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Psalm 123 Biblical Commentary:
A Song of Ascents.
This is one of 15 psalms (120-134) that begin with this superscription. These psalms may have been sung by pilgrims ascending the road to Jerusalem (which was on a mountain) for the three great festivals: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (which we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles.
Or Levites may have sung them as they ascended the fifteen steps to the temple.
In this psalm, the psalmist asks Yahweh’s help, because he and his people have suffered contempt and scoffing. We don’t know when this psalm was written, so we can only guess about the circumstances that caused the psalmist to write it.
- One possibility is that the psalmist wrote it during the Babylonian Exile, where the Israelites were captives of a powerful nation.
- Another possibility is that the psalmist wrote it after the exiles returned to Jerusalem to find a city that had been totally destroyed––and local people who were hostile to their presence.
- Whatever the psalmist’s situation, this psalm will resonate with countless people today––people who feel despised for any number of reasons: Those who have suffered racial, national, or gender discrimination. Those at odds with the current political climate. Those who feel that others look down on them because of their poverty or lack of education or disability or rural roots. Foreigners in an alien land. Those who have suffered at the hands of bullies or gangs. The list goes on and on.
PSALM 123:1. TO YOU I LIFT UP MY EYES
1 To you I do lift up my eyes,
you who sit in the heavens.
“To you I do lift up my eyes,
you who sit in the heavens” (v. 1). The lifting of eyes is a gesture of the lesser looking to the greater––in this instance “you who sit in the heavens”––Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is a gesture of obeisance (deferential respect). It also expresses yearning and hopeful expectation.
This verse is usually classified as an individual lament. The psalmist says, “I” which suggests that this is his personal prayer.
PSALM 123:2. AS THE EYES OF SERVANTS LOOK TO THEIR MASTER
2 Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress;
so our eyes look to Yahweh, our God,
until he has mercy on us.
While verse 1 is usually classified as an individual lament, verses 2-4 are usually classified as a community or corporate lament, because the psalmist says, “our” and “we” instead of “I.”
“Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress” (v. 2a). The psalmist uses the word eyes four times––once in the first verse and three times in verse 2: “My eyes”––”the eyes of servants”––”the eyes of a maid”––and “our eyes.” In each case, the eyes look upward––to Yahweh (v. 1)––”to the hand of their master” (this verse)––”to the hand of her mistress” (this verse)––and again “to Yahweh” (v. 2b).
Servants looking to the hand of their master or mistress do so expecting something. Hands are instruments for doing––for making––for directing––for giving––even for punishing. The psalmist is saying that he and his community are looking for Yahweh’s help––for his guidance––for his support.
“so our eyes look to Yahweh, our God,
until he has mercy on us” (v. 2b). This makes it clear what the psalmist is hoping to find from Yahweh. He and his community are looking for God’s mercy. As we will see in verses 3-4, they are looking to Yahweh for relief from the contempt of their enemies.
PSALM 123:3-4. WE HAVE ENDURED MUCH CONTEMPT
3 Have mercy on us, Yahweh, have mercy on us,
for we have endured much contempt.
4 Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scoffing of those who are at ease,
with the contempt of the proud.
“Have mercy on us, Yahweh, have mercy on us,
for we have endured much contempt” (Hebrew: buz) (v. 3). The word buz means contempt or shame or scorn. Contempt is the opposite of respect. We crave respect and bristle at contempt.
In his commentary on this verse, Derek Kidner says, “Other things may bruise, but (contempt) is cold steel. It goes deeper into the spirit than any other form of rejection.” Kidner mentions the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that expressing contempt places a person “in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22) (Kidner, 436).
Having experienced “much contempt,” the psalmist (in behalf of his community) pleads to Yahweh for mercy. While it sounds as if he is asking Yahweh to bring a halt to the expressions of contempt, his plea is really for relief from the suffering that the contempt has caused.
However, Yahweh sometimes answers prayers in ways that the petitioner has probably not considered. For instance, Yahweh could answer this prayer by helping the psalmist and his community to weather the storm. He could answer it by bolstering their self-esteem so they would no longer succumb to despair when faced with contempt.
“Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scoffing of those who are at ease,
with the contempt of the proud” (v. 4). In Psalm 23, the psalmist says that his cup is running over––meaning that his cup is full to overflowing with blessings. The opposite is true here. This psalmist’s cup overflows with scoffing and contempt. He is saying, “We’ve had it up to here! We’ve been overwhelmed with scoffing and contempt.”
“Those who are at ease” and “the proud” are wealthy and/or powerful people who enjoy their leisure and privileges while looking down on people of lesser means. Most of us have had dealings with such people. We know that in many cases they are the beneficiaries of inherited wealth or scions of powerful people. While they might have accomplished things on their own, they started with resources that we didn’t enjoy––and can barely imagine. We are more likely to envy than to respect them––and we find their contempt intolerable.
We should also note that while people who have been on the receiving end of contempt often feel helpless to defend themselves, they can turn vicious if they see an opening to turn the tables on those who have tormented them. They can be exceedingly dangerous. Society has an enormous stake in seeing that all people are treated with dignity and respect.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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