Psalm 123

Dear Reader,

Background:

God’s Word is living and it is deep. We can come to it again and again and find new meaning. I do not claim that my way of approaching the Psalms is the only way or the best way. My aim is merely to give a perspective that I think is often missing when we read the Psalms in translation. My contention throughout this series has been that the form of the Psalms conveys meaning. Though our English translations often obscure this deeper level of meaning and beauty, we do not all need to learn Hebrew to begin to see and appreciate the Psalms on a deeper level. What we need are, first, good translations that take into account the structure of the Hebrew and its word choice, and, second, a few detection skills which can easily be learned. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here.

We come now to the fourth of the so-called Psalms of Ascent. Psalm 123 is a compact little Psalm that is not too hard to understand. Still, a look at its structure can help us appreciate the artistry of this little gem.

Translation of Psalm 123 [1]

A Song of Ascents

  1. Unto you I lift my eyes,
  2.               One who sits in the heavens.
  3. Behold, like the eyes of servants           unto the hand of their lords*,
  4.              Like the eyes of a maidservant unto the hand of her mistress,
  5. Thus              our eyes                 unto the LORD our God
  6.           Until he will have mercy on us.
  7. Have mercy on us, LORD, have mercy on us,
  8. For greatly we are filled with contempt;
  9.        Great [is] the filling of our soul
  10. [With] the mocking of the arrogant,
  11.          The contempt of the proud.

Notes on the Translation:

Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. 

*The word “lords” here is the ordinary Hebrew word for a lord or master. In Hebrew it is adonai. “LORD” (all capitals) in line 5 is the proper name of God as revealed to Moses. Interestingly, pious Jews did not pronounce this name for fear of misusing it and instead said adonai. It is clear here, however, that the “lords” of line 3 are ordinary human masters. The word for “mistress” in line 4 is from a word meaning “mighty one” or “warrior.” 

Analysis

As always, I encourage you to print out the Psalm (printable Google doc version here) and to spend some time with it before reading my comments. Look for parallel lines (not too hard in this one) and repeated words.

IMG_2503

This is how I marked up Psalm 123. Does it look anything like yours? It is pretty easy here to see which lines go together. Psalm 123 divides nicely into two big sections. Lines 1 through 6 and lines 7 through 11. In the first section the theme is “eyes.” It is all about who is looking at whom (more on this later). This section ends with a time reference: “Until he will have mercy on us” (line 6). The second section begins in line 7 by repeating this word [“(he will) have mercy on us” is one word in Hebrew] not once but twice. In this case the phrase in question is the reason for what follows. That is, the psalmist calls for God to have mercy for the reasons he lists in lines 8 through 11.

Throughout the Psalm we see the same kind of linking through repeated words that we saw in Psalms 120 and121. Line 1 through 5 are a section because they all have the word “eyes” and “hand” is also repeated in lines 3 and 4. Lines 8 and 9 both have some form of the words “great” and “fill.” The second section is additionally bound together by the use of “contempt” in lines 8 and 11. Lines 6 and 7 are connected to what comes before and after logically by the use of connector words (“until” and “for”) but they are tied to each other by the words they share (“have mercy on us”). These two lines in the middle of the Psalm thus form a bridge between the Psalms two sections. Coming as they do in the middle of the Psalm, linking its two halves together, and repeating the keyword not once but twice these lines stand out as a kind of crescendo, the high point of the Psalm. And what is the content of this high point? It is: “Have mercy on us.” This is the heart of what the psalmist wants to say as it stands here at the heart of the Psalm.

Looking now at the two halves of the Psalm, the first thing that strikes me as I read Psalm 123 is the connection to Psalm 121. Of course, Psalm 122 intervenes but the words in these first lines hearken back to the first line of 121: “I will lift my eyes to the mountains.” In Psalm 121, the psalmist lifted his eyes and asked where his help came from and an answer was given. Here the psalmist lifts his eyes and looks for help but salvation seems not so sure.

The “eyes” motif continues through this part of the Psalm. He is not, as in Psalm 121, listing his eyes to the mountains but to “the One who sits in the heavens” (line 2). An extended analogy is made, as male servants look to their lords and a maidservant looks to her mistress, so the psalmist looks to the LORD God. Note the posture and relationship here. The psalmist does not call on God as a child to a father but as a servant to a master. The word I have translated “sit” in line 2 (“the One who sits in the heavens”) can also mean “dwell.” I have chosen “sit” because the picture seems to be one of a lord who sits in a powerful position while the servant before him has to look up. This is an enthroned and powerful God, one who might give mercy but perhaps is not obligated to do so.

One gets the impression in lines 3 and 4 that the servants cannot look their masters full in the face. They look to their hands. This is perhaps because it is with the hand that one gives good things. But it could also be because they can look no higher. Physically perhaps the servant is too low down and in his lowliness perhaps an ancient near eastern servant would be unlikely to look full in the face of his master. Yet the word “hand” is conspicuously absent from line 5 in which God’s people look to Him. In terms of the structure of the verse the double designation “LORD  God” makes up for the absence of the word “hand,” keeping the versets at similar lengths. But perhaps there is more to it than this. Perhaps God’s people are able to look at Him in a way that servants cannot look at their masters.

In the second half of the Psalm, we find out why mercy is needed — the arrogant have been oppressing the psalmist, heaping scorn upon him. The word “great” stands out at the beginning of lines 8 and 9. This is the same word used in Psalm 120 line 13 (there I translated it “long enough!”). Again, it is as if the psalmist is crying out “enough!” I really, really wanted to translate the word that is “fill” here in lines 8 and 9 as “sate.” This is really the sense of the word — the psalmist has been sated with contempt. But I couldn’t find a way to make this meaning work in line 9. (“Great is the saying of our soul” sounds a bit awkward even for me.)

Conclusions

Psalm 123 is short and is not hard to understand. Yet I hope that an examination of its structure and organization is still able to give us more insight. We have seen that the height of the Psalm comes in lines 6 and 7 in the cry “have mercy on us.” We have seen as well connections to Psalm 121 and to a lesser extent Psalm 120, highlighting again that these little poems do not stand on their own but come to us as part of a body of literature. My thoughts on the significance of the posture of the servants and the psalmist relative to their respective masters and the significance of the word “hand” and its absence in line 5 are somewhat speculative but I rather like them myself 😉

Nebby

[1] You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here. If you use it outside your home, please give me credit.

 

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