by James D. Oord & Michael R. Kearney
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 people rose up against us…
–Psalm 124:1,2 (ESV)
Rusty Goodman is one of the last people I expected to be quoting on a blog about Reformed psalm-singing. He was the author of many “good old gospel hymns” still sung by bluegrass groups and Baptist churches. One song he wrote, though, bears much similarity to our psalm for consideration today, Psalm 124.
The song, “Had It Not Been,” is a simple song, maybe not the most theologically deep or accurate, but its chorus is a heartfelt expression of thanksgiving for the salvation accomplished at Calvary:
Had it not been for a place called Mount Calvary,
had it not been for the old rugged cross,
had is not been for a man called Jesus,
then forever my soul would be lost.
Psalm 124 could be said to be the Old Testament equivalent of that sentiment. As David, the psalmist, reflects on the events at the Red Sea (Exodus 15), he realizes, “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, then…” (verses 2-5). If the LORD (that is, “Yahweh,” the covenant name of God—whenever you see LORD or GOD in all caps, think “covenant faithfulness”) had not been helping and guiding Israel through the events of Exodus, then history would have looked very different. The entire nation would have been crushed, either by the pursuing Egyptians or by the waters of the Red Sea.
But praise God that it did not turn out that way (verses 6, 7)! Israel was safely led out of Egypt, kept safe from the Egyptian army, and miraculously taken through the Red Sea. And so David calls the entire nation of Israel to sing in explosive thanksgiving. He’s so flabbergasted with gratitude that he, like ol’ Rusty, repeats himself: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side” (verses 1, 2).
The sum of the matter is found in the traditional liturgical response of verse 8, which we’ve heard before in Psalm 121: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Sometimes familiar words take on new meaning and inspire new delight in response to a fresh meditation on an old, old story. Hearing these words in this light recalls Moses’ song of praise on the banks of the Red Sea (Exodus 15, especially verse 2).
Psalm 124 fits well into the hymnal of Psalms of Ascent, and for more reasons than its obvious echo of Psalm 121. As the pilgrim Hebrews approached Jerusalem, their place of worship, how fitting was it for them to reflect back on past acts of salvation. As they approached a new time of worship, they meditated on the reason for their worship. The events of Exodus were the gospel of the Old Testament, the decisive acts of salvation that everything else was based upon.
So too do we reflect daily, and especially at our times of corporate worship at the new Temple, the Church. Every new act of worship is based upon the ultimate decisive act of salvation, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. How good it is for us to take on the posture of Psalm 124, a posture of looking back to move forward, letting the great event of the past influence how we face the future.
As the chosen people of Christ, we as the Church are the new Israel. This Psalm did not lose its meaning when Christ came. It became all the more sweet. This is just as much our psalm as it ever was a psalm for the Hebrews. We celebrate the great acts of God in the past—the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, the whole history of Israel—for we serve the same covenant-keeping God. But we also celebrate an even greater Exodus, for in the death of Christ we are given freedom from our bondage to sin (Colossians 1:13, 14). In His cross we are given escape from all our enemies.
That is a reason to worship; that is a reason to face the future with boldness. And that is a reason to respond with overwhelming gratitude, “Had it not been for a place called Mount Calvary”…“if it had not been the LORD who was on our side”…“then forever my soul would be lost.”
266, “Now Israel May Say”
Psalm 124 is versified in only one setting in the Psalter Hymnal, but number 266 is more than satisfactory. “Now Israel May Say” is a classic metric version of this psalm, solid in both text and tune. Because the text was adapted from a Scottish Psalter setting, this version is slightly more archaic than typical 1912 Psalter fare. The odd conjunction “If that” and the repeated use of the subjunctive “had” in place of the usual “would have” might make the line of thought rather difficult to follow, but so long as we pay careful attention to the words as we sing, this versification should still make sense.
As we were planning this article, Jim besought me to “make sure you treat OLD 124th with respect.” He needn’t have worried; OLD 124th is a familiar favorite from the Genevan Psalter—and, I might add, almost as easy to learn as the Doxology (OLD HUNDREDTH). This tune also appears in number 468, “God of the Prophets,” but there the third line is cut out to make it a 10.10.10.10. tune—so beware of this change when going between the two versions.
The tempo of number 266 should be broad and majestic, not hurried. A useful rule of thumb is that each line of a Genevan tune should span about the same length as a typical human breath. With a little bit of musical intuition, you should have no trouble finding a suitable tempo. Then, feel free to play around with some fun harmonizations (I usually think of adding some running eighth notes in the bass line), and maybe even consider upping the key to G for the last stanza. Psalm 124 is a song of praise—be sure to enjoy it!
I can’t help but add that this study of Psalm 124 coincides wonderfully with my current investigations into the history of the church here in West Sayville. Our founding took place on September 13-17, 1876; the church will be reaching its 136th birthday this coming weekend. Looking back over the long history of this congregation, I can truly say in awe, “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us…then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.” The West Sayville church’s 75th anniversary booklet from 1951 emphasizes that “although so often we were unfaithful, the Lord was always faithful and has blessed us richly so that today we as a congregation can look back and say, ‘Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.’”
But even more wonderfully, as Jim expounded at the beginning of this meditation, every child of God can sing the words of Psalm 124 from the heart. Had not the Lord been on our side, had not he sent a Savior, we surely would have perished in our sins! How great is his love and mercy! Truly “our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”