If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone cover us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Psalm 124 ESV
Thus far in the Songs of Ascents, we have pondered the necessity of leaving the lands of Mashech and Kedar (symbolic for worldliness) in order to journey toward Jerusalem (Psalm 120), our need for God to be our keeper along the pilgrimage (Psalm 121), and the hopeful longing to worship with God’s people in God’s city (Psalm 122). Together, those three psalms formed a kind of opening trilogy for beginning the God-fearer’s pilgrimage. Psalm 123 then began the second set of three psalms, this time with a predominant theme of God’s protection over His people. Where the previous psalm was a cry to God for mercy, Psalm 124 is a song of thanksgiving for having received God’s boundless mercy.
THE IMMINENT DANGER
As is true of all the psalms, Psalm 124 is aiming to strike our emotions. Such is the nature of both poetry and music. They engage both the head and the heart, our logic and our passions. John Donne’s poem, The Triple Fool, is an amusing meditation on how poetry is often used to bind the torrents of emotion, while setting a poem to music releases those very emotions out again. As both a song and poem, our psalm does both seeks to capture emotion, like a lightening bug in a jar, and at the same time provide us a means of releasing those same emotions.
What emotion then is our psalmist, David, both capturing and releasing? It is the exuberance of being delivered from death. David’s passion overflows with the kind of joyful ecstasy that comes from having narrowly avoided his undoing. Perhaps you’ve felt that feeling before. Hydroplaning while speeding down the highway will do the trick. Adrenaline spikes, and you don’t seem to breath. Pupils dilate, making you feel like you’re seeing everything all at once. Your body feels the danger far quicker than your mind understands it. When you pass through unscathed, your heart is still racing, an adrenaline rush. Through sky-diving, bungie-jumping, roller-coasters, horror movies, and various other means, we seek to experience that danger in a controlled setting. As we’ve said previously, God designed us to tackle the deadly and perilous road of life, filled to the brim with both love and loss. One of the basic foundations of a story’s plot is the conflict, and each story crafted is merely an imitation of the Story that God has been telling from the very beginning of creation. We (whether secretly or not-so-secretly) are fascinated with danger because life itself is dangerous. Deep down we want to slay to the dragon to rescue the damsel or transform the wild beast into a civilized and charming prince because that’s what Jesus did for us.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Notice that in the first verse, David pauses his thought in order to invite all of Israel into his jubilation. Remember that God made the nation of Israel into His chosen people by making a covenant with their ancestor Abraham. In Christ, the blessing of Abraham has now been extended to all nations. Therefore, as followers of Christ, we are God’s people, the church. David then is also inviting all Christians today to join in his song.
Verses 2-5 express the danger that both David and all of Israel were rescued from: a bloodthirsty mob and a raging flood. The imagery is intentionally poetic and ambiguous, but in our walk with Christ, we know the face of danger well. It comes through three general modes of temptation (Satan, the flesh, and the world), but the threat itself is singular: sin. John Piper concludes correctly that “nobody goes to hell because of Satan. The only reason we go to hell is sin” (Declare War on Sin). Ultimately, the demonic, worldly, and selfish temptations around and within us are only avenues toward sin. Sin is the danger.
The imagery of people rising up to attack is fitting, especially since God described Cain’s sin as crouching at his door like an animal stalking its prey (Genesis 4:7). God then declared that sin’s desire was contrary to Cain. Sin’s greatest lie is that it wants to make us happy. It promises to fulfill our deepest desires. We buy that lie every time we sin. We do not merely stumble into sin. We sin because we want to sin; we think that it will satisfy a need that God is not meeting. The LORD repeatedly exposes its falsehood to us, reminding us that sin’s desire is contrary to us, fundamentally against us.
Paul captures this notion profoundly with this simple truth: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The entire premise of wages is that they must be earned. A paycheck is the rightful fruition of a labor contract. Do a job; get paid. And sin is a work with death as the paycheck. Paul is exposing that truth precisely because we don’t often believe it. We lust because, for a moment at least, we think will be satisfied through him or her. We lie because we think it will put us in a better position. We gossip because we think it will keep us socially connected. Each sin presents a different promised end, but the wage is always the same: death. Like Levi and Simeon with the men of Shechem, sin offers false promises only to make us ready for slaughter.
Next, David describes his danger as a flood. Three times in verses 4-5 he claims that the torrent and raging waters would have drowned us. The significance of this imagery runs throughout Scripture. From Genesis 1, the waters (or deep) has a negative and chaotic connotation. As Creator, God brought light into darkness and order out of chaos. The global flood in Genesis 7-8 was, therefore, a symbolic undoing/reforming of creation. The sea is untamable to all but God, as any wise seaman knows.
Just as sin is as malevolent as an army of enemies, so sin is as destructive as a tsunami. The damage of sin is like a violent force of nature. However foolish it might be to underestimate the destructive capacity of raging waters; the foolishness of underestimating sin is far greater. Proverbs 6:27-29 uses the same logic (although with the element of fire) toward the sin of adultery:
Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.
