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Series: How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Oct 6, 1999

Psalm 125:1-5

Turn with me to Psalm 125. We have been looking at these Psalms, Psalms 120 through to 134, all of them bearing the title “A Song of Ascents” or “A Song of Degrees”, and we have conjectured (it is only a conjecture; we don’t have very much proof for it) that these Psalms were written, some of them, as distant as maybe 250 or even 300 years apart. But they were eventually drawn together and compiled in a section together in the Psalter, and it is widely believed and held that these particular Psalms bear this title because they were used by the pilgrims of the Old Testament as they made their way to one of the great festivals in Jerusalem.

And we’ve been imagining such a worshiper making his way from the great distance from Jerusalem in which he lived, and now finding himself in this great city and amongst other worshipers and pilgrims at one of these festivals. And turn with me to Psalm 125, and let’s read it together.

“A Song of Ascents.

Those who trust in the Lord

Are as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem,

So the Lord surrounds His people

From this time forth and forever.

For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest upon the land of the righteous;

That the righteous may not put forth their hands to do wrong.

Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,

And to those who are upright in their hearts.

But as for those who turn aside to their crooked ways,

The Lord will lead them away with the doers of iniquity.

Peace be upon Israel.”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You now for Your word. Speak to us, we pray; by the outpouring of Your Spirit bring these words to life and meaning in our hearts and in our minds, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.


We get the impression, don’t we, as we read this Psalm, and indeed as you read many Psalms, that the perspective of the worshiper here...and you can imagine perhaps in the city of Jerusalem and surrounded by the other pilgrims who have made their way to one of these great festivals...you get the perspective that this psalmist, even as he is worshiping God, is very conscious of trial and difficulty. He’s conscious of wickedness that abounds all around him. It’s on his mind. He’s concerned about it, and that concern appears to be one which this particular psalmist now wants to bring before God. He wants to bring it to the attention of God, and you see the refrain in this Psalm: wickedness, crooked ways, evil doers.

And it’s a reminder, isn’t it, that the life of every believer, not just this believer here, but we echo that, don’t we? We sympathize with that. We enter into that. It’s part of our experience also that trials and difficulties and living in a world where evil doers and crooked people abound is part of the experience of every child of God.

And sometimes the Psalms speak of that experience in terms from which we would seem to draw the inference that the psalmist feels almost overwhelmed by it; sometimes, though not in this particular Psalm, almost to the point of despair, so that sometimes the psalmist, because of the trials and because of the difficulties, draws the conclusion that God has forsaken him, that he’s been abandoned, and that he feels spiritually in a desert place. And when that happens, these Psalms...Psalms like that (and this one here is by no means unique)...Psalms like that are saying to us, look, when you feel like that, when you find yourself surrounded by wickedness and evil and difficulty and trial, and the going is tough, then put your feet where this psalmist puts his feet, and take a step forward and make that progress even though you mightn’t be able to see the way ahead; but do that, and in doing that you will perceive that even though there is darkness all around, that’s the way of progress. And it’s reassuring, isn’t it, in a perverse sort of way, to find that this Psalm—and for that matter, that the whole Bible—speaks so much about the issues of trouble and perceived wrongs, and hurts and distresses, because that’s the way we so often feel, too, isn’t it?


And that’s why, in the first place, Psalms like this have an immediate message for us, and it’s why we find the Psalms often so helpful.

You know, “a Psalm a day keeps the doctor away!” It’s like that, isn’t it? You read a Psalm, and you say, yes, that’s exactly how I feel! Oh, yes, there are parts even of this Psalm that I don’t fully understand. There are parts of this Psalm that are set in a context that’s slightly different from my own, but the main lesson of the Psalm is one that I can readily identify with.

