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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 123

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-4


Psalms 123:1

Unto thee lift I up mine eyes (comp. Psalms 121:1, where the psalmist "lifted up his eyes" to God's dwelling-place). Now the expression is bolder. The eyes are lifted up to God himself. Oh thou that dwellest in the heavens (comp. Psalms 2:4; Psalms 11:4; Isaiah 57:15; Isaiah 66:1).

Psalms 123:2

Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters. Watch, i.e; for the slightest sign that he may give of his will. Such signs were usually given by some movement of the "hand." And as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress. Masters were waited on by male slaves; their wives by handmaids—both equally anxious to do their will, and therefore equally watchful of all the signs that indicated it. So our eyes wait upon the Lord our God, until that he have mercy upon us. We wait for the least sign that he is about to help and deliver us.

Psalms 123:3

Have mercy upon us, O Lord; have mercy upon us. The cry is repeated for greater emphasis. For we are exceedingly filled with contempt. This expression can scarcely be said to fix the date of the psalm, since hatred and contempt were the usual feelings wherewith the Jews were regarded by their neighbors. But the time of Nehemiah would certainly be no unsuitable date (see Nehemiah 4:4).

Psalms 123:4

Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease; i.e. the careless and irreligious

the nation that has to pass through this period; e.g. Israel in Egypt, and again the Jews in Babylon; or, in modern times, Poland or the Italian Duchies, or the kingdom of the Two Sicilies; or it may be

(2) the Church of Christ, understanding by this either the large aggregate community, or the body of believing men and women meeting in one place (e.g. the Church at Philippi, the Church at Thessalonica); or it may be

(3) the individual man as he goes on his way through mortal life. Hard and bitter trial may come in one or more of many ways; but the text points to that of oppression, the cruel treatment of the weaker by the stronger. This may come in the form of positive ill treatment—of imprisonment) of "despoiling of goods," of exile, of physical violence. But that which was in the psalmist's mind, and that which is most likely to be included in our experience, is contemptuous disregard, an arrogant assumption of superiority. We may find ourselves placed under those of whom we feel that they have missed their way, and are in the darkness of error, while they are denouncing us as heretics; or those of whom we feel that they are a very long way from wisdom and worth, while they are treating us with disdain as if we were the enemies of Christ; or of those who are superciliously ridiculing our most sacred convictions, though they have no other or better proof of the rightness of their own creed than that it is the faith of a majority. And if we have to bear this "contempt of the proud" from day to day, if it is as the dropping of water upon the stone, which wears out the hardest substance, we may find it to be all but intolerable; we may not only wince, but writhe under it; our soul may be "exceedingly filled" with the scorning of those that are at ease. Whither, then, shall we turn? If there be no escape from it, as there often is not, we must find—

II. OUR REFUGE IN GOD. (Psalms 123:1, Psalms 123:2.) When we have vainly looked around for help from man, "we lift up our eyes" to God—to him that "dwelleth in the heavens."

1. We recognize the fact that he has power to deliver us.

2. We believe that, in his Divine wisdom, he can interpose on our behalf without any disturbance of his system of Divine government.

3. We are sure that our suffering is not a matter of indifference to his heart, and that our cry enters his ear.

4. We must not be impatient or distrustful if the time or method of our choice should not prove to be his chosen time or way of deliverance.

5. We do well to continue our prayer for relief "until he have pity upon us" and rescue us. 6. Meantime we should

(1) let our trouble draw us nearer to our Divine Friend in all hallowed fellowship;

(2) loosen our tie to this present world;

(3) enable us to give to all that witness our course another illustration that the upholding grace of God can triumph over the enmity and cruelty of man.


Psalms 123:1-4

Unto thee lift I up mine eyes.

These psalms are called "Songs of Degrees." For some thought that they were sung on the steps that led from one court to another in the temple of the Lord, and so they were called the songs of degrees, or steps. But though this explanation has been long abandoned, nevertheless, in these psalms, thus far, there has been an ascent as from step to step. See the sadness of the first of them (Psalms 120:1-7.). That rises to trust in the blessed keeping of God. That to joy and delight in drawing near to the house of God. Now this rises higher still, and lifts up its eyes unto God himself. The psalm reveals to us much concerning the writer.

