August 10, 2010 David Balzer

Psalm 124: “If It Wasn’t For God…”

“If not for the LORD, we’d never have survived!”

The year was 1582. The place was Edinburgh, Scotland. And Protestant Scots were fighting for freedom from Catholic persecution.

But it was more than just a fight against the church. The church and the Scottish government were almost inseparable. They were THE ESTABLISHMENT. So the Protestants were fighting A REVOLUTION.

And it was no mild religious disagreement either. Protestant believers had been regularly burned at the stake since 1528. Presbyterian congregations, independent from the Catholic church, had been forming and growing since 1555.

By 1560, French and English troops had left Scotland, with John Knox a key mover and shaker.

The two decades that followed saw plenty more battles with the Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots, and others. But the Protestant church was on the rise.

By 1582 there were still conflicts and disagreements. Such as the one which happened to John Durie. A minister of the Church of Scotland. I’ll read from a history of the church in Scotland.

“John Durie became conspicuous in the conflicts between the King and the Church, and for preaching against the Government restrictions. On 23rd May 1582, he was called before the Privy Council and ordered to QUIT EDINBURGH and desist from preaching”.

“By and by he was permitted to return, when he was met and welcomed by a great concourse of people, on 4th Sept. 1582. At the Nether Bow they took up the 124th Psalm, `Now Israel may say, and that truly,’ If that the Lord had not our cause maintained, when cruel men against us furiously, rose up in wrath to make us their prey. Then certainly they’d have devoured us all.

They sang it in such a pleasant tune, in all the four parts, these being well known to the people, who came up the street bareheaded and singing, till they entered the kirk.

This had such a sound and majesty as affected themselves and the huge multitude of beholders who looked over the shots and forestairs with admiration and amazement. The English Duke, Lennox himself was a witness, and he tore his beard for anger, being more affrayed at this sight than anything he had ever seen since he came to Scotland.

When they entered the kirk, a Mr Lawson made a short exhortation in the reader’s place to thankfulness, and after the singing of a psalm the people departed with great joy”

If not for the LORD, we’d never have survived! If it wasn’t for God’s help, I don’t know WHAT I would have done!

It’s a song that’s come from the mouths of God’s people for thousands of years. Right back in Moses’ time. On the shores of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army drowned in front of them. Israel SANG. The Song of Moses. A song of praise to the God who rescued them.

(Exo 15:1-2 NIV)  Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. {2} The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

If not for the LORD, we’d never have survived! If it wasn’t for God’s help, I don’t know WHAT I would have done!

And many of US have sung that song at one time or another in the last few years.

When Ross was going through such a tough time a few years ago, he told me that God strengthened him through reading the Psalms. When nothing else made any sense, or had any meaning. When he was at his lowest point, God spoke to him, and kept him, and held him.

Daphne’s been through some HUGE struggles in the last couple of years. Health and family concerns. And it’s been God’s comfort and strength, seen through his word, and through the care of his people, that’s enabled Daphne to make it through.

(Lorraine, Graeme)

Max has been struggling with terminal cancer for years. The doctors say he should be dead. But he’s not. And his cheerfulness, and strength, and confidence, and hope in God, are a real encouragement to me. And to many others.

As he looks back over the last few years. He can see God’s hand in so many areas. Guiding, helping, healing, protecting, revealing himself.

And this song that God’s people sing/ is a song about LOOKING BACK. Did you notice that?

Last week, Gordon took us through Ps 123

(Psa 123 NIV)  I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. {2} As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, … so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy. {3} Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt. … from the proud,

That’s the song of someone who’s IN THE MIDDLE of the suffering. And by the end of the Psalm, there’s no relief. God hasn’t answered. There’s no rescue.

But then we come to Psalm 124. And it’s about LOOKING BACK. And the mood is completely different. Because God HAS acted. He HAS come through. And delivered. Or healed. Or protected. Or brought justice.

And isn’t that often the case with us? It’s only as WE LOOK BACKWARDS that we can see God’s hand. It’s only in RETROSPECT that we can see any reason to cheer.

