God on our side

Scripture: Psalm 124

 

Title: God on our side

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Psalm 124
  • 2 Samuel 5:17-25
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

Today we continue our series on the Songs of Ascents – which we know as Psalms 120 to 134

 

The word ‘Ascent’ has to do with moving upward

–         The temple in Jerusalem was on a hill

–         On their way to religious festivals Jewish pilgrims might sing these songs as they ascended the hill to the temple

 

The 15 Songs of Ascents, then, are about being on a journey – not just a physical journey to Jerusalem but also a spiritual journey

–         As we make our way through these Songs of Ascents we notice the psalmist draws closer to God

 

We plan is to explore these Songs of Ascents as we journey toward Easter

–         This morning we take a closer look at psalm 124

–         This song is attributed to king David

–         Not all the psalms were written by David but it appears this one was

–         As a hymn of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance psalm 124 is not a solo performance – it looks like it was meant to be sung in a responsive way with the cantor (or the worship leader) singing a line and the choir repeating it

–         We are not going to try and sing psalm 124 this morning, but to help us enter into the feel of the song I’m going to read the lines in plain type and I invite you to respond by reading the words in bold italics

–         From the New Revised Standard Version we read…

 

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.

 

Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

 

Our help is in the name of the Lord, 

who made heaven and earth.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this song for us

 

Psalm 124

On the wall here is a photo of British & French soldiers lined up on the beach at Dunkirk in May 1940, awaiting evacuation across the channel to England

  • – The German army had invaded France and were headed north, closing in fast on the Allied troops
  • In one of the most widely debated decisions of the war, the Germans halted their advance on Dunkirk.
  • German Field Marshalls suggested that the German forces should cease their advance on Dunkirk and consolidate, to avoid an Allied breakout.
  • The army was to halt for three days, which gave the Allies sufficient time to organise the Dunkirk evacuation and build a defensive line.
  • Despite the Allies’ gloomy estimate of the situation, with Britain even discussing a conditional surrender to Germany, in the end more than 330,000 Allied troops were rescued [1]

 

 

Although Dunkirk was a defeat (as far as the Allied forces were concerned) it was also a miracle of deliverance

–         The Allied forces could have easily been swallowed up, overwhelmed and trapped

 

In psalm 124 David gives us four images or metaphors to describe Israel’s deliverance from their enemies

–         Israel was nearly swallowed alive

–         They were almost overwhelmed & swept away, as if by a flood

–         They were hunted like prey

–         And trapped like a bird in a fowler’s snare

 

These are all images of terrifying power – where Israel is vulnerable and powerless to save themselves (not unlike the Allied forces at Dunkirk)

 

I remember as a kid watching Return of the Jedi

–         In those days it was number three in the Star Wars series but these days its number 6 (if you don’t include Rogue One)

–         Anyway there was this scene where Luke had come to rescue Han Solo and Princess Leah from Jabba the Hutt

 

Jabba the Hutt was a pretty nasty piece of work and he planned to throw Han Solo into the Sarlaac pit

–         The Sarlaac was a terrible monster which swallowed people alive and then digested them slowly for a 1000 years

–         It is nightmare stuff on the edge of human imagination

–         David wouldn’t have been thinking of the Sarlaac when he used the image of being swallowed alive

–         More likely he was thinking of the Philistine army

 

Israel’s enemies are angry

–         Their anger is described as being ‘kindled’ – like a fire

–         Fire of course destroys everything in its path and is difficult to control

–         Just as there is no reasoning with fire, there is also no reasoning with an angry enemy – there is no diplomatic solution in other words

 

The only thing an angry army will give way to is some power or force stronger and more terrifying than itself

–         David is saying: the Lord God is more powerful, more terrifying and more organised than any army

 

As for the second image – of being swept away in a flood – that reminds me of a tsunami (a tidal wave)

 

David probably wouldn’t have known about tsunamis where he was situated but, for the Jewish people generally, flood waters were a symbol of chaos – in contrast to a well ordered creation as God intended it

–         David was saying; our enemies represent chaos (anarchy) – they only want to make a mess

–         But where there is chaos the Lord God (our creator) is able to bring order

 

The image of a flood or torrent also suggests being outnumbered – as if David were saying, ‘there are too many of them for us to handle’

–         But despite the overwhelming odds against Israel God holds the balance of power

 

Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.

