This is the first of another set of three psalms contained with the songs of ascents where the psalmist is making their way towards Jerusalem. The response to the plea of relief is developed in the following psalm and fully realised in Psalm 125. Most of the songs of degrees (ascents) commence by either looking to the Lord or immediately turning their attention to Him.
The setting of this psalm has been debated. Some state that it is not possible to be definitive about the historical background. Gill typically draws on a number of Jewish sources and notes that Aben Ezra thought it referred to either captivity or a siege, whilst Kimchi observes that the psalmist speaks in the language of the captivity.[i]
Both the internal cross references in some study Bibles and several noteworthy commentators establish a connection between this psalm and Nehemiah 2:19 and 4:2. Unger is certain that the historical setting is Israel following the exile when Samaria, Moab, Ammon and Arabia (Nehemiah 2:19), were opposed to her.[ii] In support, Wiersbe concurs with Unger and adds that this psalm speaks concerning the God enthroned in heaven whose hand would work for His people evidenced in Ezra and Nehemiah[iii]
Looking at both Nehemiah 2:19-20 and 4:1-8, the derisory comments of Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem in those locations agree with Unger’s and Wiersbe’s premise since Nehemiah looked to the God of heaven (Nehemiah 2:20; c.f. Psalm 123:1) and their opponents were similarly scornful. Furthermore they prayed for speedy deliverance from their foes who despised them (Nehemiah 4:4).
Looking to the Lord in the Heavens
The psalmist did what every believer must do. Their attention was diverted away from the immediate problems of having their souls exceedingly filled with the scorn of those at ease and the contempt of the proud, to looking heavenward. In this case it most likely refers to when Nehemiah laid out his problems to the Lord and chose not to listen to Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem, but continued, prudently and determinedly, building the walls of Jerusalem.
Bitter antisemitism under its numerous guises and ideologies is an ancient problem that continues to resurface. Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes and regularly contrasted things under the sun and things under heaven, contrasting human philosophies of various kinds with godly wisdom from heaven. He counselled to remember our Creator and to fear God and His commandments since that is our duty and the Lord will bring all that we have done under His judgement. Therefore it is imperative that we bring our matters before Him.
There is clearly some Hebraic parallelism in the structure especially concerning the eyes of the servants looking to the hands of their masters and the eyes of the handmaidens looking to the eyes of their mistress and the believer’s eyes looking to the Lord our God (Psalm 123:2). One interpreter notes that Hebrew scholars state this psalm has the distinction of having more rhyme than any other comparable unit of Scripture.[iv]
The Hand of God
MacArthur notices something of greater importance since the psalmist is arguing from the lesser to the greater regarding the human to the divine and the earthly to the heavenly, so that we look to the Lord for our needs.[v] This is known as a “qal wahomer” argument which was one of Hillel’s principles of interpretation. This argues from light to heavy or minor to major matters, so that what applies in a lesser instance, applies all the more in a similar context in a greater instance.
Several commentators stress careful attention to the servants and maidservants “looking to the hands” of their masters and mistresses. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown stated that in the East, servants whilst waiting on their masters are almost entirely directed by their signs requiring close observance of their hands.[vi]Williams notes that in the East, masters direct their servants with their hands, not their voice and helpfully adds that God’s hand directs, supplies, protects, comforts, caresses, corrects and rewards His servants.[vii]In further support for the above and the context with reference to Nehemiah’s setting, Wiersbe notes the “hand of God” is found in Ezra 7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31 and Nehemiah 2:8, 18 and that the “God of heaven” is mentioned in Ezra 1:2; 5-11-12; 6:9-10; 7:12, 21, 23 and Nehemiah 1:4; 2:4.[viii] (Remember that in the Jewish Canon Ezra-Nehemiah constitutes one book rather than Nehemiah following as a separate book immediately after Ezra).
The believer can therefore look to God to supply all their needs according to His riches and mercy and seek deliverance from embittered enemies. Three times in this psalm the psalmist seeks God’s mercy from those who would seek to cause them harm. The psalmist mentions the contempt they face on two occasions and being exceedingly filled with contempt and facing the scorn of those at ease. Nehemiah had his eyes so fixed on the Lord and his work of rebuilding Jerusalem that he refused to divert his focus on their false accusations or distractions and encouraged those under his command to continue. He recognised the hand of the Lord upon them.
Have you ever encountered the God of heaven or sensed the hand of God upon your life? The truths of God’s word are timeless and apply today both in the problems we might face and the faithfulness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Undoubtedly Jesus the Messiah would have sung these psalms as he made His way from Galilee to Jerusalem to keep the feasts; He was a Man despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, but He personally suffered more than any other.[ix] Yet He knows our every weakness and relates to all our sorrows, though in Him is deliverance since He is the Saviour. Look to the Lord since His arm is not too short to save. He is coming again to Jerusalem and from there He will judge and rule and reign and bring shalom (peace).
[i] John Gill on Psalm 123 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/geb/psalms-123.html
[ii] Merrill F. Unger Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (AMG, 2002; Chattanooga), p946
[iii] Warren W. Wiersbe Wiersbe’s Bible Commentary The Complete Old Testament in one volume (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p1024
[iv] J. Flanigan What the Bible Teaches Psalms (John Ritchie Ltd, 2001; Kilmarnock), p553
[v] John MacArthur The MacArthur Study Bible (Crossway, 2001; Illinois), p847
[vi] Jamieson, Fausset & Brown Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Zondervan, 1961;Grand Rapids), p453
[vii] George Williams William’s Complete Bible Commentary (Kregel, 1994, Grand Rapids), p401
[viii] Wiersbe, p1024
[ix] Flanigan, p554