A Song of Ascents
Those who trust in the Lord
Are as Mount Zion,
Which cannot be moved but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem
So the Lord surrounds His people
From this time forth and forever.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not
Rest upon the land of the righteous
So that the righteous will not put forth
Their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good
And to those who are upright in their hearts.
But as for those who turn aside to their crooked ways,
The Lord will lead them away with the doers of iniquity.
Peace be upon Israel.
- Mountains of Judea
Last time we found the Psalmist in the midst of a fierce battle with enemy forces threatening to sweep Israel away. The Psalmist urged the people of God to trust in their Creator – the One who made it all … and holds it all together. The transition here makes perfect sense then as the Psalmist turned his gaze away from enemies coming against him, to look upward toward His Creator. From Jerusalem, surrounding mountains meet the upward gaze.
Jerusalem, except on the north, is encompassed with hills or mountains, so that although the city was built on hills – Zion, Moriah, Bezethah, Acra – it was itself surrounded by hills higher than any of these, and was, in a certain sense, in a valley.
I have always enjoyed the fact that although Mount Zion – the God-prescribed location of the Temple – was not the highest hill in and around Jerusalem, still the people of God consistently referred to worship as an ascent – going up to God. But this time the Psalmist is appreciating the fact that Mount Zion – Jerusalem’s center of worship – is surrounded by higher mountains, ones that protect and shield Israel from her enemies in the lands round about, and in this same way God surrounds His people.
Just as mountains stand immovable, so God promises that the one who trusts fully in Him will not be shaken by any outward circumstance. And while the mountains surrounding Jerusalem served as a natural barrier against invasion, that was not the Psalmist’s primary concern here. Instead he equates the solidity of mountains with a lifestyle of righteousness, promising that those who put their trust in God will not be ruled by their own sin or oppressed by the sins of the community, leading to misery and death. This Psalm is focused on the lifestyle within the community rather than the community’s vulnerability to attack from without.
Unless situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains while reading this, you may be tempted to gloss over Psalm 125 without much thought. But talking about a commitment to righteousness is key to our journey into worship. Israel knew something about this. From Cain’s banishment to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, righteousness before God was perhaps the key theme of the O.T. A commitment to righteousness was so serious that traditionally the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies once each year with a rope tied around his ankle. That way, if he harbored sin in his heart resulting in his own death in God’s presence, he could be pulled out of the sanctuary without danger to anyone else.
While Israel certainly appreciated the surrounding mountains protecting them from their enemies, the one committed to worship would have had a much greater appreciation for a God who promised to protect His people from the rule and reign of sin over their lives as individuals within a worshiping community. Yet, as with many promises in the Scripture, this one seems to carry with it a condition: ‘Do good to those who are good; banish those who follow their own sins.’ To me this is the cry of the worshiping community: for God not to allow those who pursue wickedness to rule and reign over God’s community or result in bringing judgment on the people as a whole.
From experience, Israel knew that in regards to righteousness they were truly one with their brothers. At times a single sin could cost the whole nation dearly. Think of Achan’s hidden idolatry which led to Israel’s defeat in battle at Ai and the death of several of Israel’s soldiers. Later, all of Israel was taken into captivity to Babylon, although I doubt every person in the community participated in the idol worship common in those days. Even we know that an entire nation suffers under unrighteous leadership (Chinese communism is a good example of this as is Iraq under the reign of Saddam Hussein). And so we see another truth expounded here: you reap what you sow, especially in terms of intimacy with God; and fortunately or unfortunately, there are times when every individual reaps what the community/leadership sows. If this doesn’t spur us to pray for our leaders, nothing will!
So while God Himself gives us the grace to to live a righteous life, so He will reward willful sin by withdrawing intimacy, and we may perhaps even find ourselves cut off from the worshiping community itself. (I hope you know by now that I don’t equate righteousness with perfection … if you’re confused about that, please read Walking Through the Pieces for clarification.) The picture here is that the persistently disobedient will be led away from the community of God and put out of the peaceful fellowship promised to His people.
I know lots of folks who treat grace like a free pass to sin. I’ve heard it said that grace is not a welcome mat into God’s presence where we continually wipe our dirty feet. Indeed, grace is so much more than that! What is offered here is true grace – the power to live a holy life. Let’s not cheapen grace by turning it into something we use to justify our own disobedience. If we’re serious about worship we must first pursue righteousness – in prayer for God’s grace to be given to our community (especially leadership), and in deed as we each seek to live lives ‘worthy of God’s calling.’ May His grace be poured out not only here, where we live, but on the whole world, shattering the scepter of wickedness in every community where there is even one who seeks after the Lord. Peace be to the worshiping community of God.