Psalm 123 – “Communal Petition”

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Hebrew-English Text

I. Summary

Ps. 123 is a short psalm that contains a declaration of trust and a petition. In it, a leader and his community ask God to save them from their deplorable state.

II. Outline
1a. Superscription
1bc. Introduction, Personal commitment
2. Communal commitment
3. Communal petition
4. Communal complaint

III. Comment
While Ps. 123 is short (only 4 verses long) it has the basic elements of the Communal Petition. It contains two sections, one said in the first person singular (v.1) and the other in the first person plural (vv. 2-4). This, and the fact that the psalm has many formal literary features (see below), indicate that it was a liturgical text, probably lead by an officiant. Gerstenberger notes how this psalm is in the shir hama’alot section, and suggests that the pious declaration of trust (vv. 1-2) is befitting of the pilgrims on their journey to – or arrival at – Jerusalem.

God is called by the appellation “enthroned in heaven” (v.1), referencing a common theme in the Psalter (cf. Ps 11:4;14:2;73:25;115:3,16). The speaker then expresses his own commitment and the commitment of his congregation: “To You, enthroned in heaven, I turn my eyes. As the eyes of slaves follow their master’s hand, as the eyes of a slave-girl follow the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are toward the LORD our God” (v.1-2). The simile about the congregation’s relationship with God is one taken from a real-life situation (similar to Ps. 131:2: “but I have taught myself to be contented like a weaned child with its mother”), and it is meant to convey the fact that the congregants rely on God for sustenance. An interesting parallel to v. 2 is Ps. 145:15-16; both texts mention yearning eyes and a master’s hand. In regards to the 4x repetition of einei…el “eyes look to…”, Allen points to a related personal name that appears in postexilic texts: Elioenai “my eyes [look] to God” (see Ezra 10:22, 27; 1 Chr. 8:20; 26:3).

The petition’s major thrust is the 3x repetition of chanan “show favor.” This language is standard amongst petition psalms, cf. Ps 6:3;9:14;86:3 etc. The complaint “I am sated with…” also has its parallels amongst other complaints (cf. Ps. 88:4;Lam. 3:30; Job 10:15). In our case the congregation has become the object of buz “scorn.”

Ps. 123 contains many literary features:
1. Repetition (4x) of “eyes look to…” in vv. 1-2
2. Simile of the slaves and slave girl in v. 2
3. Repetition (3x) of the word chanan “favor” in vv. 2-3
4. Repetition of rav sav’ah “sated with…” in vv. 3-4
5. Repetition of buz “scorn” in vv. 3-4
6. Parallelism at the end of v. 4: “scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud.”

IV. Important verses
1-2: “To You, enthroned in heaven, I turn my eyes. As the eyes of slaves follow their master’s hand, as the eyes of a slave-girl follow the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are toward the LORD our God, awaiting His favor.”

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