Here’s a man who is worshiping. Here’s a man who’s in Jerusalem. Here’s a man in fellowship with the people of God, and the thing that’s on his mind in this Psalm, amongst other things, but one of the things on his mind is the presence of wickedness. It’s the presence of evil. It’s the presence of evil doers. It’s the presence of hostility and trial. And let’s face it: there’s been many a worship service...and that’s probably true of many of us here tonight. How many of you, in the first forty minutes of this service, are thinking thoughts just like that? That your mind has been preoccupied, or maybe wandered slightly because of the pressures and difficulties and trials and stresses that are part of your life?

And that’s why I find the Psalms so appealing, and that’s why God’s people so often find the Psalms so appealing. That’s why I think God in His providence put this Psalm in the middle of the Psalter. It almost naturally falls open at that place, doesn’t it? As though the Psalms are meant to be that spiritual tonic that speaks to us day by day in the condition in which we find ourselves, because we find ourselves in this world, and we find ourselves worshiping God and fellowshipping with God in this world, in this world of danger and difficulty and hostility.

And when we engage in prayer, we do so in this world because we live in a broken, fallen world. And, yes, our hope is of a world to come—a world that’s free from sin and free from pain, where the prayers that we’ve uttered tonight will not be uttered in that place because there will be no sickness and there will be no disease, and there will be no death. But all of that’s to come. That’s part of the blessed hope of the gospel, but here and now in this world there’s pain and difficulty, and pressure and upsets, and wrongs that need to be righted, and injustices just like the psalmist is expressing here now. It’s the losses and crosses of the Christian life that so very often dominate our thoughts and dominate our time.

This very afternoon I heard of a fellow graduate of mine from Reformed Seminary in 1978. I’d almost forgotten what he looked like, and I stepped outside the office to see the pictures that are out there. (There’s a picture of me there that you’d never recognize – some twenty years ago!) There’s a picture of this young man, too, and today I heard that he’d lost his 20 year old daughter and 18 year old son in a water skiing or a jet-skiing accident off the coast of Pensacola. It happened just a few days ago. My heart sank. I trembled as I thought about him and the fellowship that we’d enjoyed twenty years ago. I haven’t actually seen him since...and instinctively my prayers began to ascend even as I looked at his photograph and thought of the pain that he now feels tonight of losing two of his children. He has a third child who is, I think, 14 years of age. But he’s lost his first two children, and the unbearable pain of living in this world with that kind of trial....

I was telling you last week of the Davis’, and he also was a fellow graduate of mine in 1978...and in Brazil, and his 14 year old son Peter, who accidentally shot himself about ten days ago, and the shrapnel went up through his body; and my understanding from an email this morning is that they have pronounced him to be cerebrally dead.

And here’s the reality of it, isn’t it? That’s why the Psalms speak to us. There’s a reality. There’s a reality. It identifies the reality of wickedness. It doesn’t try to obfuscate this fact. It doesn’t try to run away from this fact. It doesn’t do that Mary Baker Eddy thing and say it’s all in our minds. It’s not like that, is it? It doesn’t even try to say to us, look, what you need is a kind of second blessing and all of these troubles will disappear. That’s not the way the gospel is presented in the Bible. There’s a reality, and that’s why this Psalm so immediately speaks to us, because it identifies the reality of wickedness.

But in the second place, it identifies the recourse to prayer.

And you see that in verses 3 and 4. Especially in verse 4:  “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts.” And that is followed then by an assertion that “as for those who turn aside to their crooked ways, the Lord will lead them away with the doers of iniquity.” (That isn’t actually a prayer, that’s an assertion, but verse 4 is a prayer.) And isn’t it instructive that in this Psalm that recognizes and identifies the reality of pain and suffering, that it also identifies the recourse that the Christian has, that the believer has, to prayer.

“Have we trials and temptation?

Is there trouble anywhere?

You should never be discouraged;

Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

But I want you to notice especially that the prayer in verse 4...before we look at what that prayer is, I want you to notice that that prayer in verse 4 is based upon a promise that is given in verse 3, because in verse 3, although the verse is difficult to understand, what this verse is probably saying is this: that the scepter of wickedness, the rule of the wicked, shall not rest upon the land of the righteous.