I. HE IS A MAN WHO BELIEVES IN GOD. God is as real to him as, and more than, any fellow-man could be. The atheistic doubts or the polytheistic imaginations come not near him: he is so sure that God is, that he turns his eyes to the heavens where he dwelt, as when he was speaking to a fellow-man he would turn his eyes to him. Strong faith in God is the only power which will cause any of us to lift up our eyes as does the psalmist here.

II. A MAN WHO LONGED AFTER GOD. For in this uplifted eye the longing look is clearly traceable. It is not merely that he believes that God is, but also that he is the Rewarder of them that diligently seek him (James 1:1-27.), and therefore he will diligently seek him.

III. HE IS A MAN OF HUMBLE HEART. He likens himself to a slave watching for the beckoning of his master's hand, to know what he would have done. Orientals do not speak to their attendant servants, as we do, but by beckoning and gesture they make known their will. The servants humbly watch and wait, continuously, patiently, and attentively, that they may miss no movement of the master's or mistress's hand which will signify their will. So does the psalmist wait, thus humbly, patiently, attentively, and in this case, it should seem, beseechingly, for the help needed.

IV. HIS REFUGE UNDER DEEPEST DISTRESS IS IN GOD. (Psalms 123:3.) His lot was hard to bear, almost unbearable; but he could and did turn to God. May we not see Christ in this psalm? Let it tell of ourselves.—S.C.


Psalms 123:1

Our uplook to God.

This is the characteristic possibility for humanity. The cattle have no uplooking eyes, and no yearning hearts to find expression by uplooking eyes. Man can look up, pierce the veil of sense, and see the unseen, and realize relations with the Divine. Indeed, he is not himself until he does. But to get the fixed uplook often is, and may well be, the issue of a lifelong moral discipline. The need for turning to God comes out of distressed earthly conditions. The restored exiles in Jerusalem were full of anxieties and perplexities; they could get no heart-rest by the worrying, which is represented by "looking down." They found it by looking up and away to the steadfast heavens—to him "that sitteth in the heavens." "The uplifted eyes naturally and instinctively represent the state of heart which fixes desire, hope, confidence, and expectation upon the Lord." Manton says, "The lifting up the eyes implies faith and confident persuasion that God is ready and willing to help us. The very lifting up of the bodily eyes towards heaven is an expression of this inward trust." R. Holdsworth gives the following outline: There are many testimonies in the lifting up of the eyes to heaven.

1. It is the testimony of a believing, humble heart. Neither infidelity nor pride ever carries a man above the earth.

2. It is the testimony of an obedient heart. A man that lifts his eye up to God acknowledgeth this much, "Lord, I am thy servant."

3. It is the testimony of a thankful heart; acknowledging that every good blessing, every perfect gift, is from the hand of God.

4. The testimony of a heavenly heart. He that lifts up his eyes to heaven acknowledgeth that he is weary of the earth; his heart is not there; his hope and desire are above.

5. It is the testimony of a devout heart. There is no part of the body besides the tongue that is so great an agent in prayer as the eye.

I. THE UPLOOK TO GOD MAY BE BUT OCCASIONAL. And that is so far well. Man must be busy with earthly things; but his heart should be as a metal spring tied down. It flies upward at every instant of release.

II. THE UPLOOK TO GOD MAY BE FIXED AND PERMANENT. A set of the eyes, because there is a set of the heart. The fixed level of human eyes, and of soul-eyes, varies most remarkably.—R.T.

Psalms 123:2

Watching for Divine favor and direction.

In the East orders are rarely given to an attendant in words, but commonly by signs. These are often so slight as to escape notice unless the eyes of the servants are kept fixed on the master or mistress. When waiting upon his master, the servant stands upon the farthest edge of the raised platform, having left his shoes at the door; his hands are folded, and rest upon the center of his girdle; and he watches closely every movement of his master, prompt to attend to all his wants, which are expressed by a nod or a sign. He fills his pipe and hands him his coffee; he sets his food before him, and it is his special duty to "pour water on his hands' to wash. Should he happen to be missing when wanted, his master will summon him by clapping his hands so effectually that the sound is heard throughout the house, especially as the doors and windows generally stand open (Lennep). Kimehi suggests that the cry for mercy intimates that the slave is regarded as out of the master's favor, and anxiously watching for signs of returning acceptance. The simile suggests that there should be a threefold spirit in our watching for and waiting upon God.

