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Psalm 123

A primer on prayer

People in the psalmist’s day whose prosperity had made them arrogant scorned and abused those they considered beneath them. The psalmist models the godly response to such abuse.

A song of ascents.

I lift up my eyes to you—
to you enthroned in the heavens.
2 Like the eyes of slaves
fixed on their masters’ hand—
the eyes of the lowest slave-girl
fixed on her mistress’s hand—
so our eyes are fixed on Yahveh our God
until he has mercy on us.

3 Have mercy on us, Yahveh
have mercy!
For we’ve had more than our fill of contempt.
4 We’ve had more than our fill
of scorn from those who have it easy
and contempt from the high-and-mighty.

The psalmist looks upward to God, enthroned amidst all the splendor of the light-filled heavens, its sun and moon moving at his command, its nighttime glory dazzling before the advent of artificial light. Puny mortals could approach so great a king only by invitation, humbly, acknowledging their place as slaves—scullery maids. On the bottom rung in relation to him.

Eye contact indicates equality, so the slave doesn’t presume to make eye contact. But that doesn’t keep the psalmist from being keen-eyed, watching his master’s hand, waiting for Yahveh to beckon, asking for mercy, totally undeserved love. And despite his humility, the psalmist won’t be denied, won’t take his eyes off his master’s hand till he extends it to him in mercy because he and his people have no other hope. They’re drenched in the scorn and abuse of those who—smug in their relative ease—hold them in contempt.

God welcomes such humble audacity in prayer since he revealed himself at Sinai as “gracious and merciful… overflowing in love that never fails” (Ex. 34:6). Ironically, his people can look to the God of the universe for the mercy the tin-pot bullies immediately above them withhold. Their hope lies in God, who will one day end all oppression and cleanse the earth of all contempt.

Jesus, you called us to this very sort of humbly tenacious prayer. So help me keep my eyes on you, intent on your mercy, refusing to take your delay as denial. And as someone who can’t possibly live without your mercy, help me to extend it to others as freely as you’ve given it to me. Amen.

Pray this prayer during your free moments today:

Like the eyes of slaves fixed on their masters’ hand—
the eyes of the lowest slave-girl fixed on her mistress’s hand—
so our eyes are fixed on Yahveh our God until he has mercy on us.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.