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“He Didn't Go Off and Leave Us”

Psalm 124
Bob DeGray
June 9, 2002

Key Sentence

When hazards threaten we will not be abandoned, but helped.


I. If (Psalm 124:1-3)
II. Then (Psalm 124:3-5)
III. Else (Psalm 124:6-8)


        One of the things I hate about computers is they do what I tell them, not what I want. If I mean to hit the save button, but accidently hit the close button, does the computer know I made a mistake? No, it assumes ‘close’ means ‘close’, not save. Actually some programs will ask you if you meant to close the file without saving it. But it’s hard to make things idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious. I’ve frequently lost data because I hit close by accident and then confirm it out of sheer force of habit.

        The problem is computers are so logical. At a very basic level they solve logic problems. They have absolutely no insight or intuition or any of the things we use to circumvent logic. On the other hand they do do logical things very well, and they can even help us mere human intelligences learn about logic. Many of you know that in my previous career I used computers to solve mechanical engineering problems. In that work I was glad of the logic the computer required: it helped me to clearly state the problems I was solving and to attack them methodically.

        One of the fundamental tools used in computer programs is the ‘If - then’ statement. ‘If such and such is true, then do such and such’. We use the same sort of thinking in normal life, but computers do it more formally. In fact, they usually do ‘If-then-else’ - ‘If such and such is true, then do this set of things, otherwise, or ‘else’ do this set of things’. If the checkbook balance is less than zero then display the balance in red, else, display the balance in black.

        I’m pretty sure King David had no experience as a computer programmer. Sheep herding doesn’t require it. But he probably would have made a good one, because some of his Psalms show the same logic. Psalm 124 is a good example. The first few verses are an ‘if’ statement - ‘if the Lord had not been on our side’. The middle verses are the ‘then’ statement ‘bad things would have happened.’ The final verses are the ‘else’ statement - but since the Lord was on our side, good things have happened. With such logic David affirms that the Lord is at our side in hazardous times. He teaches that when hazards threaten we will not be abandoned, but helped.

I. If (Psalm 124:1-3)

        Let’s begin by reading the Psalm. Then we’ll look at the logic of the situation. Psalm 124: If the Lord had not been on our side– let Israel say-- 2if the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, 3when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; 4the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, 5the raging waters would have swept us away. 6Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. 7We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. 8Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

        The Psalm is attributed to David, and probably refers to one or more of the great victories David won for Israel: over Goliath, over the Philistines, over enemies of Israel on every side. In these situations, where the whole life of the nation was on the line, it was inevitable that even someone as faithful as David would sometimes play ‘what if’. ‘What if God had not come through?’ He thinks about this, and then he rejoices that God is with us, and that God is our help.

        Pastor Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience says “For some people, statements like that are red flags that must be challenged. I announce in the pulpit with confidence and assurance that ‘The Lord is for us, God’s strong name is our help.’ But no sooner do I step down than someone says, ‘Look, I wish you’d be more careful about your pronouns. Where do you get this ‘our’? The Lord might be for you, he might be your help, but he’s not mine. Listen to this . . .’ Then I listen to case histories of family tragedies and career dead-ends, and pessimistic recountings of world events, concluded with ‘How do you explain that, you who are so sure God is for me?’”

        This isn’t a huge problem for me, but I sympathize with Peterson’s feeling: “I’m put on the spot of being God’s defender, expected to explain God to his disappointed clients. I’m thrust into the role of a clerk in the complaints department of humanity, asked to trace down bad service, listen sympathetically to aggrieved patrons, put right any mistakes I can, and apologize for the rudeness of the management.” “But,” Peterson says, “ If I accept any of those assignments, I misunderstand my proper work, for God doesn’t need me to defend him. He doesn’t need me for a press secretary, explaining to the world that he didn’t really say what everyone thought in that interview with Job, or that the quotation by Paul was taken out of context and needs to be understood against the background paper that Isaiah wrote.”

        “The work of the Christian is witness, not apology. Psalm 124 doesn’t argue or explain God’s help - it witnesses to God’s help in the form of a song. The song is so vigorous, so confident, that it fundamentally challenges our approach and our questions. No longer does it seem a high priority to ask, ‘Why did this happen to me? Why do I feel left in the lurch?’ Instead we ask ‘How can I learn to sing with such confidence?’ This Psalm is data that must be accounted for, and the data are so solid, so vital, have so much more substance and are so much more interesting than the other things we hear through the day that they must be dealt with before we can go back to the whimpering complaints.”

