The Book of Psalms

Monday: If


Theme: Praise for God’s Protecting Care
In this week’s lessons, we are reminded of the many ways God shows his protective care, and of our privilege to praise him for his goodness.
Scripture: Psalm 124:1-8
I am one of those people who love English poetry, and over the years I have tried to memorize a good bit of it. One of the poems I have tried to memorize but have not succeeded in memorizing completely is “If” by Rudyard Kipling. The first part begins like this:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise… 
The poem continues that way for four stanzas and then ends with the well-known lines, 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
I think of that poem now because of Psalm 124, which begins with the same word: “if.” In fact, “if” leads off verses 1 and 2. Yet the psalmist is not thinking of what it means to be a man, as Kipling was. He is thinking of God and his people and the enormous difference it has made for them that God is on their side. This poem begins, 
If the LORD had not been on our side—let Israel say—
if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us,
when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive.
This psalm is a wonderful praise statement of the Lord’s protecting care of Israel when the people were faced by some great national calamity. But it is also for us. It is what we would call theologically a statement of God’s wonderful perseverance with his saints. 
When did this deliverance take place? “Men were attacking us,” says the psalmist. “If the LORD had not been on our side… they would have swallowed us alive” (vv. 2, 3). They would have “swept us away” (v. 5). “We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare” (v. 7). Where do we find anything like this in Israel’s history? 
One possibility is that the psalm is referring to Israel’s deliverance from her Babylonian captivity. H. C. Leupold holds this view though he suggests other possibilities, too.1 And so does J. J. Stewart Perowne, whose major argument (a good one) is the position of Psalm 124 among the other Songs of Ascents: 
The last psalm was the sigh of an exile in Babylon, waiting in absolute trust and dependence upon God for the deliverance of himself and his people from captivity. This psalm is the joyful acknowledgment that the deliverance has been vouchsafed. The next psalm (the 125th) describes the safety of the new colony, restored to its native land and girt round by the protection of Jehovah.2
Alexander Maclaren holds the same opinion. “It [Psalm 124] is most naturally taken as the expression of the feelings of the exiles on their restoration from Babylon.”3
There are two problems with this view. First, the expressions of the psalm (“when men attacked us,” “swept us away,” “escaped like a bird”) sound more like a military attack and deliverance from it than captivity. Second, we are not even sure that these psalms were linked to the return from Babylon. They were not if they were composed for pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for one of the three annual feasts, as I have argued. 
So there have been other suggestions. Some see these words as a psalm sung by David’s armies as they returned to Jerusalem after their victory over the armies of Absalom. Others see them as a song of thanksgiving composed after the deliverance of the Jews from Haman in the days of Queen Esther. 
1H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 881. 
2J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 384. Original edition 1878-1879. 
3Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 3, Psalms 90-150 (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1894), p. 310.
Study Questions: 

How is this psalm a praise statement for Israel? For us? 
What are some suggestions about the setting for this psalm?

Key Point: This psalm is a wonderful praise statement of the Lord’s protecting care of Israel when the people were faced by some great national calamity. 
For Further Study: The Psalms continues to be a source of encouragement and comfort for God’s children as they experience hardships and sufferings of various kinds. If you or someone you know would benefit spiritually from James Boice’s published sermons on this treasured portion of Scripture, order your copy of the three-volume paperback set, and receive 25% off the regular price.

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