through the ages. It’s a Psalm Christians have sung in particular in times of ecclesiastical and national deliverance. In 1582, in Edinburgh, an imprisoned minister by the name of John Durie was released and set free from prison, and was welcomed at the gates of the prison of Edinburgh by several hundred folk, who then were joined by hundreds more, maybe thousands of them, who marched up High Street in Edinburgh singing the words of this Psalm.

The key thought of this Psalm is found in the eighth verse, the final verse – a verse that may well be familiar to you: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” French Protestants, in their worship services, made this particular verse their opening sentence of many of their worship services. There are many who still do so today, and I have to say that I have a predilection towards doing that myself, to begin the service of the worship of God with these particular words: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth.”

Now, the Psalm divides into three sections. That is fairly common to many psalms and to poetic literature in general. It forms something of a sandwich in which the outer layers (verses 1,2 and 8) say the same thing, more or less, only from a negative and positive point of view; and then, the filling of this sandwich (verses 3-7) gives us four examples, or metaphors, of deliverance.

I. “Let’s Pretend”

In the first place, then, and one of the outer layers now of this sandwich, in a negative way begins by playing, as it were, a game that all of us when we were younger used to play, and that is, “Let’s pretend.”

Let’s pretend for a moment this evening that God had never intervened in our lives. Imagine for a moment, if God hadn’t stepped into our lives the way that He did, imagine that we were left to our own desires, and to our own initiative, and to our own resources, and our own wisdom. Then where would we be tonight? Where would you be tonight? What would you be doing? In what way do you think you would be, if it hadn’t been for God stepping into your life?

Now, something for the background for this Psalm lies in II Samuel 5, when David, you remember, was crowned king at Hebron and then went up and sacked the city of Jerusalem. You remember the city of Jerusalem had not been fully conquered, not even during the time of the conquest in the time of Joshua, but Jebusites lived in Jerusalem. And following the defeat of the Jebusites in Jerusalem in II Samuel 5, we read that the Philistines came up against David and his men, and, according to II Samuel 5, came up in full force. And David and his men went against them in a place called Perazim, and the Philistines were routed.

And then the Philistines try a counterattack in another location, the Valley of Rephaim, and again David is given the sense by God to do a certain maneuver, coming up behind them unawares, and again the Philistines are destroyed. And we read these wonderful words (wonderful, that is, if you’re on David’s side!):

            “And David struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer.”

And it may be that that military background lies as the root, the inspiration, for this Psalm 124.

But it doesn’t really matter, because what’s so wonderful about these Psalms is that you don’t need to know the exact background. You don’t really need to know the exact context in which they were written, because the Psalm doesn’t actually tell us what that context is; and that because the Psalm intends for us to put these words into our own contexts, into our own situations, into the trials and difficulties and hostilities that you and I know as Christians and believers.

And what we have is a portrait of what the Christian life, what the life of a child of God, is often like, because the psalmist tells us: “Had it not been for the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us....” 

And here’s a picture of the church in trouble, a picture of the church in difficulty, a picture of the church facing hostility and trial, and it’s a picture that’s been repeated again and again and again. In almost every century of the church, men and women of God have known this particular context of what it means to be engulfed by the world; of what it means to be set upon by the enemies of God; of what it means to have one’s faith tried and tested. You remember the words of Jesus to the disciples: ‘If the world hates, you,’ Jesus says, ‘well, bear in mind that it hated Me first. So don’t be caught off-guard, don’t be caught surprised by the trials and difficulties that come into your lives. In the world you shall have tribulation, and that primarily because Satan is set to bring you down.’ That’s his objective; that’s his aim: to despise everything that is Christ’s; to manipulate and oppose and twist everything; to make life as difficult as possible for you.

So I ask you again: imagine with me, where would you be if God hadn’t intervened? If you hadn’t known the power of God at work in your lives? “‘T’is not that I did choose Thee...” this is Josiah Condor’s great hymn, isn’t it?

“‘T'is not that I did choose Thee,

For, Lord, that could not be.

This heart would still refuse Thee,

Had Thou not chosen me.

Thou, from the sin that stained me,

Has cleansed and set me free.

Of old Thou hast ordained me,

That I should live to Thee.”

 

And it’s a testimony of God’s power, and God’s initiative, and God’s work in the life of the believer, of the child of God. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s where it begins. And in every situation and in every context since that time, God has been at work.

