If you know these words, sing them along with me:
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
This song started out as a gospel song in the early 1900s, but of course it’s strongly associated with the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. Pete Seeger wrote a few extra verses for it, Joan Baez really popularized it, and before you knew it, everyone was singing it. Even today, for those of us who are of a certain age, it can still stir our hearts and strengthen our resolve to work for a better world.
But I want to focus for a moment on the meaning of the word ‘shall’ in this song. What did it mean to the singers to sing ‘We shall overcome’? Because one thing is clear – it can’t possibly mean an absolute certainty that this is going to happen; it can’t mean “I know without a shadow of doubt that one day this is going to come to pass”. We human beings can’t have that sort of certainty in an uncertain world.
No – I would suggest to you that the ‘shall’ here is a ‘shall’ of determination. It’s trying to express the idea that we, working together, will make the world a better place. We are not going to allow the present state of affairs to continue. Together, we’re going to overcome it and build something better in its place.
At first sight, this seems very similar to a statement in our psalm for today, Psalm 125. Verse 3 says, ‘For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous’. And I can easily imagine the Old Testament people singing this psalm together in just the same way that black people in the United States sang ‘We Shall Overcome’. ‘The sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on our land – we will not allow it to happen’.
But this would miss out the whole thrust of the psalm. Psalm 125 is not primarily about our human efforts to make the world a better place; it’s about trust in the power of God to do what we can’t do for ourselves. The psalm begins with these words: ‘Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever’. (v.1). It’s only because God is trustworthy, and he has promised to overcome evil in the world, that we can even think of attempting to overcome it ourselves.
Let’s back up for a minute and think about this psalm as a whole. It’s a song, sung in ancient Israel, part of a collection of fifteen songs which are each introduced in the Book of Psalms by the heading ‘A Song of Ascents’. What does ‘A Song of Ascents’ mean? Most likely, it means that these were songs sung by pilgrims who were going up to Jerusalem at festival time – perhaps for Passover, or Pentecost. They would travel in groups – extended families, or people from the same village – and as they were going up the road to Jerusalem they would sing these songs together.
The New Testament tells us a story of Jesus going on such a pilgrimage when he was twelve years old. He and his parents were in a larger party, and they went up to the Passover festival together. We can imagine Joseph and Mary and Jesus and their friends singing this song as they got close to Jerusalem – there was the city, built on the hill of Zion, and there were the mountains, standing all around the city!
As the boy Jesus and his fellow-pilgrims sang this song, I can imagine them feeling two things very strongly. The first was the feeling of the security of Jerusalem in the protection of God, which is so clearly stated in the psalm. But the second was the pain that Jews would feel as they came to the city and saw the Fortress Antonia, the Roman headquarters, and they were reminded that the city was under the control of a foreign invader. It must have seemed as if ‘the sceptre of wickedness’ was indeed resting very heavily on the land allotted to the righteous!
Today we may well feel the same emotions as we come to worship. On the one hand we have a real sense of joy as we gather in this church this morning. This is a beautiful place, surrounded by the trees, full of light and full of people we know and love! Here we find the presence of God; we’re encouraged by his Word and we meet him in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I remember as a young Christian how I used to attend a little home Bible Study group on Thursday evenings. Thursdays were a brighter day for me because of it; I would go to school, and all day long I’d be thinking, “Tonight’s the night!” I was excited at the thought of going to be with my fellow Christians and meeting God there together.
So we have that excitement as we come here, but on the other hand, we can’t help but be conscious of ‘the sceptre of wickedness’. And it’s not just there in the obvious things – like the fact that it takes us twice as long to board an aircraft now because of all the security measures that are in place to protect us from the threat of terrorism. It’s more subtle things too, things that are present in a powerful way in our world today. The part of the world we live in has become such a greedy and materialistic place. Everyone seems to want ‘more, more, more’ – even though so many millions of people in the world live on less than two dollars a day. Richard Foster identified the three forces of money, sex, and power as things that can do a lot of good, but which are so easily subverted by evil, and can be used to cause untold suffering.
I find it really interesting to look carefully at verse 3 and see what the great fear of the songwriter is. It says, ‘For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, so that the righteous may not stretch out their hands to do wrong’. In other words, he’s worried that the influence of the dominant culture around them might cause God’s people to stray from the way of life God has taught them. He’s worried that peer pressure will cause God’s people to act just like the people who don’t follow God.
