When a child experiences crisis, being held by a loving parent’s comforting arms restores stability in the midst of chaos. Even as adults, we long for comfort, encouragement, or consolation – when overwhelmed, “I need a hug” leaps to our thoughts if not into our spoken cries. The encircling of comforting arms signals security and safety, love and protection. We have those sensations of safety because we trust the person who holds us, or the circle of friends or family who surround us when our life seems to be crumbling from the weight of illness, job loss, divorce, or the death of someone important to us. We are not alone, and that realization ignites confidence.
As pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem for the three major feasts of ancient Israelite worship, they traveled across hills until finally they saw the temple, built on Mount Zion, a hill surrounded by taller mountains. Their observation of that geography led them to realize a powerful analogy:
“Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As thee mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 125:1-2).
Those mountains provided some physical security to Jerusalem, but also reminded worshipers of their spiritual security provided by a holy God. They realized the threat to political stability mirrored danger to their spiritual security if they did not maintain a right relationship with the Lord their God. As Proverbs 14:34 expresses it, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” The collective morality and ethics of a nation’s citizens determine that nation’s long-term viability as a united political entity. I am not arguing here for civil religion, for infusing patriotism into personal religious faith. I also recognize that some brutal regimes have maintained control of countries for long periods of time and have stretched the reach of their tyranny to engulf other nations. That in fact is one of the fears latent in Psalm 125, that “the scepter of wickedness” might conquer and rule Israel.
The theme of 1st and 2nd Chronicles is that rulers who chose evil over righteousness, who neglected the worship of God and also abused their people, who did not obey the laws of God in regard to speaking truth, preserving life, and protecting the environment, ultimately created the conditions for “the scepter of wickedness” to overwhelm Israel and Judah. Echoes of their fatal errors resound in our era. We protect the eggs of endangered wildlife, but cheer the “right” to choose to kill our own children or ourselves. Corrupt politicians decry truth as “fake news” and practice fraud in elections and financial dealings. Greed, as in Israel, prompts us to overuse our land and remove obstacles to erosion.
“For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong” (Psalm 125:3).
In Psalm 125, confidence in the LORD underlies assurance in continued practice of righteousness in all parts of life. That assurance rests not in legalist conducting of rites, but in the condition of the spiritual heart of the individual. Sometimes people do right things for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes people hurt others badly when it is unnecessary to do so, because they believe they are doing the will of God. The Psalmist prays, and the pilgrims prayed as they sang,
“Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hears! But those who turn aside to their crooked ways the LORD will lead away with evildoers! Peace be upon Israel!”
The prayer of Psalm 125 recognizes that the security of a people begins in the faithfulness and morality of the individual people among them. As we go to worship, may we examine our hearts when we pray for our nations and for the world in which we live.
• Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
O God who surrounds us with love and protection, we fear collapse of morality when people laugh at the idea of protecting life and scorn the idea of helping those who struggle to provide for themselves. We fear when we wonder if physical safety and security are a mirage, when we live as under threat from imminent danger. We try to maintain a sense of balance in our lives. When a spouse deserts us, or we face financial disaster, when we weaken with age or hear a diagnosis of disease, when parents or other loved ones die, we long to be held and assured that all is right in our world. Thank you for the reminder that the mountains surround Jerusalem, your arms embrace your people. We pray for hearts that will be fertile ground righteousness, that will discern truth, that will show evidence of love for you, for other people, and for the world you have given us. Protect us from the scepter of wickedness. Do good to us. In Jesus’ name, amen.