Those who trust in the Lord are like 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 forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
on the land allotted to the righteous,
lest the righteous stretch out
their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts!
But those who turn aside to their crooked ways
the Lord will lead away with evildoers!
Peace be upon Israel!
Psalm 125 ESV
As noted previously, the Songs of Ascents appear to fall into five groupings of three loosely-connected psalms. Psalms 120-122 serve as songs for beginning the journey as they focused on discontentment with present conditions, expressing trust in God’s safekeeping, and a longing to be in Jerusalem. Psalms 123-125 then revolve around the themes of God’s mercy, deliverance, and protection. The progression is natural: first, crying to God for mercy (123); second, rejoicing in God’s deliverance (124); and finally, expressing confidence in God’s continual protection of His people (125).
THE LORD SURROUNDS HIS PEOPLE
Within the first two verses, we are presented with the glorious promise of this psalm: God’s protection of His people. The psalmist expresses this truth through two comparisons to Jerusalem.
First, he states that those who place their trust in God are like Mount Zion, which is both immovable and eternal. While there is something to be noted of the physical steadfastness of a mountain, Zion is so much more than set location within space and time. Instead, Zion is also both a concept and a promise. As a concept, Jerusalem represents the collective gathering of God’s people for worship. As a promise, Jerusalem represents the gathering that will one day occur, when people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) worship together in God’s presence for all eternity. Therefore, the immovability and eternality of Zion are rooted in the faithfulness of God, not the presence of that physical hill. Indeed, for those reasons, I would argue that Revelation 21 reveals that we are not simply like Mount Zion but in Christ we are Mount Zion. I believe that the New Jerusalem being described is the glorified people of God, Christ’s church, Israel.
The second comparison made is to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. Having recently visited Bogota, I was reminded again of why cities are often founded in valleys. The surrounding mountains make the city feel as though it is secured within a natural fortress.
Living within the United States today makes the importance of these features appear less significant. Of course, there are always wars and rumors of wars happening, but those threats are still about what another country might do. Pease still hangs by a delicate thread, but I have never worried whether the people of Sherman, TX (a city about 30 miles away) will decide to invade Durant. Yet other than in Solomon’s and the latter part of David’s reigns, the people of Jerusalem would have faced that very concern.
Mountains, however, only provide a certain degree of security. Yet the safety that they appear to give God actually provides for His people. He surrounds His people, forming an impenetrable wall. Perhaps Martin Luther summarizes it best by declaring, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
THE SCEPTER OF WICKEDNESS
The following verses then set their eyes upon how the LORD protects His people. Verse 3 expresses the confidence that the rule of the wicked will not rest upon the land of the righteous. Pay attention to the language used here. The scepter of wickedness implies the reign of evildoers. Therefore, the promise is not that the wicked will not dwell within the land of the righteous but that they will not rule it. Also, the psalmist does not promise that the scepter of wickedness will never fall upon the land of the righteous, only that it will not rest there.
These are crucial caveats to make. Throughout Israel’s time as God’s kingdom, the prophets repeatedly warned what Paul would later summarize: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Even in the Old Testament, salvation never happened by proximity. Furthermore, many of the kings who ruled over the Israelites very much wielded the scepter of wickedness.
Unfortunately, these things are still true within the church age. Although through church membership we seek to affirm one another’s salvation, the sorrowful reality is that there will always be those who never truly followed Christ. They are “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5), yet for all their immersion within the community of believers, ultimately came to show that they never truly believed at all. And this warning is not merely for church members. Just as Israel fell under the leadership of many wicked kings, so too churches will endure wicked leadership.
But even though these things must be present for now, the promise is that they will not ultimately endure. They will not last. The scepter of wickedness may pass over God’s people, but it will not rest upon them. The wicked may be mingled with the righteous, but it will not always be so. One day, God will permanently divide the wheat from the chaff, which is the promise of verse 5. All those who follow their own crooked ways will be led away by the LORD with the rest of the evildoers.
