A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on October 30, 2022.
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he has mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud. (Psalm 123). 
In Christ, we are promised many things, including this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). By grace through faith, if we are in Christ, then for Christ we will be treated with contempt, scorned for our faithfulness. For the Christian, persecution is not the consequence of a lack of faith but evidence of it.
The Christian life then is counterintuitive. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). “Blessed are you”? “Rejoice”? “be glad”? Counterintuitive indeed!
But for many of us, this calls for a distinction: Jesus is not justifying strife for stupidity. If you encounter problems for fanning the flame of your sinful flesh, it’s not persecution. It’s called justice. No, Jesus describes persecution as related to him and his righteousness. Christian persecution is guilt by association, living in and for Christ. As Paul puts it plainly, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
Persecution comes in different ways and forms and has varied significantly throughout history, but the certainty of it does not. We often think of persecution at its worst, physical violence, even death. And certainly, there is biblical and historical warrant for this perspective, from the prophets to the apostles to the early Christians to the martyrs of our day. Since Cain and Abel, the faithful have suffered at the hand of the faithless. There is indeed nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9). But there are other forms of persecution too, perhaps more subtle, non-violent, yet demeaning: the contempt of a loved one, the scorn of a neighbor.
Persecution reveals what the world really thinks about Jesus. He was treated with contempt and scorn, so how can we expect less? But sometimes what the world thinks and says about us, how we are treated by the news and neighbor alike, can begin to weigh on us. Sometimes it can feel like the world is out to get us, and we reach a point where we want to cry out to God, “we have had more than enough of contempt…[and] scorn”! Maybe you’ve prayed this prayer before; maybe you’re there right now. What do we do, how do we respond, when it seems like the world is against us?
Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body” (Matt. 6:22). As the “eye” is a metaphor for what our inner man looks to, what we focus on, what we fix our eye upon, significantly affects us. The eye of the soul both perceives and projects. This is why our inner life is so important. “Keep your heart with all vigilance,” the sage says, “for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).
Therefore, the psalmist declares, “To you I lift up my eyes.” It is a declaration of faith, dependence, and trust. He is fixing the eyes of his soul upon his Savior, and for good reason too. He is the One “enthroned in the heavens!” If the eye is the lamp of the whole body, then let it be lighted by the glory and grandeur of God.
The psalmist lifts his eyes from the kingdom of earth to the kingdom of heaven, fixing his gaze upon the Maker of heaven and earth. How powerful is this imagery? Consider its life-changing impact upon Isaiah, who “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Isa. 6:1-3).
In that moment, Isaiah was humbled, convicted (and divinely forgiven, justified, and commissioned). He was also empowered to serve the Lord among the proud and arrogant, the contemptuous and scornful.
Likewise, when John witnessed the One “enthroned in the heavens,” “he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. …From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…” (Rev. 4:3, 5). And among those surrounding the throne, John saw “four living creatures, each of them with six wings,” who never cease to cry out,
“‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev. 4:8).
What John beheld was extraordinary. But like Isaiah’s vision, surely such a revelation is reserved for the prophet and apostle? Indeed, what Isaiah and John witnessed was miraculous, but its substance was no more significant than for the psalmist, who lifts up his eyes, not to the starry limits of creation but to the Creator, who sits in sovereign reign over all of creation.
The psalmist’s perspective teaches us not to let the contempt and scorn of the world cause us to look down, and therefore stoop down, to their level. We can spend so much time looking at the world and its problems that it can affect how we see God. The problem is, as R.C. Sproul puts it, “Most Christians salute the sovereignty of God but believe in the sovereignty of man.”
Why do we give credence to the criticism of unbelievers? The ridicule and rage of the proud and arrogant is loudest in our ears when we forget who made their mouth. Look up to him who is enthroned and “exalted as head above all” (1 Chron. 29:11). He is the “blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15), and he “has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4). Make no mistake about it: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Ps. 115:3), so look up and put your trust in him.
For analogy, the psalmist provides two similes, continuing with his metaphor of the “eyes”: “as the eyes of servants,” “as the eyes of a maidservant.” The two similes are, in essence, the same. Those who serve look to those whom they serve, “to the hand,” as the psalmist puts it. The poetic presumption is that the servants and maidservant are loyal and obedient, serving master and mistress as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). And through such earthly arrangements, the Lord provides by the hand of master and mistress alike.
As this is the case through the imperfect means of man, how much more is this true in the perfect provision of God. For, he who is sovereign over all provides for his children. We look to his hand for all that we need, even his mercy amidst persecution.
