On Our Side

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on November 6, 2022.

            If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—

                        let Israel now say—

            if it had not been the LORD who was on our side

                        when people rose up against us,

            then they would have swallowed us up alive,

                        when their anger was kindled against us;

            then the flood would have swept us away,

                        the torrent would have gone over us;

            then over us would have gone

                        the raging waters.

            Blessed be the LORD,

                        who has not given us

                        as prey to their teeth!

            We have escaped like a bird

                        from the snare of the fowlers;

            the snare is broken,

                        and we have escaped!

            Our help is in the name of the LORD,

                        who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 124).[1]

As we see in this psalm, part of worship is acknowledging that God is bigger than our problems, whether man or nature. Part of this worship is recalling and reflecting on how God has helped us in our time of need. Corporate worship includes doing this together, often by singing. Whether it be psalms like this one, or hymns, or songs, in corporate worship we sing together, “making melody to the Lord from [the] heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19b-20). Surely, St. Augustine was right in saying, “He who sings prays twice.”[2] As our psalms, hymns, and songs are in effect sung prayers, so our singing echoes the praise of our hearts. As we sing in corporate worship, we often read and repeat words, not mindlessly but redemptively. The words, so to speak, liturgically lead us, and we sing them in worship, meditating upon their meaning, singing of their significance.

In traditional Jewish worship, a hazzan, or Cantor, sings and leads the congregation in sung prayers.[3] In this psalm, David serves as the Cantor, first singing,

            If it had not been the LORD who was on our side…

then leading,

            —let Israel now say—

and now we’re singing,

            if it had not been the LORD who was on our side…

The repetition is not pragmatic but poetic. David is leading us in song.

And so, God’s people sang in this way, and so we sing together today. Derek Thomas refers to this as the “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions of congregational singing. He says, “Not only is singing songs a way of expressing our love and devotion to the Lord; it is also a way of engaging in the ‘communion of saints’ –the shared responsibility we have for each other’s growth and development as believers.”[4] It is relationally an expression of our love for the LORD and one another.

The loss of congregational singing was certainly one of the tragedies of the pandemic. A livestream may be streaming but it is not living. We may have been together in spirit, but God has made us and redeemed us for true, real-life, local fellowship as a church. And a key aspect of that fellowship is singing together, first to the Lord and then to one another. I think Derek Thomas is on point when he asks,

Do we sing to the Lord? Yes, but we are also exhorting each other. If we see worship as quiet meditations [only]…, then it can quickly become very individualistic. Worship quickly becomes something about me and God. But if the nature of worship—gathered worship on the Lord’s Day—is collective, about the body of Christ as a whole, then singing is an ideal form to get into each other’s space. It is difficult to make it about me when I have to listen to others singing and I have to join in.”[5]

In singing together each Lord’s Day, I am reminded of the words of John the Baptist, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn. 3:30 NIV).

And so, David leads us in singing what we need to say and hear, on repeat:

            If God hadn’t been for us

            —all together now, Israel, sing out!—

            If God hadn’t been for us…(MSG)

And now we are singing together, a chorus praising the Lord who is for us, for “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

Delivered from Destruction

Unlike English, Hebrew is a terse language with each word, in a psalm for example, carrying meaning. This is why it takes several English words to translate one Hebrew word. Taking advantage of the terseness of the language, the psalmist will often set two or three words against two or three words in a parallel structure. The result can be an amplification, or a comparison, or a contrast. For example, the second verse of this psalm in the Hebrew, “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side,” is set against “when people rose up against us.” Those set on our destruction are set against the Lord. The contrast is striking!

This is David’s intent, as is the continuing contrast. Employing a conditional (if/then) statement, David is leading us to sing of the differences:

            If that the LORD had not our

                        right maintained,

            If that the LORD had not with

                        us remained,

            When cruel men against us

                        rose to strive,

            We surely had been

                        swallowed up alive.[6]

So the Scottish Psalter brilliantly renders it in song, but what of its substance: Who are these “cruel men” who want to swallow us alive? And,

            Then as fierce floods before them

                        all things drown,

            So had they brought our soul

                        to death quite down;

            The raging streams, with their

                        proud swelling waves,

            Had then our soul o’erwhelmed

                        as in the grave.[7]

What are these “fierce floods,” “raging streams,” and “swelling waves”?

David knew well the threat of cruel men, from inside and outside Israel. From his father-in-law the king to his rebellious son, from the threat of one giant to a host of Philistines, David knew the threat of his enemies all around him. And as the king of the nation, Israel’s enemies were his enemies, and they were many. Likewise, flooding was used as a metaphor in the Old Testament for warfare. Just as the valleys of arid Israel could swell with flood waters in the rainy season, causing destruction, even death, warfare could sweep in and destroy God’s people.

But David is not leading us in song to rally the troops. He is praising God, who is always on our side. Whether threat from our enemies or natural disaster, David knows, and wants us to sing, of the Lord’s provision. As he sang upon defeating the Philistine army at Baal-perazim, “The LORD has broken through my enemies before me like a breaking flood” (2 Sam. 5:20). With the Lord on our side, we are not only saved from the destroying flood, but like the Red Sea walls of water the Lord saves us and defeats our enemies like a “breaking flood.”

