Psalm 124 is listed as a song of ascent, justified by its buoyant, almost triumphant tone. However, it can also present as one of those uncomfortable ‘God is on our side’ statements. Such speeches and prayers have been written into the histories of victorious kings and armies over the centuries.
1 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side —let Israel now say— 2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, 3 then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; 4 then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; 5 then over us would have gone the raging waters.
These days, having seen the widespread disaster and human suffering caused by wars over many centuries, the idea of the holy war with divine blessing is not acceptable. Thou shalt not kill?
[Easy to say. What about the 'just war', multilateral intervention under the UN concept of Responsibility to Protect? Throw-away lines, questions without answers, food for thought.]
In this case, the particular historical background is that of Abraham’s people searching for the promised land. Riffs of divine guidance and protection are ingrained threads running through the story of the escape from Egypt and beyond. Not unreasonable, given the evidence.
And paired in the Lectionary this week with the story of Esther, it makes even more sense, as she convinced King Ahaseurus to save her people from Naaman’s plan to kill all Jews.
Another traditional interpretation was that the ‘enemies’ represent evil, corruption and human failings. An even wider view might suggest that reference to divine spiritual and behavioural standards, often mentioned in the Psalter, should inspire, strengthen and guide us in overcoming the many concerns and challenges that surround us in life.
Musical settings are not abundant for this psalm. The Genevan Psalter and Presbyterian books offer the OLD 124th, which also appears in Together in Song 79 and Psalms for All Seasons 124A.
Martin Luther wrote one entitled Wär Gott nicht mit uns, often linked with his setting of Psalm 121:
The responsorial PFAS 124B has an easy and effective refrain quoting the last verse, Our help is in the name of the Lord. The verses may be sung to a tone or lightly improvised tune.
And finally, here is an Anglican Psalm 124 from the Norwich Cathedral choir:
A good gospel song based on the early verses may be seen on the main page, Psalm 124: Escaping a snare.