The apostle Peter, who according to church history was crucified upside down because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as the Lord Jesus, has much to say on the topic of persecution. He cautions against repaying “evil for evil or reviling for reviling” but instead advises that we “bless” those who persecute us (1 Pet. 3:9). Quoting Jesus, Peter says, “if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed,” and then advises,
Have no fear of them nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Pet. 3:14-16).
But Peter then puts our persecution in perspective, focused not on the shame of others but on the perfect provision of Christ: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18a). It was by the hand of God that Christ the righteous suffered for our sin. It was by the hand of God that he atoned for our sin, and through whom we are counted righteous. It was by the hand of God that Christ resurrected from the dead to bring us into fellowship with the Father.
Therefore, as we trust in the Lord’s perfect provision, so we trust him in our union with Christ, even suffering. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18). Or, to look at it another way, we are hated because the Lord loves us and we love the Lord. And it is in his love that he uses what the world intends for evil for our good, whether it be the cross of Christ or contempt and scorn for his sake. For this we know, “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” conforming us to the image of Christ, preparing us for glory (Rom. 8:28-30). And so, we look up to the Lord, we trust in him like a servant to his master, like a maidservant to her mistress, and we wait for his provision.
There are some things we do not understand because we cannot comprehend. God’s timing is one of them. Confined to time and space we have expectations. Based on our human (and therefore limited) experience, we expect God to act on our behalf according to our timing. This, of course, is a grave misunderstanding, because we cannot comprehend God’s perfect timing; we do not know his secret will. But when things don’t go our way, when life doesn’t follow our timeline, we can become frustrated, not with ourselves but with the timing of the Lord’s provision.
What we want is immediate relief from those “at ease,” a Hebraic expression likely meaning “no fear of God,” and the “proud,” likely referring to those who are arrogant in their unbelief. Together, they are contemptuous and scornful (not to mention, typically obnoxious). They are often a vocal (possibly violent) minority, which can lead to a distortion of the truth, for those who listen.
I am reminded of one of Asaph’s psalms, when he looks at those who seem to have it so easy and never seem to suffer. They’re arrogant yet antagonistic, proud yet prosperous. He says, “They speak as if they rule in heaven, and lay claim to the earth” (Ps. 73:9 NET). They deny God’s sovereignty and slander his people, and yet they thrive. Frustrated at what he perceives as injustice and God’s unwillingness to act, he wonders, “Surely in vain I have kept my motives pure and maintained a pure lifestyle” (Ps. 73:13 NET). If sinners thrive, what good is there in living for the Lord?
But then he goes to the Lord’s house, “the sanctuary of God,” to worship, and his perspective changes, as it should. He is reoriented to look up, redirected to trust in, and reminded to wait for the Lord, confessing, “But as for me, God’s presence is all I need. I have made the sovereign LORD my shelter, as I declare all the things you have done” (Ps. 73:28 NET). Gathering in worship every Lord’s Day helps reorient us to an eternal perspective, helping us to hear the Word of the Lord instead of the noise of the world.
Make no mistake about it, God intends good for us. He does not give us what we deserve, but what he desires. So, when we cry out to him, like the psalmist, “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,” we are not asking for something he is unwilling to give. One pastor says, “In obedience we pray ‘Mercy!’ instead of ‘Give us what we want.’ We pray ‘Mercy!’ and not ‘Reward us for our goodness so our neighbors will acknowledge our superiority.’ We pray ‘Mercy!’ and not ‘Punish us for our badness so we will feel better.’ We pray ‘Mercy!’and not ‘Be nice to us because we have been such good people.’” No, we pray, “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,” because we are his Beloved, for whom he sent his Son. We pray, “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,” because rather than giving us what we deserve, he has gracious compassion upon us, as a Father for his child.
In fact, the word translated “mercy” here is not the typical Hebrew word conveying undeserved favor but instead connotes God’s gracious compassion to those who are in misery, God’s grace in our suffering. Sometimes it is the grace just to get through another day, to look up, trust in, and wait for the Lord, day by day. And in this daily dependence we learn: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).
And so, the psalm ends, seemingly abruptly, with pleas for mercy and the contempt of the proud. Perhaps we hoped for a fairytale ending but got ordinary life instead. As refreshing as Lord’s Day worship is, we go out from the sanctuary of God and into the scorn of the world. Such is life…but not forever. John writes,
I saw a new heaven and a new earth…[and] new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and they will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21:1-5).
Gone will be the arrogant and their scorn. Gone will be the proud and their contempt. But he who is enthroned in the heavens, he who hears our cries for mercy, he who answers our prayers, he shall continue to reign over heaven and earth, as he does over your life this very moment.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 58.
 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 437-441.