why pilgrims sing

Our Help Is in the Name of the LORD
Psalm 124, A Song of Ascents. Of David.

[1] If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
[2] if it had not been the LORD who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
[3] then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
[4] then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
[5] then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

[6] Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
[7] We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
[8] Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth. (ESV)

At a hospital in Kathmandu, where one of the students trekking with us was being treated for dehydration, my wife Katie met a student from another Christian group which had been caught at night, hugging the side of the mountain during a rainstorm, with a single guide and only a few headlamps between them. According to the student, they were crying, sobbing for help, and praying for deliverance.

You could see how this group might have felt that Psalm 124 was written for them. If they had not prayed, they might reason, then “the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us.”  I am sure the Lord was with them, and I’m glad they all returned safely. But I also thought it was unwise for their organization to send out a large group with a single guide who started out on an unfamiliar trail for a village they could not reach before darkness fell. I was also thankful for our five guides, both local and national, who clearly knew better.

This Psalm, however, is not about prayer, at least not directly. And it is not about human wisdom, but rather about God’s protection, not from natural forces but human enemies. “The people who rose up against us” when “their anger was kindled” would have “swallowed us alive. “ This is not a literal fear of being eaten, but it was a real one, and few peoples have experienced as much animosity as the Hebrews who sang this song. These same fears are also compared here to the raging waters that might have gone over them, and to hunters who may have ensnared them.

This is the kind of human evil that gives rise to anti-semitism and the persecution of God’s people across all times and places. But this is about His people and their faith, as indicated by the plural pronouns throughout. We would have been (figuratively) swallowed. /We/ would have been (figuratively) swept away. We would have been (figuratively) trapped. Except the Lord was on our side! What they were singing about was God’s work in their corporate history and experience, and the comforting truth that He had not left them alone, but was on their side.

The Nepali church understands this Psalm better that the Western church since there are more powerful political and religious forces aligned against them. Although at Western insistence, their new constitution guarantees freedom of worship, they have been historically opposed by the monarchy, more recently the Maoist, and always by Hindu nationalists. There is currently an anti-conversion law, widely recognized as a curb on evangelicals. Pastors have been jailed. Missionaries expelled. Private NGOs are downplaying their Christian mission so the government will renew their charters.

But you can see and feel Psalm 124 worked out in the vibrant and intense worship my students observed in Nepali churches. By the time we left, they were grateful for the freedom they experience and awed by the pure and fervent faith of their new Nepali friends. Nepali Christians pray with fierce urgency and conviction. They sing loudly and passionately. Because if the Lord had not been on their side, they would have been swept away. I imagine the Hebrews pilgrims, climbing the mountains toward Jerusalem, sang this song, and others, as fervently and as well.

“Our help is in the name of the Lord,” they sang.

And they meant it.

One thought on “why pilgrims sing

  1. Wally, I have enjoyed and been blessed by all of your postings from Nepal. Today’s post was especially so. Many thanks.

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