Generally, the question “what if?” is not very helpful. We can’t change the past and, as they say, hindsight is always 20/20. But sometimes the question is helpful. Psalm 124 provides an example.
In this psalm David reflects on some event in which, had it not been for the Lord’s faithful preservation, the nation would have been no more. He calls the people of God to reflect on the question, “What if the Lord had not intervened?” He does so in order to drive them to hopeful worship as they are strengthened by what John Piper has called “future grace.” Future grace is the conviction that God will be just as faithful to sustain us in the future as He has been in the past.
We don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding the writing of psalm, but we can relate to the poetic description of the troubles that the ancient people of God faced. Men rose up against them (v. 2), and from what follows it appears that David has in mind some type of militant opposition to them. Second Samuel 5 may provide a historical setting for the writing of this psalm, but we cannot be sure.
David describes the threat with a few metaphors.
He speaks of being swallowed by wrath (v. 3). Perhaps he here is thinking, metaphorically, of a great dragon-like monster that would have swallowed them up. Or, from what follows, perhaps he was thinking in terms of floodwaters, for he speaks of being overwhelmed by floodwaters (v. 4) and of torrential streams carrying God’s people away (v. 5). He pictures the danger of being completely devastated and destroyed by the depth of the flood (v. 5).
In vv. 6–7 we see two other images: a ravenous animal (v. 6) and a snared bird (v. 7). Probably, these images are meant to be kept together: The trapped bird is about to become a meal for the hunter.
Marching to Zion
This is one of the psalms of ascent, which means that it is a part of a genre reflecting on the spiritual pilgrimage of the Christian. This psalm therefore makes it abundantly clear that we will arrive having come through many toils and snares. As we walk the Christian road, we can expect difficulties, enemies, hostility and even violence. We can expect to be hated by those who hate God.
And yet we must also expect that the Lord will be on our side through it all. This is the theme of Psalm 124. Let us learn it—learn it well—and then live it out. Eugene Peterson summarises the burden of the psalm well: “Psalm 124 is a song of hazard—and of help. Among the Psalms of Ascent, sung by the people of God on the way of faith, this is one which better than any other describes the hazardous work of all discipleship and declares the help which is always experienced at the hand of God.”1 And, as Boice notes,
It is easy to see how a psalm praising God’s protection from the early days of Israel’s national history might be incorporated into the songs pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem, which David had made his capital. It would be a way of saying, “The God we are going to Jerusalem to worship is a very great God indeed.”2
For the purposes of our study, we will divide the psalm into four broad sections.
A Bold Assertion
In the opening two verses, we find David’s bold assertion: “‘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 men rose up against us’” (vv. 1–2). The bold assertion, simply put, is that Yahweh was on Israel’s side.
David repeats this claim in the opening verses, and it is indeed a claim that bears repetition. It is a confidence-building meditation and repetition. He expectantly desires God’s people to say these words in order to exalt the Lord and to comfort their hearts.
We can make a few observations at this point.
First, this is a very controversial confession—at least in our day. To claim to have God on one’s side is a bold and astounding statement in a world that has embraced religious pluralism. And, by the way, religious pluralism was as much in vogue in David’s day as it is in ours.
Clearly, the writer believed that there was a side that God was on and a side on which He was not on. God was on the side of His people and not on the side of His enemies. This raises a vital principle for us to grasp: Believers do have enemies. We have enemies because God has enemies. Those who hate God also hate those who belong to God.
The controversial confession also serves to highlight that there are many so-called gods, but only one true God. The God who created heaven and earth is the true God, and all others are impostors. We must acknowledge this if we will face our enemies with hope.
A second observation is that God does indeed take sides. Now, we need to be careful how we frame our understanding of this subject. I am not necessarily suggesting that God has a favourite sports team—that God was recently on Jason Spieth’s side rather than Ernie Els’s as Spieth six-putted on the first hole. I do not mean to suggest that God has a favoured side in civil wars, or that He favours one nation over another. I am not saying that God necessarily has a favourite political party, though I would be comfortable saying that God would favour a truly Christian party.3 Nevertheless, God does favour His people over His enemies. He may providentially allow His favoured ones to suffer at the hands of those whom He does not favour, but He does nevertheless favour His own over those who are not His own.
