Menu Close


Psalm 123
Bob DeGray
June 2, 2002

Key Sentence

Radical submission receives radical mercy.


I. Radical submission (Psalm 123:1-2)
II. Radical mercy (Psalm 122:3-4)


        According to my dictionary, the word radical is used at least 11 ways. The most basic definition is ‘arising from or going to the root’ Radical means root in Latin. Other definitions that apply the root meaning are: (1) Extreme; (2) Departing noticeably from the usual or customary; (3) Favoring fundamental or revolutionary changes in practices, conditions, or institutions. As a noun a radical is a person who advocates fundamental or revolutionary changes. When I was a teen, the radicals were mostly young people who wanted to overthrow the establishment - the military-industrial complex, the church, establishment morality. One dictionary listed related words such as ‘revolutionary, anarchist, Bolshevik, subversive,’ even ‘terrorist’. That isn’t a very comfortable group to hang around with, yet my thesis this morning is that as Christians you and I need to be radical both in what we give to God and in what we receive from God.

        Psalm 123 is the fourth Psalm of Ascent. Unlike some of the others it gives no clue about who the author is or where he is when these thoughts occur to him. He’s not in the hills looking for help, he’s not in the gates of Jerusalem, but he is at an important mental and emotional place. He’s ready to declare his radical commitment to God and his radical dependance on God. He’s in the middle of finding out the truth that radical submission receives radical mercy.

I. Radical submission (Psalm 123:1-2)

        The first two verses of Psalm 123 show us the radical submission our author is making and the last two verses cry out for the radical mercy he longs to receive. Let me read you the whole psalm, then we’ll look at the first two verses. Psalm 123: I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. 2As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy. 3Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. 4We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.

        Verses 1 and 2 are a tremendous illustration of radical submission which is based on radical servanthood and radical dependance. Look at the first phrase: “I lift my eyes to you, whose throne is in heaven.” If somebody is above you, and you want to look at them, you have to look up, you have to lift up your eyes. Choosing to look up to God implies you acknowledge his superiority and recognize his sovereign greatness. This is illustrated in the movie “The King and I” and the recent remake “Anna and the King.” In the first version Anna is told that her head must never be higher than the head of the king - and she and the king get into a little contest to see if she can keep her head lower than his.

        In the remake there is a scene where Anna remains standing during an audience with the prime minister, and the translator begins to address her as ‘sir’. Finally Anna asks “Why you call me ‘sir’?” The translator replies, “In Siam a women does not stand in the presence of his excellency.’ People in almost every culture have known that lowering yourself in the presence of another is a sign of submission. And while we may not bow to kings or presidents it is absolutely necessary that we learn to submit to God, that we lift our eyes to him from a position of servanthood and dependance.

        We can pick up the servanthood theme from the first phrase of the second verse “as the eyes of slaves look to the hand of the master . . . so our eyes look to the Lord our God.” The Psalmist considers himself a slave or servant before God. In western culture, especially America, that seems like not just a foreign idea, but a downright inappropriate one. Nobody is supposed to be the slave of anybody else. Our country started with the ideal that all men are created equal, and we’ve spent hundreds of years figuring out what that ideal means. And we’re right - all people are created equal. What goes wrong is the unspoken assumption that not even God can put himself in a position of superiority to us - the unspoken rejection of all authority.

        Americans love the poetic phrase ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’ even though it’s untrue both in experience and in theology - we often can’t master our own souls and God as creator of our souls is by nature their master. It turns out the poem was written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley, a self_declared militant humanist who hated the Christian faith. “The Invictus,” ("unconquered" in Latin) was written with the intention of shaking his fist in defiance at the very thought of a sovereign God ruling over him. The last stanza says: “It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Jesus said “strait - or small - is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Revelation teaches that in the final judgment scrolls will be opened and people will be judged according to what is written there - but Henley shakes his fist at all that Biblical talk.