I think this is a huge issue for Christians today. Jesus calls us to be light for the world and salt for the earth – in other words, to have a good influence on the world around us – but so often it works the other way around and the church becomes just a mirror image of the surrounding culture. Many people today seem to worship success and believe that bigger is better, and some churches seem to work on the same principle. Many people believe that the one who dies with the most toys wins, and some of us Christians are infected by the same love of money and possessions. Many people seem to believe that violence can solve the problem of evil, and some Christians slip into this attitude, too. Many people seem to believe that sexual happiness comes from casting off restraints and doing what you like as long as no one gets hurt, and some Christians buy into the same myth.
So we have this tension in this psalm – on the one hand, real joy in the security of God’s protection, and, on the other, an awareness of the danger that the dominant culture, which doesn’t follow God’s ways, might squeeze God’s people into its own mould. Now, let’s think again for a moment of Jesus and his mum and mad, singing this song with their friends and relatives from Nazareth as they make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. If you like, this psalm is their ‘We Shall Overcome’ – except that the sentiment is not ‘We shall overcome’, but ‘God shall overcome’. As they sing it together, they are encouraged first by a simile, which we read in verses 1-2, and then by a prayer, which we read in verses 4-5.
First, then, the simile. Listen again to verses 1-2:
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the LORD surrounds his people,
from this time on and for evermore.
Mount Zion is the mountain on which the temple in Jerusalem was built; it was the centre of the city and the centre of the religious life of Israel. But it was not in fact the highest mountain in the area; apparently the mountains surrounding the city are higher than Mount Zion. The pilgrim poet who wrote this song saw that as a wonderful illustration of God’s protection of his people – just as all these high mountains surround the city of Jerusalem, so God surrounds his people and protects them from evil.
In historical context, this doesn’t mean the author believed that Jerusalem could never be attacked or defeated. In all likelihood the Songs of Ascents were written after God’s people returned from their exile in Babylon in the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ. That exile began when the Babylonian army destroyed the city and took many of its leading citizens into captivity. So the writer of this psalm knew that catastrophes could in fact befall God’s people, but he also knew that decades later God had brought his people back and restored their fortunes. In the long run, he believed that God’s protection for his people was sure.
So that’s the simile – God’s protection of his people is like the mountains that surround Jerusalem. Now look with me at the prayer in verses 4-5:
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
the LORD will lead away with evildoers.
Peace be upon Israel.
In this world, it often seems as if this prayer is not answered. Bad things happen to good people, and wicked people often seem to get their own way. This psalm looks forward to a time when this will not be the case. The writer of this psalm believes that God sees all that is done, God knows the secrets of every heart, and one day God will establish his kingdom of justice, love, and peace.
I want you to notice the difference between this hope on the one hand, and the popular belief of many Christians on the other. The popular Christian answer to the problem of evil in the world seems to run something like this: Lots of bad things happen in the world, but if we are good people, when we die God will take us to heaven, which is a completely good place where nothing evil is allowed. In other words, instead of God leading away the evildoers, it will be the good who God ‘leads away’, to a better place – presumably, leaving the earth to rot.
The Bible spells out a different plan. God is going to re-establish his loving rule on earth, purify it from all that is evil, and restore it to his original dream. In fact, the New Testament equivalent of this prayer in Psalm 125 is found in the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. The kingdom Jesus announced wasn’t about God’s people being evacuated from a hopelessly corrupted earth to the peaceful fields of heaven. Rather, it was about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth – the power and love of God coming to us in Jesus to set the world free again.
There’s an irony about the thought of Jesus singing this song on his pilgrimages to Jerusalem, when he himself was a huge part of the answer to this prayer. Jesus came announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom, and his death on the Cross was the decisive victory over the power of evil. The New Testament tells us that he is Lord of all; at present his Lordship is hidden, but one day it will be revealed to everyone, when ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.
So when this psalm says, ‘Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved…’, I’m inclined to think that the main thing that cannot be moved is our hope – our confidence that, despite all that we can see, one day the evil in the world will come to an end, because God has promised it.
But let’s not end there. I said at the beginning that this psalm is different from the song ‘We Shall Overcome’, in that the psalm doesn’t only express our determination to make things different, but also – and more importantly – our confidence in the power of God. This is vital, but it’s also important not to go to the other extreme. Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom, and we pray ‘Your kingdom come’, but we don’t just sit around and do nothing, waiting for God to answer our prayer. God calls us as a church to live as an outpost of the Kingdom. In the teaching of Jesus, he shows us the way of life we ought to live as kingdom people. We’re called to demonstrate to everyone what the Kingdom is all about, and work to spread it by our actions and our words.
So we have a promise to go on: ‘The sceptre of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous’. And in response we agree with this, and express our determination to do all we can to make it so. ‘The sceptre of wickedness shall not rest over the land allotted to the just’. In other words, with God’s help, and trusting in God’s promises, we will do all we can to make a difference. Amen; may it be so.