Are you aware of how immanent a danger sin is? Are you buying the lies that your sin only wants to make you happy? When was the last time you spent time truly thinking of the sin you’re wrestling with right now as enemy that wants you dead or as a torrent of raging waters that long for you to drown?
Or perhaps, you aren’t even wrestling with your sin. The greatest danger of all is the one that goes unnoticed. No army can be fought until their presence is scouted. No disease can be treated until it has been diagnosed. Ignorance does not cause danger to cease; it simply forfeits the opportunity of escape.
Brothers and sisters, sin’s utmost desire is our death. Are you aware of the danger?
OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD
Yet despite the grave danger, our psalm is a song of thanksgiving, not lament, because David is exulting that God has not allowed these dangers to consume us. The key message proclaimed in verses 1, 6, and 8 is that the LORD Himself has saved us from certain death. In fact, as the psalmist begins, if God had not saved, we would have surely perished. Such was the hopelessness of our situation. In Ephesians 2, Paul went so far as to call us dead in sin and objects of God’s wrath.
Brothers and sisters, it is far too easy to forget what makes grace so amazing. We were as good as dead. We were without hope. Our sin is not just a problem for us. It was the problem. It wasn’t just one disease of many; it is a cancer that had infiltrated each organ system. Our plight against sin was the very definition of bleak. We blatantly defied the Author of life itself, the Almighty Creator. We attempted a coup against the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We deserved the flood. We deserved to fall into the hands of our enemies. We deserved death as our just wages. We earned it.
And yet God did not give us as prey to the teeth of our sin. He came to our aid. He became our helper, standing beside us.
Notice that God is on our side. Regardless of how anyone responds to God’s offer of salvation, the truth remains that sin is contrary to us while God is for us. Even though the LORD’s plans often involve pain and suffering in moment, He assures us that everything He does is in love. All suffering (whether caused by our sin or not) is the discipline of the LORD upon His children. Like a loving father and mother, discipline their children, not just by correcting bad behavior, but also by establishing godly rhythms and routines, so God uses everything to mold and shape us for His glory and our good. We must hold this truth with a death grip to our chest if we are to have any hope of overcoming the sin’s lie of happiness. Our sin wants us to believe that it is on our side and that God is our enemy. We must fight, literally, for our very souls to cling to the opposite truth. God is good, and He desires our good as well. We must wrestle with all our might to believe that.
But how does God show is love for us?
How does He reveal that He is on our side and that He is our helper?
He does so by breaking the snare of sin. What a powerful image in verse 7! Sin is fowler’s snare, and we are the birds. Like witless birds, we are being hunted for our lives, yet we are often utterly oblivious of the danger until the trap springs upon us. Gloriously, our God has broken the snare! He has shattered the trap of sin.
How did He break sin’s snare? He did it “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14-15). Upon the cross, Jesus nailed the debt of our sins, putting to shame and triumphing over the very demonic powers which seek to incite to sin.
For the Christian then, the cross of Jesus Christ is not merely an avenue by which we may be free from our sin. Jesus’ substitutional death crushes and annihilates our sin. It has been disarmed, a snare now broken. The cross is, therefore, not only the sole avenue of forgiveness for past sin; it is also the only instrument of victory over present sin and the only hope of future freedom from sin entirely.
But this victory over sin can only come from via the name of the LORD. Paul captures the significance of our help being in God’s name when he declares “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Salvation from sin can only come by crying out to the Savior.
But if the action is so simple, what prevents us from calling upon His name? Most often it is pride. Back when my wife and I first began dating, we were visiting my parents and needed to run some sort of errand. In a fit of nostalgia, we drove my car from high school, but after completing our task, we got back in the car only to find out that the key wouldn’t turn. Thinking that the steering wheel just needed some wiggling, I fiddled with it for a several minutes. Finally, after about thirty minutes of avoiding the inevitable, I called my father. His first suggestion was, of course, to ask whether I was using the right key. What an insult! That’s exactly why I avoided calling him in the first place! He was just going to assume the most basic problem… I quickly stopped using the wrong key, started the car, and headed home.
Unfortunately, most of us will waste far more than thirty minutes on unrepented sin, which is far more foolish. The prideful refusal to call upon God’s name for salvation is like remaining in a burning house because we can’t admit that we left the stove unattended. The sorrowful reality is that no one will be cast into hell who did not choose to be there. Many would simply rather face an eternity of torment rather than confess their helplessness. The cross, however, is predicated upon such helplessness. The glorious message of the gospel is that the LORD has rescued us from our sins through the death and resurrection of Christ because no other avenue of salvation existed.
The question, then, is not merely have you looked to the cross, but are you looking to it?
Do you see your sin as an immanent danger that only Jesus can save you from? Or do you view it as a pet that you have on a leash? The reality is that sin is more than happy to let you feel in control long enough to establish a good grip around your neck.
Have you cast yourself at the mercy of the LORD, and are you still doing so?
May each of us pray now and forever the words of Augustus Toplady:
Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling; naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace: foul, I to Thy fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die.