I. THE SPIRIT OF ATTENTION. There is a servant-work which is merely a listless and careless doing of what we are told to do. But that kind of service brings no credit to master or servant. There is a servant-work which involves the union of all our powers, and the active energy and interest of our minds. That service honors both master and servant. The man is alive. Vitality and vigor show themselves in attention.

II. THE SPIRIT OF OBEDIENCE. The point of obedience which may gain special illustration is its taking the servant beyond himself, and filling him with concern for the will and well-being of another, even his master. True service therefore becomes our finest training in unselfishness. It is constant help toward losing ourselves in the interest of another. And this at the call of high principle and the sense of duty. Unselfishness is a main foundation of noble character.

III. THE SPIRIT OF HUMILITY. A man may have to take a servant's place; and may keep his self-confidence while in it. A man may love to take a servant's place; then he expresses humility and dependence in it, and nourishes humility and dependence by it. This is sublimely true of our service to Christ.—R.T.

Psalms 123:3, Psalms 123:4

Contempt a sore trial.

The returned exiles found the contemptuous treatment of their neighbors the hardest thing to bear. Contempt is always hard to bear; but it is hardest to bear when we have an inward and painful conviction that we are so weak and poor that the contempt is in no way unreasonable. Those are just the times when we want a kindly word and a sign of confidence and hope, and then we feel most deeply if, instead, we are scorned, made a laughing-stock, and disheartened. That was the case with our Divine Lord. On the cross he needed the sign of love and word of sympathy; instead he had to bear the scorn and contempt which the psalmist suggestively anticipated for him (Psalms 22:6-8). The returned exiles had a similar experience. In their time of frailty a little neighborly help would have been so much to them. It would have given them quietness, security, and the cheer of sympathy. Instead of this, contempt humbled them, made them anxious, plucked out hopefulness, and filled them with fear. Contempt is a moral atmosphere in which nothing good or beautiful ever grew yet, or ever will grow. Hope the best of men, and you help them. Despise them and expect failure for them, and you crush them.

I. CONTEMPT, WHEN IT IS UNREASONABLE, CAN BE BORNE. It is sometimes a mere product of malice and envy. There is no real ground for it, and we may know that there is no ground. We may properly cherish the consciousness of our power and worth; and then we can appraise the contempt of the envious at its true value, it cannot hurt us. The contempt is weak, it is not we who are weak. And the contempt will fail, not we. "What can harm you if ye be followers of that which is good?" The world despises the godly. It is no matter; the future is with the godly.

II. CONTEMPT, WHEN IT IS REASONABLE, IS PAINFULLY DEPRESSING. Because it exaggerates our own sense of weakness, and so still further weakens us. Our sense of disability and insufficiency is oftentimes a great distress to us, and makes the struggle of life too hard for us. Precisely what we need is some sign of confidence, some kindly encouraging word, the cheer of some one who can see things more hopefully than we can. Consequently, we feel all the more deeply when our weakness is only despised; we hear loud and confident prophecies of our speedy failure, and men raise the laugh which crushes hearts more than open scorn. Then what can we do but turn from man to God?—R.T.


Psalms 123:1-4

The ultimate Refuge.

"Unto thee lift I up mine eyes," etc. "This psalm," says J. J. S. Perowne, "is either the sigh of the exile towards the close of the Captivity, looking in faith and patience for the deliverance which he hoped was now at hand; or the sigh of those who, having returned, were still exposed to the scorn and contempt of the Samaritans and others who harassed and insulted the Jews." God was their Refuge from such men, as he is the ultimate Refuge from all the ills and evils of this life.

I. THE PSALMIST FINDS HOPE IN GOD'S SUPREMACY. Enthroned in the heavens—the Judge of all controversies among his creatures, who will vindicate the righteous cause. Greatest power of service to humanity under his control.


III. SENSE OF DEPENDENCE UPON GOD NECESSARY TO REALIZE HIS HELP. As the lower must always depend on the higher.

IV. THE VISION AND CONTEMPLATION OF GOD NECESSARY TO THE SENSE OF DEPENDENCE. Looking away from man up to God, as the servant studies the face of his master in order to read his duty.—S.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 123". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/psalms-123.html. 1897.
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