At first glance, the psalm we’ll say together on Sunday seems, well, problematic (Psalm 123):
To you I lift up my eyes,
to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
until he show us his mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy,
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,
and of the derision of the proud.
The opening lines begin traditionally enough, reminding us of our covenantal and salvific relationship with the Divine. We metaphorically “lift up our eyes” to our Lord because God sits “enthroned in the heavens”-an image that captures both authority and majesty, particularly in comparison to human proportions, in a single phrase. (It also parallels Ezekiel, though from the opposite direction of Ezekiel 2:1-5 and God’s sending a prophet to rather than drawing our eyes up from.) Even as we are in relationship, the Almighty remains far beyond the community of believers, forcing our perception of the world into a higher register simply by being in said relationship, simply by the dynamics of our faith.
For me, issues start to arise as we continue into the next several couplets, especially the next verse. By using the language of “servants,” “maids,” and subservience to their “masters” or “mistress,” the psalmist would seem to be confusing their rhetorical arc. Instead of elevating our awareness, these lines appear to too actively seek for a parallel within human society. In the relationship between those who serve and those being served, our covenant would be reduced to something transactional and mundane. Rather than God offering a new way of being, our worship would become something that reflects the same patterns as the world around us, become something business-like and stratified. The next verse even affirms this possibility, emphasizing that we “look to the Lord our God” to “show us his mercy.” We look to the heavens, in other words, for the same kind of reward or punishment that we find in the systems here on earth. We look to “the Lord our God” the way that we would look to authorities here on earth. The problem is that those systems and the fulcrums of class and race that they all too often turn upon are a far cry from the heavens.
The Bible, however, is almost always more complicated than we allow it to be, more complicated than it first appears, and the psalm upends our expectations just as they are reaching their pitch in our disquiet. When the psalmist pleads with the Lord to “have mercy” “for we have had more than enough contempt,” it sounds like a servant or maid begging a callous employer for more lenience. It sounds like we are asking God to lessen Divine contempt. Yet the final couplet confounds this simplistic reading. Rather than seeing God as the ultimately iteration of human expectations, the last verse makes clear that it is “the indolent rich” and the derisive “proud” that are the source of the psalmist’s suffering. Instead of reaffirming society’s roles, the psalm ultimately illustrates how far they can be from our Savior’s hope for us. So, we have to ask ourselves: are we ready to lay down those expectations? Are we ready to admit to ourselves when we might be indolent or proud despite our best intentions? Are we ready to lift our eyes from our habitual patterns of behavior and seek to live mercy instead? In short, how will we treat the prophets among us when they begin to say, “Thus says the Lord God...” (Ezekiel 2:4)?
*Yes, this title is definitely a reference to one of my all-time favorite movies, The Prince of Egypt--this song, in particular.