As the saying goes, stop me if you’ve heard this one. It’s “I Lift My Eyes Up,” originally written by Brian Doerksen, whose music was a staple of contemporary worship services from the mid-90s to the early 2000s–including those of my high school youth group. I couldn’t find a streamable official recording, so this one’s a live cover from UK-based Vineyard Music. Doerksen drew inspiration from Psalm 121 for “I Lift My Eyes Up;” it recapitulates the first two verses in particular almost word-for-word. But while Doerksen’s song is as much a prayer for aid as an acknowledgement of God’s power to save, Psalm 121 is pure confidence in God’s protection.
Today’s psalm is, as the NASB summarizes it, a “Prayer for Deliverance from the Treacherous.” The psalmist asks the Lord to deliver him from “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue” (120:2). For the time, he’s living in a foreign land with war-hungry inhabitants, so he turns to God for safety.
This is it: the behemoth, the magnum opus, the alpha and omega and everything in between. This is Psalm 119.
I expect that lyrical repetition has been around for as long as singing itself. It’s a potent device. If you want to write a hit pop song, get yourself a simple, singable chorus and a catchy hook, and lean into it hard: just drill it into your listeners’ heads. And whatever lyrical gymnastics you’re pulling off in your rap track, whatever rapid-fire vocals and complex internal rhymes, make sure you’ve got a good call-and-response chorus to get the audience bouncing. And to go back further, if you’re an ancient Hebrew lyricist, you too can put these techniques to work. Enter Psalm 118.
What’s the shortest song you can think of? Two of my favorite bands, Five Iron Frenzy and They Might Be Giants, have no shortage of short songs. Here’s one. Here’s another. And these short songs tend to be goofy ditties with nonsensical lyrics poking fun at their own brevity, but what happens when a short song takes itself and its subject matter entirely seriously? Psalm 117 happens, that’s what.
In junior high, my dad introduced me to Archimedes’ spiral, or the “goat on a rope.” If you take a compass and draw a line where the distance of your pencil from the center point equals the angle between your compass and the x-axis, you get this line. Or to put it in mathematical terms, it’s the polar coordinate equation r = θ. My dad told me that life is like Archimedes’ spiral: as you live and grow, you keep coming back to similar points in your life, but further out on the spiral. Say you’ve read a psalm before, and then you read it again. The second time around, you’re reading it on a more distant loop on the spiral. It’s a new experience–but it’s similar to the old one.
If the central question of modern theology is “What is the nature of God?” then the central question of theology in the ancient Near East was “Which gods should we worship?” In ancient cultures, towns would commonly adopt a patron deity, and there were no shortage of choices. Just take a look at Wikipedia’s list of Mesopotamian deities. And people would commonly fashion sculptures of their deities as part of their worship: they’d make idols.
I tend to forget how good The Prince of Egypt is. One of the things I like best about it is how it conveys a sense of scale. The monuments of Egypt are big. The crowds of Hebrew slaves are big. The Red Sea is big, and it’s a big event when God parts it. But without modern animation technology, how would you have conveyed the magnitude of the Exodus? If you were anything like the author of Psalm 114, you would have written a song.
Once upon a time, a psalmist made a bet to see how many different ways he could say “Praise the name of the Lord.” He lost the bet, though, because he gave up halfway through, and that’s how we got Psalm 113. No, not really, but I have to write an introduction somehow.
Sometimes the psalm summarizes itself for you. Consider the opening lines of today’s psalm: “How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments!” (112:1). The rest of the psalm is basically a litany of blessings for the man who fears the Lord. He receives a well-established family tree, material wealth, a good legacy, victory over his adversaries, and more. But let’s zero in on a verse in the middle of the psalm, characterizing this man of many blessings. The man is merciful–and a creditor.