Because when you’re in the middle of something terrible, God seems distant. As if he’s nowhere to be found. Or not interested. And the last thing you feel like doing is CELEBRATING.

And yet, CELEBRATION is what THIS PSALM is about. Looking back, and cheering.

And we can break it into THREE SECTIONS.

Verses 1 to 5 describe what MIGHT have happened. Then verses 6 and 7 describe what DID happen. And then finally in v8, we find out WHY. Why things turned out the way they did.

1. What MIGHT HAVE happened (v1-5)

So let’s look at the first section. What MIGHT have happened.

Remember, it’s a song. A song that Israel sang as they travelled up to Jerusalem. Or that they sang when they GOT there. A song of ASCENTS.

And it seems like the first part of the Psalm is the leader singing. “If the LORD had not been on our side”. And then he calls for the rest of the group to join in. Let all Israel join in with me!

(Psa 124:2-3 NIV)  if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us, {3} when their anger flared against us,

They’re thinking back to some tough time. Perhaps WAR, or EXILE. Or maybe even just the RIDICULE of unbelievers.

They’d been the target of ANGER and VIOLENCE. Of ATTACK.

And then comes the hypothetical. What WOULD have happened if God hadn’t been on their side.

(Psa 124:3-5 NIV)  they WOULD have swallowed us alive; {4} the flood WOULD have engulfed us, the torrent WOULD have swept over us, {5} the raging waters WOULD have swept us away.

Terrible images about the DANGER they were in. A huge shark, with razor-sharp teeth swallows you alive. A huge tsunami wave bears down on you relentlessly. And sweeps you away.

That’s what MIGHT have happened.

2. What DID happen (6-7)

But it DIDN’T. They AVOIDED the danger. That’s why they’re celebrating.

In the second part of the Psalm, we hear what DID happen INSTEAD.

(Psa 124:6-7 NIV)  Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. {7} We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.

Miraculous escape. The shark bearing down. But at the last second, someone in the boat shoots it dead. The tsunami roaring towards you, carrying everything before it. And as you cling to a tree trunk with the water dragging you away. At the last second, a hand grabs you, and pulls you up into the tree.

That’s escape. That’s rescue that’s worth CELEBRATING.

Celebrating like those Scottish Christians, as John Durie came back to his church. Unharmed. And so the good news continues to be preached.

Celebrating like Israel did as they stood on the far shore of the Red Sea. An hour before they’d been racing across the sea floor. Desperately trying to beat Pharaoh’s chariots. But then the waters closed over. And Egypt drowned.

They COULD have perished. But God rescued them.

3. Why? (8)

We’ve seen what MIGHT have happened. We’ve seen what DID happen. And then, finally, we see WHY/ Why things have turned out the way they did.

It’s the climax of the Psalm. The lesson that’s been learned through the whole episode. Look at it there in v8.

(Psa 124:8 NIV)  Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Why are we celebrating, rather than mourning? Why are we throwing a PARTY, rather than a FUNERAL?

It’s been hinted at back in v2

IF THE LORD HAD NOT BEEN ON OUR SIDE when men attacked us… they’d have swallowed us alive.

But here’s the conclusion. Because our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Three points to notice. First their help isn’t just in the LORD, but in the NAME of the Lord. Someone’s NAME is their REPUTATION. Their CHARACTER.

Our confidence that God will help is because that’s his CHARACTER. His nature. He CONSISTENTLY and REGULARLY hears and rescues and saves. And restores and forgives. It’s what he DOES. It’s WHO HE IS.

The stories of the Bible SHOW us the character of this God who LISTENS and who SAVES.

The second thing to say. Is that our help is in the name of THE LORD. Notice it’s in capitals? That’s the way our English Bibles write YAHWEH, or JEHOVAH. God’s covenant name. His relationship name. The name he told Moses at the burning bush. When Moses wanted to SEE GOD. God revealed himself in HIS NAME.