        You and I, like those people Peterson knows, may be tempted to ask “Where is God when I need him? Why isn’t he my help? Why isn’t he with me?” But Peterson is saying that the truth we get from this Psalm ought to be just as real to us as our own experience. The testimony of this Psalm is just as important for our understanding of the world as our own lives are. In fact we need to weigh Biblical truth heavier than our own experiences in the balances of our understanding.

        So we need to take the logic of this Psalm to heart. If God had not been on our side, then bad things would have happened but he was and they didn’t. Notice that this is a song sung by many. One person announces the theme, and everyone in Israel is expected to join in. It’s like the Psalmist is a song leader: “If God hadn’t been there for us - all together now, Israel, sing out - if God hadn’t been for us”. It’s not just a few isolated individuals who can make the claims of this Psalm, but it is the whole group of God’s people.

II. Then (Psalm 124:3-5)

        The psalmist seriously and realistically examines both halves of his logic. He starts with the negative assessment “If God had not been on our side when men attacked us” . . . then terrible things would have happened. When hazards threaten us, whether it is an attack by others or some different hazard, if God is not with us we can expect the worst. This is a consequence of our being totally dependant on God.

        Look at the series of bad things that the Psalmist foresees apart from God’s help. First, ‘they would have swallowed us alive.’ Here the hazards, the enemies, are portrayed as a monstrous thing, a sea monster or a dragon or a carnivore of some kind. Since this Psalm is attributed to David, my guess would be that he is thinking of the lions or the bears he used to fight as a shepherd. If God had not helped him against them, it would have meant death. They would have swallowed him alive.

        That’s the way this threat felt - our enemies are so powerful they can snatch us up in one mouthful. That’s the way the threats against us feel as well. Sometimes it feels like our fatigue will swallow us alive. Sometimes it feels like our anger will swallow us alive. Sometimes it feels like our finances will swallow us alive. Sometimes it feels like the demands of our work will swallow us alive. Sometimes it feels like the consequences of our decisions will swallow us alive.

        Again, aren’t there days when you feel like the fishing boat in the ‘The Perfect Storm’, with waves and winds so buffeting you that at any moment the big one might come along and capsize you completely? That’s the way the Psalmist felt: the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us. He was probably talking about the flash floods that occur during the rainy season in Israel, rather than the torrents of the sea, but the sense of urgency and helplessness is the same.

        In the summer of 1997, fifty-three people, including eight guides were canyoning in the Saxeten River near Interlaken, Switzerland. Canyoning is one of those new sports. The goal is to follow a small section of a river as it drops through a walled canyon. The rivers chosen are too steep to kayak or raft, so you walk, wade, swim, rappel over waterfalls, jump off boulders into deep pools, float through rapids, and slide down rock chutes. Dangerous enough itself, but even more so when inexperienced guides fail to recognize the potential of a coming storm.

        “It was raining and there was lightning as we drove up to the canyon,” says Kelly Brajkovich, one of the survivors. “There were four groups, and we were the first group to go in. By the time we were in the canyon, it was raining hard and it was very dark.” Brajkovich, accompanied by ten friends and two Adventure World guides, entered the Saxeten River at 4:30 p.m. Over the next 45 minutes, three more groups of ten to 12 clients and two Adventure World guides began a descent of the river. At 5:40, Brajkovich's team was trying to cross a rough section of the river the guides call The Fridge, a place where you must lower yourself into the freezing water until your head is just above the surface, press your cheek against a streaming boulder, and then pull yourself along behind a pounding waterfall.

        "I volunteered to go first," Brajkovich recalls. "One guide, Karin Müller, was on the opposite bank, and the other, Mike Abbott, helped me get under the waterfall." Brajkovich had just collapsed on the far bank and was trying to catch her breath when she heard Abbott scream, "Get out of the water!" "I looked up and saw a two_meter high wave, like an avalanche, brown thick water with everything in it, boulders and logs, coming right at us.”

