Psalm 124: Deliverance from the Lord of Creation

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 Psalm 124. It is a little bit different from the other Psalms of Ascent which we have looked at this season.

Translation of Psalm  [1]

A Song of Ascents of David

  1. If the LORD had not been for us, let Israel now say;
  2. If the LORD had been for us when man* rose against us;
  3. Then alive they would have swallowed us when their anger burned against us;
  4. Then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the torrent passed over our soul**
  5. Then would have passed over our soul** the raging waters.
  6. Blessed [be] the LORD who did not make us prey for their teeth.
  7. Our soul** like a bird escaped from the trap of the fowlers;
  8. The trap was broken and as for us, we escaped.
  9. Our help [is] in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth. 

Notes on the Translation:

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

*Hebrew adam

**Hebrew nephesh may be translated as “life” or “soul.”

Analysis

As always, you should spend some time with the Psalm before reading my comments. Look for repeated words and phrases. You may also want to think about the overall structure of this Psalm and its tone, especially as it compares to the other Psalms of Ascent we have looked at.

One of the first things that struck me about the Psalm is how stylistically different it is from the previous Psalms of Ascent. Those, as we saw, were filled with emotion. Psalm 120 was a lament, Psalm 121 an expression of confidence in the Lord’s deliverance, and Psalm 122 a kind of love song to the city of Jerusalem. In each case the structure of the Psalm helped to highlight the psalmist’s emotional state.

Psalm 124 is much less emotional and much more regular in its structure. Whereas those others seemed to be spontaneous utterances, Psalm 124 feels like a composition — something the psalmist took some time on and probably went over a few times to get it how he wanted it.

The first lines are long. I have not broken them up because I wanted to highlight their first words. Just as in English, in Hebrew the first two lines begin with the same word and then the next three also begin with the same word. “If” and “then” seem like small insignificant words to us perhaps, but I could think of no better way to translate them here. Psalm 124 starts then with these two “if”s followed by three “then”s. The thought is really not complete until we get all of them in. These expressions can be a bit idiomatic. The Hebrew of the first two lines reads something like “Unless the LORD who was for us . . .” The Hebrew also does not have the nuances of the “had been”s and “would have been”s that the English requires. So all in all the English feels a bit too polished, but as it is a more polished Pslam than its predecessors I guess that is okay.

We have talked a lot about parallelism as a structuring device in biblical poetry, but what we get here is some outright repetition. Looking at the first two lines, the psalmist begins his thought, then calls on Israel — the congregation of the people — to join with him before completing the thought in line 2. This seems very much a communal Psalm which perhaps helps to explain why it must be composed ahead of time (so everyone can learn it). Here in line 1, the nation is called to join in and then throughout the Psalm we find not “I”s and “me”s but “we”s and “us”s.

We find an exact repetition again in lines 4 and 5 with the words “passed over our soul.” The word “water” also appears in both lines. In lines 7 and 8 we find the words “trap” and “escaped” repeated. Throughout the Psalm the words LORD (4x) and soul (3x) are also repeated. A note on the latter: we have seen this word which may be rendered “soul” or “life” or even just “self” in other of the Psalms of Ascent.  In Psalm 124, we could just translate “the waters overwhelmed us” and “we escaped.” The psalms have a context beyond themselves, however, and I wanted to keep some consistency with how I translated this word in the previous Psalms. It is a little odd for us to say “our soul (singular)” but again this emphasizes the communal aspect of this Psalm (Hebrew generally has less discomfort with mixing up singulars and plurals).

Though there is a lot of repetition here, the psalmist keeps things fresh by mixing up the word order a little. In Lines 1 and 2, both lines begin identically with the same exact words. Line 4 ends with the words which are repeated at the beginning of line 5. And in lines 7 and 8 we have a chiastic structure. [2] Line 7 had “escaped” and then “trap” while line 8 reverses the order and has “trap” and then “escaped.”

IMG_2666

One last translation note — In line 8 I have translated “as for us” which you may not find in other translations because the Hebrew includes the subject pronoun which (as in many other languages) is not required as it is already part of the verb form. Its use here emphasizes the subject.

Content

What is actually happening in this Psalm? What is the danger from which the Lord has rescued His people? There seems to be a shifting of images. Lines 2 and 3 speak of human foes rising, but lines 4 and 5 speak of a natural enemy, the floodwaters. Line 6 calls to mind wild animals. Lines 7 and 8 make Israel, the victim, a helpless bird at the mercy of human trappers.

On one level, we can say that Psalm 124 is an all-purpose Psalm of deliverance.  As a communal Psalm, perhaps it is meant to recall not just one instance of the Lord’s salvation but many.

But I think there is also something else going on here. Let’s look at some of the words which are used. In line two it is man — Hebrew adam (=Adam) — who rises. Hebrew has another word for man and there are also many possible words which could have been used here (Hebrew has a lot of words for “foe,” for instance). Adam is a deliberate choice on the part of the psalmist and it immediately brings us back to creation.

In lines 3 and 4/5  there is an interesting contrast — burning (anger) and then flooding waters. These are the two big means of destruction, one which God used in Genesis 6-9 and one which we are told He will use at the end of the world (Mal. 4:1).

The waters in lines 4 and 5 also take us back to creation (Gen. 1:6-9). A lot could be (and has been) written on the waters as a part of creation. Israel’s neighbors would have viewed the waters as primeval gods to be conquered at creation. Israel itself was never very comfortable with the Sea. Throughout the Bible, waters and sea are forces of chaos which must be subdued in order to make an orderly creation (cf. Ps. 93:4; Job 38:8; Jer. 5:22; Rev. 21:1). The word torrent in line 4 also calls to mind a very real threat — the wadis (dry valleys) which could quickly become flash floods in the rainy season.

The (implied) wild animals and birds in lines 6 through 8 also remind one of creation. And finally, lest there be any doubt, the Psalm ends with “the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” This designation for God we have seen previously in Psalm 121, providing another link within this grouping of Psalms.

Conclusions

Psalm 124 has some connections to the other Psalms of Ascent, particularly the use of the word “soul” and the phrase “the maker of heaven and earth,” but it is also unique among those we have looked at thus far. It is less emotional and seems to be more premeditated. It is not an outburst but a composition. More than that, it is a communal Psalm. First-person plural pronouns occur in almost every line and the Psalm begins with a call for the congregation of Israel to join in.

This is a Psalm praising God for His deliverance but there does not seem to be one specific act of deliverance which the psalmist has in mind. Instead we get a series of images, almost all of which call to mind creation. There is some hint of things to come as well and of possible destruction in the juxtaposing of the images of flooding and burning. It seems to me a very fitting Psalm for the congregation to have sung as they made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, looking as it does back to creation and forward to the end of time while also acknowledging the Lord’s salvation in this in-between period we live in.

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.

[2] As we have seen in previous Psalms, a chiasm is a structure which corresponding elements are reversed. If you draw lines between the elements with go together, they will cross, making an X which looks like the Greek letter chi.

 

One response to this post.

  1. […] we slowly wind our way through the Psalms of Ascent, we are now up to Psalm 125. Last time we saw that Psalm 124, in contrast with its predecessors, seemed to be more of a deliberate composition. Psalm 125 is […]

    Reply

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