        In the early 1900's, Dorothea Day, a young lady who had been greatly enamored with Henley’s humanistic approach to life, was converted to Christ. In response she wrote a similar poem. But it ended with the phrase: “Christ is the master of my fate Christ is the captain of my soul.” That’s the attitude of this psalmist - an attitude of submission. And out of that radical submission grows radical servanthood.

        God’s people consider themselves God’s servants. Furthermore, God considers us his servants. Children, yes. Friends, even, yes. But also servants, faithful and obedient to his desires. There is so much Scripture that teaches this truth. Think of the great heros of the Bible. Abraham is called the servant of God. Moses and David are both frequently called the servant of God - in fact God himself says “I have found David my servant and with my sacred oil I have anointed him.”

        Take the New Testament authors as a second example. At the beginning of many of his letters Paul identifies himself as a bond-servant or slave of Christ Jesus. So does Peter in his letters. So does James in his letter. So does Jude in his letter. So does John in the first verse of the book of Revelation. These apostles and giants of the early church identified themselves first and foremost as slaves. Do you and I?

        The most compelling example of all, of course, is Jesus himself. Isaiah’s title for Jesus is ‘the suffering servant.’ Isaiah 53:11 “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” Jesus said of himself “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Paul told the Philippians “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

        Our attitude is supposed to be the same Jesus had when he became a servant for our sake. That’s the point, isn’t it? The fact that all these people were servants to God, and especially the fact that Jesus was himself a humble servant, compels us to think of ourselves as servants also. We should be as quick as Paul, as quick as Peter, as quick as Jesus to identify ourselves, our core identity, as servants of God, who humble ourselves to obey. That’s what radical submission is all about.

        The other aspect of submission modeled here is radical dependance. The last phrase in verse 2 captures this: “as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.” This phrase is only subtly different than the one we just looked at, but it brings out the dependance of the Psalmist on God. Any slave is entirely dependant on her mistress to provide food, clothing, shelter and care. Most of the horror stories you’ve heard about slavery happen because fallen, human masters are not worthy of that dependance.

        But God is the most worthy of masters. He is entirely benevolent. The Lord God, creator of the universe, loves his people, his servants, and cares for them from the womb to eternity. Paul says “My God shall supply all your needs.” He says “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.” He says “nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God says in Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

        God is the most benevolent of masters, and desires our dependence for our own good, so that he might rescue us by his grace. He allows us to make a declaration not of independence but of dependance on the mercy and salvation found in Christ alone.

        I’ve been enjoying the latest Steve Green album. One of the songs, “Grace and Nothing More” uses a gospel musical style to put across a sailing image: “I thought while on this voyage long, my strength God would increase, and at some point along the way my struggling would cease. I fought with boldness wind and wave, and yet the skirmish lost. Exhausted, all provision gone, the channel still uncrossed. As lifeless I in stillness drift, just strength enough to pray, it’s only then I feel the surge that speeds me on my way.” And the chorus says “by his own hand and faithfulness, he leads me toward a distant shore. And the wind that billows in my sails is grace and nothin’ more. It’s grace and nothin’ more.” We’re entirely, radically dependant on God - it’s his grace, his mercy, and nothing more that rescues and sustains us.

II. Radical mercy (Psalm 122:3-4)

        So we’ve seen that radical submission involves radical servanthood - making serving him the core value of our lives. We’ve also seen that radical submission involves radical dependance - that we live by the grace of a loving God - and nothin’ more. What should we expect God’s response to be to this kind of radical submission? Radical mercy. Listen again to the whole Psalm, but this time pick up on the word ‘mercy’. I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. 2As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy. 3Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. 4We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.

        Radical submission receives radical mercy. Eugene Peterson, in A Long Obedience well describes what our expectation should be: “A second element in service has to do with our expectation. What happens when we look up to God in faith? There is an awesome mystery in God we can never completely penetrate. We cannot define God; we cannot package God. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about God, what to expect, what he might do. We know very well what to expect: mercy.

