6. Psalm 125. The Lord Surrounds His People

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Vincent Van Gogh, 'Mountains at Saint-Rémy' (1889), oil on canvas, 29 x 36 in, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'Mountains at Saint-Rémy' (1889), oil on canvas, 29 x 36 in, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

As pilgrims throng the roads on their way to the festival in the Holy City, singing as they go, they trudge up the hard limestone hills of the Judean mountain chain.68 At an elevation of about 2,575 feet (785 meters), Jerusalem is surrounded by hills. Pilgrims from the north around the Sea of Galilee would often go down to the Jordan River to avoid going through Samaria, then climb 3,350 feet (1,020 meters) in elevation up the Jerusalem-Jericho road to the city -- a hard climb!69 The mountains around Jerusalem couldn't help but get their attention.

"A Song of Ascents

1  Those who trust in the LORD 
are like Mount Zion, 
which cannot be moved, 
but abides forever. 
2  As the mountains surround Jerusalem, 
so the LORD surrounds his people, 
from this time forth and forevermore. 
3  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. 
4  Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, 
and to those who are upright in their hearts! 
5  But those who turn aside to their crooked ways 
the LORD will lead away with evildoers! 
Peace be upon Israel!" (Psalm 125:1-5, ESV)

The Lord Surrounds His People (Psalm 125:1-2)

As the psalmist climbs the hills, marveling at the rugged mountains surrounding the beautiful city, he meditates on what he is seeing.

First, he begins to compare the believers -- "those who trust in Yahweh" -- to Mount Zion itself.

"Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, 
which cannot be moved, but abides forever." (Psalm 125:1)

Just like Mount Zion is rock-solid and cannot be shaken,70 so they are on solid ground as they place their trust or reliance on the Lord.71 Second, the mountains surrounding the Holy City remind the psalmist that the Lord surrounds72 his people, protecting them from every direction.

"As the mountains surround Jerusalem, 
so the LORD surrounds his people
from this time forth and forevermore." (Psalm 125:2)

A couple of other familiar psalms echo this sense of security.

"Many are the sorrows of the wicked, 
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD." (Psalm 32:10)

"The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, 
and delivers them." (Psalm 34:7)

We can feel secure in him, held up by his "everlasting arms" (Deuteronomy 33:27). There's something reassuring about a hug, and that God is all around us.

The ancient Celtic Christians understood this idea. I am reminded of some lines from a Celtic hymn attributed to Irish apostle St. Patrick (early 5th century AD), a hymn known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate."

"Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ at my right,
Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort, [i.e., at home]
Christ in the chariot seat, [i.e., travelling by land]
Christ in the stern [i.e., travelling by water]...."73

How comforting that Yahweh surrounds his people!

The Scepter of Unrighteousness (Psalm 125:3)

Jerusalem, as the political capital of ancient Israel, is also the residence of the king, in whose hand is the scepter, the symbol of ruling authority. The psalmist writes:

"For the scepter74 of wickedness shall not rest75 
on the land allotted76 to the righteous,77 
lest the righteous78 stretch out their hands to do wrong."79 (Psalm 125:3)

The issue is righteousness, justice in the land. As you may recall, on Day 3 (Psalm 122:5) we discussed the king's "thrones for judgment" or "justice" in the Holy City.

I've heard people say that leadership ability is what is important in a ruler. That character is secondary. A king may be a notorious womanizer, crooked in his dealings, and show an utter disregard for truth. But it doesn't matter. We don't expect our king to be a saint -- so they say.

But the psalmist sees "the scepter of wickedness" as abhorrent to Israel, a land that has been given to the righteous believers by God himself. Wickedness must not linger here nor be sanctioned by a wicked government. For if it does, an unrighteous leader will give license for even righteous people to begin to do wrong and become "evil doers" who turn aside from righteousness to "their crooked ways" (verse 5). As Jesus said, "the diseased tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:17b). A ruler of unrighteous character can corrupt the whole nation.

Of course, no leader is all righteous or all evil. Even the worst can have redeeming qualities. But Israel, a land that had many evil rulers following the golden era of David and Solomon, knew all too well the moral devastation brought about by evil rulers who remained in power, sometimes for long reigns. It's there in Israel's history for all to see, spelled out in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. May our leaders today be righteous! May they not allow corruption and wickedness!

Blessings on the Upright (Psalm 125:4-5)

Now the psalmist calls on Yahweh to reward those who are trying to live a righteous life before him -- even though they may be ridiculed or opposed by the wicked.

"4  Do good,80 O LORD, to those who are good, 
and to those who are upright in their hearts! 
5  But those who turn aside to their crooked ways 
the LORD will lead away with evildoers!81 
Peace be upon Israel!" (Psalm 125:4-5)

Bless the righteous, he prays. Let there be a noticeable reward for living a righteous life. He talks about their character with the interesting phrase, an "upright heart."82 A heart that wants to do what is good and right. The psalmist contrasts the upright in heart with those who veer off the path of righteousness into "crooked ways," ways that are bent and perverted, crooked rather than straight,83 corrupt, amoral people who will do anything to increase their money and power.

The psalmist declares that Yahweh will ultimately banish84 evildoers from his land. When Christ returns, there will be terrible judgments upon the wicked. The corrupt world system will be destroyed (referred in Revelation 17 as the "Great Prostitute" and in Revelation 18 as "Babylon"). Finally, after being purified by fire (2 Peter 3:10-12), our world will become "a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13).

