“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side —
let Israel now say —
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
~ Psalm 124:1-8
In this psalm of thanksgiving authored by David, he pronounces the exclusivity of the God of Israel, the covenant God of his people, who praise him for delivering them from a dangerous confrontation with their enemies. The deliverance described would not necessarily have been recent, but could have been as early as the exodus from Egypt. If the Lord had not been on the side of his people — that is, if the covenant God of Israel, the LORD who revealed himself in Exodus 3:14 as the eternal “I AM” who is forever committed to the good and the salvation of his people — they would have been annihilated.
The psalmist presents this as a basis for continued trust in the same saving and merciful Almighty. Because of some common language between Psalm 124 and II Samuel 5:17-25, it is reasonable to trace this psalm as a response to a particular deliverance from a Philistine army. Shortly after David became king of Israel and consolidated the nation, the nearby Philistines realized he was a threat, and resolved to attack before his government became fully established. Realizing that David was no longer their vassal, they took decisive military action against his new capital of Jerusalem.
(II Samuel 5:17-25) “When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, all the Philistines went up to search for David. But David heard of it and went down to the stronghold. Now the Philistines had come and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim. And David inquired of the LORD, ‘Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?’ And the Lord said to David, ‘Go up, for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand.’ And David came to Baal-perazim, and David defeated them there. And he said, ‘The LORD has broken through my enemies before me like a breaking flood.’ Therefore the name of that place is called Baal-perazim. And the Philistines left their idols there, and David and his men carried them away. And the Philistines came up yet again and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim. And when David inquired of the LORD, he said, ‘You shall not go up; go around to their rear, and come against them opposite the balsam trees. And when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then rouse yourself, for then the Lord has gone out before you to strike down the army of the Philistines.’ And David did as the LORD commanded him, and struck down the Philistines from Geba to Gezer.”
The image seen in the name “Baal-perazim,” meaning in Hebrew “possessor of breaches,” was that of flooding waters breaking through a dam as David’s troops had broken through the Philistine assault. Throughout the ancient Near East writings, battles are described in terms of floods. This metaphor might have originated with the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 14) or the Jordan crossing (Joshua 3), and these triumphant events in Israel’s history might have been in view when David was inspired to write the psalm.
Biblical authors certainly affirm the importance of human diligence, but such diligence makes no lasting difference unless it is a tool in the Lord’s hand according to his sovereign purposes. David was a wily and sturdy warrior, and he had valiant fighters in his service (II Samuel 23:8-29), as was proper — but at the same time, it was the LORD who worked each great victory through them. II Samuel 23:12 recounts that Shammah, one of David’s three finest solders, “took his stand in the midst of the plot and defended it and struck down the Philistines, and the LORD worked a great victory.”
Psalm 124 is included in the “Songs of Ascents,” indicating its use during festal pilgrimages. The children of Israel would sing it in connection with their pilgrimage to Jerusalem; they remembered that the deliverance of the whole people allowed them to continue journeying there.
As the past help of God’s people has been from the LORD, so our present and future hope is in the selfsame God. Just as the pattern of divine covenant establishes God’s salvation as being a collective phenomenon among his people, that same pattern of covenant identifies the true Israel as being all those who are faithful to him, united with Jesus Christ, across the ages of time and to the present (Romans 9:6-8, I Corinthians 12:12-14).
God’s people have known many occasions on which Psalm 124 provides a triumphant lyric, as his people have been shown time and time again that He, and He alone, wins the victory over our adversaries. Today the psalm appeals to the Lord as the One who is able to protect his church from the attacks of principalities and powers in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:10-20). For example, in the year 1582, during the reign of James VI, Scotland was in the midst of a political and religious conflict which shook its institutional church to the foundations. The issue at hand was: Does the king have authority over the church, or is the church answerable only to God?
John Durie was one of the many men who became embroiled in this conflict, and like many, he suffered hardship as a result of his position. Durie’s belief that the Church was accountable only to God led to a decision by the Privy Council on May 23, 1582, to remove him from his parish and exile him from Edinburgh.
