Historically, Israel is one of the most persecuted nations. Their continued existence as an identifiable people is testimony to the truth of God’s promises. The psalms of ‘degrees’ or ‘ascents’ contain many encouraging statements regarding His work on behalf of His people. As pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem for the Feasts of the Lord, they would be comforted by gems like Psalm 124, which speaks of their security in the Almighty.1 In our modern uncertain times, believers may also derive comfort from this short song of thanksgiving, remembering that ‘if God be for us, who can be against us?’ Rom. 8. 31.2
VanGemeren breaks down Psalm 124 in a chiastic3 pattern this way:
‘A The Presence of the Lord, vv. 1-2a
B Protection from Dangers, vv. 2b-5
C Praise to the Lord, v. 6a
B Protection from Dangers, vv. 6b-7
A The Presence of the Lord, v. 8’.4
It begins and ends with the Lord, for only He can deliver from all temporal and spiritual afflictions. The opening sentence sets the tone with a question that contemplates Israel’s precarious history under threat from the nations, ‘If it had not been the Lord who was on our side’?5 The horror of Egyptian bondage, the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greco-Roman captivities, as well as more modern atrocities like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Czarist pogroms, and - worst of all - the Holocaust, all testify to their horrific sufferings. MacDonald elucidates the importance of ‘If’, asserting that, ‘It spelled the difference between deliverance and disaster. But the Lord was there, and that made all the difference. Probably no people have had as many narrow escapes as the Jews. According to all natural laws, they should have been extinct long ago. When you think of the sieges, the massacres, the pogroms, the gas chambers, the ovens, the bombs, it is a miracle they have survived. But survive they did - and that for one compelling reason - the Lord was on their side’.6 Likewise, believers in every age could ask themselves, ‘where would I be without the Lord’? But for His grace, we would no doubt be ruined in every sense of that word!
Maclaren declared, ‘This psalm is an outgush of the first rapture of astonishment and joy for deliverance so sudden and complete’.7 His contemporary, Bonar, dubbed it the ‘Ebenezer’ psalm, averring that it was all about God’s incomparable help.8 Its second phrase, ‘now may Israel say’, is alternatively rendered ‘Say it, Israel’, thus expressing a note of earnestness.9 The redeemed are to urgently say so. This praise is followed by a reiteration of the opening confession that the Lord is their indispensable protector, v. 2. That no other Saviour will avail is evident from the enumeration of their varied afflictions, vv. 2-7.
The battle was between ‘men’ and ‘the Lord’, v. 2. It is the age-old struggle of the fallen creature rebelling against his Creator. The serpent’s seed opposes the seed of the woman, Gen. 3. 15, and His followers in every dispensation. The psalm graphically describes their comprehensive assaults with vigorous metaphors, including rising waters, violent flash floods, ravenous beasts, and hunters’ traps. Rapidity and ferocity unite in these figures, describing terrifying assaults on Israel. Yet each of these fearful attacks beats itself to exhaustion against the anvil of God’s sovereign protection of His people.
The enemies’ intense opposition is conveyed in the action phrases of verse 2 to 5, ‘rose up against us’, ‘swallowed us alive’ NKJV, ‘wrath … kindled against us’, ‘overwhelmed us’, and the twice repeated ‘gone over our soul’. Clearly, these describe aggressive and repeated attacks against Israel. The enemies’ goal is to swallow us alive, using a term that elsewhere speaks of the earth swallowing up Korah’s rebels, Num. 16. 30.10 The same word also describes God disciplining Israel through the Babylonian destruction in Jeremiah’s day, Lam. 2. 2, 5, 8, as well as His vanquishing death, Isa. 25. 8. As in Psalm 124, passages like Psalm 35 verse 25 and Lamentations chapter 2 verse 16 show wicked men desiring to ‘swallow up’ the saints. Yet their ferocity pales in comparison with suffering God’s wrath. As our Lord said, ‘And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell’, Matt. 10. 28. Likewise, ‘overwhelmed’, v. 4, also rendered ‘overflowed’, YLT, or ‘engulfed’ NASB, refers in some passages to human activity and in others to God’s righteous intervention.11 Whereas the lost seek to annihilate God’s people, the Father disciplines His people to train them and not to destroy them, Heb. 12. 5-11. The relentless assaults are reflected by the parallel statements in Psalm 124 verses 4 and 5: ‘overwhelmed’, and the double statement ‘gone over’, yet the Lord is the One ‘who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth’, v. 6. Far better to be corrected by the loving Father than to face Him as the righteous and all-knowing judge, 1 Cor. 11. 32. Happily, Christ’s sacrificial death and powerful resurrection provided incontrovertible protection from the wrath that is in store for this fallen world, 1 Thess. 1. 9, 10.
