Songs of the Ascent: Psalms 122 & 123

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 15 January 2017, on Psalms 122 & 123.


Two more ‘songs of ascent’

Psalm 122:  Song of Praise and Prayer for Jerusalem

The house of the Lord

This Psalm has special meaning for me.  As some of you may know, I was senior minister of Central Baptist Church here in Chelmsford.  At a very early stage in my ministry I persuaded the church that if we wanted to reach people for Jesus, then we had to upgrade our building – it was a dark and depressing Edwardian preaching station.  So we spent £2 million redeveloping the premises.

On the first Sunday we were back in our new building, I read this Psalm using the GNB: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the Lord’s house’. And now here we are, standing inside the gates of Jerusalem’.”

I then read Peterson’s paraphrase: “When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God’, my heart leaped for joy. And now we’re here, oh Jerusalem, inside Jerusalem’s walls!”.

Oh, it was so exciting!  Even now, 16 years down the track, I can vividly remember the emotion of that day.

It was a special day.  But on the other hand, for me every Sunday is a special day.  Again, to go back to my experience as a Baptist pastor, at the beginning of every Sunday, before the main morning service, I met with my fellow leaders to seek God’s blessing on the day.  I often began those times of prayer by quoting Ps 122.1: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’”.

For me worship with God’s people was one of life’s greatest privileges.

And it remains so.  Now that I am officially retired, nothing gives me greater pleasure than coming on a Sunday morning to worship here in Chelmsford Cathedral.  If at all possible, I like to arrive early – not just to greet people, but to have time to sense afresh that this is God’s house and to pray that God will make himself known to me again.

By now you will realise that I have gone beyond the literal meaning of Psalm 122.

For Psalm 122 is about the temple of Jerusalem, the place where God made himself known to his people.  Whereas I am talking of places like Central Baptist Church and Chelmsford Cathedral as being today’s Jerusalems.

To what extent, you may ask, am I justified in taking this hermeneutical step?  Tremper Longman III in his Tyndale Commentary: “Since the coming of Christ, Christians know that God’s holy presence permeates the world and there are no longer any specifically holy places.  We can meet God anywhere…”   And that, of course, is true.  And yet, for me, there are sacred places today – Bethels, if you like – where with Jacob we say: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28.17).  To return again to CBC, I persuaded my church that we name our ‘worship area’ – the Meeting Place – a place where we met not just with one another, but with God himself.

The peace of Jerusalem

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (v6) says the Psalmist

“Peace be within your walls” (v7) he says; “Peace be within you” (v8)

Yes, of course, we are called to pray for the peace of the world

But let’s not forget to pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and here I have in mind not the Jerusalem of the Holy Land – but the Jerusalems where Christians gather together to worship.  Alas, our churches are not always centres of peace.

Churches can be a place of division and discord.  Indeed, I once wrote a book entitled: Power for God’s sake: power and abuse in the local church.

Lyle Schaller, the American CG guru, once wrote: “On any given day in perhaps three-quarters of all churches the ministry of that congregation is reduced significantly as a result of non-productive conflict”.

What is true in the USA, is true here too.

It is true even in the Cathedral:  I heard one member of the 9.30 service say under his breath ‘Change, change, change – I’m sick of change’.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and remember that for a Jew “peace” means farf more than a cessation from warfare. When Jews greet one another with the words “Shalon, shalom”, they are wishing one another God’s very best.

I will seek your good

V9: “For the sake of the house of our God, I will seek your good”.  Or as Peterson puts it: “I’ll do my very best for you”.   Hey that is a challenge.   There is no place for pew-fodder in God’s church!

PSALM 123:  Supplication for mercy (NRSV) – or ‘The place called prayer’

I lift up my eyes (v1)

 “To you I lift up my eyes… our eyes look to the Lord our God…  (VV1,6)

Some commentators have linked this psalm with Nehemiah. See Neh 2.19: Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshsem “mocked and ridiculed us, saying, ‘What is this that you are doing?’”

Whenever the psalm was written, it was a time when the people of God were going through a tough time.  “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt” (vv3-4)

David Wilcock comments: “Where real power and real malice are pitched against a righteous cause, the people of God know what to do. They keep patiently on with the task before them; but even more important, they look constantly in prayer to the One who alone is both pledged to uphold the right and able to frustrate the wrong”.

But there are also times when we as individuals go through a tough time.

Alec Motyer, an Anglican vicar and former Principal of Trinity Theological College, Bristol, wrote a devotional commentary on the Psalms of Ascent, called Journey: Psalms for Pilgrim People.  He entitled Psalm 122: “At the end of our tether there is a place called prayer”

“To you I lift up my eyes… our eyes look to the Lord our God…  (VV1,6)

Prayer in the first instance is a looking to God: prayer involves an “eye-to-eye relationship”.    Motyer: “In the misery of his situation the psalmist looks up. Just then, at the end of his tether, that’s all he seems able to manage. But, wonder of wonders, he looks up to discover that the Lord has never stopped looking down, and is there, waiting for their eyes to meet”.

..Until he has mercy upon us (v2)

Along with looking, there is always waiting: for God’s timetable is often different from ours.

James L. Mays: “When pilgrims from the world’s contempt lift their eyes to behold the one who rules the world, they find the grace that overcomes the world”.

Motyer 52: “We find it easier to talk to ourselves about our miseries than to look up with the reliant, persistent, patient gaze of servant and maid. We would do more than well, then, to listen to this lovely psalm. It is not a stick but a carrot, fresh and succulent, tempting us into the place where the burden that has almost exhausted our strength can be laid down”

REFLECTION:  Instead of encouraging people to bow their heads in prayer, would it be more helpful for ministers to encourage us to look to God when we pray?

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