        The basic conviction of a Christian is that God intends good for us. He does not treat us according to what we deserve, but according to his plan. He is not a police officer on patrol, watching over the universe, ready to club us if we get out of hand. He is potter working with the clay of our lives, forming and reforming until, finally, he has shaped a redeemed life, a vessel fit for the kingdom.

        “Mercy, God, mercy!” 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 he does, an expressed longing to receive what God is doing in us and for us in Jesus Christ. In obedience we pray “Mercy!” instead of “Give us what we want.” We pray “Mercy!” and not “Reward us for our goodness so our neighbors will acknowledge our superiority.” We pray “Mercy!” and not “Punish us for our badness so we will feel better.” We pray “Mercy!” and not “Be nice to us because we have been such good people.”

        “We live under mercy. God . . . rules, guides, commands, loves us as children whose destinies he carries in his heart. The word mercy means that the upward look to God in the heavens does not expect God to stay in the heavens, but to come down, to enter into our condition, to accomplish the vast enterprise of redemption, to fashion in us his eternal salvation.”

        Another commentator, R. T. Kendall summarizes this by saying that mercy is not getting what we deserve from God. Grace is receiving from God what we don’t deserve. We deserve judgment and don’t get it - that’s mercy. We don’t deserve forgiveness or eternal life or even daily provision, but we do get them - that’s grace. The two go hand in hand. Paul writes in 1st Timothy. “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners__of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” Kendall adds “the only way to be saved is to ask God for mercy. Good works will not save, being baptized will not save, turning over a new leaf will not save, giving money to the church will not save.” Only the sovereign mercy and grace of God will save.

        God gives radical mercy to all who call on him. A judge would look bad for withholding justice from a particularly horrid criminal. But mercy is given by God to those who are so undeserving that it almost makes God look bad for saving them. 1st Peter says that as a result many have found the Gospel offensive and have rejected it. It has become a stumbling block to them, a skandalon, from which we get our word ‘scandalous’. Many find God’s mercy scandalous, that God loves even the worst of sinners, and nothing brings him greater honor than showing mercy to the greatest sinner. Admit it - you’ve had second thoughts about those death row inmates who seem to become believers as part of the appeal process - but if they really trust, God has no second thoughts about them at all: “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

        God’s mercy is as radical as our need, and the most radical sign of mercy is the cross. The death, the blood, the brokenness, the pain of the cross is foolishness to unbelievers. Many will admit that Jesus was a great example of how to live, but few recognize the life-giving value of his death. Paul said it best, in 1st Corinthians: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . For . . .God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
        God gives radical mercy that man takes as foolishness. Thus along with the radical mercy that comes from God we always find the radical contempt that comes from man. The Psalmist says “have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. 4We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.” I did a quick online search to see what kinds of things people say about Christians, and found mostly stuff so profane I can’t repeat it to you. I found sites that seriously tried to argue that Jesus and Hilter were cut from the same cloth, while virtually equating Pat Robertson and Osama Bin Laden. I found dozens of sites claiming to have nothing against Christians individually, but belittling our small-minded harping on things like ‘one way of salvation’ and the Bible as an authority in our lives.

        Christians face contempt and ridicule. I’ve been following with interest the case of Patrick Henry College, recently established as the only Christian liberal arts school in the Washington D.C. area. Patrick Henry’s accreditation was recently denied because of their creationist views. Their ‘Statement of Biblical World View’ asserts that God literally created the world in six days, and says that professors who sign the world view statement have to teach that as truth, and not teach the theory of evolution as truth, though it can and will be taught in their science courses.