After this distressing tale of the enemies’ ferociously relentless attacks, the Psalm looks Godward, v. 6, noting that the Almighty delivered them. Like a bird rescued from the hunter’s snare, Israel escaped what appeared to be certain destruction. In His awesome power, God shattered the trap and freed His people from their peril. Just as in an earlier day Samuel could erect ‘Ebenezer’ - a monument to His saving help, 1 Sam. 7. 12 - so now, Israel could declare, ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord’, Ps. 124. 8.
His name gives His identity as the self-sufficient sovereign of the universe. As Mackintosh wrote, ‘Here lies the solid, the imperishable foundation of everything. Come what may, the name of our God shall stand forever. No power of earth or hell can possibly countervail the divine purpose or hinder the outshining of the divine glory. What sweet rest this gives the heart in the midst of this dark, sorrowful, sin-stricken world, and in the face of the apparently successful schemes of the enemy! Our refuge, our resource, our sweet relief and solace, are found in the name of the Lord our God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’.12 The verse claims His unfailing aid, adducing His omnipotence as the One ‘who made heaven and earth’. The Maker and Redeemer’s victory will be seen in His glorious exaltation over all the creation, Phil. 2. 9-11. In anticipation of that great day, we may exult in the exhortation to Israel on the edge of the Promised Land,
‘Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee’, Deut. 31. 6.
Believers look to the faithful God of the impossible to guard and shepherd them safely home. No matter what physical or spiritual perils they face, the Lord will save His people to an eternal and glorious life in the new heavens and new earth, Rev. 21, 22. As Romans chapter 8 verses 38 and 39 express it, ‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Mercifully, the Lord is eternally on our side and will never desert us, Heb. 13. 5.
One writer explains the connection between Psalms 123 to 125 in these words, ‘In each there is the same full recognition of Jehovah’s grace and power as working both for the deliverance and the security of His people. In the 123rd Psalm, “The eye waits upon Jehovah, till He be gracious”. In the 124th, “If Jehovah had not been on our side, men had swallowed us up alive … Our help is in the name of Jehovah”. In the 125th, “The mountains are about Jerusalem, and Jehovah is round about His people”’. J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book Of Psalms, Vol. 2, Geo. Bell, 1882, pg. 384.
BELLETT noted the timeless encouragement of Psalm 124 in this way, ‘In the day of the opposition of men, this utterance may, in like manner, suit any godly soul; and may, I doubt not, be especially used by the Israel of the last days who are to endure much of this opposition from the men of the earth, who have their portion in man’s world’. J. G. BELLETT, Short Meditations On The Psalms, W. H. BROOM, 1876, pg. 138. Accordingly, its encouragement suits David’s struggles with the Philistines, 2 Sam. 5; the Gentiles’ opposition to Nehemiah, Neh. chh. 4, 6; and the Babylonian-Persian captivities.
Having or denoting a structure in which words or ideas are repeated in reverse order.
WILLEM VANGEMEREN, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Zondervan, 2008, pg. 902.
J. N. DARBY and F. W. GRANT each render it ‘who was for us’; in Hebrew it is the past tense of ‘Immanuel’, VANGEMEREN, op. cit., pg. 902.
WILLIAM MACDONALD, Believer’s Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 1995, pg. 752. [Italics original]. Another adds, ‘The danger was so great, their helplessness was so manifest, and the deliverance was so clearly the work of God, that it was proper to say that if this had not occurred, ruin would have been inevitable and entire’. ALBERT BARNES, Notes On The Old Testament, Vol. 3, Blackie, 18701872, pg. 242. [Italics original].
ALEXANDER MACLAREN, The Expositor’s Bible, Vol. 3, Scranton, 1903, pg. 308.
ANDREW BONAR, Christ And His Church In The Book Of Psalms, Robert Carter, 1860, pg. 388.
ROBERT BRATCHER and WILLIAM REYBURN, A Translator’s Handbook On The Book of Psalms, UBS, 1991, pg. 1063.
‘The act of swallowing is a common ancient Near-Eastern motif for utter and absolute destruction, cp. Exod. 7. 12; 15. 12, …’, JOHN CURRID, Numbers, Evangelical Press, 2009, pg. 238.
Compare Isa. 8. 8 and Isa. 10. 22.
C. H. MACKINTOSH, Notes On The Pentateuch, Loizeaux Brothers, 1972, pg. 898.