Eugene Peterson says that the theme of Psalm 125 is, “‘Relax.” We are secure. God is running the show.”1 That is a wonderful summary of these five stanzas. However, the word “confidence” might best reflect the tone of these verses. Confidence in the midst of challenges to the people of God is what is pictured here—and the ability to relax reflects confidence in God. If the people of God are confident in God, then they can indeed relax in the midst of difficulties. And, yes, God’s people do encounter challenges—of many sorts.
Christians are not immune to difficulties; we are not given some kind of protective bubble that repels all troubles that make their way toward us. In fact, becoming a Christian can actually attract afflictions and hardships. The test of whether or not you are a Christian is not whether you are free from troubles; rather, it is tested by how we respond to them—by faith or feelings; by confidence in the Lord or by desertion.
What is different for the Christian (from the non-Christian) “is that we don’t have to build our own: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Ps. 46:1).”2
This principle is brought to light in Psalm 125. “This psalm is a hymn of trust.”3 The Psalms of Ascent were likely compiled at the end of, or shortly after, the Babylonian exile. They were not all written then (Psalm 124, for example, is a psalm of David), but they were compiled into a form of worship hymnal to be used by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.
This psalm seems to fit the post-exilic era well. The psalmist writes in v. 3, for example, that “the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous reach out their hands to iniquity.” The term “sceptre of wickedness” is sometimes used in the Old Testament of foreign nations oppressing God’s people. Perhaps, then, the psalm was written toward the end of the Babylonian exile as an encouragement to God’s people that the Babylonian rule would not last forever.
Even as God’s people were oppressed by the wicked, they could sing about trusting in the Lord. And the lessons that they learned by this psalm are lessons we can learn too.
The psalmist writes of “the righteous” who might be tempted to “reach out their hands to iniquity.” Is it not true that trials often tempt us to defection? We often find ourselves, in times of difficulty, tempted to turn away from the Lord. But this psalm encourages us not to abandon our faith, because God will not allow times of trial to last forever.
Peterson says it well:
The emphasis of Psalm 125 is not on the precariousness of the Christian life but on its solidity. Living as a Christian is not walking a tightrope without a safety net high above a breathless crowd, many of whom would like nothing better than the morbid thrill of seeing you fall; it is sitting secure in a fortress.4
We will study this psalm under a few headings.
A Confident Reminder
In vv. 1–2, we find a confident reminder: “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds His people from this time forth and forever.”
I have never been to Jerusalem, but I am told that the city is surrounded by mountains. In fact, Mount Zion is actually dwarfed by some of the surrounding mountains. As you make your journey toward Jerusalem, you clearly notice the mountains surrounding Jerusalem (“Mount Zion”).
Mountains give an aura of stability. One does not imagine a mountain being soon moved. It is a picture of stability that the psalmist is here painting. Those who trust in the Lord can be confident. They cannot be moved. They abide forever. And the reason that they are so secure is because “the LORD surrounds His people from this time forth and forever.”
The word “trust” can also be translated “confide.” The word literally means “to hang something on.” It describes something that is fixed, like a nail secured in a wall on which things are hung. Those who are secure in the Lord are immovable and inseparable from God. There is a very real sense in which those who trust in the Lord are invincible. This does not mean that they will not suffer or get sick, but they are invincible where it really matters: in the eternal soul.
The picture of the mountains is important, because while the mountains are visible, God is invisible. We may wish sometimes that we could see God, but we walk by faith, not by sight. Our problem is that we all too often live by feelings rather than by faith. God is invisible, but He is very present: He surrounds them now and forever.
This security is only for those who trust in the Lord. There were no doubt many who physically marched to Jerusalem year after year who did not trust in the Lord. And while they may have sung these words as they marched, they could not really cling to them. The Lord securely surrounds only those who trust in Him. As Boice helpfully observes,
There is a false trust in Zion, a trust that does not go beyond the mere city or presumes on the commitment of God to preserve the city. The people so presumed in the decades before the fall of the city and were warned about their presumption by the prophets. The psalmist is not advocating such false trust. He is actually looking beyond Jerusalem to the Lord, who alone truly endures forever. He is teaching that our security can never be in ourselves or in circumstances. It must always be in God.5
The generation of Jews that fell to the Babylonians had a false trust. They trust in the temple rather than in the Lord (Jeremiah 7:4). They were obsessed with the temple of the Lord, but they had ignored the Lord of the temple.