        The accrediting organization claimed that such an approach “inhibits the acquisition of basic knowledge.” In other words, to teach a Christian viewpoint on creation is to be ignorant and to keep your students ignorant of the truth. Which only shows that the accrediting organization was ignorant of a lot of good science by good scientists, both Christian and not. On top of that, the fact that Patrick Henry requires its professors to hold this Biblical World View was taken as a denial of their academic freedom - which is entirely double-speak - their academic freedom would force these professors to deny their beliefs. Not to mention the fact that it violates their freedom of religion as well as the college’s freedom of religion. But they’ve been treated with the same ridicule the Psalmist knew 3000 years ago.

        So what have we said? It’s true that radicals are viewed with great suspicion in our culture and even more so in light of current events. But you and I should not shrink back from the right kind of radicalism. To be radically servant oriented, to be radically dependant on God, to receive radical mercy may be viewed as foolish or ignorant by those around us. But faithfulness to God and his word demands nothing less.

        What will a radical believer look like? What we’ve talked about today reflects four core attitudes that should dominate your life. The first is simply a servant attitude. When we recognize that we are servants of Jesus Christ, bond-slaves to his will, then we will want to actually serve him in practical ways. Most will end up being service to others, whether in church or our neighborhoods, workplaces or families. A favorite phrase of mine is “How can I serve you?” – if we ask that at a deep level, as, I confess, I often don’t, then we will go a long way toward submission to God.

        A second practical attitude is dependance. This means when things go wrong, we don’t shut God out, or turn from him or try to resolve things entirely on our own power. Instead we consciously call on God to intervene for us, we even at times take risks, putting ourselves in a position where he has to come through for us, as he did for those three young Hebrews in the fiery furnace - as he has done for us as we have ‘knocked on doors that only God can open.’ Further, dependance means having day to day confidence that our salvation is not a result of our merit or our works. It’s a horrible trap to try to earn or keep our salvation by doing good. We will not do it - certainly not to God’s standards, and if we’re honest, not to our own either.

        The third practical attitude then, is to expect his mercy. When we don’t depend on our own works we must depend on his mercy and expect his grace to be at work in our lives. Our attitude needs to be that Jesus loves me, that he is taking care of me, that he longs to be with me, that he has provided the comforter to comfort me, his own presence to guide me, and his resurrection and his promises to give me hope. We have to maintain that attitude of awe toward his suffering, his death, his grace that we had when we first saw them, an attitude Revelation calls our first love. If the grace of God, the mercy of God is not everyday the greatest thing that has ever happened to us and the most significant thing in the whole world, then we have lost our first love. We need to expect his mercy and grace.

        The last practical attitude is an expectation of opposition. These first three radical attitudes won’t buy us any brownie points in a world that is looking for political correctness and privatized faith. The freedom that comes from mercy, the strength that comes from grace, the ability to take risk that comes from dependance, the willingness to get involved that comes with servanthood are all much too big to contain in a little box called private. But when we live these things out in the world, somebody is going to get upset with us. Sadly, that somebody is likely to be a fellow believer. Every time I’ve taken risk, every time my family has taken risk, there has been at least one voice saying “Oh no, oh no, oh no, don’t do that.” We need to have an attitude that says “if it fits with serving, and if it fits with dependance and if reveals the grace and mercy I’ve received, then I’m not going to let opposition affect me.”

        So serve, depend, live in his mercy and expect opposition - those are the practical lessons of this Psalm. And remember, as we get ready to take communion together, that those attitudes should drive us to the cross - to that place of radical mercy, and to Jesus whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for us.

        O pilgrim come, here is the cross, your pardon and your peace.
        Collapse upon the grace of God, whose mercy is complete.
        O pilgrim come, here is the cross.

        O pilgrim come, here is the cross, cast all your pride away.
        And earthly treasures count as loss, in light of all you gain.
        Here is mercy. Come be crucified with Christ.
        Here is mercy. Come be raise with him to life.

        O pilgrim come, here is the cross, God’s judgment on your sin.
        Drink deep the shame that leads to life, and broken enter in.

        O pilgrim come, here is the cross, and here your boast should be.
        “What I could never do myself, my God has done for me.”
        O pilgrim come, here is the cross.