Theme: Our Need for God’s Mercy
In this week’s lessons, we learn what it means to lift our eyes to the Lord, remembering his mercy, and striving to please him in all things.
Scripture: Psalm 123:1-4
Earlier in this study I pointed out that Psalm 123 might be called a psalm for the eyes because the word “eyes” occurs four times. It is the dominant word in the first of the psalm’s two stanzas. At this point we can equally well call attention to the word “mercy.” It occurs three times (once in verse 2 and twice in verse 3), not four, as is the case with “eyes.” But it is the dominant word in the second stanza, just as “eyes” was the dominant word earlier. In fact, mercy is the most important word in the psalm, because it is the occasion for the psalm. It is that for which the psalmist is praying. 
“Mercy” ends the first stanza in a verse that explains why the psalmist is looking to God as a slave looks to his master or a maid to her mistress. It is until God “shows us his mercy.” Then the same word is picked up in the first line of the last stanza, where it is repeated as a prayer: “Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us” (v. 3). 
Mercy is one of three great words that are often found together in the Bible: goodness, grace and mercy. “Goodness” is the most general term, involving all that emanates from God: his decrees, his creation, his laws, his providences. It extends to the elect and to the non-elect, though not in the same way. God is good, and everything he does is good. 
“Grace” denotes favor, particularly toward the undeserving. There is “common grace,” the kind of favor God shows to all persons in that he sends rain on the just and unjust alike. There is also “special” or “saving grace,” which is what he shows to those he is saving from their sins. “Mercy” is an aspect of grace, but the unique quality of mercy is that it is given to the pitiful, in this case, to those who have endured “much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.” 
Arthur W. Pink says, “Mercy … denotes the ready inclination of God to relieve the misery of fallen creatures. Thus ‘mercy’ presupposes sin.”1
Eugene Peterson also has a helpful definition at this point. He writes about verse 3, saying, 
The prayer is not an attempt to get God to do what he is unwilling, otherwise, to do, but a reaching out to what we know that he does do, an expressed longing to receive what God is doing in and for us in Jesus Christ. In obedience we pray have mercy upon us instead of “give us what we want.” We pray have mercy upon us, and not “reward us for our goodness so our neighbors will acknowledge our superiority.” We pray have mercy upon us and not “punish us for our badness so we will feel better.” We pray have mercy upon us and not “be nice to us because we have been such good people.”2
I suppose that most people think exactly what Peterson is denying, that is, that God should be merciful to them because they deserve it or are nice people. But there is no confidence in that. The confidence we have when we approach God, asking for mercy, is in God’s own merciful character, not in our character. This is what the Jews knew about God, for God had declared his name to Moses, saying, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exod. 34:6, 7). We know God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Therefore, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16). 
1Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.), pp. 83, 84. 
2Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), p. 60. 
Study Questions: 

What is the dominant word in the second stanza? Why is this important? 
Explain what we are doing when we ask for God’s mercy. What aren’t we able to do? 
What is unique about mercy? 

Reflection: What do you place your confidence in when you approach God in prayer—your character or his? 
Application: In what ways can you show mercy to others?
Key Point: The confidence we have when we approach God, asking for mercy, is in God’s own merciful character, not in our character. 
For Further Study: To learn more about God’s mercy, download and listen for free to R. C. Sproul’s message, “God’s Mercy, God’s Glory.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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