The Psalm was probably written during the time of the Babylonian exile when the Babylonians, the Persians, were occupying the land of Israel and Judah. And what the psalmist is saying here is this: that because God had made a promise to Abraham (and part of that promise was of course the promise of land), the psalmist is drawing now the inference that because God’s promise is true and can be depended on, there’s no way that the wicked are going to be in this land forever. That cannot be, because that would violate the promise of God. So having seen the promise of God, and having teased out that promise of God from the covenant of grace that God made with Abraham, the psalmist now turns that promise into prayer.

And that’s very instructive, because that is the way to pray, by turning promises of God into prayers; by reading God’s word, and meditating on God’s word, and teasing out those wonderful promises that God makes in His word. And then, not succumbing to some kind of fatalism [because God has promised therefore I don’t need to do anything], but on the basis of those promises I go to God in prayer and I plead those promises. I plead those promises that God has made. And that, I think, is an enormously important thing to see, and I think that that helps us in our praying.

I wonder how many of you find praying difficult. I wonder how many of you find praying in a public sanctuary like this difficult. It’s wonderful to hear all these folks praying this evening. That was really, really encouraging. But I wonder if I could ask you, you good folk who come regularly to this prayer meeting but we’ve never heard you pray (and we’d love to hear you pray); and maybe you’re nervous about praying. Well, do exactly what the psalmist is doing here. Turn the promises of God...read a verse of the Bible and pray that verse; make that verse your prayer, because that’s precisely what the psalmist is doing here.

But what is he praying for? Well, what he’s praying for is—and this is how he puts it—“Do good, O Lord, to those who are good.” And that’s not succumbing to some kind of works theology, that because we’re good, and he’s bringing their goodness before God. Who are these “good” people that he’s talking about? Well, he explains it. It’s those who are upright in their hearts. It’s those who [in verse 1] trust in the Lord. Those who trust in the Lord, those who are good, those who are upright in heart... [the very last verse] those who are the Israel of God. And what he’s asking for is that God would bless the upright. In other words, that God would bless His people! That God would pour out His blessing upon those who are in covenant fellowship and union with Himself.

And what is that good that the psalmist wants God to pour out upon those whom God has made good (by the righteousness of Christ, from our perspective in the New Testament)? What is that good that we ask God to pour out upon us? And ultimately, of course, that good is...well, think about that verse in Romans 8, that “God works all things together for the good of those that love Him.” That is, everything in life is worked together for an ultimate good. Well, what is that good? And ultimately that good is, of course, that we might be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The Psalmist isn’t praying here in some crass way that God would pour out material blessings upon him because he’s one of the people of God. It’s not that kind of prayer. It’s a prayer that God would do him good, and what does us good is anything and everything that conforms us to the image of Jesus Christ.

And doesn’t pain sometimes do that? And suffering sometimes do that? Doesn’t disease sometimes do that? Doesn’t bereavement sometimes do that? So that sometimes our praying ought not necessarily be, ‘Lord, heal this one and heal that one and heal the other....’ Now, don’t mis-hear me now, but sometimes I think our praying ought to transcend that, and that through this pain and through this suffering God would sanctify it in such a way that as a result we are conformed more and more to the image of Jesus Christ, so that our prayer ‘Lord, do good’ is a prayer that says ‘Lord, send whatever You want, even if it’s a thorn in my side, so long as it conforms me to the very image of Jesus Christ.’

You remember that poem of John Newton’s we were looking at just a couple of weeks ago? (And then somebody had the cleverness to put it in The First Epistle...it was probably Dr. Duncan!). The prayer of John Newton’s...

“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.”

And what did God do as a result of that prayer? He sent trials and crosses and losses and hurts, and perceived wrongs, and perceived injustices. “These inward trials I employ,” Newton says (and he’s speaking now of what God is saying to Newton)...

“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 maybe that’s the wider intention of this prayer of the psalmist here: “Lord, do good to Your people.” Meaning, do whatever it takes so that we really and truly do become Your people.

