Have any of you read Tom Clancy’s novel ‘Patriot Games’? Or maybe seen the 1992 Harrison Ford movie based on the book?
Tom Clancy took the title of his book from a song by an Irish singer-songwriter and political activist called Dominic Behan. It was called ‘The Patriot Game’, and it tells the story of the death of a man called Fergal O’Hanlon in an IRA raid on a police barracks on January 1st1957. A few years later Bob Dylan ripped off the tune, stole the theme, and wrote his own song around it, ‘With God on our Side’. It highlights how in wartime we always assume that our cause is just and that God – if there is a God – is our ally. It goes through the Indian wars, the American civil war, the Spanish-American war, and the two great world wars of the twentieth century, and it ends up in 1963:
I’ve learned to hate Russians all through my whole life
If another war starts it’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them to run and to hide
And accept it all bravely with God on my side
But now we got weapons of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to, then fire them we must
One push of the button and a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions when God’s on your side
I couldn’t help thinking of this song as I read the first three verses of our psalm for today, Psalm 124. In our BAS version they read as follows:
If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive,
in their fierce anger toward us.
Words like these sound alarm bells in our minds. We live in a time when religious fanatics fly aircraft into tall buildings, killing thousands of innocent people, in the assurance that they’re doing God’s will and carrying out his judgement on the Great Satan. In response, we’ve seen soldiers sent off to fight wars in foreign lands with the speeches of politicians ringing in their ears, assuring them that right was on their side and God’s blessing was on them. Going back a little further, I’ve visited many churches in the country of my birth and seen war memorials up on the walls, with the names of those killed in the Great War and the Second World War, under the heading ‘For God and for Country’.
But that phrase wears a little thin after a while. I know my country sent off its young men in the hundreds of thousands, and at home their moms and dads and wives and children were all praying desperately that God would save their loved ones from death and bring them safely home. But of course, on the other side moms and dads and wives and children were praying exactly the same prayers for their own precious loved ones. How would God sort out those prayers?
With these questions in our minds, it can be a shock to us to come to the words of our psalm for today, claiming that ‘the Lord was on our side’. It reminds us of the many, many times when armies have gone on wars of conquest in the name of God. Can we still use this psalm today? After all, we claim to follow Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. So is this psalm still relevant for us, and can it somehow help us in our prayers?
Let’s step back for a minute and remind ourselves of what exactly the book of Psalms is all about. My Old Testament professor in college used to say, ‘The rest of the Bible speaks tous, but the psalms speak forus’. The rest of the Bible gives us stories and sermons, laws and prophecies, gospels and visions, all addressed to us in the name of God. But the Psalter is different; it’s a hymn book, a book of prayers. We can use those prayers in one of two ways; we can pray them ‘as is’ – as we do in church every week – or we can use them as a model for our own prayers.
If you read the psalms you’ll see they really do cover every situation of life. If you’re rejoicing over the birth of a child or celebrating a royal wedding, there’s a psalm for that. If you’re full of bitterness because a friend has let you down, or you’re blind with rage because your city has just been destroyed by a foreign army, there’s a psalm for that too. If you’re full of wonder at the night sky or the variety of God’s natural creation – if you’re desperate with fear at impending danger, or delirious with joy at a miraculous deliverance – if you’re old and close to death – if you feel guilty for your sins – in all these situations and many more, you can find a prayer in the book of Psalms that speaks for you.
But it’s important to remember this: the psalms aren’t meant to teach us accurate theology or Christian moral principles. That’s not what they are. They’re poetry, and they obey the conventions of poetic speech, not theological textbooks or lists of commandments. If we approach them looking for ethical guidance we can sometimes get into real trouble.
Let me give you an example. Psalm 137 was written by Israelites who’d been dragged away from their homeland into captivity. Fresh in their mind was the awful experience of seeing their city destroyed by the enemy army. First had come the siege and all its privations: the hunger, the thirst, the growing fear and desperation. Then the enemy army had broken through the wall, and there followed the sack of the city – houses looted and burned, soldiers killed, women raped, children slaughtered, and a remnant taken away as prisoners to a foreign land. There they sat down by the river and wept, remembering their loved ones who had been slaughtered and their beautiful city that had been destroyed. And so they said,
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.
For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137:1-3 BAS)
Did they pray that God would help them forgive their enemies? They did not. They were not afraid to pray exactly what was on their hearts, and so the end of the psalm goes like this:
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock! (vv.8-9 BAS).
As Christians we might find ourselves asking, “Why is this in the Bible?” And the answer is, it’s in the Bible to teach us to tell the truth when we pray. There’s no point praying prayers full of sweetness and light when what’s really inside us is hatred and rage. There’s no point praying prayers telling God that we love to do his will when really we’re angry with God and the last thing we want to do is the thing he’s calling us to. Why would we lie to God? What’s the point, when he knows everything about us?