There is a deeper meaning that we must not miss here, for there is one who hates us more than our worst enemy, and would drown us to eternal torment, if he could. The apostle John describes him as “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Rev. 12:3). Though he sounds quite ominous, he is merely the serpent of old, fallen from glory and cursed for eternity but growling and prowling, “seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

A man-eater indeed, John says he was so bold as to even pursue the virgin “who was about to give birth, so that when she bore the child he might devour it” (Rev. 12:4). Pursuing her son, the man-eating dragon at last thought he had won, on Calvary, only to find himself defeated in Christ’s victorious resurrection. As Jesus resurrected and ascended as Christ the King, the defeated dragon turned his attention to Christ’s bride, seeking to devour and drown the unconquerable, but though he may try “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Though that dragon may roar, though the river of sin rage, though the torrent of death rise, we do not fear but rejoice, giving thanks to God, “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). We have been delivered from destruction, for the Lord is on our side.

Freed from Fear

Although in Christ we have been delivered from eternal destruction, the world, our flesh, and the devil still covet our fear. Like prey of the ravenous, they would have us fear their sharp teeth. Like a bird ensnared in a trap, they lust for our despair. If Satan can’t have you, he at least wants your trepidation. If he can’t have God’s glory, he at least wants your fear.

This is one of the reasons we sing praises to the Lord with one another. Sinful fear is squashed under the weight of glorious, gracious, grateful praise:

            Blessed be the LORD.

To say that God blesses us implies help and provision; we are blessed. But when we bless God, we are not implying he needs help or provision from us.  As he makes clear in Psalm 50,

            If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

                        for the world and its fullness are mine (Ps. 50:12).

No, to bless God is an “expression of praising thankfulness,” an “exclamation of gratitude and admiration.”[8] Just as a said “blessing” before a meal is a prayer of gratitude, so “blessed” connotes thanksgiving to God. And as the Lord is, in his being, perfect wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,[9] he is the blessed One.

But what does blessing the Lord have to do with freedom from fear? Grateful praise to God takes our focus off of the lies of the world, our flesh, and the devil, and puts it on the truth of who God is and what he has done. The world would have us fear its pervasive influence, but our Lord says, “take courage—I have conquered the world” (John 16:33 NET). Our flesh would have us fear its sinister control, but the Word says, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The devil would have us fear his perverted power, but the sage says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7).

            Blessed be the LORD,

                        who has not given us

                        as prey to their teeth!

Blessing the Lord also reminds us of the freedom we have in Christ.

            Like a bird from a hunter’s trap,

                        the snare is broken,

                                    and we have escaped!

As one pastor points out, “Notice that the bird was not kept from the snare. It had been snared, but the snare was broken so that the bird could escape. The bird did not break the snare. It couldn’t. The fowler certainly didn’t break the snare. He wouldn’t. A deliverer, however, had broken the trap, and the bird was set free.”[10] By analogy, beloved, this is the gospel! Like a bird, we were once ensnared by the devil, encaged by sin and death, but the Lord “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13). By God’s grace through faith in Christ, we have been set free, and “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36).

            As from the snare a bird

                        escapeth free,

            their net is rent and so escaped

                        are we.[11]

Secured by Strength

David concludes his sing-along-psalm with a statement of truth repeated throughout the Songs of Ascent:

            Our help is in the name of the LORD,

                        who made heaven and earth.

It stands to reason that if we need help in this world, we need it from the One who made it. But David has chosen an oft-repeated expression that can become all too common place to our ears: “the name of the LORD.” David’s use here is significant. The Lord’s “name” signifies his divine blessing and sovereign protection for his covenant people, whom he loves and to whom he revealed himself as Yahweh, translated in English as “LORD.” The LORD is not on the side of the man-eaters or flood waters but on our side. It is the LORD whom we bless, and our help is in his name.

The LORD is not one of the fake pagan gods; “There is but one only, the living and true God.”[12] He “who made heaven and earth” is on our side, not by capitulation or coercion, as if that were even possible. Nor is he a fickle god who can be enticed to pick sides. No, he is the LORD, and he is on our side because he loves us. And in his love we find that he who made heaven and earth is our Beloved, and we are his (Sg. 6:3).

St. Augustine said, “Singing is what the lover does,”[13] and so we do.

            O sing a new song to the LORD;

            All earth sing to the LORD.

            Sing to the LORD, and bless His name;

            “He saves!” each day proclaim.

            His glory to all nations show;

            His deeds let peoples know.

            The LORD is great. How great His praise!

            Above all gods He’s feared.

            For heathen gods are idols vain;

            The LORD the heavens made.

            Before Him honor, majesty,

            And strength and splendor be![14]

And so we sing together, as we do each Lord’s Day, praising the Lord of love in love, for singing is what the lover does.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] St. Augustine quoted in Anthony Esolen, Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Charlotte: TAN Books, 2016), xiii.

[3] “Cantor,” Wikipedia, accessed November 3, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantor.

[4] Derek W.H. Thomas, Let Us Worship God: Why We Worship the Way We Do (Sanford: Ligonier Ministries, 2021), 97.


[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] “Psalm 124,” Trinity Psalter (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1994), 111.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Piper, “What Does It Mean to Bless God?”, Desiring God, last modified June 30, 2022, accessed November 3, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-does-it-mean-to-bless-god.

[9] “Q. 4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” “The Shorter Catechism,” The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 357-8.

[10] Rhett P. Dodson, Marching to Zion: Ancient Psalms for Modern Pilgrims (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 76.

[11] “Psalm 124,” Trinity Psalter (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1994), 111.

[12] “Q. 5. Are there more Gods than one? A. There is but one only, the living and true God.” “The Shorter Catechism,” The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 360.

[13] St. Augustine quoted in Anthony Esolen, Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Charlotte: TAN Books, 2016), xv.

[14] “Psalm 96” verses 1-6, Trinity Psalter (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1994), 82.

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