However, a few months later, Durie was permitted to return to the city, and on Sept. 4, 1582, he was joyfully greeted by a great crowd of people when he entered the gates of Edinburgh. David Calderwood’s History of the Kirk of Scotland recounts that event.
“At the Nether Bow they took up the 124th Psalm, ‘Now Israel may say, and that truly,’ and sang it in such a pleasant tune, in all the four parts, these being well known to the people, who came up the street bareheaded and singing, till they entered the kirk. This had such a sound and majesty as affected themselves and the huge multitude of beholders who looked over the shots and forestairs with admiration and amazement. The Duke [Lennox, an enemy of Durie] himself was a witness, and tare his beard for anger, being more affrayed at this sight than anything he had ever seen since he came to Scotland. When they entered the kirk Mr. Lawson made a short exhortation in the readers place to thankfulness, and after the singing of a psalm the people departed with great joy.”
It was during this same period in Scottish history that new confessional standards were written by six reformers, which had theology reflecting the work of John Calvin. The Scots Confession, in large part, established the doctrinal distinctives of the Church of Scotland, and the Kirk came to be called Presbyterian. In these documents, we see the Reformation solae clearly put forth, including soli deo gloria, a Latin term for “Glory to God alone.”
Now Israel may say, and that in truth,
If that the Lord had not our right maintained,
If that the Lord had not with us remained,
When cruel men against us rose to strive,
We surely had been swallowed up alive.
Yea, when their wrath against us fiercely rose,
The swelling tide had o’er us spread its wave,
The raging stream had then become our grave,
The surging flood, in proudly swelling roll,
Most surely then had overwhelmed our soul.
Blest be the Lord who made us not their prey:
As from the snare a bird escapeth free,
Their net is rent and so escaped are we:
Our only help is in Jehovah’s name,
Who made the earth and all the heav’nly frame.
— Old 124th, Louis Bourgeois, 1551
Today, the landscape of spiritual warfare is somewhat different for God’s people, but Satan’s baseline effort to undermine God’s kingdom and defeat his people has not changed. In the 21st century, most Western Christians hardly have to fear the sword and the spear, but we daily face the systematic and insidious onslaught of moral relativism, pagan philosophies and political agendas without the church; and the subtly lethal dilution of the gospel and hard but essential truths within the church.
I recently had the privilege to sing this same version of Old 124th, accompanied by Dr. Terry Yount on the organ at St. Andrew’s Chapel, A Reformed Congregation in Sanford, Florida (click to listen), after a Ligonier Fall Conference that pressed the centrality of Christ in the church’s salvation, its worship and preaching. There is a motif we find historically when this psalm and others like it have been used: the plight of God’s people outnumbered and overpowered by their mortal enemies; the supernatural forces behind those human powers; God’s singular ability to overcome these perils and save his people; and the attribution of that glory to his name alone.
I am never so acutely aware of how sinful I am as when I am sitting on the pulpit of the Lord’s sanctuary, the last place on this terrestrial plane I deserve to be. As I prepared mentally to sing this historic song, I marveled at the Lord’s deliverance from my own sin and from others’ sin.
What astounding strength and hope are in the words of this psalm: The true and living God, the God who made heaven and earth, condescends for the sake of his people. This covenant faithfulness and mercy was clinched in the coming of Jesus Christ and his subsequent passion on the cross. There, in Christ, the demands of the covenant were kept on our behalf so we can inherit God’s promised blessings.
“In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” We who have had that flood break through our sin, our fallen will, and the powers and principalities that threaten us may celebrate the true “Possessor of Breaches.” Anyone who has been plunged under the flood of the Lord’s cleansing, rejuvenating and eternally satisfying water of life, can rightfully sing the old song of Israel’s salvation. Now Israel may say, and that in truth: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is good to remember what the Lord has done.