        Müller, the guide, jumped in and dragged a client named Mitchell out of The Fridge. The group scrambled up the banks as the wall of dark water and deadly debris bulldozed down the river. Brajkovich saw four or five people from an upstream group tumble past in the torrent. Müller jumped back into the thundering flood and pulled another client to safety. Almost immediately, the 30_year_old guide turned around and did it again. The fourth time she entered the dark water to try to save a victim being carried past, the current caught her and swept her away forever.

        Twenty-one people between the ages of 19 and 31 died that day: eighteen clients and three guides. Initially, the flash flood that came tearing down Saxeten Canyon seemed a random natural catastrophe, as unpredictable and unforeseeable as an earthquake. But it may have been predictable. "In this kind of storm, a wave is not unusual," says a guide for a competing firm. "I’ve seen it before. It just pours down and the ground can't absorb the water so it all runs into the gorge and the wave starts to build up. Water comes from all sides and starts pushing gravel and boulders, even trees. The wave grows bigger and bigger. Everybody knows about the wave phenomenon in Saxeten Canyon. It was not a freak accident."

        This is the kind of event that David felt could have happened ‘if the Lord had not been on our side.’ But let me ask: what could have happened to you, what could happened to me ‘if the Lord had not been on our side’? Maybe we need to examine our lives, our histories, and begin to be sensitive to the rescues God has made, to the times when disaster could have happened but didn’t. Each one of us can probably create a whole catalog of hazards that have been avoided along the way - and like David, we need to take each one of those ‘what if’s’ as an opportunity to praise.

        One of the ways I think God uses to show his presence and to provide his protection is what I call ‘timing loops’. Again, the phrase comes from computer programming. Sometimes for the sake of a display looking right, or while waiting for some other event, you would build in a timing loop - you would tell the computer to count to ten thousand or a million before it did the next thing - whatever it took to get the timing right. God uses timing loops in our lives - apparently irrational delays that keep us away from a hazard or position us for something positive.

        For example, when I was finished with seminary we started looking at churches. We had what we thought was a great opportunity in Pennsylvania, at a town called DuBois, and we candidated there. But the congregational vote went against us and we had to start looking for churches all over again. It was painful, and yet we later discovered that the church in DuBois was a mass of politics and in-fighting that God had conveniently allowed us to avoid. And it was during that ‘starting all over’ - which we suspected might be a timing loop - that Joanna Rask called and wondered if we might consider coming back to Texas to start a church. “If the Lord had not been on our side. . .” would any of that have happened?

        This whole house selling / house hunting project our family is in now feels like a nested mass of timing loops. Somehow putting the house on the market tomorrow rather than a month ago is God’s timing to bring us the right buyer, and is also his timing for us to buy the next house. That house in Friendswood we’ve been interested in: last week it had a contract on it, and now it’s back on the market. We don’t know what hazards God’s been steering us around, or what twists and turns the road will take next. But we’re trusting that when we look back we’ll be able to say ‘Wow! If the Lord hadn’t been on our side . . .” this never would have worked out.

        There are many disasters you might have fallen into if God had not been with you. Think of the times the Lord prevented you from going down a path that led to catastrophic or habitual sin. Think of the times he protected you in an automobile when disaster threatened. Think of the people who might have become bitter opponents if God had not intervened. Think of the financial catastrophes you have escaped. “If the Lord had not been on our side . . .” we can easily think what trouble might have come.

III. Else (Psalm 124:6-8)

        But since the Lord has been on our side, we can instead see the good he has done us, the help he has given. If he hadn’t been on our side it would have been a disaster, but since he was, we have been blessed. Listen to Psalm 124 in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, as we consider the ‘else’ in this ‘If . . then . . else’ logic.
        If Yahweh hadn't been for us _ All together now, Israel, sing out! _
        If Yahweh hadn't been for us when everyone went against us,
        We would have been swallowed alive by their violent anger,
        Swept away by the flood of rage, drowned in the torrent;
        We would have lost our lives in the wild, raging water.
        Oh, blessed be Yahweh! He didn't go off and leave us.
        He didn't abandon us defenseless, helpless as a rabbit in a pack of snarling dogs.
        We've flown free from their fangs, free of their traps, free as a bird.
        Their grip is broken; we're free as a bird in flight.
        Yahweh's strong name is our help; Yahweh who made heaven and earth.

