Psalm 124 is a hymn which was recited in a communal setting. Its praise, which takes the form of a “double negative,” basically says “thank you God for not abandoning us, things could have been much worse.”
1b-2. Summons to praise
3-5. Account of hypothetical trouble
6. Blessing and account of hypothetical trouble
7. Account of salvation
While many scholars categorize Psalm 124 as a Communal Thanksgiving (it contains an account of trouble and salvation in vv. 3-8), it has a strong affinity to the Communal Hymn. This is due to the facts that (1) there is no mention of an offering, (2) the account of trouble is itself introduced as a hymnic praise (vv. 1-2), and (3) the details of the trouble are vague. While its plural language indicates a communal recitation, Allen believes that Psalm 124 was said by a leader in front of a community. Indeed, he classifies Psalm 124 as an Individual Thanksgiving, but his reasons are not altogether convincing.
The summons to praise, yo’mar na’ yisra’el “let Israel now declare” (1c) seems to have been a formulaic phrase (cf. Ps. 118:2-4). The praise takes a “negative” form in vv. 1-2: “were it not for the LORD, who was on our side…” While similar “negative praises” are found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Gen. 31:42; Isa. 1:9), the summons to praise found in the other Hymns are “positive.”
The “negative” praise continues in vv. 3-5 with a description of “what could have been.” The psalm then shifts into a blessing of God (the form “Blessed is the LORD” occurs some 15x in the Psalter, e.g. 72:18 and 135:21). There is then a metaphor which serves as an account of trouble and salvation, and a final praise.
Psalm 124 has three prominent literary features: repetition, chiastic structures, and metaphor/simile. In terms of repetition, vv. 1-2 repeat “Were it not for the LORD,” and the word ‘azai “then” is found 3x at the beginning of verses 3-5. In terms of chiastic structures, vv. 4-5 has an ABB’A’ makeup: mayim, ‘al nafsheinu, ‘al nafsheinu, mayim. Verse 7 also has an ABB’A’ makeup: nimlat, pach, pach, nimlat. Metaphor and simile pervade the psalm: the enemies “swallow” (v. 3, see Prov. 1:12 for similar wording in reference to she’ol), overtake like flowing waters (vv. 4-5), and eat their victims like prey (v.6). Verse 7 gives a simile of salvation: “We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap; the trap broke and we escaped.” This simile is used often in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Ps. 91:3; 141:9; Eccl. 9:12).
Allen believes that the literary features in Psalm 124 point to a late date of composition. The word ‘azai (vv. 3-5) – which only appears in our psalm – is probably an emphatic form of ‘az from late Biblical Hebrew (it was found in a letter from Qumran dating to 135 BCE). Also, there is the use of the shin participle instead of ‘asher in v. 6 (for use of ‘asher in similar blessings see Gen. 24:27; Ex:18:10).
IV. Important verses
6-7: Blessed is the LORD, who did not let us be ripped apart by their teeth. We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap; the trap broke and we escaped.