A third observation follows from the second: We would do well to ensure that we are on the right side—on God’s side. This is vital—eternally so. Remember, and be humbled, that God chooses whose side He is on. In this psalm, Yahweh being on our side is the primary emphasis. Yes, we need to be on His side (see Joshua 24:15), but this can only follow the LORD’s sovereign and gracious choice to be on our side. Leaving aside the very important truth that God chooses the sides, nevertheless you are responsible to choose the right side.
Fourth, bear in mind that you will face challenges in the Christian pilgrimage. The psalmist speaks of a time “when men rose up against us.” He is honest about the power of evil that surrounds God’s people.
Fifth, learn to see your individual trials as simultaneously corporate. David no doubt felt the pressure of this particular trial, but he speaks in corporate terms: “us.” Kidner says, “Primarily the praise is corporate, blessing God for the survival of His people under the most formidable attacks and most pitiless bondage.”4 Peterson equally helpfully comments on the corporate character of this psalm: “One person announces the theme, everyone joins in. God’s help is not a private experience; it is a corporate reality—not an exception that occurs among isolated strangers, but the norm among the people of God.”5
A Humble Admission
In the second major section of the psalm, we find David’s humble admission. If God had not been on Israel’s side, he continues, “then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us; then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul; then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul” (vv. 3–5).
David here honestly and humbly acknowledges what would have happened “if” the Lord had not been on their side. It would have been bad—very bad, indeed! They would not have survived.
We need such honest humility rather than brash bravado. We need to be more like David than like Bruce Willis. Rather than brashly boasting in our own ability to overcome, we must cry with David, “The LORD, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). David in no way suggests that they could muster the courage and capability to overcome the enemy on their own. There is no machoism on display here. There is no tough guy approach, but rather an honest assessment of how bad things are and how bad they could have been had the LORD not been on their side.
Can you relate? Though we probably cannot relate to people militantly attacking us (especially for our faith, though of course there are many in our world who can), nevertheless we can relate to the sense of being overwhelmed by trials and tribulations and the realisation that, if the Lord had not been our help, we would have been destroyed.
We can relate to the sense of being punched in the gut and being swallowed up by heartache due to the hostility of others—a sense of despair. We can relate to the sense of being emotionally, physically and even spiritually overwhelmed by the downpour of trials—the experience of being depressed. We can relate to the sense of being inundated by torrential streams of hardships and heartache—the sense of being disoriented. We can relate to the sense of the waters of trials rising to the point where we can only despair as everything seems to be washed away—the sense of devastation. We can relate to the sense of being just a step away from utter destruction—the sense of impending death. We can relate to the sense of being trapped, soon to be devoured—the sense of utter destruction.
But in such scenarios, what has been our experience? The Lord has come to our aid! What therefore should be our expectation when we face such scenes again? That the Lord will come to our aid. What therefore should be our exercise in the meantime, and in those times? To know, and to run to, and to trust in the name of the Lord.
We would do well to confess what would be absolutely inevitable were the Lord not on our wide—what “would have” happened. Without the Lord, we would have no ultimate hope.
Truth be told, being without hope—understanding that you are without hope—is not an entirely bad place to be. For then we will turn to the Lord as our helper.
There are times when we will face things that we cannot overcome on our own. Troubles will flood our souls. Evil dragons will seek to slay us, yet the Lord is the dragon slayer (see Revelation 12). Jesus crushed the serpent’s head, and He can therefore crush any opposition you face today. When you are at the end of your rope, don’t tie a knot and hang on; instead, let go and allow the Lord to catch you.
In what ways can we apply this? When do we need to cling to the promise of the Lord as our helper? We must do so when Satan tempts us to despair; when false religion looks insurmountable; when secularism seems so daunting; when enemies hurt us by slander, malice, caustic criticisms; when people are heartless and thoughtless—even in the church; when false doctrine envelopes the church; when professing Christians break your heart; and when persecutors seek to derail us if not to destroy us. Whatever your trial, whatever opposition you face, take heart that you would have been crushed were the Lord not on your side.
A Blessed Acknowledgement
The third thing we find in this psalm is David’s blessed acknowledgement: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped” (vv. 6–7). Having admitted his (and their) dependence on the Lord, David breaks forth into a celebratory confession. He has counted his blessings and now He celebrates the “blesser” by blessing Him!