Yahweh is the God who commits himself to his people. A COVENANT. An eternal promise of relationship. THAT’S the God who helps his people.

And the third thing to say about v8 is that he’s THE CREATOR OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. He MADE it out of nothing by his WORD. He MAINTAINS every part of it by that SAME WORD. Nothing is outside of his control, or his ability to change, or move, or influence, or destroy, or create.

He’s the God of the whole Universe. There’s nowhere that’s outside his jurisdiction. Or beyond his sphere of influence.

That’s the God we CELEBRATE and PRAISE when he hears us. When he comes through and rescues us.

4. What about when he DOESN’T rescue?

And yet, there’s a problem, isn’t there? Have you asked the same question I’ve been asking this week as I’ve been thinking about this Ps?

What about when God DOESN’T rescue?

What about when the Christian DOES die from cancer, or is swept away in the tsunami, or the missionary IS martyred in Sth America, or Pakistan. Or the only son drowns at the beach, or dies of SIDS. Or the daughter suffers permanent brain injury from the car accident.

What about when the Chinese Christian is imprisoned, and tortured? Who’s goods are confiscated? Who’s refused work?

Where does all THAT fit in?

The non-Christian will lean towards one of three answers. Either God’s not there at all. And the world is just a random assortment of unconnected events. With NO purpose and meaning and hope.

Or else God IS there. But he’s either not GOOD ENOUGH to protect his people. Or he WANTS to, but he’s not POWERFUL enough to SAVE them.

And it’s these same three positions that people are taking/ about the TSUNAMI. Either God’s not THERE, or he’s not GOOD. Or he’s not POWERFUL.

But that’s not what THIS Psalm is saying. It argues against EACH of those positions.

Of course God’s THERE. They’ve EXPERIENCED him. If he wasn’t/ they’d have been torn apart.

And of course God’s GOOD – that’s who God is – his NAME is Yahweh. He’s committed to being GOOD for his people. He HEARS and RESCUES.

And of COURSE God’s POWERFUL enough. He’s the Maker of heaven and earth, for goodness sake!

So, obviously THOSE answers won’t do. But what IS the answer? If God is there, and good, and powerful. Why IS IT that THIS PSALM isn’t the experience of many Christians?

I think we’ve got four problems when we ask this question.

a)    We’re too impatient

First, we’re TOO IMPATIENT.

Everything happens in God’s timing. God’s plan MAY be to rescue, or to heal, or to save. But just NOT YET. His timing’s PERFECT. Notice what v2 says

(Psa 124:2 NIV)  if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us,

God was THERE/ WHILE men were attacking. He hadn’t rescued YET. But rescue was COMING. And when it did, they could say

(Psa 124:6 NIV)  Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth.

So don’t be impatient. God’s timing’s PERFECT. Keep praying. Keep praying for HEALING. Keep praying for your friend or relative to become a Christian. Keep praying for JUSTICE. Keep praying for DELIVERANCE.

b)    We’re too blind

The second mistake we make is that we’re TOO BLIND. By that I mean that WE look a tough situation, and see ONE THING, but when God looks at it, he sees SOMETHING ELSE. We don’t see things the way God does.

We see SICKNESS, and want it HEALED.

We see PERSECUTION and think it’s best if it STOPS.

We see TRIALS and think it’s in our best interest if we ESCAPE them.

But that’s not necessarily what GOD sees. Listen to 1 Peter 1:6-8.

“Now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

God sees trials like PHYSICAL EXERCISE. Hard work – but VITAL to BUILD YOU UP. Make you FIT. As you go through tough times, God uses them to refine your FAITH. To TRAIN you to put your trust in God.

And so for God to SAVE or RESCUE might mean something different to what WE want. It may NOT mean that he heals the daughter of brain injury. But that he gives mum the strength and perseverance to COPE. And works in other Christians to provide her with what she needs to survive. And her faith grows.

But when tough times come. And we DON’T trust God, it often shows itself in WORRY. Worry is basically not trusting God for the future. Not trusting his timing, or his power, or his love, or his wisdom.

