Psalm 123 – Looking to the Lord for Mercy

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The Psalms of Ascent | Stepping Stones to God’s Heart

“Looking to the Lord for Mercy” (Psalm 123)

“I lift up my eyes to you.” (Psalm 123:1)

INTRODUCTION: We are studying the Psalms of Ascent together and our message series is called “Stepping Stones to God’s Heart.”

Last week we saw that there is a repeating three-fold pattern in these psalms where we begin with a psalm of trouble, then move on to a psalm of trust and then move on to a psalm of triumph. (see chart)

                 1     2      3      4     5
Trouble    120  123  126  129  132
Trust        121  124  127  130  133
Triumph   122  125  128  131  134

Well guess what? We’ve finished the first sequence of psalms – and that means we’re back in trouble again! Last week in Psalm 122 we reached Jerusalem and the joy of gathering with God’s people for worship. This week we’re back to mocking, scorn and contempt.

Psalm 123 takes a step backwards from Psalm 122 but there is still progress overall. In Psalm 120 the psalmist was surrounded by trouble and all alone; now he may face persecution, but he does so along with the rest of God’s people. In Psalm 121 he lifted up his eyes to the hills; now he lifts up his eyes to the Lord. In Psalm 122 we visited “the thrones of the house of David.” Now we lift up our eyes to the throne of God in heaven.

Psalm 123 is a brief but powerful psalm. One thing it teaches us is that prayers do not always have to be long but simply sincere. God does not look at the length of our prayers so much as the sincerity of our hearts.

But the main thing this psalm teaches us is that we should be looking to the Lord for mercy. I don’t know what your view of God is this morning, but let me assure you that God is good, God is kind, God is loving, God is merciful. Our God is a merciful God, and he gives mercy freely to those who seek it from him. (Read Psalm 123 and pray.)

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Psalm 123 is a psalm about looking for mercy. The theme of “looking” is introduced in verses 1-2 where we find the word “eyes” used four times. And then the theme of mercy is introduced at the end of verse two and into verses 3-4 where the word “mercy” is used three times.

In Psalm 123 the psalmist is in trouble again. He is being mocked and scorned by arrogant people who have no concern for God, and so he looks to the Lord for mercy.

Samuel Cox says about this psalm that it is “a little gem, cut with the most exquisite art. Few poems, inspired or uninspired, have been more admired or loved. It has the charm of unity. It limits itself to one thought; or, rather, it expresses a single mood of the soul – the upward glance of a patient and hopeful faith.”

And so Psalm 123 is similar to Psalm 121 in that it encourages you to look up. You tend to go in the direction you are looking. If you’re looking down all the time, you won’t get far in life. But when you look up, you are following the direction of the Psalms of Ascent which together form an upward motion.

Psalm 123 is a song for when you’re at the end of your rope. Martin Luther called this psalm “the deep sigh of a pained heart.” When you are oppressed or persecuted, when you don’t know what to do, when you’ve had enough, Psalm 123 encourages you to look to the Lord and cast yourself upon him. Put yourself in his hands and trust him to do what is best. Look to the Lord for mercy in your time of need.

So, how do you do that? How do you look to the Lord for mercy in your time of need? Psalm 123 tells us three ways you should look to the Lord for mercy. 1) Look to the Lord as the king on his throne. 2) Look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master. 3) Look to the Lord as your merciful Savior.

I. Look to the Lord as the king on his throne (1)

First, look to the Lord as the king on his throne. Look at verse 1: “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.” (Psalm 123:1) When you are in need, you need to look to someone who can actually help you in your time of need. The psalmist knows exactly where to look. He lifts his eyes to the Lord whose throne is in heaven. God has plenty of resources to help you in your time of need because he is the king of heaven. God’s heavenly throne speaks of both his sovereignty and his majesty.

   A. Consider his sovereignty
      – Psalm 115:3; Matthew 6:9

Consider first of all God’s sovereignty. God is not merely your local councilman, nor your state representative, nor your president nor any type of earthly king. God’s throne is in heaven, and he is sovereign over all things. Psalm 115:3 says: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” (Psalm 115:3) In the Lord’s Prayer we are also told to look to God in heaven. Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

Have you ever noticed that the Lord’s Prayer is phrased in the plural? We don’t pray, “My Father in heaven; give me today my daily bread,” and so on. We pray “our father” and “give us today our daily bread.” It’s the same thing in Psalm 123. The psalmist starts off by saying “I lift my eyes up to you,” but then in his actual prayer, he prays in the plural: “Our eyes look to the Lord our God … Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.” (Psalm 123:2-3) In prayer to God we must always remember that we are part of a community, and ask God to help all of us and not merely ourselves.

