Sunday, July 19, 2009

Psalm 124

The setting to Psalm 124 that we know as Old 124th was composed by Louis Bourgeois and appeared in the 1551 Genevan Psalter entitled Pseaumes Octante Trois de David (Eighty-Three Psalms of David). The psalm itself is a song of hope and has been sung on many special occasions celebrating God's providential deliverances.

It sung by the Jews at the Feast of Purim to commemorate their deliverance from the schemes of Haman.

In Scottish church history, it is known as "Durie's Psalm" because it was sung after John Durie (1537-1600), who had been banished from Edinburgh for critical remarks against King James VI of Scotland, was readmitted to the city in 1582. James Melville wrote in his diary:

Within few days after the petition of the nobility, John Durie gat leave to ga haim to his ain flock of Edinburgh; at whase returning there was a great concours of the haill toun, what met him at the Nether Bow; and going up the street, with bare heads and loud voices, sang to the praise of Goed, and testifying of great joy and consolation, the 124th Psalm, "Now Israel may say, and that trewly," till heaven and earth resoundit. This noise, when the Duke (of Lennox), being in the toun, heard, and ludging in the Hiegate looked out and saw, he rave his beard for anger, and hasted him off the toun.

The event known to Genevans as L'Escalade, which occurred in 1602, was a great deliverance in the history of the Protestant Church. The Duke of Savoy launched a surprise attack on the night of December 11-12 and it was repelled by the city's defenders. Theodore Beza led the city in service of praise to God afterwards at which Psalm 124 was sung.

In 1900, as the Boxer Rebellion got underway, persecution against American missionaries intensified and many were killed. But in August, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions received a cable quoting Psalm 124.7: "Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we are escaped." The cable reported that twenty-missionaries and eleven children who had been missing for 73 days, and were believed to be dead, were in fact alive and safe.

Spontaneous singing of this psalm occurred in the English Parliament after the end of World War II and after Holland's liberation from the Nazis in May 1945.

Lewis Lupton, A History of the Geneva Bible, Vol. 5, p. 85:

This psalm to Bourgeois' tune is an impressive expression of joy at sudden deliverance and has preserved its vitality through the centuries. When liberation came so dramatically to Holland in 1945 Dutch people flocked into the streets and squares in their thousands singing this psalm (in Dutch of course) to this tune. The English version was sung at St. Margaret's, Westminster, on May 8th, 1945, when the House of Commons attended in state. Sir Winston Churchill and many other Members were much struck by it. For my own part the studies connected with the Geneva Bible have become part of my life, and on more than one occasion this psalm has meant as much to me as it did to oppressed believers in bygone days.

As we sing this psalm in our day, the counsel of John Brown of Haddington holds true:

This psalm is highly applicable to every remarkable deliverance which God works for his church, especially to the great redemption wrought for his people by Christ. In it, (1.) David magnifies the danger they were in, ver. 1-5. (2.) Ascribes the glory of their deliverance to God, ver. 1-2, 6-7. (3.) Improves the deliverance as an encouragement to trust in God, ver. 8.

Let me behold Jehovah as a present help in trouble. Let my waiting eyes be towards him, who, notwithstanding all the combined power and policy of hell and earth, is able and ready to pull my feet out of the net.


1 Now Israel
may say, and that truly,
If that the Lord
had not our cause maintain'd;
2 If that the Lord
had not our right sustain'd,
When cruel men
against us furiously
Rose up in wrath,
to make of us their prey;

3 Then certainly
they had devour'd us all,
And swallow'd quick,
for ought that we could deem;
Such was their rage,
as we might well esteem.
4 And as fierce floods
before them all things drown,
So had they brought
our soul to death quite down.

5 The raging streams,
with their proud swelling waves,
Had then our soul
o'erwhelmed in the deep.
6 But bless'd be God,
who doth us safely keep,
And hath not giv'n
us for a living prey
Unto their teeth,
and bloody cruelty.

7 Ev'n as a bird
out of the fowler's snare
Escapes away,
so is our soul set free:
Broke are their nets,
and thus escaped we.
8 Therefore our help
is in the Lord's great name,
Who heav'n and earth
by his great pow'r did frame.

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