Well, if he identifies the reality of wickedness, and if he also identifies the recourse to prayer, in the third place he identifies the reassurance of God’s covenant love.

You see how the psalmist begins. In the face of wickedness and in the face of this prayer that he now sends up to God that God would do him good and bless him, he is reminded in the opening verses of this Psalm of who God is and what God is like, and what kind of things God does with His people, and it’s a very graphic picture of Mount Zion, upon which Jerusalem was built, which is surrounded by other hills and mountains. And those of you who have ever made a trip to Israel and have been to Jerusalem, and you get off in Tel Aviv, and you remember that the bus or whatever it is that you’re traveling in goes up hill all the way to Jerusalem, because Mount Zion is a hilly place, and at least at this period in the history in which this Psalm was written, Mount Zion was in many ways an impregnable place. It was a difficult place to get to, and Jerusalem as it was in its heyday was a mighty city and fortress, immovable and abiding. And God is like that, and God’s people are like that. And he says (changing the metaphor slightly) “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people.” And the picture is of God with His arms surrounding His people and holding them.

Now, you Americans understand that! You’re a people that hug a lot. You understand that. You know, in Britain a handshake is fine! But you like to feel that warmth of body coming into contact with another body, and arms slapping backs, and that masculine feel of contact. Well, that’s the picture of God that the psalmist is portraying here. God has His arms, His mighty arms, outstretched and wrapped around His people. You know, that’s how safe His people are! In the face of hostility, in the face of wickedness, in the face of these perceived wrongs and hurts and pains, God is immovable. And as a consequence, God’s people are immovable, and there’s absolutely nothing that can separate God’s people from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ.

You remember that wonderful verse in Psalm 34:8: “The angel of the Lord encamps around about them that fear Him, and delivers them.” You remember the old cowboy and Indian films? Black and white films? You remember them? When the hills were just surrounded, and you felt, as it were, enclosed? Well, the picture here is the opposite of that. It’s not being surrounded by enemies, but it’s being surrounded by God. Being surrounded and enveloped and embraced and encompassed and circumscribed with the mighty arms of God.

Have you ever felt yourself to be falling, and somebody reaches out a hand to you and grabs a hold of you and pulls you up again? And you felt the reassurance of that strong arm pulling you up again? Well, multiply that by infinity, and the mighty, powerful, inviolable arms of God are surrounding you!

And what the psalmist is saying here is this: there is absolutely nothing that can break the promises of God. I don’t want you to be anxious; I don’t want you to be distressed; I don’t want you to be fretful, because God is saying ‘My arms are wrapped about you. You’ve got nothing to fear. You’ve got nothing to be alarmed about.’ It’s not as though you’re walking, as it were, all alone in this world, because you’re in communion with Jesus Christ, because you’re in fellowship with the Son of God, because the love of the covenant of grace is wrapped all around you!

And notice those two words, will you: Forever, at the end of verse 1; forever, at the end of verse 2.  How long will God’s arms surround you, people of God? Forever. Forever.  Because there’s nothing, there’s absolutely nothing—not death, not life, not angels, not principalities, not things present, not things to come, not powers, or heights or depths, or anything in all the created realm. There’s absolutely nothing that can separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now tell me that this Psalm tonight has not something to say to you. Tell me, Christian, you who came in here fearful and fretful and anxious, and troubled and distressed, that there isn’t a word here for you to take home...to take home as a salve to that wounded conscience...to take home to that open wound, and bind it together by the everlasting covenant love of God that will never perish and will never fail, and never disappear. It will go on forever, and ever, and ever.

“Safe in the arms of Jesus,

Safe in His gentle breast.”

That’s the picture. No wonder he ends with this wonderful benediction: “Peace...peace be upon Israel.”

May the peace of God garrison your soul in the knowledge of that abiding covenant love. May God bless His word to us, for His name’s sake.

Will you stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Now may the grace of our Lord and Savior 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.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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