The concept of crooked ways seems much less harmful than the word evildoers. Perhaps this is intentional. Certainly, today there is a growing desire to separate the idea of evil from the Bible’s concept of sin. Let me try to explain. Within the Bible, sin bears the connotation of missing the mark, of failing to hit the bullseye or wandering off the proper path. Sin, therefore, is predicated upon not meeting a standard established by God. If something goes against God’s design, it is sin. Which means that sin can be both an action and inaction. We can commit sin by doing something against God’s pattern, or we can commit sin by refusing to obey a command given by God. This is the biblical definition of evil, to sin and turn away from God’s good and perfect pattern for creation.
But such a view of evil has never been gladly received. Sure, we will gladly call murderers and rapists evildoers, but refusing to care for the orphans and widows isn’t evil, right? It’s just little bit of negligence. Failing to rejoice and give thanks in every circumstance isn’t wickedness; it’s only having a bad day. Neglecting to meet together with God’s people isn’t sinful; it’s simply taking some time to rest or get caught up around the house. Sin delights in hiding its evil behind good intentions. The reality is that those who turn aside to their crooked ways will be led away with evildoers because they are themselves evildoers. Turning aside from God’s path and commands is an act of evil. As uncomfortable as that truth may be, I pray that you will meet it head on. I pray that you will see all failure to obey God (no matter how small) as an act of open rebellion against the Most High God.
Notice also the reason for God’s leading away of the wicked: lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong. The greatest threat upon the righteous is neither oppression nor persecution; it is that the righteous would imitate the wicked. Why is this the primary threat? For a righteous person to commit sin would negate their righteousness. Doing wrong is the characteristic of evildoers, while the righteous, on the other hand, do right. If the righteous become corrupt, then verse 4 becomes unnecessary. How can the LORD do good to those who are good if none exist?
Tragically, such a lamentable circumstance is not hypothetical but reality. As Paul quotes from Psalm 14: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Perhaps the bleakness of that passage would be easier to ignore if the refrain of not one didn’t continue to appear. Yet Paul fully leans into that dark reality by commenting a few verses later: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We deserve not to receive the good from God’s hand but to be led away with fellow evildoers. Such is our lot, the grave that we have dug for ourselves.
From that place the mountains of God’s surrounding presence look more like a prison cell than they do a mighty fortress, an entrapment by one who would limit our freedom. Sin distorts reality, making guardrails look like arbitrary confinements and twisting the commandments of our loving Father into appearing to be the petty rules of a tyrant. Thus, we become alienated from God.
PEACE BE UPON ISRAEL
But that can’t be the end, right? After all, the psalmist is praying and singing this psalm while clearly imagining himself to be among God’s people. But if none are righteous or good, how then does God possess a righteous people who are good with upright hearts?
During the psalmist’s day, all he knew was that through the sacrifices within the temple God forgave sin. He would have known, of course, that the blood of bulls and goats was not sufficient to cover the penalty earned by sin, yet God commanded them. So he would have, by faith, trusted God to blot out his sins… somehow.
What he almost certainly didn’t understand was that God ordained the animal sacrifices to be a shadow of the sacrifice to come, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet even though he did not know God’s full plan, Christ was still his only means of salvation. Even in the Old Testament, sin could only be forgiven by the cross of Jesus. Through worshipfully making sacrifices, they placed their faith in God’s mercy and grace upon them, not yet knowing that it would come finally and ultimately through Christ. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that the psalmist would have considered himself truly good and righteous apart from God’s steadfast love upon him.
The peace and security of Israel in the Old Testament, therefore, was the same as the peace and security of the church today. God’s people become God’s people because of God’s steadfast love and mercy upon hellbent sinners. The great joy of this psalm is that through the death and resurrection of Christ we are able to boldly pray for God to do good to those who are good. Not that we ourselves are good or have upright hearts, but that Jesus has granted us His righteous, giving us new and clean hearts in His name.
Peace is, therefore, upon us. We have been redeemed, and the God of all creation is no longer against us. Instead, He now surrounds us like the mountains about Jerusalem, like a mighty fortress. No greater security exists. As Paul testifies in Romans 8:31-39:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If Christ (God incarnate) loved us enough to die for us, not even our own death can separate us from Him. He who died for His people will also secure His people.
Is this your hope?
Is this your security?
Do you have the peace of being counted among the people of God?
The mountains of the LORD will either be your judgment or your security.
Choose this day to repent of sin and lay hold of the righteous of Jesus Christ, that God’s peace may be upon you.