Psalm 123 is a song of ascent. These short and hopeful songs, sometimes called degrees or Graduals, are grouped as Psalms 120 to 134. The songs of ascent have a particular fascination. They have a message and it’s economical. They challenge. This one, with only four verses, is short and bitter-sweet. Isaac Everett says of this psalm:1
The thing I love about the psalms of ascent is that they are so simple and short, yet they say everything they need to say.
Two themes are mingled: the psalmist declares (i) trust in divine love and protection, while (ii) hoping for mercy and relief from injustice from the ‘indolent rich’ and proud. (4) Unfortunately, progress against oppression is often slow. Ascent towards justice is not straight-forward or easy. Climbers are motivated by hope and belief that the effort will be worthwhile. Often it’s a long drag.
So the psalm could just as well have been written for today’s inequalities; it uses the image of looking faithfully to a benevolent authority, seeking a time when the dominance of the proud and the rich might be at least ameliorated, if not completely countered. ‘We have had more than enough of contempt’ (3) from those who should be statesmen and leaders.
Musical settings of Psalm 123, perhaps due to its brevity, are relatively few. Together in Song skips this one; there are a couple of early settings by Palestrina and Hassler that are beyond our reach; and the Genevan and similar psalters have hymns rather than responsorials. However, some regular sources include nice congregational refrains:
TEP offers the penitential theme, ‘Have mercy on us’, with simple tune and chords
Linnea Good in a nice SATB setting concentrates on the single phrase, ‘To you I lift up my eyes’, from verse 1.
David Haas in PFAS takes a hopeful view: Our eyes rest on you, awaiting your kindness.
1 The Emergent Psalter, page 243