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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries

Psalms 124

Verses 1-8


"A FRESH, bright lyric" (Cheyne), composed of two stanzas—the first part (Psalms 124:1-5) recounting a danger and a deliverance; the second (Psalms 124:6-8), praising God for the latter. This is another of the psalms in this "Little Psalter," ascribed by its title to David. There is nothing in the style, or in the contents, that is inconsistent with the ascription.

Psalms 124:1

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say; rather, now let Israel say (Kay, Cheyne, Revised Version).

Psalms 124:2

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us. The "rising" intended may have been that of Saul and his aiders and abettors, or that of the Ammonites and Syrians (2 Samuel 10:6-8), or that of Absalom and his partisans (2 Samuel 15:2-13).

Psalms 124:3

Then they had swallowed us up quick; or, "alive." A common expression for sudden and complete destruction (comp. Psalms 56:2; Psalms 57:3; Proverbs 1:12; Lamentations 2:2, Lamentations 2:5, Lamentations 2:8, etc.). When their wrath was kindled against us; or, "blazed out against us." The comparison of anger to fire is an almost universal commonplace.

Psalms 124:4

Then the waters had overwhelmed us. A sudden and startling change of metaphor. In the quick transition of Oriental thought, the fire becomes a flood—an irresistible torrent-stream, carrying all before it (comp. Psalms 18:4; Psalms 144:7). The stream had gone over our soul; i.e. "had mounted up over our heads, and stifled our breath of life."

Psalms 124:5

Then the proud waters had gone over our soul. "Proud" of effecting our destruction.

Psalms 124:6

Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. We are not devoured—we are not "swallowed up"—thanks to the interposition of the merciful and gracious Lord, to whom therefore praise and blessing are due.

Psalms 124:7

Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers (comp. Psalms 91:3; Psalms 140:5; Psalms 141:10). Another metaphor. We have been like birds taken in the "snare," or net, of a fowler. But now we are escaped—not, however, of our own strength or of our own cleverness. The snare is broken for us by God's providence, and so we are escaped.

Psalms 124:8

Our help is in the Name of the Lord. "Our help is," and has always been, "in the Name"—i.e. in the manifested might—"of the Lord." It is he that has been "on our side," that has "helped" us, saved us, and delivered us. Who made heaven and earth (comp. Psalms 121:2; Psalms 134:3).


Psalms 124:1-8

Divine deliverance.

The spirit which breathes in this psalm is one of keen thankfulness. Nothing calls out so deep and strong a sense of indebtedness to God (or to man) as a consciousness that we owe to him an escape from a great calamity. We bless the Lord with the most fervent gratitude as we realize that he has healed our disease and redeemed our life from destruction (Psalms 103:1-4). We ought to be mindful of all his benefits, and accept them as they come, one after another, as gifts from his gracious hand. We should cherish a still stronger and profounder sense of his mercy to us in the one supreme kindness shown us in the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ, in which we have our share. But that which most vividly impresses us is the deliverance which, in different ways and at various times, he has wrought for us—saving our life, preserving our character, restoring our freedom.


1. Oppression. Such as Israel endured under Pharaoh; such as Judah was threatened with when Sennacherib came up against Jerusalem; such as the Jews suffered under Antiochus; such as England faced and feared when the Armada left the shores of Spain; such as, in our own individual life, we may experience at the hand of some one who has us at his mercy and is disposed to play the tyrant. A human spirit is sometimes exposed to a veritable storm of cruelty; there are "overwhelming waters" of suffering to pass under; the stream goes over the soul (Psalms 124:4). Then nothing but Divine succor avails to save from complete collapse; except the Lord show himself to be on our side by manifestations of his power, by the exercise of his goodness and his grace, we must break down utterly. But God is on our side. He will not forsake his children in the time of their distress.

(1) He will rescue us, in his own time, from the power that oppresses us, and set us free, placing "our feet in a large room;" or,

(2) he will so effectually sustain us that we shall hold up our head in the midst of all our afflictions (see Isaiah 43:2).

