Of Deep Water and Snares – Psalm 124

Psalm 124

Praise for Rescue from Enemies.
A Song of Ascents, of David.

    “Had it not been the LORD who was on our side,”
Let Israel now say,
“Had it not been the LORD who was on our side
When men rose up against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
When their anger was kindled against us;
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
The stream would have swept over our soul;
Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.”
Blessed be the LORD,
Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.
Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper;
The snare is broken and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

I must have been 17. I remember the heart-pounding terror the moment I realized the undertow had me. I didn’t know back then that you can’t fight it, but you can move sideways out of it. What I did know was that my mother, who couldn’t swim, knew I was in trouble. Her hands gripped the arms of the lawn chair the way the tide gripped my ankles. Our eyes met and I saw there reflected my own terror. I still don’t know how it happened, but what seemed like an eternity later, I found myself back on the beach, relieved to be alive – and FREE! I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by something that has you trapped. The intensity of the helplessness, desperation, and panic can only be matched by the euphoria you feel when it is over.

Experiences like that one help me understand the relief and gratitude the Psalmist attempted to express. The words describing Israel’s dire straits – swallowed alive … anger kindled, engulfed … raging waters … torn by teeth … snared by the trapper – such imagery! These are pictures of violence – raging waves of enemies sweeping towards them with murderous intent. The whole picture is another one of struggle and war. There’s no escaping it. Whenever we begin moving toward the Lord, we will find ourselves at war. You and I are engaged in an inescapable war for our souls.

If It’s Not One Thing, It’s another

Moving towards God is its own kind of battle. Sometimes it seems like everything and everyone around us is pulling like an undertow, trying to keep us from our goal. In our world of streaming media and cell phones, so many voices beat at us everyday, each with an agenda, and few call us to worship. Even churches tend to draw us more into programs than intimacy.

Relationships with people who are not moving with you towards God can make you feel that if you keep moving forward you will be ripped in half. At the same time we face an inward battle with our flesh – sins ensnare us, tearing our affections in two. If you aren’t dealing with a war without, you’re dealing with one within. Paul said his greatest enemy was his own flesh:

Romans 7:

14For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.

Jesus Himself said the most crucial war is waged inside oneself:

Matthew 16:

24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

God’s Power, Not Ours

The Psalmist made it clear that God’s people were unable to rescue themselves. Even though I did manage to extricate myself from the undertow that summer day 30 years ago, it would have been much easier if I had submitted to the tide and simply changed direction. Had I stepped aside I would have found myself free without any effort on my part. What a beautiful picture of how God works in our lives. When our enemy’s jaws have us pinned, our one hope is to stop fighting, get out of God’s way, and let Him work to set us free.

Probably my favorite command in all of Scripture is found in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 4. Nestled amid the sweeping story of redemption through Christ, we read about Israel’s wilderness journey which the writer of Hebrews uses to underline a warning and a calling.

1Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it… 9So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. 11Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.

The Greek word translated in verse 11, ‘be diligent’, is actually the word ‘labor.’ But it doesn’t mean ‘work’ the way we understand labor to mean. Instead it is the Greek word, spoudazo meaning:

1) to hasten, make haste

2) to exert one’s self, endeavor, give diligence

I love that first definition: hastenhurry! I hear in the writer’s voice an implied, “What are you waiting for?!” And on the other end, be diligent – persevere, strive hard after, be watchful. Why should we hurry to enter God’s rest and why does entering that rest require diligence? I think it is because we as human beings fall so easily into the trap of ‘working to earn’ (that’s the other Greek word for labor, ergazomai) – we work especially hard to earn something from God. While spoudazo does involve exertion, it does not mean we are exerting ourselves by working to earn something. Just the opposite in fact. It takes extreme effort – exertion – to stop working to earn – and the sooner we break free of that habit, the better. I don’t know about you, but it’s difficult for me to rest, to trust, to lean on Him, to stop trying to figure out and implement ways to save myself. I find it almost impossible to consistently trust His grace on a practical, daily basis. But maybe it’s more a function of my not understanding the real battle going on.

This Psalm tells me that if I could comprehend the seriousness of the battle I am in and the power of the enemies standing against me, I would understand that apart from the aid of one much stronger, bigger, and more powerful than I am, there is no hope of survival. Do you hear the breathlessness in the opening lines? “Had it not been the Lord — had it not been the Lord who was on our side…” This Psalmist knew for a fact that without the Lord’s help Israel had no hope of escape. Without God’s power and willingness to save them, Israel would have been utterly overwhelmed by their enemies.

At the same time, the Psalmist faithfully assures us that although our enemies have teeth able to tear us apart, there is One with the power to save. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Why would the Psalmist end his song of victory with a reference to creation if he didn’t mean to remind God’s people: If He made it all, can’t He command it all?

What kind of battle(s) are you facing today? Is it a battle from within or without (or both)? Do you realize your inability to save yourself from the circumstances you are in? Do you comprehend the power of your enemy and do you recognize your own weakness in the face of that power? For many years I heard people say “God will never give you more than you can handle.” They were trying to use 1 Corinthians 10:13 as encouragement, but a bit out of context. What I have learned over the years is that God always gives you more than you can handle – else you would never need to depend on His grace for help. I hope that on this side of your victory you can say with confidence, [My] help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth! In the midst of your battle, make haste to step aside, trust Him, and rest in His power and willingness to deliver.

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