We need to be far more spontaneous and free in our praise to God. God delights in hearing our requests and in glorifying Himself by answering our prayers, but it is an indictment upon us if we only go to God when we have requests. We bring great honour to God when we break forth in praise to Him. Of course, to do this, we require reflection both during and after the trials. We need to give serious thought to all that He has delivered us from.
Further, we dare not forget the greatest deliverance we have experienced by the Lord being on our side. Even if you cannot relate to the above scenarios, nevertheless if you are a Christian then you can relate to a far more serious situation in which, by the name of the Lord, you were delivered: from spiritual death, slavery to sin, self and to Satan. Ultimately, you were delivered from something far more dangerous and far more destructive than the wrath of man. By the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Acts 4:12), you were delivered from the damnation of God (Matthew 10:27–31).
A Confident Attitude
Finally, we have in v. 8 David’s confident attitude: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” The experience has strengthened and confirmed David’s faith and he ends the psalm with a confident confession of faith. In fact, it can be argued that this entire psalm is a confession of faith.
Note that this is an appeal based on recognition of the one true God: “If it had not been the LORD.” He uses the name Yahweh here to emphasise that he is speaking of the only true God. Again, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” No other lord is in view because no other rock is like our Rock (see Deuteronomy 32:31).
Again, David is not ashamed to declare that there is only one God and that He is the one who created heaven and earth. This is an absolute declaration and therefore one that, at the same time, rejects all other claims to deity. David was no postmodern theologian.
We need to be able to make such a hopeful confession. But this will require trials. These trials will put to the test our professed knowledge of God. Therefore, study for the exam! “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). As Spurgeon said, the revelation of God’s character (Yahweh) is the foundation of our confidence.
We should note here the reference to creation: It is Yahweh who made heaven and earth. The doctrine of creation is important for our confidence. This is not a doctrine of secondary importance; it is instead one of immense importance. The biblical writers constantly refer to creation in their confession of faith in the one true God. If you do not worship the God who made the universe, then you are worshipping a false god.
This psalm is simple to understand. It is a celebration of the Lord’s protection and preservation because of His faithfulness. It is a psalm of hope for God’s people in the midst of opposition. Peterson summarises it well:
Psalm 124 is an instance of a person who digs deeply into the trouble and finds there the presence of God who is on our side. In the details of the conflict, the majestic greatness of God becomes revealed in the minuteness of a personal history. Faith develops out of the most difficult aspects of our existence, not the easiest.6
Let me make some final observations.
First, whom you put your trust in is of immense importance. What you believe about God does matter. You must therefore do all you can to learn about the God who has revealed Himself in the holy Scriptures.
Second, it is helpful to reflect on God’s preservation of Israel over the course of history. The history of Israel has a great deal to teach us about the character of God. And as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, He has not changed (Hebrews 13:5–7).
Third, remember that history is heading somewhere. This is why God preserved Israel: He was preserving His Seed and seed (see Matthew 16:18). God is faithful to keep covenant.
Third, God’s preservation of His people is at the same time His preservation of His promises and purposes. The three—God’s people, God’s promises and God’s purposes—are inseparable. We should learn to read our Bible this way.
Let us learn to humble ourselves. Let us grow in our knowledge of God. Let us reflect often on God’s preservation of His people and His purposes and respond by blessing Him (v. 6). Let us not be shy to bless His name publicly. Let us confess our vulnerability. Let us drop the façade of toughness.
When you are faced with daunting circumstances ask the important question, “What if the Lord had not been on my side? what would have happened and where would I be?”
If you are a Christian, you have every reason to rejoice and to be moved to know the LORD better. If you are not a Christian, then reflect on God’s goodness and kindness in sparing you and let this lead you to repentance (Romans 2:4).
- Eugene Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 57. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 3:1097. ↩
- It should probably be said that, while God does not necessarily have a favourite sports team, etc., His sovereign providence certainly extends to sporting results and outcomes of civil wars and political elections. The Bible does not suggest that He has a vested interest in these things, but nothing happens outside his sovereign control—including the outcome of a golfing tournament! ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 437. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 59. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 64. ↩