This psalm is one of encouragement not necessarily for every church member, but only for those who confide deeply in the Lord. This is a song for disciples. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed” (John 8:31). In other words, only those who continually trust in His Word are His disciples.
Our trust is put to the test in our trials. Our response in trials reveals the source of our trust. Those who trust in the Lord are secure as the church—Mount Zion—is secure. We cannot separate our Christian life for the church; the Bible makes no allowance for this. And since the church is secure (Matthew 16:18), the believer who trusts in the Lord is likewise secure.
Have you come to a point where you have blown it? Do you feel like you have completely defected? Then let me encourage you to return to the Lord and trust in Him afresh. You can experience forgiveness because the Lord surrounds those who trust in Him.
As already noted, Christians are no immune to troubles. The presence of trials in our life is not evidence that we don’t believe; it may, in fact, be evidence that we do believe. God allows trials in order for us to be tested, so that we can see who it is in whom we really trust. Just as Abraham proved his faith by his willingness to offer Isaac, so our faith is proven by our obedience in times of trial.
Storms and troubles come, but they can’t get into us. They reveal what is in us. God’s people face difficulties, discouragements and depressions, and are tempted to desertion and defection, but they are empowered for dependence on the Lord.
Paul knew, and wrote of the reality of this. For example, consider these words to the Corinthians:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested by our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.
(2 Corinthians 4:7–12)
When Paul stood trial before Nero, all deserted him, which was no doubt a time of great discouragement. Nevertheless, he knew that the Lord stood with him and strengthened him so that the gospel would be preached fully through him (2 Timothy 4:16–17).
Jesus knew what it was to be severely tempted, but he also knew the experience of angels ministering to Him thereafter (Matthew 4:11). Even in perhaps His most excruciating trial in life—His time in the garden on the eve of the crucifixion—He knew of God’s grace to Him by means of ministering angels (Luke 22:39–43).
A Confident Realisation
In v. 3, we read of the psalmist’s confident realisation: “For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous reach out their hands to iniquity.”
As noted above, the promise here is that God will not allow His people to be oppressed forever. Ezra and Nehemiah experienced much opposition when they returned to the Promised Land with God’s people, and they would have clung dearly to such a promise of preservation.
God’s people throughout history have testified to the same truth. Think of John Newton’s memorable words:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Or listen to these words by Charitie Lees Bancroft:
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made and end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died,
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God, the just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
Jesus commended the Philadelphian Christians for keeping His Word and not denying His name even though they only had a little strength (Revelation 3:8). The result is that He would give them great strength to overcome (vv. 9–10).
The Smyrnan believers faced great opposition, but Jesus told them not to fear and promised them strength to persevere (Revelation 2:8–11). He would not allow His faithful people to be oppressed indefinitely.
The early Christians clearly believed this promise, and so in times of great opposition they prayed for boldness to stay faithful to the gospel. God was pleased to answer their prayer (Acts 4:23–31).
Historically, God’s people have been beleaguered, and yet they have persevered. The wicked sceptre has often arisen, but it has never remained. The early church faced great opposition from the Jews, but that opposition largely ended with the destruction of Jerusalem. It later faced tremendous opposition from Rome, but Rome likewise fell, largely through the influence of the gospel. One of the last and most violent of the Roman emperors to oppose Christianity was Julian the Apostate. When he died, St. Athanasius famously said, “That little cloud has passed away.”
Christians around the world today face violent opposition from godless governments and various other politico-military factions, but we can be sure that the sceptre of wickedness will not remain forever on the land. The devil is a live, though not entirely well. He is doing his best to destroy God’s people, but he will not win in the end.
Hardships can tempt us to defection, but God will keep His people. Peter was told that Satan wanted to sift him like wheat, and there is even an implicit prophecy that he would fail. But his failure would not be final: He would “return” (Luke 22:31–32). He failed terribly when he denied Jesus, but John 21 records his restoration, and the book of Acts shows his corresponding fruitfulness.
This, by the way, is one reason that church discipline is so important: It is designed to minimise defections. Paul urged the Corinthians to deliver a particular church member “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” but the goal was “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). He later spoke of a particular individual who had been punished by the church, and urged: “You ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Corinthians 2:5–8). He did not question the rightness of the punishment (v. 6), but the punishment had evidently fulfilled its purpose, and it was time to forgive the repentant sinner.
Still later in 2 Corinthians, Paul rejoiced that his previously stern words to them had brought about the desired results:
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. Therefore, although I wrote to you, I did not do it for the sake of him who had done the wrong, nor for the sake of him who suffered wrong, but that our care for you in the sight of God might appear to you.
