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01 July 2015

Desiring God As Much As Air (5.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 6)

Psalm 123

A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. "Master, I wish to become your disciple," said the man. "Why?" replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. "Because I want to find God."

The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water.  As he was kicking and struggling to free himself, the master held him there for a minute (or three).  Then he pulled him up out of the river.

The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. "Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water."

"Air!" answered the man. "Very well," said the master. "Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air."

Just as in the story, the theme of Psalm 123 is Desiring God.

1 To you I lift up my eyes, / O the one who dwells in the heavens. 
2 Behold, as the eyes of the 
servants (look) to the hand 
of their lord, / As the eyes of the 
maid servants (look) to the hand
of her mistress, / Thus our eyes 
(look) to the Lord our God, / 
until he shows favor to us.

3 Show favor to us, O Lord, / 
show favor to us, / for we are 
overwhelmed with contempt. 
4 Our inmost being is 
overwhelmed with the mockery 
of the ones who are at ease, / 
the contempt of the proud. (NICOT)

Beginning with Charles Spurgeon commentators have noted a common theme linking psalms 120 through 123: whereas in Psalm 120, the psalmist looks up from despair, in Psalm 121, she looks up to the hills. Then, in Psalm 122, she looks up to the Temple. Finally, in Psalm 123 she looks up to God.

Samuel Cox admires our psalm for its "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."

The pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem (Psalm 123 is one of the Songs of Ascent) compare their trust in God to the relationship of trust between servants and their masters and mistresses.

Behold, as the eyes of the servants look to the hand of their lord, as the eyes of the maid servants look to the hand of her mistress, thus our eyes look to the Lord our God, ... until he shows favor to us (V. 2).

Just like obedient servants look up to their masters and mistresses for nurture and protection, masters and mistresses "show favor" to them.

The word translated here as "show favor", שֶׁיְּחָנֵּֽנוּ, comes from the Hebrew verbal root חָנַן (ḥānan; mercy, graciousness).

Matthias Jorissen's Metric Psalter* aptly summarizes V. 1-2:

Zu dir im Himmel, HERR, zu deinem Licht 
erheb ich mein Gesicht. 
Wie auf die Hand des Herrn die Knechte schauen 
und seiner Güte trauen, 
wie sich die Augen einer Magd nicht wenden 
von ihrer Herrin Händen, 
so sehen wir in unsers Lebens Not 
allein auf dich, o Gott.

To you in heaven, Lord, up to your light
I lift my countenance.
As servants firmly look to their lord's hand
and trust his charity,
and as a maiden sees her mistress' hands
in patience and in hope,
we look to you in our own distress,
to you alone, oh God.

The second half of the psalm (V. 3-4) repeats the phrase "show favor", but now in a much more urgent tone:

V. 3
חָנֵּ֣נוּ יְהוָ֣ה חָנֵּ֑נוּ
ḥān·nê·nū Yah·weh ḥān·nê·nū;
Show favor to us, O Lord, /
show favor to us,

כִּֽי  רַ֝֗ב שָׂבַ֥עְנוּ בֽוּז
kî-rab  śā·ba‘·nū  buz
for we are overwhelmed with contempt.

The word שָׂבַ֥עְנוּ in Line 2 is from the Hebrew root שָׂבַע (saba; become satisfied, being satisfied, drink their fill, have in plenty; have it in excess, become weary).

Even though the word is usually used with food, here what the singer and her contemporaries are fed excessively is בּוּז (buz; contempt, that which makes people despised or a laughingstock).

In using "satisfaction" in such unusual way, the Psalmist employs hypocatastasis, an elegant figure of speech that "declares or implies a resemblance, representation or comparison" and "has more force than a metaphor or simile, and expresses ... a superlative degree of resemblance" (Wikipedia).

As contempt is being pushed down the throats of the Psalmist and her contemporaries, they simply cannot "stomach it" any more.

In V. 4, the hypocatastasis figure of speech is repeated: Our inmost being is overwhelmed (literally: satisfied) with the mockery of the ones who are at ease. In addition, בּוּז (buz) is used with the article ha to paint the character of the contemptuous people around the Psalmist: the proud.

This is how Jorissen* renders the second half of our psalm:

Erbarm dich, HERR, wie du es stets getan, 
und sieh uns gnädig an. 
Wir mußten ja seit ungezählten Tagen 
der Menschen Wut ertragen. 
Wie wurden wir mit Spott und Hohn betrachtet, 
entwürdigt und verachtet! 
Zu lange schon erleiden wir den Tod. 
Erbarm dich unser, Gott!

Be gracious, Lord, as you have always been,
show mercy to us now.
For endless days we suffered constantly,
endured the people's rage.
How we were treated with immense contempt,
dishonored and despised!
Too long already we have suffered death.
Be gracious to us, Lord.

"Come back when you want God as much as you want air" -- the hermit's advice points the way for all of us servants of God:

"Lifting our eyes to God" is more than just good advice for days when we are in trouble. As Clifford  (as referenced by Nancy deClaissé-Walford) reminds us, such looking up is an act of defiance, in that we defy all the other "gods" around us that lay claim to our lives.

* The translations in blank verse are my own.

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