Peace Be upon Israel (Psalm 125:5c)

The psalmist concludes this short psalm with a declaration and prayer:

"Peace be upon Israel!" (Psalm 125:5c)

There is no peace in a land ruled by unrighteousness. Nor in a life that has veered off the narrow way into a shady world of compromise and dabbling with evil. The only true peace is that which God gives. Shālôm is a rich word that encompasses not just absence of conflict, but also refers to completion and fulfilment, of a state of wholeness and unity, a restored relationship.85 And Jerusalem -- especially the heavenly Zion that is our goal (Revelation 21-22) -- will truly be the Jeru-salem, the City of Peace, the City of our God.

This psalm comforts us with the image of God surrounding us with his love and protection. But it also challenges us to recognize evil for what it is, and pray that our leaders don't condone wickedness in our land. Psalm 125 is a psalm of confidence about the security that believers have in the Lord and the ultimate victory of righteousness over unrighteousness.


Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

Father, we see such pain and violence in our world. So much of it has been caused by callous rulers who unrighteously oppress their own and fill the land with conflict that displaces millions of souls. We ask you to help our rulers to rule with righteousness and concern for their people. Help us, O God, to put our trust in your surrounding presence when confusion swirls around us. Bring us peace. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Day 6 Meditation (Psalm 125). What does this psalm teach us about the security that the Lord gives us? What examples do you see of unrighteous rulers? What kind of government happens when rulers are unrighteous? What happens in the government of our hearts when we allow unrighteousness in us to continue to guide our actions and thoughts?  https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1905-6-surrounds/


Abbreviations and References

[68] The Judean mountain chain runs from Beersheba in the Negev, north through the hill cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, with present-day Ramallah to the north. Jerusalem is 2,474 feet in elevation (754 meters); Ramallah is 2,890 feet (880 meters); Hebron is 3,050 feet (930 meters); Bethlehem is 2543 feet (775 meters).

[69] Nazareth is 1,138 feet in elevation (347 meters); Jericho is at 846 feet below sea level (- 258 meters); the Sea of Galilee is about 700 feet below sea level (- 215 meters).

[70] "Be moved" (ESV, NRSV), "shaken" (NIV), "removed" (KJV) is môṭ, "totter, shake, slip." This verb, which occurs as a figure of speech referring to great insecurity, can also denote dependability and certainty when used of God and prefixed with a negative (Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #1158).

[71] "Trust" is bāṭaḥ,  "trust in, feel safe, be confident." It expresses that sense of well-being and security which results from having something or someone in whom to place confidence (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #233).

[72] "Surround" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "are round about" (KJV) occurs twice in verse 2, the adverb sābîb, "surrounding, round about" from sābab, "turn (around, aside, back, towards), go (about, around), encircle, surround." The basic meaning of the root seems to involve the idea of turning or going around (Psalm 32:7, 10) (R. D. Patterson, TWOT #1456b).

[73] This rather literal version of St. Patrick's Breastplate is from Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran, "St. Patrick," Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), Volume XI (Robert Appleton Company, 1911). This Irish hymn is found in the Book of Armagh, which Patrick is said to have written when he was about to convert the chief monarch of the island (Laoghaire or Loegaire).

[74] "Scepter" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "rod" (KJV) is shēbeṭ, "rod, staff, scepter." It could refer to a staff for protection, a rod for correction, and a scepter, the mark of authority (TWOT #2314a).

[75] "Rest" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "remain" (NIV), is nûaḥ, "rest, settle down." The root signifies not only absence of movement, but being settled in a particular place with overtones of finality, or of victory, salvation, etc. (Leonard J. Copps, TWOT #1323).

[76] "Allotted to" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "lot" (KJV) is gôrāl, "lot, portion" (TWOT #381a).

[77] "Wickedness" (ESV) is reshaʿ, "wrong, wickedness" The verb derives from this noun and has two meanings: a) to act wickedly, and b) to condemn as guilty. The masculine noun reshaʿ denotes the kind of life that is opposite to God's character and draws statements of indictment and judgment (G. Herbert Livingston, TWOT #2222a).

[78] "Righteous" is ṣaddîq, "just, lawful, righteous." This root connotes conformity to an ethical or moral standard (Harold G. Stigers, TWOT #1879c).

[79] "Wrong" (ESV, NRSV), "evil" (NIV), "iniquity" (KJV) is ʿāwel, "injustice, unrighteousness." The basic meaning of this root means to deviate from a right standard, to act contrary to what is right (TWOT #1580a).

[80] "Do good" is the verb ṭôb, "(be) good, beneficial, pleasant, favorable, happy, right." This root refers to "good" or "goodness" in its broadest senses (TWOT #793). "Good" is the adjective and noun ṭôb.

[81] "Evildoers" (ESV, NRSV, NIV), "workers of iniquity" (KJV) is two words, pāʿal, "do," and the noun ʾāwen, "trouble, sorrow, idolatry, wickedness, iniquity, emptiness" (TWOT #48).

[82] "Upright" is yāshār, "(up-) right," from the noun yāshar, "to go straight, direct" (TWOT #930a).

[83] "Turn aside" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "turn" (NIV) is nāṭâ, "extend, stretch out, spread out, pitch, turn, pervert, incline, bend, bow," translated 35 different ways in the KJV alone. The root has the meaning of "to bend," and with the nuance of "turn," "incline," or "decline." It is used in the literal sense of "turning aside" or "away," or "diverting" from the path (Marvin R. Wilson, TWOT #1352). "Crooked ways" is ʿaqalqal, "crooked," from the verb ʿāqal, "bend, twist" (TWOT #1680a).

[84] "Lead forth" (KJV), "lead away" (ESV, NRSV), "banish" (NIV) is the Hifil stem of yālak, "go, walk." Here, in the Hifil stem, it has a causative sense, "let something go" or "lead" (Holladay, 80, Hiphil 4).

[85] G. Lloyd Carr, shālôm, TWOT #2401a.

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