Pretty good, isn’t it? Especially the line that introduces this last section “Blessed be Yahweh! He didn’t go off and leave us.” It is a loose paraphrase of the Hebrew, which more literally says “Blessed be the Lord, Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.” But it captures the emotion of the Psalm: ‘If God had not been with us then we would have but swept away, but - - he has not let that happen he has not left us.” When hazards threaten we are not abandoned but helped.

        This fits with the image we were considering before, of a flash flood coming down the canyon. God is, in a sense, the ultimate river guide. When the flash floods of life come, he is totally reliable and totally able to snatch us from the river in the nick of time so that hazards to our soul are avoided. This doesn’t mean life on the river never gets uncomfortable. We may lose everything in the floods. But we will never lose the presence of the one who gives us eternal rescue and eternal comfort.

        Some of you have known very painful abandonment in your life. You may have been abandoned by parents, care givers, friends, even by your spouse. You may have been abandoned physically, emotionally, financially. But God will never abandon you. The promise of this psalm is for you: “God never goes off and leaves us.”

        The other images in these last verses are good too. No longer are we out on a boat about to be swamped, or caught in a canyon about to be swept away. No, now we’re a rabbit in a trap, and if God doesn’t find some way to get us out of here, we’re done for - we’re doomed to be torn by the teeth of our enemies. But God hasn’t allowed that. God has protected us. God has delivered us. God has rescued us.

        The other image is of a bird, caught in a trapper’s snare. Picture this: the bird, probably something like a quail, is quietly feeding, moving from berry to berry when all of a sudden it’s movement triggers a snare that tightens around it’s foot. You know what the bird would do: fly in every direction, flutter and flop and tighten the snare with every move, until it fell exhausted as birds will do when they expend all their energy. But David sees that in his life when he was caught in a trap like that, God always provided a way of escape. God warned David through Jonathan when Saul was about to kill him. God felled the giant who should have destroyed David. God routed the Philistines who outnumbered him. God even provided the wisdom of Abigail to save David from a foolish murder. Like a bird miraculously escaping from the snare, God delivered David and Israel.

        But of course, things like that never happen to us, do they? Disasters are always disastrous for us, aren’t they? Things never work out for the best for us, do they? We never get ourselves into a tight situation and then find unexpected provision, do we? Well, I guess if I look at my life I could see one or two or ten or twenty times God has provided for me in a moment of need - and often it’s through you people. I’ve even seen God work a miracle or two for other people around here. Can you think of any occasion where you felt like you were trapped, where you saw the hazards coming at you - emotional hazards, relational hazards, health hazards, financial hazards, and you knew there was no way out, but as you began to endure those hazards and that trap all of a sudden you found that it was endurable, or that something was happening to change the circumstance you feared? I’ll bet you have.

        I think those who face hazards even today do find God’s help. Strength, peace, provision: God is still lovingly providing these things. Paul says “My God shall supply all your needs,” and “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul teaches that in our temptations God always makes a way of escape. 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” There is a way of escape and there is provision for our needs. The last verse of this Psalm is as true for us as for David “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” A God who can make a universe can surely make a way for us, a way out of temptation, a way of provision.

        As we conclude let me illustrate this truth with the account of an event at sea that took place in 1881. Captain Neil Curry set sail from Liverpool, England, to America. They were about 1,500 miles out from land when a storm capsized his ship. All 36 people managed to get into the lifeboats before the ship sank, but soon they were dying of thirst. Seven of the crew were already unconscious, Curry wrote later, when everyone else had this marvelous dream. We dreamed, he said, that the water beneath us had turned from the blue of the sea to green. I dreamed that I managed to muster up strength to let out a container. I tasted that water, and it was fresh! Lo and behold, when he woke up a short while later, their boats were drifting into a patch of green water, right in the middle of the blue ocean! Captain Curry reached down a cup and tasted the water. It was fresh! Revived and strengthened, they rowed on. Within the week, they sighted land, and everyone was saved!

        That's the kind of miracle God's help is to us: a patch of fresh_water green on an icy_blue ocean of fear and anxiety. That's what David learned through the events of his life. If God’s not with me, I’m done for. But Praise God He didn’t go off and leave us. And he won’t go off and leave you either, will he?