Psalm 123 finds its place among the songs of ascent, those psalms that were likely sung by worshippers as they travelled to Jerusalem for the three annual Jewish religious festivals. All faithful Jewish men, and sometimes families, travelled to Jerusalem at these annual feasts to worship God. The temple held a significant place in old covenant Judaism. It was the place where God promised to meet with his people. Frequently, we read of God’s people looking or praying toward Jerusalem because Jerusalem and its temple were associated with the presence of God.
Given its context, Psalm 123 includes an interesting element. More to the point, perhaps, it excludes a significant element: There is no mention of the temple. It is a prayer to Yahweh for help—for mercy in light of those who were verbally assaulting his people. But the prayer is not directed, as so many old covenant prayers were, toward the temple. Instead, the psalmist lifts his eyes to the one “enthroned in the heavens” (v. 1).
The careful reader of the Old Testament might notice that the prophets who warned of Jerusalem’s destruction and the post-exilic prophets—that is, those who wrote after the return from the Babylonian exile—often spoke of God in the heavens. This is significant because, no doubt, the destruction of the temple was an event of theological shake-up. For a people who so greatly emphasised the presence of God in the temple, how should they process the removal of the temple? Did it equate to the removal of God? The prophets wanted their hearers to understand that God was not confined to the temple. He could not be boxed into a particular location. He was above the temple. He was, in fact, above the heavens and the earth.
The writer of Psalm 123 seems to have had this same burden in mind. Even as the people travelled to Jerusalem for worship at the temple, he did not want his readers to think that God was someone boxed into Jerusalem’s temple. Yes, they were travelling to the temple in obedience to God’s own laws, but God did not only hear them if they were at the temple. He could hear their cries wherever they were.
I recently listened to an interview of an American nun who was asked to correspond with a death row inmate, convicted of multiple murder. The convict informed her that he was Catholic and asked if she would serve as his spiritual adviser. She agreed, not realising that that position would require her to be present at his execution. When his appeals were exhausted and his execution date arrived, she was the only person present on his behalf. The families of his victims, for the most part, glared at her with contempt. One man, however, the father of a young woman whom the prisoner had killed, approached her after the execution and asked why she had never reached out to them. “We had no spiritual advisor to talk to about our trauma,” he said. She ended up befriending the family. She told the interviewer, “It’s as if he thought that my prayers would be heard better than his, just because I’m a nun.”
Sometimes, we can unwittingly fall into the same trap, thinking that the prayers of a pastor or prayers offered at a church building will be more effective than our own prayers at home. Psalm 123 reminds us that the old covenant worshippers did not have to wait until they got to Jerusalem, or until they could sit with a priest, before they could pray to God.
The God of the Bible sits enthroned in the heavens, ever ready to hear the cries of his people. Prayers by “ordinary” Christians at home or at work or in the car are as effective as prayers of pastors from the pulpit. God is not boxed. Let this psalm encourage you to pray fervently for mercy, knowing that God, who is enthroned in heaven, hears and answers prayer powerfully.