Imagine where we would be, the psalmist is saying, if God hadn’t been at work in your life. Imagine the problems that could have happened. Imagine the situations that could have come about, if God hadn’t intervened.

You know that all the time, don’t you, when you drive on these highways, and some “idiot” pulls out in front of you, talking on the telephone, putting make-up on, brushing their hair, oblivious to all around, and you slam on the brakes, and then two or three seconds later you feel that adrenalin going through your body, and you begin to get nervous, and you say, “My! That was close!” And it was God intervening! It was a ministry of angels sent by God. Imagine...imagine where you’d be tonight if God hadn’t intervened.

That’s what the psalmist is asking, if that the Lord had not been on our sides? If God hadn’t been working all things together for the good of those that love Him? If our covenant God had not been obligated by reason of that covenant to do you good, and to bring you safe all the way to glory? Imagine where you’d be. Imagine the darkness of it; imagine the horror of it; imagine the pain of it; imagine the angst of it, if God hadn’t been on our sides; if you haven’t known again and again the ministry of Almighty God in your life.

And so the psalmist moves by way of amplification into the meat of this sandwich, and the way he does so is to bring to pass several pictures all at once. “Never read a book without pictures,” C.S. Lewis once said, and that’s why this Psalm, I think, is such a wonderful Psalm, because it flashes these metaphors before us, graphic and detailed as they are, showing us and describing to us God’s ministry in our lives – four of them in verse 3. And it’s not made immediately obvious what the metaphor is when it says, “They would have swallowed us alive, when their anger was kindled against us”.

It’s the metaphor...the allusion is to an earthquake – being swallowed up alive. We’ve heard some terrible stories just in the last couple of weeks, haven’t we, in various parts of the world...Taiwan one of them, and Turkey before that...of men and women, and indeed, children who were swallowed up alive in buildings that collapsed all around them when the earth began to shake. Well, that’s the imagery. It’s a metaphor.

Imagine if God hadn’t been on your side. Imagine if God hadn’t been working for you. Imagine if He hadn’t brought you to Jesus Christ. Imagine! It would be like falling into a pit, and the earth collapsing in upon us!

Then he uses another metaphor in verse 4 of floodwaters engulfing us: “The waters would have engulfed us, the stream would have swept over our soul....” And again, just in these last couple of weeks we’ve heard heartbreaking stories of folk whose homes and livelihood and means and so on...they’ve experienced exactly what this metaphor is talking about, in the floods that have hit various parts of this country. And it’s like falling into the waters, and the waters engulfing you. It’s your worst nightmare coming true.

And verse 6 uses another metaphor: a beast of prey, and we’re caught in its sharp teeth. He hasn’t given us over to be torn by their teeth...a graphic image of a beast of prey prowling up behind you and grabbing a hold of you with its teeth.

And then, in verse 7, a fowler catches a bird in its snare, and it is caught.

Do you see what he’s doing? Where would you be if God hadn’t stepped into your lives? You’d be swallowed up; you’d be engulfed by the waters; you’d be caught by the teeth of some ravenous beast; you’d be trapped, and there’d be no way out.

And for some, it’s just like this, isn’t it? This is the testimony of their lives, and they know what it is to come to the very brink of that ravine, and they know what it is to, as it were, see and hear those waters come raging towards them, and they’re almost engulfed; and they can hear and almost smell that beast prowling up behind them; and they’ve seen that trap, and their foot has almost stepped on it, and they’ve almost been caught by it.

I think of a couple I know who had their first child. And there was all the anticipation and the excitement of having that first little baby, and then when the baby was born, it was a Down syndrome baby. And all of the thoughts that go through their minds in those first few moments, and the guilt that accompanies it, and all the horror of a life that’s now going to be different from the one that perhaps they’d imagined...and they were almost engulfed, and they were almost ensnared, and they were almost trapped—and then God comes to them in the power of His Holy Spirit and teaches them that this is God’s gift to them. And they enter into the joy of that gift.

I think of someone falling into personal sin—a temptation that looks just too great to ever control, and the threat is there to be swallowed up by it, and to be entrapped by it. And then comes the ministry of the Holy Spirit that energizes their soul and releases them, and gives them grace to resist that sin, that they don’t find themselves ensnared by it.

And I think of another, threatened by financial ruin, and the collapse of all of their portfolios. And when all seems altogether lost, God steps in and does His work of deliverance.

And there are multitudes of examples that each one of us could give. Where would we be, that God hadn’t stepped in? If God hadn’t been on our sides?