–         That’s David’s third image

 

As a shepherd David would have faced wild animals – predators, like this wolf here

–         A predator is known for being cunning or skilful in hunting its prey

–         Israel’s enemies were hunting them like a wolf hunts a sheep

–         From Israel’s perspective it’s a picture of vulnerability and powerlessness

–         What can a sheep do to defend itself against a wolf

–         What could Israel do to defend themselves against their enemies

–         The only thing they could do was look to God to protect them

–         God isn’t just more terrifying and more powerful than Israel’s enemies – he is also more clever, more skilful than any predator

 

The fourth image of Israel’s vulnerability is that of a bird caught in a fowler’s snare

–         A fowler is a professional bird catcher

–         One strategy of fowlers is to put nets out which the birds fly into and get tangled up in

–         Then the fowlers would sell the birds (live) for sacrifice or for eating

–         Fowlers sometimes used caged birds to attract wild birds

–         The wild birds would hear the bird in the cage calling and fly straight into the trap

 

Once a bird is tangled in a net or a snare it can’t do anything to save itself

–         The more it struggles to wriggle free, the more tangled it becomes

 

A bird is the image of freedom

–         Israel’s enemies want to take away their freedom and make them slaves

–         But the Lord God delights in setting people free

–         Jesus said of himself, “I’ve come to set the captives free”

–         Not only has God set Israel free he has also broken the snare so that it no longer poses a threat

 

Because, on this occasion, the Lord God was on their side, Israel was not consumed, not overwhelmed, not killed and not trapped

–         They lived to fight another day

 

2nd Samuel 5:17-25

Please turn with me 2nd Samuel chapter 5 – page 305 near the front of your pew Bibles

  • – Psalm 124 was probably written by David out of personal experience
  • – More than once God had helped David and saved Israel in battle
  • – From 2nd Samuel 5, verse 17 we read…

 

17 The Philistines were told that David had been made king of Israel, so their army set out to capture him. When David heard of it, he went down to a fortified place. 18 The Philistines arrived at Rephaim Valley and occupied it. 19 David asked the Lord, “Shall I attack the Philistines? Will you give me the victory?”

“Yes, attack!” the Lord answered. “I will give you the victory!”

 

20 So David went to Baal Perazim and there he defeated the Philistines. He said, “The Lord has broken through my enemies like a flood.” And so that place is called Baal Perazim. 21 When the Philistines fled, they left their idols behind, and David and his men carried them away.

 

22 Then the Philistines went back to Rephaim Valley and occupied it again. 23 Once more David consulted the Lord, who answered, “Don’t attack them from here, but go around and get ready to attack them from the other side, near the balsam trees. 24 When you hear the sound of marching in the treetops, then attack because I will be marching ahead of you to defeat the Philistine army.”

 

25 David did what the Lord had commanded, and was able to drive the Philistines back from Geba all the way to Gezer.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate God’s word for us

 

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies on the 21st October 1805

 

Twenty-seven British ships, led by Admiral Lord Nelson, defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar

 

The French and Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war, conclusively ending French plans to invade England. [2]

 

Perhaps psalm 124 resonated with the English following their victory at the battle of Trafalgar

  • – England was under attack and despite being outnumbered they won a decisive victory
  • – Was it because God was on their side or was it Lord Nelson’s wise naval strategy or was it both? I don’t know?

 

As I mentioned before, David probably wrote psalm 124 out of personal experience

  • – The two accounts of battle in 2nd Samuel chapter 5 were perhaps something equivalent to David’s battle of Trafalgar
  • – Although, fortunately for David, he wasn’t killed in battle like Admiral Nelson was
  • – In any case David attributes his victories to God being on Israel’s side

 

If the Lord had not been on our side when our enemies attacked us, then we would have been swallowed alive…

 

Hmm? If the Lord had not been on our side?

