Psalm 123: Lifting our Eyes to a Gracious Master

by James D. Oord & Michael R. Kearney

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

–Psalm 123:1 (ESV)

Only a few weeks ago, or so it seems, we celebrated Memorial Day with a meditation on Psalm 114.  Now it’s Labor Day, and here we are at Psalm 123.

The text of Psalm 123 is divided into two short portions.  The first section, comprising verses 1 and 2, depicts a servant’s dependence on a gracious master.  In the second half, verses 3 and 4, the psalmist beseeches God, his heavenly Master, for salvation from a contemptuous foe.

The first and second verses are just gorgeous in their soaring imagery.  As this is one of the “Songs of Ascents,” the psalms sung while believers made journeyed to Jerusalem and climbed Mount Zion to get to the Temple, verse 1 plays on the posture of a pilgrim: “To You I lift up my eyes.”

This is not merely a topographical reference, however.  The lifting of one’s eyes unto heaven is the natural posture of the believer.  Patrick Henry Reardon makes the point that v. 1 is the Old Testament equivalent of “Our Father, who is in Heaven.”  This was the posture Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9), the posture Stephen took as he was about to be stoned (Acts 7:55), and the posture echoed in Psalm 121:1,2.  In fact, many churches use this last passage as the “votum” to begin their worship service:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

Expanding on this imagery, v. 2 portrays the believer as a servant totally dependent on his master, or a maidservant totally dependent on her mistress.  We serve God in this submissive way, all the while looking to Him to supply our every need, to fill our every desire, to “give us this day our daily bread.”  Commenting on v. 2, John Piper reminds us that “serving God is a glad service, or as Jesus said, a light burden and an easy yoke (Matthew 11:30)…The point is plain: serving God is a receiving, a blessing, a joy, and a benefit…Obedience is not a giving to God but a joyful getting from God” (A Godward Life, published by Multnomah, 1997; page 110).

It is because of this dependence upon God—because of our confidence that He will supply our daily bread—that we can pray for Him to “deliver us from evil,” as the psalmist does in verses 3 and 4.  Let’s face it: submissively obeying God can lead to contempt, scorn, and mockery.  That’s what the faithful Hebrews faced as they made their regular trek to Jerusalem, and that’s what we too can face as we wander as pilgrims on this earth.  The wicked may seem to live in luxury around us, living “at ease” in their sin while we suffer trials and tribulations.  In Christ, though, we have confidence that we will be delivered and that God’s will shall be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer; that’s why we sing Psalm 123.

265, “To Thee, O Lord, I Lift Mine Eyes”

We pause for a very brief look at the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 123.  The basic text for this setting is quite serviceable, but the choice of meter requires some noticeable, though not unwarranted, repetition.

Although PAXTANG is itself a fun and rousing little tune, it grates against the imploring message of this psalm.  A number of alternative options present themselves to the thoughtful accompanist.  First, a substitute tune could simply be used; some more fitting choices would be HE LEADETH ME (60) or SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER (105).  However, a more creative option would be to re-set this text into a six-line L.M. meter (simply by dropping the refrain) and match it with an appropriate tune like FILLMORE (145), GAIRNEY BRIDGE (226), or ST. CHRYSOSTOM (93).  This simple modification could easily remedy the jarring discord between the text and tune of number 265.

(An unrelated but fascinating tidbit is that the only other text set to PAXTANG, in our knowledge, is a versification of Psalm 49 by John Quincy Adams—that’s right, the President.)

As we close our meditation on Psalm 123, perhaps we would do well to connect this text with the theme of Labor Day.  Today, as many of us enjoy a reprieve from our regular labors, what is our focus?  Do we hang all our lives merely on getting through the daily grind, or do we depend on our heavenly Master in every circumstance—whether blessing or burden?  Would we rather do our own work, or His?  This Labor Day, may we focus our eyes not on the toil and trouble of this earth, but on the glories of our gracious God.

So to the Lord our eyes we raise,
Until His mercy He displays.
To thee, O Lord, I lift mine eyes,
O Thou enthroned above the skies.


1 Response to “Psalm 123: Lifting our Eyes to a Gracious Master”

  1. 1 Psalm 134: Two-Way Blessings « URC Psalmody Trackback on January 28, 2013 at 7:05 am

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