Have you been eagerly watching for the next update from your local or State officials? I confess, it’s hard to miss a news conference these days. Here in California the question is, “What phase are we in? How long will it last? Who can open up?” A lot of us are paying more attention to these kinds of things than we ever have because we’re hoping for a bit of progress and respite. We want to go back to work, or to the beach (right now we can walk but not sit on the beach!), or to our favorite restaurant. Like a runner looking for the signal to begin the race, we’re watching to see when life as it was might get started again.
Could it be that we’re looking to the wrong people, in the wrong way, for the wrong things, though? I was struck by this when reading Psalm 123. Psalm 123 is one of the Psalms of ascent, and traditionally it is believed that these particular Psalms are the songs worshippers would sing on their way to the temple. Whoever wrote Psalm 123 was living in turmoil. He wrote “… 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” (vs. 3b–4).
The Old Testament frequently calls out the unjust and oppressive rule of the wicked. Here you get the sense that the psalmist experienced it first-hand. While they prospered and probably had their needs met, the psalmist says that he had been sated (“met” or “treated” might work better here) with scorn and contempt. We’re not entirely sure about the details, but those headed to the temple to praise the Lord could identify with this ancient complaint and plea for mercy. While in comparison to the Hebrew exiles we have it really easy today, it’s not unthinkable that the current orders might have you feeling a tad oppressed and watching attentively for the next government update.
That’s why I love how the Psalm begins: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” (v.1) Worship has the ability to lift us up out of our fog, doesn’t it? On the way to the temple, the people of God knew where their focus needed to be. Sure, circumstances were dire, but God was still on the throne. They had to look up, up beyond the clamor of the nations, and the threat of the proud, up beyond this world, to the mighty Jehovah enthroned on high. Especially for the exilic community, these words would have been extremely meaningful. While God’s throne on earth—the temple—may have been in disrepair, God had not been displaced. It was true then, and it’s true today. As difficult as these times have been for many churches, we must look to the one who is still enthroned in the heavens.
How are we to lift our eyes? This isn’t a Godward glance. The psalmist tells us exactly how we should look to the LORD: “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…” (v.2) Apparently, in the Ancient Near East, masters would direct their servants with hand gestures. If you were a servant, it was your job to pay close attention to how your master might signal you. If you’re a sports fan like me, you might be familiar with the “hurry up” offense in football. When the offense wants to bypass the huddle and go directly to the ball because the clock is ticking, or to catch the defense off guard, they can run a hurry up offense. Usually, the quarterback will get the play from the sideline with the use of hand signals, and he’ll relay the message to the rest of the offense. If he isn’t paying attention to the hand signals from the sideline, or if the players can’t hear the signals he’s calling out because they’re not paying attention, they won’t know what the next play is.
The psalmist is looking to the Lord to call the next play. His attention isn’t on those at ease who seem to have control, but on him who sits in the heavens. When he comes to the LORD, he doesn’t ask for power, or control, or even for the judgment of the wicked. Instead he says, “Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy!” (Ps. 123:2b–3). Three times the psalmist prays for the king of heaven to be merciful. No doubt there is embedded in this request the hope of better days, but my point is that he sees those days as coming from the LORD, and not the powers that be. In times like these (and during the days of the psalmist) the temptation is to look to those in power, often those at ease, and say, “Be merciful to us!” Let’s not forget who is enthroned, though, and why he can be trusted: when we lift our eyes to him, we see Jesus at his right hand. We remember the promise made to Jesus: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps. 110:1). Jesus is reigning right now, and his kingdom is still advancing through the proclamation of the gospel.
While we pray for our civil leaders, let’s lift our eyes upon the Lord and place our hope in him. Let us receive from him what no one else can give: mercy. Mercy for how we’ve allowed our eyes to droop in search of deliverance from someone other than him, and mercy for how we’ve given to so many other things the attentiveness that he alone deserves. He is a good king, and father, and he will dispense that mercy liberally.