  • – Most people think God is on their side in battle
  • – The crusaders of a thousand years ago thought God was on their side but from our perspective in history we doubt that
  • – I imagine the French & Spanish forces thought God was on their side when they decided to attack England in 1805 and yet they lost, decisively
  • – Both the Allied and Axis forces of World War One thought God was on their side to win – but they couldn’t both be right
  • – And more recently, Islamic State thinks God is on their side while the rest of world is pretty certain He isn’t
  • – History is littered with people who thought God was on their side
  • – It seems God’s name is hijacked and taken in vain to justify all sorts of crimes

 

For this reason I feel uneasy when people say: ‘God is on our side’ – as if God could be co-opted to serve our ends

  • – It would seem more accurate to talk about us being on God’s side
  • – What is God’s purpose in any given situation and how might we align ourselves with His purpose
  • – We can’t take it for granted that God will support us unconditionally
  • – God is faithful and kind but He is also free and He is Lord (not us)
  • – He doesn’t appreciate people misusing his name for their own purposes

 

David was very careful not to take God for granted and not to co-opt God to serve his own ends

  • – David did not make any assumptions where God was concerned
  • – Yes, Israel were God’s chosen people and yes, David had been anointed king of Israel – so he was God’s special man
  • – But he didn’t automatically think that entitled him to go to war against whomever he chose

 

David was well aware that God had not always been on Israel’s side

  • – Saul (the previous) king embarked on some major military disasters under the false assumption that God would support him
  • – But even before Saul (in 1st Samuel chapter 4, during the time of the priest, Eli) the Israelites took the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines without checking with God first and Israel suffered a terrible defeat including losing the Ark

 

In the context of 2nd Samuel chapter 5, David has just been made king of all Israel

  • – Previously Israel had been a divided nation
  • – Now with one king they were united
  • – This made Israel more of a threat to the Philistines and so the Philistines acted out of their fear and set out to try and capture David
  • – They took their idols with them
  • – Apparently the Philistines thought their gods were on their side

 

When David heard of it he didn’t go out straight away to face them

  • – Instead David went on a spiritual retreat in order to find out what God wanted him to do
  • – This reminds us of Jesus whose first action (after being baptised) was to get away from it all so he could spend time with God and find out what God wanted him to do

 

David asked the Lord: Shall I attack the Philistines? And, will you give me the victory?

  • – And the Lord said ‘yes’ to both
  • – After he had won David attributed his victory to the Lord God saying…
  • “The Lord has broken through my enemies like a flood.”
  • – This flood language reminds us of psalm 124

 

Later, at another time, the Philistines attacked again

  • – It may have been tempting for David to think, ‘I don’t need to consult God. He was on my side last time he will give me victory again this time’
  • – But David doesn’t do this
  • – Once again his first response is to enquire of the Lord
  • – Like the Roman Centurion who showed faith in Jesus to heal his servant, David sees himself as a man under authority
  • – God is his commanding officer – David gets his orders from the Lord

 

It’s just as well David checked because this time God tells him not to attack from the same angle but to come around from the other side

  • When you hear the sound of marching in the tree-tops, then attack because I will be marching ahead of you to defeat the Philistine army
  • – God was indeed helping David but not because David or Israel were entitled in anyway
  • – Had David charged ahead without listening to God first it could have ended in disaster

 

Conclusion:

The point is, when David talks about God being on his side, he doesn’t mean that God can be co-opted for Israel’s own parochial (them against us) concerns

  • – I think he means something along the lines of: But for the grace of God Israel would be no more.

 

Having said that God won’t be co-opted to serve human political agenda, God is still free to choose sides

 

When God became a man (in the form of Jesus) he was saying to humanity: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan, God was saying to all who repent of their sin: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus healed people, God was saying to the sick: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus cast out demons, God was saying to those who are oppressed by evil: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus restored sight to the blind, God was saying to those sitting in darkness: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus stood up for Zacchaeus and the woman caught in adultery and others like them, God was saying to the despised: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus died on the cross, God was saying to all who suffer injustice: “I am on your side”

 

When Jesus was raised from the dead, God was saying to all who place their faith in Christ: “I am on your side”

 

And when Jesus pours out His Holy Spirit on us today, God is still saying: “I am on your side”

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dunkirk

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Trafalgar

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