by Peter Benyola

“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.

covenant theology, Reformation, worship