2. Temptation. The psalmist speaks of snares (Psalms 124:7) and of escaping from the fowler's hand. As we pass through life there are many of these that have to be avoided; and it may be that in our unwisdom we permit ourselves to be partially ensnared; we may allow our foot to be taken in the toils of unbelief, or of intemperance, or of impurity, or of covetousness, or of pride, or of vanity, or of extravagance and dishonesty. We may be in very serious danger of losing everything that is most precious- of parting, not only with our reputation, but with the very life of our life, with our moral and spiritual integrity. But God, in his abounding grace, interposes on our behalf. Directly or indirectly, by the immediate action of his Spirit on our spirit, or through some instrumentality, he arouses us, shows us the peril in which we stand, breaks the snare in which our foot is taken, and sets us free. Then comes—

II. DEEP THANKFULNESS OF HEART. For, however great was the first gift of life, and however great the gift of the new life in Christ Jesus, this Divine deliverance is a mercy that may well be compared with these, and may well fill our mouth with song and our life with praise. Then, too, must come—

III. WATCHFULNESS UNTO PRAYER, constantly and carefully maintained.


Psalms 124:1-8

But for the Lord.

The psalm is a contemplation of the distress that must have come upon God's people but for the Lord's timely help.

I. IT IS THE LANGUAGE OF ISRAEL'S GRATITUDE. We cannot tell what were the exact circumstances which are referred to; but many times in Israel's history had there been the threatening of overwhelming calamity. In the old times, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in Judah and Jerusalem, as during the invasion of Sennacherib, when they were carried off to captivity, and during that captivity (see the Book of Esther), Israel had abundant cause for such grateful acknowledgments as we find here. But the special circumstances we do not and cannot know; and this is well, for now we are left free to make application of them to any out of the many like circumstances which from time to time recur in the histories of nations, Churches, and individual souls.

II. IT IS THAT OF REDEEMED HUMANITY. Mankind everywhere, as well as the redeemed in heaven, might well render praise like this. For the whole human race was in dire peril. When men turned out so ill, as they did and still do, so that the Lord repented that he had made man, wherefore should God have preserved any of them alive? Their guilt, their wickedness, their subjection to the spirit of evil,—these were ready to swallow the race of man up quick. The might and malice of the devil were eager for the work. Why should it not have been? And the alone answer is—the love of God (John 3:16). And still today we often all but despair of humanity; the whole world, save a minute fraction, yet lieth in wickedness, dead in trespasses and sins, rushing ruinwards with headlong speed. But yet the race is spared, for the Lord is on our side. This is the gospel of man. God would not have created us had it not been true.

III. IT MAY WELL BE THAT OF THE CHURCH OF GOD. For often and often in her history has it seemed as if there were but a step betwixt her and death. See that boat on the Lake of Galilee in the midnight storm: it contains the whole of the disciples and Jesus, and he asleep. One wave more, and they would all go to the bottom, swallowed up quick, the proud waters had gone over their soul (Psalms 124:3). But that wave never came. And so has it been again and again with the Church of God. Persecution for three long centuries did its worst; false doctrine has many times, from the earlier centuries down to the present, threatened to submerge the faith we held; worse still, corruption, vile and loathsome, has fastened on the life of the Church, so that religion has been hateful in men's esteem, as it was in the pre-Reformation ages. But the heart of the Church has remained sound amid all; the Lord was on her side, and so she has escaped as a bird, etc. (Psalms 124:7).

IV. NATIONS, TOO, MAY ADOPT THIS LANGUAGE. See the times of the Armada: how fearful the peril seemed then! And so in the days of the French Revolution, when the colossal power of Napoleon threatened the life of every independent nation.

V. AND HOW OFTEN INDIVIDUAL BELIEVERS HAVE HAD CAUSE THUS TO SPEAK! In regard to the power of temptation, they have been all but gone, their feet well-nigh slipped. But the Lord was on their side. So in regard to the malice of enemies, and the cruel power of disaster and distress.

CONCLUSION. If the Lord has been thus on our side—as he has—we will, by his grace, be evermore on his.—S.C.

Psalms 124:7

The soul's birdlike experiences.

We have a number of objects presented to us in this verse.

I. THE SOUL AS A BIRD. We are often bidden consider the birds who, "without barn or storehouse, are fed," so that from them we may learn the lesson of trust. Even the ravens may leach us that. But the psalmist here bids us think of birds in perpetual peril of ensnarement, and actually taken, but, by rare good fortune, finding escape. That is the image of the soul which he here pictures. How true it is perpetual peril is our lot!


1. How many there are! And they are everywhere, and especially where we least expect them. Temptations to sin, to misbelief, to unbelief, to compromise with the world, to doubt, to pride, and to many other such things.

2. And the end and aim of them all is the same—to separate the soul from God, and so to destroy it.

3. And these snares are of various kinds. Sometimes the soul is captured by means of another that seems to be at liberty. A man who has a religious reputation, is much thought of by many—he is used to tempt, to decoy, others astray. Sometimes, indeed always, there is some attraction the force of which we cannot help feeling. And these baits are varied according to the character of each soul. What will attract one will not another. Satan knows when to have us—where and how we are most open to his assaults. What need we have to obey our Lord's words, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation"!