When we look to the Lord as the king on his throne, his throne is a reminder that he is the one who can actually help us. It is a reminder that he is sovereign over all things.

   B. Worship his majesty
      – 1 Chronicles 29:10-12

And because he is king on his heavenly throne, we worship his majesty. We read in 1 Chronicles 29: “Praise be to you, O Lord, God from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are the ruler of all things.” (1 Chronicles 29:10-12)

God is great above all things. He is majestic in power, glory and honor. We worship him because of his greatness and majesty. Charles Spurgeon said about this psalm: “It is good to have someone to look up to.” And how much more so when that person is God!

How do you look to the Lord for mercy in your time of need? First of all, look to the Lord as the king on his throne.

II. Look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master (2)

And then secondly, look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master. Look at verse 2 with me now: “As 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.” (Psalm 123:2)

The picture here is of a servant with his master or a servant girl with her mistress. This is how you must approach God when you are seeking his mercy. You must not only look to the Lord as the king on his throne. You must also look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master.

   A. Take the attitude of a servant towards God (1 Samuel 3:10)

This involves several things on your part. First of all, you must take the attitude of a servant towards God. You must take the attitude of young Samuel in the Bible when God called him to be a prophet. We read in 1 Samuel 3:10: “The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’” (1 Samuel 3:10) Samuel took the attitude of a servant towards God.

      1) Be attentive to his will

What does it mean to take the attitude of a servant towards God? We see several things from our verse here in Psalm 123. First of all, it means to be attentive to his will. The servant in Psalm 123 has his eyes trained on his master, looking for the slightest gesture, the smallest wave of a finger to indicate his will. This is what Derek Kidner calls “the trained watchfulness of the servant who is ready for the smallest gesture.”

And that is the way we should be with God. Samuel Cox speaks of the Christian as one who has “his eye fixed on the hand of God, absorbed in watchful expectation of some sign or gesture, however slight, which may indicate the Divine will.”

And so we learn from the Psalms of Ascent that God not only watches over us, but we are to watch him. Your daily prayer should be: “Lord, what will you have me to do? How may I serve you today?” Be attentive to his will.

      2) Wait patiently for his timing

And then secondly, wait patiently for his timing. The word “until” is important in Psalm 123:2. “As 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, until he shows us his mercy.” (Psalm 123:2) The “until” indicates there is a period of waiting before the sought after help arrives.

John Milton wrote in his famous poem: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” (Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent, by John Milton) Good servants spend a lot of time standing around waiting. We want to be active, and we want answers to our prayers right now, but God knows the value of patience and waiting.

In his commentary on this psalm Martin Luther writes about God deferring his help and what we can learn from this: “For in that he defers his help, he does it not because he will not hear us, but to exercise and stir up our faith, and to teach us that the ways whereby he can and does deliver us are so manifold and miraculous that we are never able to conceive them. Therefore let us think that the thing which we ask is not denied but deferred, and assure ourselves that we are not neglected because of this delay.” (Luther; Commentary on the Psalms called Psalms of Degrees, p. 116)

      3) Be responsive to his commands

What does it mean to take the attitude of a servant towards God? Be attentive to his will. Wait patiently for his timing. And then thirdly, be responsive to his commands. The servant watches and waits in order that he or she may do what their master commands. Remember when it comes to you and God: you are the servant, he is the master. Never get that backwards.

Some people refuse to take the attitude of a servant towards God because they don’t want to give up their freedom. But the great irony or paradox here is that you will only find true freedom in life by being a servant of Christ.

How do you look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master? First of all, take the take the attitude of a servant towards God.

   B. Know that you are dependent on God for all things
      – 2 Chronicles 20:12; Psalm 104:24-28

And then secondly, know that you are dependent on God for all things. The servant in Psalm 123 is completely dependent on the master. The servant is in his master’s hands. The master controls the servant and his fate. The servant is completely dependent on his master, and so he looks to his master to meet his needs. John Perowne describes the eye of the servant here as “…the eye which waits, and hopes, and is patient, looking only to Him, and none other, for help.”

