Psalm 124: Escaping a snare

If God be for us, who can be against us?

A song of ascent

This well-known verse is found not in the psalms but in Romans 8:31. It contains the same message as Psalm 124, and in particular the last verse which has become a standard line in many liturgies:

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

As another song of ascent (the fifth), Psalm 124 recalls and relishes divine protection and deliverance as good grounds for trust and a confident approach. When appearing with an associated Old Testament Exodus reading in the Lectionary — telling the story of the harsh slavery of the Hebrews and Moses saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter — it is particularly poignant:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
    —let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
    when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
    the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
    the raging waters.

The poet then imagines a bird avoiding the fowler’s trap:

The snare is broken and we have escaped (v. 7)

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 uncomfortably jingoistic ‘God is on our side’ statements. Such speeches and prayers have been written into the histories of victorious kings and armies over the centuries.

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? 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 with that 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.


This turns us to music, since this is the verse used in the refrain in The Emergent Psalter. All three entries in Psalms for All Seasons focus on the last line, mentioned earlier. This may be academic since few will have these books at home in times of distancing.

However if you have the ‘red hymn book’, TiS 79 is a Genevan setting called OLD 124th. It’s also the first offering in PFAS. Here is a recent recording:

Martin Luther wrote a setting for Psalm 124 entitled Wär Gott nicht mit uns, often linked with his setting of Psalm 121:

Opening line of the soprano part of Luther’s Wär Gott nicht mit uns.

“Guide my feet while I walk this path” has been a default choice sometimes here at South Woden, even though the connection of refrain to the psalm is indirect. Here is a song sheet: Ps124 Guide my feet, or there is also a simpler version in New Century 497.

Pleading for familial and social unity in all nations, Mount Hermon to the Hill of Zion, this next example of beautiful psalm singing is added in support of BLM and all movements against discrimination. You can find the words, which after the opening statement only loosely follow those of the psalm, on the Youtube file:

The pianist, rolling it out with ease with scarcely a glance at the keys, was Andrae Crouch (1942 – 2015), who is sometimes credited with bringing contemporary music, blended with gospel roots, into Christian worship.

An even more exuberant live performance of this song by Jennifer Holliday is also available.