III. THE FOWLER THAT SEEKS TO ENTRAP THE SOUL. It is he whom the Bible calls Satan. We dare not ignore his existence or his power. Our Lord had just come from fierce encounter with him, and bids us pray, "Deliver us from the evil one." Remember Christ has destroyed the works of the devil.

IV. THE CAPTURE OF SOULS. The soul of the psalmist knew this bitter experience, as have thousands more. Some subtle lure, some crafty bait, has wrought the harm. How many such ensnared souls we meet with every day!

V. BUT THE SNARE MAY BE BROKEN. This too has often occurred. Some powerful word, some startling providence, some gracious working of the Spirit of God, has led to it.

VI. THE JOY OF ESCAPE. Are we free? From the condemnation of the Law, the power of sin, the fear of sorrow and death, are we free? Then praise God, and seek to get others free. "I would say again to you netted ones—you that are really caught in the trap and held fast, 'Oh, that the Lord would come at once and set you free!' I think he will—yea, I am sure that he will if you cry to him to do so. I have heard of a sailor who had been in prison, that, after his release, he had money in his pocket, and going over London Bridge he saw a man selling birds—thrushes, larks, and so on. 'What do you want for that lot?' said Jack. I forget how much it was, but Jack found the money; and as soon as the birds were his he opened the door and let them all fly away. The man called out, 'Whatever did you buy those birds for, and then let them all fly away? "Oh,' said the sailor, ' if you had been in prison, as I have, you would be sure to set everything free you could get a hold of.' You and I ought to display the same kind of feeling towards all bondaged souls. I am sure that the Lord Jesus Christ is more tender-hearted than we are; and therefore he will certainly come and set free all prisoners who beg him to open their cage-doors. He is the great Emancipator; show him your bonds, and beg for liberty, and he will grant it you" (C. H. Spurgeon).—S.C.


Psalms 124:1

Jehovah for us.

"The Lord who was on our side." It is well to bear in mind that, usually, in the Old Testament, the term "the Lord" would be better rendered "Jehovah," the covenant name for God. Many passages in which the term occurs gain new force when distinctly associated with the Israelite covenant. The tone of this psalm is altogether different from that of the preceding one. The historical association is uncertain. Taking the psalm as a whole, it would seem to be a rejoicing of the exiles in Babylon when the proclamation of Cyrus permitted them to return to their native land. But this association does not easily explain the precise figure of the snare in Psalms 124:7. It is better to keep the psalms of degrees associated with the life of the returned exiles in Jerusalem, and to find the suggestion of the figures in their particular experiences.

I. THE KEY-NOTE OF THE ISRAELITE HISTORY. "The Lord is on our side." Another psalmist gives it thus: "The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our Refuge." The names of God imply the appropriation of God to themselves by Israel, "Jehovah-Jireh," "Jehovah of hosts, …. Jehovah Tsidkenu," etc. (compare Ebenezer). Note the one supreme lesson learned by the successes and failures of their wilderness-experiences. They were strong when God was with them. Failure came when God hid his face from them; woe came when they hid their faces from God. The symbol of the presence was the Shechinah-glory in the holy of holies; but we should not fail to see that the tabernacle and temple did but represent the people; and God's glory in them did but represent his abiding presence with his people. But it should further be noticed that throughout the Israelite history it is Jehovah, the covenant Cod, who is with them; and that his keeping with them must be seen as his faithfulness to his covenant-pledge. It is a faithfulness which should inspire faithfulness.

II. THE KEY-NOTE OF THE ISRAELITE HOPE. The national life had always been in the special Divine care, and it always would. The one holy God, who could only be served in righteousness, whose uniqueness is gathered up into the term "Jehovah," had chosen this people for his inheritance. Would, then, the nation abide even through what seemed an overwhelming discipline? Was there a certain future for the nation, though now it lay low under the shadows? The answer is this—"The Lord is on its side."—R.T.

Psalms 124:2-4

Jehovah's effective resistance.