In the same way we also are dependent on God for all things. All of creation is dependent on God and looks to him. We read in Psalm 104: “The earth is full of your creatures … These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.” (Psalm 104:24-28)

In 2 Chronicles 20:12 we find a wonderful prayer from King Jehoshaphat when he faced an enormous army consisting of three separate nations working together. It was a triple threat, and he knew that he did not have the resources to fight back. And so he prayed to the Lord: “O our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

We may not always like to admit it, but we are completely dependent on God for all things. We need to learn to look to the Lord and pray like Jehoshaphat: “O our God … We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

   C. Know that God will help you in your time of need
      – Psalm 145:15-16; Philippians 4:19

And when you do that, when you look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master, know that God will help you in your time of need. In Psalm 123 the servant looks to his master knowing that his master will take care of him. And we look to God as our master knowing that he will take care of us.

We read in Psalm 145: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16) Philippians 4:19 gives us this wonderful promise: “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

And so look for God’s intervention in your life. Expect it. Keep looking, keep waiting, keep praying because God will help you in your time of need. Look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master.

III. Look to the Lord as your merciful Savior (3-4)

1) Look to the Lord as the king on his throne. 2) Look to the Lord as a servant looks to his master. And then finally, 3) Look to the Lord as your merciful Savior. Look at verses 3-4 with me now where the psalmist writes: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. 4 We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.” (Psalm 123:3-4)

Notice the psalmist cries out for mercy twice in rapid succession. The psalmist is desperate here. He is being mocked and persecuted for his faith, and so in desperation he cries out to the Lord for mercy. When you are in desperate situations, you also need to look to the Lord as your merciful Savior.

   A. He sees your suffering
      – Exodus 3:7

There are several things the Bible teaches us about God in this regard. First of all, know that the Lord sees your suffering. We read in Exodus 3:7 about the Israelites: The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7) The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, and they probably thought that God had forgotten them. But God saw their suffering, and he sees your suffering too.

   B. He cares about your suffering
      – Hebrews 2:18, 4:15-16

God not only sees your suffering. He cares about your suffering. That’s what God said to Moses in Exodus 3:7: “I have seen the misery of my people … and I am concerned about their suffering.” (Exodus 3:7)

If you ever doubt that God cares about your suffering, you only need to look at God’s Son, Jesus. Hebrews 2:18 says this about Jesus: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18) Later in Hebrews 4 we read: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Because Jesus suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help us when we are tempted. Because Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses, we may approach the throne of grace with confidence and find mercy to help us in our time of need.

   C. He knows your limits
      – Psalm 103:13-14; 1 Corinthians 10:13

God sees your suffering. God cares about your suffering. And thirdly, God knows your limits. Going back to Psalm 123 now, the word translated “endured” in verses 3-4 is a word that means “to have had enough” or “to have had more than enough.” Ever feel like you’ve had enough? Ever feel like you can’t take anymore? That’s exactly what the psalmist is expressing here.

When you’ve had enough, when you’ve had more than enough, how comforting to know that God knows your limits. Psalm 103 says: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14)

1 Corinthians 10:13 says: “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.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

   D. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble
      – Isaiah 13:11; James 4:6

God sees your suffering. God cares about your suffering. God knows your limits. And then finally, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. The proud in Psalm 123 are the complacent. They are those who are at ease, who are not suffering as the people of Israel are in the psalm. The arrogant are those who proudly look down on those who are suffering.

What does God say about the arrogant and the proud? God says in Isaiah 13:11: “I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.” (Isaiah 13:11)

The arrogant and proud do not receive God’s mercy because they don’t think they need God’s mercy. And because they don’t think they need God’s mercy, they don’t look to God for mercy. And because they don’t look to God for mercy, they don’t ask God for mercy. And because they do not ask, they do not receive.

James 4:6 tells us: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) Who are the humble? The humble are those who look to the Lord for mercy, crying out in desperation: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.” (Psalm 123:3)

God gives mercy to those who look to him for mercy. If you are a sinner, then you need God’s mercy. You need God’s forgiveness. You need to cry out like the tax collector in the gospel of Luke: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) Too often we cry out for justice, when we should really be crying out for mercy. Trust God. Leave it in his hands. Look to the Lord as your merciful Savior.

CONCLUSION: Psalm 123 is the cry of a person who has nothing left to do but pray. When you have had enough, when you are at the end of your rope, don’t despair but look to the Lord. Don’t take matters into your own hands, but look to the hand of your master. Look to the Lord for mercy. Confess your complete dependence on God for all things. And then through Jesus you may approach God’s throne with confidence, so that you may receive mercy and find grace to help you in your time of need.

© Ray Fowler

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