Psalm 125

A Call to Asymmetry

Psa. 125:0   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 on and forevermore.
3 For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not 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 own crooked ways
the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
Peace be upon Israel!

This Psalm (as are all the Psalms of Ascent) is dated to the period of Exile or perhaps just after Exile. That impacts its imagery and meaning. This poem of confidence about the enduring quality of Mount Zion and of Jerusalem sounds different when we understand that it is being written from a foreign land and under the subjugation of an enemy.

I am struck by the third verse:

3 For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
their hands to do wrong.

There is some discussion about what this cryptic comment means, but I am swayed by the simple explanation that these exiles (and even those left behind but dispossessed of the land they once owned and controlled) are struggling to not respond to the violence and injustice which has come to them with a symmetrical response. You know what I mean. . . “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” That is symmetrical response.

The alternative is to surprise everyone, friend and foe alike, by responding asymmetrically. That is what Jesus instructs when he teaches:

Matt. 5:38   “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Matt. 5:43   “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

As I make my way to the horrors of Good Friday and consider how deeply divided people are in my own nation, I find myself wondering, “What might happen if Psalm 125:3 were to take hold? What if violence was met by peace, hostility with patience, enmity with earnest prayers for the perpetrator’s well-being?” Of course, in a world dominated by the worldview of realpolitik this talk of asymmetrical response sounds like silliness . . . but it sounded like silliness in 5th century BCE Israel in the poetry of the psalmist, and it sounded like silliness in 1rst century CE Judea on the lips of our Lord.  So, as silly as it sounds, I will be trying very hard as I walk the paths of my life in a way that responds to others in grace — even, and perhaps especially when that requires an asymmetrical response.

Daily Collect:  Merciful Lord, you could have dealt with our violence and betray symmetrically.  You could have punished, and disassociated yourself from us in the wake of crucifixion.  We give thanks that, instead, you love those who are enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.  Help us, who follow in your way to find the courage to follow you in showing mercy.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.