Perowne thinks that the figures of these verses remind of the earlier deliverance from Egypt. "The Egyptians did ' rise up' against them. Pharaoh and his chariots and his horsemen followed hard after them, and did seem as if about to swallow them up, when they were entangled in the wilderness. The waves of the Red Sea overwhelming their enemies might have suggested naturally the figure by which the might of those enemies was itself compared to swelling waters." An estimate of the tone of the psalm, however, leads us to recognize suddenness as the characteristic of the calamity indicated. The waters suggested are rather those of a sudden mountain flood raging down one of the dried wadies, carrying all before it, but passing as swiftly as it came—the "spate" or "scaith" of mountain districts. If the sea is to be thought of, it is as suddenly swept up by high tide and strong wind, and lunging furiously against the rocks, so long as the strength of the tide continues. We may therefore more hopefully look at the experiences of the returned exiles, and find that the calamity in the mind of the psalmist was the sudden, fanatical, and desperate outburst of enmity on the part of Sanballat and his associates. That was a temporary trouble, but it was very intense, and almost overbearing and overwhelming while it lasted.

I. JEHOVAH'S RESISTANCE MAY BE A PERMISSION. It need not be confounded with a prevention. God does not always save men by taking their enemies, or the schemes of their enemies, away. He does not turn back the floods. He lets them flow on just the same. He may not even remove the feeling and the fear which the floods produce. We should never lose the confidence that, if our enemies are in the floods, God is much more in the floods. They may seem to work our enemy's purpose; they really do work out God's purpose. Divine permissions are the signs of Divine wisdom and love. And this St. Paul had to learn.

II. JEHOVAH'S RESISTANCE MAY BE A PRESERVATION. Only the shakable, ill-founded things are swept down by the mountain spate. The house founded on the rock makes effective resistance. And that is what God did for the returned exiles—held them safe through that time of strain and storm. God in our circumstances we often find it very difficult to trace; God for us we may always see clearly; and that guarantees preservation.—R.T.

Psalms 124:6, Psalms 124:7

God's delivering ways.

"Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowler." The enmity of Sanballat and his party found expression in secret schemes, which may well be likened to the "snare of the fowler." The account of the peril is given in Nehemiah 6:1-19. The violence of the wild beast is illustrated by the threatenings of Nehemiah 4:1-23.; the scheming of the hunter by Nehemiah 6:1-19. Speaking of Tobiah, Stanley says, "He it was who had constant intrigues with the disaffected party within the walls." Possibly Sanballat may represent the more open and violent ways of the wild beast, and Tobiah the more secretly scheming ways of the hunter. The "bird" here is a "little bird," such as a sparrow. McMichael vividly presents this figure. "The fowler has prepared his net in a skilful manner. The bird enters it, unconscious of danger; the net is thrown over it, and in an instant its liberty is lost. There it lies, the poor bird, its little heart throbbing wildly, and its little wings beating vainly against the net. It is completely at the mercy of the fowler, and escape is impossible. But again the Lord appears, and his presence is safety. He goes up to the net, lifts it from the ground; the bird flies out, lights on a neighboring tree, and sings among the branches. 'Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler.' God rescues his people from the craft and subtlety of their enemies, as he does from their open violence." The point which is set forth prominently by the figure of the snare is, that God often delivers his people by removing obstacles out of their way, and giving them the opportunity of delivering themselves.

I. GOD DELIVERING BY PROVIDING OPPORTUNITIES. The figure does not show s hand taking the bird from under the net, but breaking the net, making a hole in it, of which the bird can take advantage. The rescue from Egypt is the type of God's deliverances. God removed the obstacle of the sea; but Israel had to take advantage of this, and show promptitude and energy in crossing. It may sometimes be best for God to do the whole redemptive work, but usually he does so much only as sets us free to do. In our deliverances we have to be "co-workers together with God." God saves man without humiliating or enfeebling him.

II. OUR WORK IS RESPONDING TO THE OPPORTUNITIES PROVIDED. As the ensnared bird does. The great deliverance from sin is no rescue without our wills. It is the lifting off us our bonds, and so leaving us free to live the life of righteousness. We must respond to the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus.—R.T.

Psalms 124:8

What God has done, God can do.

The stamp of "impossible" cannot rest upon anything if we are able to say concerning it, "It has been done." And that we are able to say concerning every kind of strain or calamity that "turns up" in a religious experience. "There is no temptation ever overtakes us but such as is common to man," and God has had to deal with just such things—and even with just such things in relation to just such people—before now.


1. Compassed all the features and forms of the commonplace of life. It is necessary to dwell on this, because of the frail human disposition to separate the thought of God from the little, and associate him only with the great. But life is in the main commonplace, ordinary, little. And we need to realize that God has had direct association with absolutely everything that can come into the commonplace of life. In dealing with the first race of men, it may reverently be observed that God had no experience of what men would be and do, to guide his ways with them. Experience was in the making. It is made now. Enough generations of men in diversified relations have passed to cover the whole circle of human possibilities. Man can only repeat himself; he never surprises God. And God has adjusted his gracious help and guidance to every kind of ordinary human circumstance and need. Therefore is the Bible given to us so largely in the biographical form. We are to trace the working of God in lives that are essentially like our own.