And God sees trials as opportunities for us to BUILD our trust. And to SQUASH our worry.

I need to confess something. My THEORY tells me this is true. But I’m not so good at the PRACTICAL. I’m a bit of a SLOW LEARNER. As well as preparing the talk this week, I’ve been trying to fix my computer. The hard drive is failing. And I’ve been trying to install a new hard drive. And to get it working properly.

And it’s been causing me sleepless nights. Trying to work out how to fix things properly. How to get everything done that needs to be done. WORRYING about how to write a sermon about NOT worrying when God brings trials. But to TRUST HIM instead.

It took me ‘til Thursday morning to work it out. My FAITH grows when I commit my week to HIM, hand the problems over to him. And trust that things will work out HIS WAY. In his TIME.

It’s this problem of BEING BLIND TO GOD’S PURPOSES that people are having trouble with / about the ASIAN TSUNAMI.

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose. And yet, we struggle to see how “GOOD” could ever come out of this.

And yet, there’ve been HINTS. Buddhism is one of the last frontiers for Christian mission. Harder perhaps even than Islam to win people to Christ.

And all through the region, Christian mission aid organisations are helping Buddhist countries. Perhaps this is God’s way of opening up these countries to the gospel.

The Maldives is one of the most closed countries in the world. It’s a group of islands of the coast of India. A diving and tourist mecca. But not even TOURISTS can stay on most of the islands. And certainly no MISSIONARIES are allowed.

The Islamic government in Indonesia recognise the risk. They’ve moved to restrict foreign aid workers to certain areas. They’ve set a date for the workers to leave, and to hand over operations to the locals.

Perhaps this is part of God’s plan in the midst of this tragic event. When we can’t see God’s rescue. Perhaps we’re too blind to his purposes.

c)    we’re too individualistic

The third mistake we make is that we’re TOO INDIVIDUALISTIC. We read about God’s rescuing of HIS PEOPLE. And we assume it will always work for INDIVIDUALS.

But look at the Psalm. It’s THE WHOLE OF GOD’S PEOPLE who are singing it. “If the Lord had not been on OUR side when men attacked US they would have swallowed US alive. WE have escaped. OUR help is in the name of the Lord.”

And that’s often the experience of HISTORY.– the song of God’s people throughout history. Israel finally made it to the Promised Land. But a whole generation fell in the wilderness. But on the big scale, God brought HIS PEOPLE home.

John Durie and the Scottish Protestants could sing of God’s rescue and protection of his people. But hundreds of their fathers had been martyred for the cause. Yet on the big scale, God established and built his church.

The Chinese church has suffered terrible persecution for a hundred years. Many individual Christians have suffered death. Yet God is growing and building and protecting his people in Chinese, such that the church is still growing at a phenomenal rate.

And we can take great encouragement in the fact that God WILL keep his church.

That’s our third problem. We’re too individualistic.

d)    We’re too short-sighted

And the final mistake we make when we question God’s protection is that we’re TOO SHORT-SIGHTED. We think that if God allows a Christian to die of cancer, or to be martyred. Then he’s FAILED. He HASN’T protected.

But that’s not THE CHRISTIAN HOPE. Our ULTIMATE protection is eternity with God. He’s protected us from judgment, and hell, and death, and punishment. That’s the GREATEST rescue of ALL.

The rescue of God sending Jesus to earth. To live, and to die in our place. And to be raised from death. So that we could ALSO conquer death.

When we focus on the SHORT-term rescue. And forget about God’s ULTIMATE rescue – which is much more important – we make a mistake. 1 Peter 1:3-5 puts it well.

(1 Pet 1:3-5 NIV)  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, {4} and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, {5} who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

That’s our ULTIMATE rescue. That’s the rescue that’s worth CELEBRATING. That’s worth SINGING ABOUT.

No matter WHAT trials God brings in THIS life. (Psa 124:8 NIV)  Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

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