III. What is the reason why we haven’t been engulfed?

And so the psalmist comes to the third part of what he has to say—the other side of the layer of the sandwich, if you like; and he now puts it in the positive.

If in the first place he asks us to pretend for a minute, in the negative “Where would we be if God had not stepped in?” he now puts it in the positive: “What is the reason why we haven’t been engulfed? And what is the reason why we haven’t been entrapped? And what is the reason why we haven’t been caught in the teeth of a roaring beast?” And the answer is “Because of the work of the sovereign covenant God; that the covenant Lord of heaven and earth is on our side.”

Who is our help? Who is our deliverer? Who is on our side? And the psalmist says ‘It’s the Lord; it’s the covenant God of Israel.’

            “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth.”

It’s in God’s name.

You know, in the Bible, names are important, aren’t they, because names signify something. Abraham’s name means father of a multitude, or father of nations. Jacob’s name means deceiver. Isaac’s name means he laughs.  Ishmael’s name means God hears. Isaiah’s name means God is salvation. And God has a name. He has a name by which He can be identified.

You remember when Moses, in Exodus 3, was asked to go back to Egypt. You remember he says to God ‘Well, what name shall I give you?’ And God has just said to Moses, “I will be with you.” ‘Yes, that’s fine,’ Moses says, ‘but what name shall I use?’ And God said, ‘I am that I am [or perhaps, “I will be what I will be”]. That’s My name.’ And you may ask, “Well, what is that supposed to mean – ‘I am that I am’?’ It means probably more than just that God exists, though it certainly means that. But it means, in the context of what God was saying to Moses when God says to him “I will be with you” and “My name is I Am.” It seems to imply that God is saying to Moses, ‘My name is ‘I am with you. I am with you. I will be with you.’ That’s My name. That’s what it means to have the covenant Lord, that wherever you go and whatever circumstance you find yourself in, I will be with you. I will not leave you. I will never forsake you.’

Who is the God who is on our side? The answer, “The Lord, the covenant God of Israel, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Who are the “our” in the statement, “God is on our side”? And the answer is those who profess the name of the covenant Lord; those who cry to this covenant Lord in all of their distress; those who look to Him for grace and mercy.

And what does it mean to say that God is on our side? And the answer is it means that God’s presence never forsakes us. It means that His presence never abandons, it’s always there.

Do you remember what Elisha said to his servant in Dothan? You remember when the Arameans were coming, and they’re on the hills and they’re surrounded, and in the morning the servant gets up and does whatever it is you do first thing in the morning, and he washes his face and rubs his eyes, and he looks up to the mountains and he says ‘Alas, my master! We’re doomed! We’re surrounded!’ And Elisha prays, “Lord, open his eyes.” And God opens his eyes to behold the horses and chariots of fire that were greater in number than the force of the Arameans, because God was on their side. And that’s what it means, that God is on our side: 

“A sovereign protector I have,

Unseen, yet forever at hand;

Unchangeably faithful to stay,

Almighty to rule and command.”

Grasp it, the Psalm is saying. Grasp, hold on to it, that God is irrevocably committed to you in the covenant of grace, and He will not forsake that. It’s the Old Testament Psalm that echoes the words, isn’t it, of that great verse in Romans 8:

“If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but freely delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?”

It’s the God of grace committing Himself absolutely, unequivocally, to the good of His people for whom He sends His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross and to rise again in order to promise and assure everlasting and eternal life. And this God, this God who is the same yesterday and today and forever, is on our side. And David is the one who says this...David, who worked for a megalomaniac boss...David who has a son who is murderous and incestuous. And David says ‘God is on my side.’

His covenant of grace is sure. He’s made a covenant which is ordered and sure, and that’s the source of his strength, and that’s the source of his assurance. No wonder, then, he can say as he does in verse 6: “Blessed be the Lord.”

Blessed be the Lord. Praise the Lord...and, oh, that God would call forth from your heart and mine as we think about where we would be tonight if it hadn’t been for the God of the covenant of grace operating in our lives. Where would we be? Praise God. Praise God that at every step of the way, irrevocably, He never leaves; He never abandons; He never forsakes.

The God of glory, the God of Israel, is on the side of His people.

Would you stand and let’s pray together, and then we will receive the Lord’s benediction. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for the sweet notes of assurance and blessing that come from this great Psalm. Encourage our hearts. Help us, O Lord, along with David to look to You, the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God; and keep us persevering every step of the way, until we get to glory. Hear us, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now receive the Lord’s benediction:

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

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