Psalms like this encourage us to share every part of our life with God. Every experience, every emotion, can become part of our prayer life. And once it’s acknowledged, then we can look at it in the cool light of day – and in the light of the teachings of Jesus – and ask ourselves, “Is this something I need to grow out of? Is this something I need to repent of?” But as long as we don’t pray about it – as long as we pretend it’s not there – that growth can never happen.
So let’s go back to our psalm for today – a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of Israel from their enemies. We would love to know what the situation was that first prompted this psalm to be written, but the truth is that we just don’t know that. What isclear is that it was a time of great trouble for Israel. Israel was the underdog, in a position of weakness, and in real danger of being destroyed. The writer of the psalm is a true poet and uses no less than four poetic images to describe this. First he sees the enemy as some sort of monster who would have eaten them up: ‘Then would they have swallowed us up alive in their fierce anger toward us’ (v.3). Secondly he uses flood imagery: ‘Then would the waters have overwhelmed us and the torrent gone over us’ (v.4). Third, he sees the enemy as a wild animal with sharp teeth: ‘Blessed be the Lord! He has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth’ (v.6). Fourthly, he uses the image of a hunter setting a trap to catch birds: ‘We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped’ (v.7).
This is not an army going out in a war of conquest against its enemies. This is not a prayer prayed by terrorists about to murder innocent people. This is the prayer of the people of a small city somehow miraculously delivered from an enemy of overwhelming strength. It seemed as if their fate was sealed – burning, looting, rape, killing, captivity – but against all odds, they were delivered. And their instinctive response was to cry out to God in thanksgiving. We understand that, because we do the same thing. How many times have you heard someone say, “Someone must have been looking out for me today”? That’s not a sophisticated theological statement; it’s the natural response of a heart full of relief and gratitude.
Can we use this psalm today? I believe we can.
Who is our real enemy? Part of the genius of Jesus was that he redefined who the enemy really was. Jesus taught that our most dangerous enemies aren’t foreign armies, but the evil and sin that infect all of us. The line between good and evil isn’t black and white; there’s good and evil in all of us, and from time to time we’ve all felt the sense of failure to overcome our own inner demons. How many times have you met addicts who just can’t seem to get free from the overwhelming desire to drink or do drugs? How many people do you know who struggle to control a bad temper, or realize their greed is destroying their marriage? Every day, in a hundred different ways, my sins trip me up and hold me back from achieving God’s dream for me. Every day I see the power of evil in the world – not just in the bad guys, but in the good guys too.
Jesus knew this could only be changed by the love and power of God coming into us, bringing forgiveness and a power greater than our own. That’s why he went to the Cross to demonstrate God’s forgiveness for the whole world. That’s why he sends the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him. If the Lord had not been on our side there would have been no escape from the power of evil and sin, but now we know, because of the resurrection of Jesus, that evil won’t have the last word. And now we know, because we’ve received the Holy Spirit, that even now we have access to a power greater than our own to help us become the people we need to be.
I can’t give you three infallible steps to experiencing that help. God isn’t some sort of cosmic slot machine – put in the right coin, and out pops the desired answer! Jesus taught us that God is the Father who loves us, and good parents don’t usually require their kids to use some specific magical formula of words before they’ll help them. Rather, good parents teach their kids to trust them and not be afraid to ask for help. So if you’re facing a situation that seems too big for you to handle, this psalm encourages you to acknowledge that, but also to remember that it’s nottoo big for Godto handle. So bring it to him. Cry to him for help. Ask his guidance and direction and commit yourself to following the answers you get.
Let’s be clear: we won’t always experience dramatic deliverance. We see that in the area of physical healing; some are healed and some are not, and sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. But what we willexperience is the presence of God and the love of God supporting us in our time of need. Another psalm, 46, uses dramatic poetic imagery to describe a time of trouble and to point to the help that comes from God:
‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold (Psalm 46:1-3, 7 BAS).
Note that the writer of the psalm doesn’t claim that the help of the Lord caused the earth to stopshaking or the mountains notto fall. What he says is that even though those things happen, he won’t be afraid, because the Lord is with him as a place of refuge.
Our psalm for today, 124, ends with these words: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. ‘Someone is looking out for us’; someone is helping us deal with stuff we would never have been able to deal with on our own. If the Lord had not been on our side, evil and sin would have overwhelmed us, but God is rescuing us from their power day by day. So when we are in the thick of it, let’s remember these words and draw strength from them: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. ‘The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.’