Psalm 123: Eyes
I am going to tell you right up front that I interpret Psalm 123 much differently than most of the commentators that I have read. It is often referred to as a psalm of lament or distress, but I read it as a psalm of resolve. I do not believe that the pilgrims are weary in their journey to Jerusalem, they are committed to get there. They are not complaining about their trouble, they are trusting in their Savior. They have “had more than enough” of the contempt and scorn of their enemies, but that is not a cry for help nearly as much as it is a commitment to change. Much like Psalm 86, I believe that this Song of Ascent is all about perspective.
The first verse sounds familiar but upon close inspection is quite different. Psalm 121 began, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” But Psalm 123 looks past the hills, looks beyond the holy city, “To you I will lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” The focus stopped being on the city, the temple or the festival, the author was looking through those things to see the true object of his affection, the heart of God. We tend to stop short, to push for the wrong things, to put our attention and affection in the fruit rather than the Root, the provision rather than the Provider, the place rather than the Host. This song is a great reminder that God uses places and things, days and promises only to get us to Himself. Everything He says matters, but everything He does is to win our hearts.
Have we not all felt verses 3b and 4? “We have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” Maybe the language is different than we would use, or the situations are different than we are experiencing, so let me try to put it more in our context. Some of us have had more than enough disappointment, loneliness, unemployment, illness, grief, or lack. Others have had more than enough of our sin, fear, worry, anxiety, or backsliding. A few of us have had enough of the politics, arguments, harsh words, or loss of respect, even loss of friendships. We have had enough of the culture, of the best and the worst the world can give, because it is all simply not enough, it cannot satisfy, and it will not remain. What the psalmist realized was not that he had too much trouble, but that he had too little devotion. The issue was not his problems, his enemies or his circumstances, it was his view, where he had placed his gaze.
There are three repeated themes in Psalm 123, in reverse order: trouble, grace and focus. I think we, far too often, live in reverse order. Trouble comes, it is not only guaranteed, but also promised. Jesus said, in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” (NIV) It cannot be avoided, but it also should not be dreaded, feared, or despised. If the Lord has promised to order our steps, but has also promised that there will be times of trouble along our path, then doesn’t that have to mean that He has purpose in the trouble? That He will, because He Himself is good, use the trouble to work His good in our lives? The trouble may not be good, but there is goodness in it because God is with us and because of the great promise of Romans 8:28, “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The problem with trouble is that we look at it when we should be looking at God through it. Twice the psalmist writes about his trouble.
In the last sentence of verse two and through verse three he writes about grace three times. The English Standard Version uses the word mercy, “so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us”. The Hebrew word uses all three times is one that we talked about back in Psalm 86, “hanan”. Its literal meaning is “to bend and stoop in kindness to an inferior; to favor, bestow”. In the Old Testament this word is translated 16 times as mercy and 13 times as gracious. It describes not just God’s position but His disposition, not just what He does for us in giving mercy, but who He is in being gracious. The question is never whether God will give grace, but if we will remember and believe that He is gracious. Do we live from the uncertainty our trouble shouts or the consistency of God’s character? We will have trouble, but God is good; the first is always temporary, the second is more than permanent, it is eternal. The cry for mercy is often nothing more than a reminder that God is gracious. We are not asking God to do something nearly as much as we are acknowledging that we seem to easily forget who God is.
In Philippians 3:1, Paul wrote to his dearest of friends, “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” Sometimes the most powerful truth we can be told is truth we already know, sometimes we need, not an answer to our questions, but a reminder of the heart and character of God. What if trouble is part of how God reminds us of who He is? Israel did not know that man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God until they ran out of food. The widow at Zarephath did not truly know Elijah was a prophet of God until he raised her son from the dead. Jesus’ brothers did not believe that He was the Messiah until after the resurrection. God often uses our trouble to teach us who He is, even more often, to remind us of what we already know. The trouble is meant to cause us to look to God, but for many of us, we cannot see past the thing that troubles us.
That takes us back to the beginning of the psalm, “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” The most repeated word in Psalm 123 is “eyes”, it is used four times between verses one and two. This is not just about what we are looking at but what we are focusing on. The first verse says, “I will lift my eyes to God”, but then the second verse describes that looking in terms that we might not immediately understand: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God till he has mercy upon us.” The word “hand” is the key in verse two, it signifies the supply of all that is needed. Servants did not only serve their masters, but they were also dependent upon them, they looked to them to provide for their needs, to protect them from danger, to care for them. The psalmist was writing about submission and dependence. He was focused on God, not because of the size of his trouble, but because of his confidence in God’s character.
Once again, we see that this all comes down to God’s character. Paul wrote, in Philippians 4:19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” God’s provision is not based upon our need or even our action, but His person. He gives according to the riches of His glory. Trouble is not supposed to direct our focus but to test it. Where are our hearts? Where is our hope? What is our expectation? Where is our satisfaction? Trouble does not cause things, it reveals them. If you are dealing with disappointment, disconnection, dissatisfaction, despair or even sin, your trouble did not create it, God is using your trouble to reveal it. This also means that a change of circumstances will not heal it, it must be dealt with and the only way to deal with it is to submit it and ourselves to God. The reason many of us struggle in what feels like never-ending cycles, is that we submit the circumstances and the feelings without ever submitting our hearts. We give God our grief, our disappointment or our frustration, but we continue to keep hold of our hearts, we continue to believe that the answer is just getting what we want. We truly believe that a spouse will cure our loneliness, a better program will cure our inconsistency, a job we love will heal our laziness, a long-term plan will resolve our anxiety, and an experience with God will deliver us from sin, but the truth is, nothing changes until our hearts are transformed and our hearts will not change until they are surrendered, completely to God.
This leads us to our conclusion, our focus, must always be on two things and those things must be in this order: God’s character and our hearts. God is who He says He is, He is all I need, He is faithful, just and true. My heart is deceitful, wounded in some places, hardened in some others. It is easily distracted, it talks more than it listens, it explains when it needs to simply believe, and it tends to lead with fear and anxiety. And so, rather than following my heart, I need to learn to lead it. Rather than listening to it, I need to learn to instruct it. Rather than looking at God through my trouble, I need to learn to lift my eyes about my trouble so that I can look clearly at God. He is good. He is faithful. He loves me. He provides for me. He protects me. He is worthy of my focus and when I focus on Him, I discover that He does not simply do or give everything I desire, He is all I will ever need. Where I set my eyes will determine how I live my life. When my eyes are set on my trouble my life is filled with uncertainty, but when my eyes are focused on God’s character, my life is not free from trouble, but it is filled with His grace and His grace is still sufficient for all of our needs (II Corinthians 12:9).