(2 Corinthians 7:8–12)
Opposition may pose a very real temptation to desertion, but believers have much to cling to in the promise of Jude: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Saviour, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).
The principle is simply this: God knows how much we can handle. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The sceptre of wickedness may seemingly hang over your head, but you can be confident that the Lord will preserve you.
One thinks of Jesus protecting His disciples at His arrest. It was no doubt a traumatic time for them, but Jesus did not allow them to take on more than they could handle. While He submitted to arrest Himself, He commanded the soldiers to leave His disciples alone (John 18:1–9).
Believer, keep trusting. Keep confiding in Christ. Keep obeying God. Keep marching to Zion, for the trials that try to waylay you will not last forever. Look beyond the immediate to the ultimate.
I recently read the fascinating history of St. Patrick of Ireland. Patrick was born in Roman Britain. he was the child of believing parents, but his faith was not particularly active himself. At the age of sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and enslaved in Ireland for six years. He was converted during his time in captivity, and when he eventually returned home in his early twenties, he continued to study Christianity until he eventually felt called to return to Ireland as a missionary. God used his trial for his greatest good, and he learned to see through his circumstances to the ultimate.
A Confident Request
Following immediately on the heel of the psalmist’s expression of confidence we find a prayer: “Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts” (v. 4). Hot fitting it is for confidence and prayer to go together.
It is the promise of v. 3 that leads to the prayer of v. 4. We see this pattern throughout Scripture. For example, Paul gives great and confident promises in Ephesians 2:1–17, and then immediately follows it in v. 18ff with a prayer. Again, he opens chapter 3 with great promises (3:1–13) and then turns in v. 14 to prayer. Hebrews 4:14–16 likewise shows the synergy between confidence and prayer:
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The principle is this: Those who truly confide in God will commune with God.
We see, further, that it is entirely possible to do good and to be upright in the midst of the sceptre of wickedness. One thinks of Paul and Silas in Philippi, imprisoned for the sake of the gospel, yet faithfully proclaiming the gospel even to those who had imprisoned them. One thinks of Jesus who acted honourably before God even when He was severely mistreated. The result was redemption (see 1 Peter 2:21–25).
As we confide in God, we have a redemptive impact. And is this not exactly what much of our world needs today? It is certainly what South Africa needs!
The confident are not cynical. They know that there are many who do trust in the Lord, that not everyone is crooked. We are all sinful, but not everyone is hypocritically corrupt. Everything is not hopeless. To the contrary, blessings can be experienced.
Those who are confident are equally concerned for others who are also confident. They desire for their fellows to remain confident. They pray for God’s blessings on them. They are confident that God desires to bless the confident—that God blesses obedience.
Nehemiah was confident and therefore worked faithfully among God’s confident people. He prayed for God to deal well with him, according to the way that he had dealt well with God’s people (Nehemiah 5:19; 13:14, 22, 31).
Will you pray for others to persevere in their confidence in God? Jesus urged the disciples to pray for themselves and for each other that they would not fall into temptation (Luke 22:40, 46). We must do the same.
A Confident Relaxation
Finally, we have, in v. 5, a confident relaxation: “As for such as turn aside to their crooked ways, the LORD shall lead them away with the workers of iniquity. Peace be upon Israel.”
God will reveal those who confide in Him and those who do not. He will lead the workers of iniquity away from His people and His city.
Keep confident and diligent as you trust the Lord to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, the good from the bad. Fundamentally, this is not our job. We labour in the field, knowing that tares will grow alongside wheat, and we trust God to ultimately uproot the tares and allow the wheat to flourish.
This means that we have no need to despair when the wicked seemingly flourish. There is no need for us to be dismayed when those who profess to be confident ultimately defect. This is a necessary part of life in the kingdom. “There must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognised among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Even when those who profess confidence defect, “The solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:14–19). It is necessary that those who are not confident ultimately defect because their defection ultimately proves the genuineness of real faith (1 John 2:19).
The psalm also provides a warning to those who are tempted to defect: God will “lead them away with the workers of iniquity.”
Conversely, those who “do good” (v. 4) and who “trust I the Lord” (v. 1) have God’s “peace.” The true people of God can experience peace in the midst of God’s enemies. They need not be distracted by defection. They need not remain discouraged by difficulties. They should instead be confident in God through Christ. “Peace be upon Israel!”
- Eugene Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 76. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 71. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 884. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 70. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1103. ↩