2. Efficiently adapted his grace to the unusual of life. There is perhaps, strictly speaking, no unusual in life. From the Divine point of view there are no exigencies, no surprises. "The thing which is hath already been." But for instructive purposes we may point out that the unusual, though it may not be in things, may be in the relation of things to persons. God has to deal with the disposition of each one, and with the effect of events on each disposition. But here again we may see that his experience of adjustments is so extensive that a new and bewildering set of complications for him is inconceivable.

II. WHAT GOD CAN DO. Be to us the Help which he has always been to his people. Do for us what he has always done for his people. What has he done in our lives? That he can still do. What has he done in the lives of others? That he can do in our lives if need be. What has he done in the vicissitudes of the ages? That he can do for our age and for us. We are "not straitened in God," seeing that he can "supply all our need."—R.T.

Psalms 124:8

The help of the Divine Name. It is important to keep in view the condition and anxieties of the returned exiles. The previous psalm brought before us their distresses through the irritating conduct of neighbor enemies, it presented to us their attitude while the trouble was or—they were patiently waiting on God. This psalm is a joy-song, sung when they are safely through the time of strain. They joy in God who has so safely brought them through; and this leads to the expression of confidence in God concerning whatever may have to be in the future. As a rule, poetical figures avoid minute descriptions of trouble. They are satisfied with suggesting them. The figures of this psalm recall to mind the Egyptian deliverance. The exiles were fond of referring to it, and comparing their experience with it. Note

(1) a sudden and overwhelming peril;

(2) the figure of the swollen stream;

(3) the figure of the beast of prey;

(4) the figure of the spread snare.

Indicate what of the historical conditions of the exiles is suggested by these figures. The point of the psalm is given in the sentence, "The Lord was on our side." That alone could account to them for their enemies' failure, and their triumph. And that conviction fixes for them the resolve, that in the Name of Jehovah they will ever trust. Help in a name! Why not say, help in God? Explain that the Jews had a special name for God, of which they were profoundly jealous. And they were in a covenant which was sealed with that special name. In Scripture it is usual to find a person's attributes or characteristics gathered up into and expressed by a name (see names of Adam's sons, Jacob, etc.). Notice some of the names for God.

1. Greater; general relation to everything.

2. El Shaddai; the Almighty One.

3. Jehovah; the serf-existent One. He is; that is all you can say about him.

4. God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; known in actual daily relationships.

5. Jehovah Tsidkenu; the Lord our Righteousness, or the Ideal for us of moral perfection.

6. The Faithful Promiser; the trustworthy One, as proved by human experience. It is manifest what confidence of help we may have as we dwell on any of these names of God. Started on this line of thought, we inquire whether we should not show a fuller confidence in the help of God, who is revealed to us, in his Father-name, through the infinite winsomeness of the Divine Sonship of Jesus.—R.T.


Psalms 124:1-8

The believer's safeguard.

"If Jehovah had not been on our side," etc. The last psalm was the sigh of an exile in Babylon waiting upon God for deliverance. This psalm is the joyful acknowledgment that the deliverance has been accomplished. The next (125.) describes the safety of the exiles restored to their native land, and girt round by the protection of Jehovah.

I. GOD IS ON OUR SIDE WHEN HE SEEMS MOST AGAINST US. As he was on the side of the Israelites both in delivering them over to the Captivity and in breaking their bonds. Punishment and pardon have the same end in view—the redemption of the sinner.

II. GOD IS ON OUR SIDE WHEN MEN ARE MOST AGAINST US. When the angry and destructive passions of men most threaten to overwhelm us (Psalms 124:2-5). He takes our side always inwardly, if not always outwardly. God is always on the side of the weakest, to help them to become strong.

III. GOD HELPS US TO ESCAPE FROM THE SUBTLEST SNARES WHICH CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE WOVEN AROUND us—if we are the victims and not the constructors of those snares. God will have no deceit in saint or sinner.

IV. BUT THOUGH GOD IS THE CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, HE IS THE HELP, AND NOT THE SUBSTITUTE, OF MEN. (Psalms 124:8.) The psalmists and prophets saw the Divine side of the moral work done in the world, but saw the human side also.—S.

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 124". The Pulpit Commentary. 1897.