Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

A communal lament

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July 7, 2024

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Commentary on Psalm 123

Psalm 123 is the fourth psalm in the collection that is usually known as the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134), or more literally, the “Songs of the Going Up,” or the “Songs of the Steps.” In all likelihood, the “going up” was a journey to Jerusalem as was decreed in the Torah (see Deuteronomy 16:16; Psalm 122:4). This is why the Common English Bible has chosen to use as the title for Psalm 123 (and the others in the collection) the more interpretive “A Pilgrimage Song.”

The likelihood that Psalms 120–134 originated as a pilgrimage collection is increased by the sequence of Psalms 120–122. Psalm 120 locates the psalmist outside Jerusalem and perhaps outside of Judah (verse 5; the locations of Meshech and Kedar are unknown). Psalm 121 describes a journey, and it is easy to imagine that Mount Zion is among “the hills” that the psalmist sees in verse 1. Psalm 122 locates the psalmist and others in Jerusalem. If this sequence is not simply coincidental, it makes sense that Psalm 123 comes next: the people of God are gathered, so now let us pray! Psalm 123 is a communal lament, the first complete prayer in the collection.

Origin and ancient context

That the first prayer in the collection is a communal lament is understandable, especially since it is likely that the Ascents collection arose and was placed in its current location in the postexilic period after a second temple had been built in 515 BCE. Conditions after the return from exile were not nearly as glorious nor harmonious as had been envisioned in Isaiah 40–55.

Psalm 120 introduces the collection by describing opposition (verses 1–2) and conflict (verses 5–7), and Psalm 123:3–4 is especially reminiscent of 120:5–7. Plus, Psalm 123:3–4 describes a situation similar to the conflict described in the postexilic book of Nehemiah (see, for instance, “ridiculed” in Nehemiah 2:19 and “despised” in Nehemiah 4:4, where underlying these translations is the same Hebrew word translated “contempt” in 123:3–4. Also, “scorn” in Psalm 123:4 appears in Nehemiah 2:19 and 4:1, where it is translated “mocked”). Certainty is elusive, but it makes sense to hear Psalm 123 in the narrative context provided by Nehemiah.

Trusting the sovereign God: Verses 1–2

The psalms of lament ordinarily contain expressions of trust as well as descriptions of trouble and requests for help. Expressions of trust often are in the final position, but here trust comes first. If we think of Psalm 123 as the gathered pilgrims’ first act of worship, then verse 1 functions rather like a call to worship. The phrase “To you” is emphatic since it comes first in the Hebrew as well as in the English. The focus is upon God, so whereas lifting up the eyes elsewhere suggests arrogance, that is not the case here.

The word “eyes” is repeated in each of the next three poetic lines (verse 2), a pattern that is known as step-like repetition and is particularly appropriate and frequent in these “Songs of the Steps” (see below).

The word “enthroned” is more literally “seated,” but here and elsewhere it communicates divine sovereignty (see “sits” in Psalm 2:4 and “enthroned” in 9:7; 29:10).

The proclamation of God as sovereign positions the pray-er(s)—note that verse 1 starts in the first-person singular, but the voice has become plural by the end of verse 2—as “servants” (or “slaves”) and “a maid” (or “slavegirl”). As Robert Alter points out, the mention of both “gender[s] conveys a sense of inclusiveness. Everyone in this community, man and woman, looks urgently to God for a sign of grace.”1

Complaint and plea: Verses 3–4

The word “mercy” in verse 2 (or “grace,” as Alter renders it) occurs twice more in verse 3— another instance of step-like repetition (note also the phrase “more than” [literally, “sated with”] in verses 3 and 4, as well as “contempt” in verses 3 and 4). The petition “have mercy” (often translated “be gracious”) is frequent in the Psalms (see 4:1; 6:2; 9:13; 25:16; 27:7). The syntax here is noteworthy, since the two instances of “have mercy” surround the reference to “LORD,” as if to encompass God with pleas for help. The root hnn in its adjective form is a fundamental attribute of God in Exodus 34:6 (New Revised Standard Version: “gracious”). It can connote forgiveness, but it can also suggest divine provision and protection, as here.

As suggested above, it makes sense to hear Psalm 123 in conversation with the book of Nehemiah, but similar complaints occur in other psalms as well (see “contempt” in 31:18; 119:22, and see “scorn” in 22:7 [New Revised Standard Version: “mock”]; 44:13; and 79:4 [New Revised Standard Version: “mocked”]). Both Psalms 44 and 79 are communal laments, and this may suggest the likelihood of a postexilic origin.

Then and now

Regardless of the ancient origin and context of Psalm 123, it remains a useful and instructive prayer for the people of God. Very few North Americans have experienced contempt and scorn for their faith; however, Psalm 123 is a reminder that faithful and humble submission to the sovereign God and God’s purposes for the world will inevitably put us out of step with a prevailing culture that encourages us to be self-sufficient and self-serving.

Especially when Psalm 123 is heard in conversation with 2 Corinthians 12:2–10 and Mark 6:1–13, the New Testament lections for the day, it will be a reminder that opposition and suffering are inevitable realities of the life of faith. In the midst of his suffering that included insults and persecution (2 Corinthians 12:10), Paul heard this divine response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is for such grace that the congregation prays in Psalm 123, which invites us to pray for such grace as well. Such grace will give us the courage to follow Jesus by bearing a cross (see Mark 8:34), looking away from ourselves to say with the psalmist, “To you I lift my eyes” (verse 1).


  1. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 441.