One of the more helpful approaches to the Psalms is considering these poems as pilgrimage songs of faith.
The people of ancient Israel went on pilgrimage to the temple to worship, and these are the songs they sang as they traveled to express their faith. As the community sings its faith, it also comes to embrace that faith at a deeper level.
One of the collections of psalms that clearly embodies this approach is the "Psalms of Ascents," Psalms 120-134. Most interpreters understand this collection to come from a festival pilgrimage (ascending) to Zion/Jerusalem for worship.
The first four psalms in the collection (Psalms 120-123) suggest a journey from afar and a context of distress for the pilgrim community. They anticipate arriving at the temple on Mount Zion. In the meantime, the community looks to God for help along the way.
J. Clinton McCann suggests that Book V of the Psalter (Psalms 107-150) responds to the theological crisis and need for help that persisted for ancient Israel even after return from exile.1 Those who arranged the Psalter are thus suggesting reading the Psalms of Ascents (placed in Book V) in terms of the experience of exile and its aftermath.
While not limited to this particular setting, Psalm 123 fits it well. It is a community lament psalm that, based upon trust in God, petitions God for help in the face of scorn. Nehemiah 2:17-20; 4:1-5 suggests the scorn faced by those attempting to re-build Jerusalem after the experience of exile.
Likely the psalm would have been used in an ancient worship setting in which the community expressed its trust in God and pleaded for divine help. The exilic/post-exilic setting is helpful for seeing the import of this song that suggests part of the ancient faith community's pilgrimage of faith.
The prayed poem is brief but powerful. We will consider it in two parts:
The controlling image of the psalm has to do with the eyes or looking. In the opening line, "To you I lift up my eyes," we find the spatial image of looking up to heaven where God is enthroned as creator and sovereign over all the earth.
The second line of the verse confirms that the singer looks up toward the throne room of God. Underlying the faith articulated in Psalm 123 is the confession that God is king. The psalm opens in the first person singular 'I' but moves to the plural we/us/our in the remainder of the prayer.
The second verse communicates with a poetic comparison. A servant looks to the master for provision, and a maid looks to the mistress for provision. In the same way, the praying community now looks to God for provision. The eyes and looking are still front and center in the poetry.
What this community looks for is a sign of divine mercy. The worshiper sings of lifting wide open eyes to the skies. The community looks up in anticipation. The prayer is not a silent act of resignation, but a looking in hope for a glimpse of divine mercy.
The concluding line of verse 2 introduces the mercy of God, and verse 3 continues the emphasis with the prayer that God have mercy upon this struggling community. The petition "Have mercy upon us" occurs twice. No specifics are named, only the strong plea for mercy.
Verses one and two suggest a covenant relationship for this community with the heavenly king, thus giving a basis for the plea in verse 3. The trouble the praying community brings before the divine king is the contempt or scorn they face. Some people in authority are pouring contempt on the faithful pilgrims and they have had more than enough.
These mockers are identified in verse 4 as 'the proud' or arrogant. They do not look up to the heavenly king, but look down upon those around them. Again, we are drawn to the image of eyes and the act of looking, the psalm's central image. The arrogant look only to themselves, not to master or mistress, and certainly not to the heavenly king. The pilgrim community looks to the heavenly king for a word of mercy and grace, a word absent from their current world.
The psalm begins with an affirmation of trust and moves to the community's plea for help from the one it trusts. The psalm fits the crisis of ancient Israel's exile and its aftermath, but it is not limited to that setting. Like other prayers for help in the book of Psalms, Psalm 123 can fit a variety of circumstances in both the ancient and contemporary world. It is adaptable for life.
The poetic imagery of the eyes or looking provides a powerful entry into the import of this song. The eyes of the pilgrim community look to the divine king for hope in the midst of oppression by arrogant overlords, a contrast to the arrogant mockers who operate out of autonomy and independence.
This perspective is characteristic of many of the pilgrimage songs of faith in the Psalter. The faithful are those who live in an interdependent way with other members of the faith community. The faithful understand that life is not something they have earned or made, but it is a gift from the creator, sustainer, and king enthroned in the heavens. Such a perspective is woefully absent in contemporary western culture.
1J. Clinton McCann, "The Book of Psalms," New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, et al (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1187.