So if you put your faith on a slide for a microscope, and stare at it for hours, perhaps muttering exhortations to it, the one thing you can be sure of is that it will not grow. But if you learn to look away, if you learn to look to Christ, and if you turn to Scripture, you will find that your faith-precisely because you weren’t paying attention to it—has been quietly growing.
This psalm contains a marked contrast between the eyes of faith, which look to the Lord, the God of heaven, and the blind eyes of insolent unbelief, which see nothing as they ought to. Unbelief and pride are the chains that anchor the soul to this earth, such that the entire globe becomes the great ball in their ball and chain. From this benighted position, they heap abuse on the faithful, who feel it acutely.
“A Song of degrees. Unto thee lift I up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; So our eyes wait upon the Lord our God, until that he have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us: For we are exceedingly filled with contempt. Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
In the previous psalm, David lifted up his eyes to the hills, with this serving as a metaphor for lifting his eyes to God. Here the psalmist lifts his eyes again, but does so directly to the one who dwells in the heavens (v. 1). Just like servants looked closely to the hands of their masters or mistresses, for any slight indication that they might want something, so our eyes are fixed on the Lord our God (v. 2). Now this looking is two-fold. The servants do it so that they might be prepared to obey at an instant’s notice. But the desire here expressed also is so that the Lord might have “mercy upon us” (v. 2). In the next verse, the need for mercy comes pouring out. Why do we need God to show mercy? Because we are “exceedingly filled with contempt” (v. 3). We are despised. Our souls are filled to overflowing with scorn from those who are fat and sassy, from those who are haughty and proud (v. 4). God, please vindicate your servants now.
DIRECTED BY A MERE FINGER
The picture comes from male and female servants both. In the ancient near East, it was customary to have servants on constant stand-by, and to have them available to respond instantly to whatever the master or mistress desired, with that desire expressed with something as slight as the merest movement of a finger.
There is obviously eagerness to obey that is being expressed here. An additional possibility is that the servant is in disfavor for having done something wrong, and the servant is looking for the slightest indication that he is forgiven. This fits with the petition that follows—“have mercy on us.” But in any case, the desire to obey and the desire to experience God’s vindication in the face of our adversaries’ contempt are two desires that are woven closely together. It is not possible to earnestly yearn for God to deal with their disobedience toward us while continuing to be indulgent toward our disobedience toward Him. It doesn’t work that way.
The ungodly, who have no eyes, look on us with contempt. We, who have eyes, look to the God who dwells in heaven. Our eyes look to the heavens (v. 1). A servant’s eyes look to his master’s hand (v. 2). A maiden’s eyes do the same (v. 2). Our eyes wait on the Lord our God, desperate for mercy. Our eyes see, but they do not yet see deliverance. We can see what is actually going on, and one of the things that appears to not be going on is a divine intervention on behalf of those who see what is going on.
And one of the things we can see is that the people who can see nothing nevertheless look down on us with disdain, contempt, arrogance, and an invincible ignorance. But they are at ease. They are content with their cosmic stupidity, and in their better moments they sometimes feel sorry for us.
CHRIST OUR ONLY WISDOM
The Lord Jesus was entirely obedient throughout the course of His entire life. When He was tempted in the wilderness, the new Israel suffering for forty days there, He stood firm, unlike the older Israel (Matt. 4). He learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8). Throughout the course of His ministry, He did nothing but what He saw His Father doing. “Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19). So the Son had His gaze fixed on His Father’s fingers. He was, always and everywhere, poised for obedience.
And He also looked to God for mercy—for just this sort of mercy. He, whose name is Wonderful, was born into a race of moral idiots. He was the Wisdom that spoke the galaxies into existence, and He was harangued by Pharisees, who called him a glutton and a drunkard, and demon-possessed, and these were men whose ethical obtuseness was oceanic. He walked the earth as a model of heavenly perfection, and in response they spit in His face (Matt. 26:67), pulled out his beard (Is. 50:6), jammed a crown of thorns on His head (Jn. 19:5), and yelled taunts at Him, on the level of neener neener, while He was on the cross (Matt. 27:42). Jesus modeled this perfectly for us—He, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross and despised the shame (Heb. 12:2).
We find it tedious when we have to put up with someone whose IQ is five points lower than ours, or if we are driving behind someone who is driving five mph slower than he ought to be. How long, O Lord? is our lament. We believe that we are monuments of towering charity whenever we cut anyone two degrees of slack.
And so what we need is this. As believers, we are exceedingly filled with contempt. We need to pray the way this psalm prays, and we must do it without becoming the kind of people the psalmist is praying about.
Unless God humbles him, man won’t be humbled. Mankind has a hyperextended elbow from patting himself on the back. We look upon all the undeserved blessings which God has bestowed—our health, our financial stability, our routine, our safety, our full cupboards––and assume He owed them to us. Scripture is full of illustrative warnings against assuming the blessing of God as automatic (cf. Jdg. 7:2). If it is something God owes us then it is no longer grace. But if it is a gift, then the only thing to do is to humbly receive it all as grace upon grace.
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:) But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:18-29).
Summary of the Text
The entire book of Hebrews is directed to Jewish Christians facing dark clouds of impending persecution. In their fear, they began casting longing looks back at the way things were under the old Mosaic order. Throughout the book they are admonished to look through the Mosaic order and see the superiority of Jesus. As the book comes in for a landing, these early Christians are told how they ought to behave in the midst of sovereign chastisement (12:6-11). They were to look diligently so as not fail of the grace of God (12:15).
Remembering OT history is to aid us in clinging to this grace. We’re told to remember where we have come: not to Sinai (12:18-19); with all its thunderous glory and holy fear (12:20-21).
Rather, these early Christians are told they’ve come to Zion. They’ve come to a city populated by angels, the church, and the righteous Judge (12:22-23). They have come to Jesus and to His blood (12:24). While Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, the better word of Jesus’ blood cries out that “It is finished.”
Because of this, they need to prick up their ears and hear and heed. God spoke the Law to Israel at Sinai, upon the earth. But now God speaks from heaven, in the person of the ascended Christ.
When God spoke at Sinai, Israel was simultaneously worshipping the Golden Calf, and theydidn’t escape God’s wrath. So if you fail to come to Jesus by heeding His Gospel voice you will not escape (12:25). God’s voice shook the earth at Sinai, but Haggai had prophesied of another shaking yet to come (Hag. 2:6). This shaking was upon them. The Mosaic order was to be removed by this shaking, so that the unshakeable things might remain (12:26-27).
These children of Abraham were receiving the immovable kingdom promised to Abraham (Heb. 11:10). So, they were to have grace so that they might bring acceptable service to God. This service was to be marked by reverence and godly fear (12:28), and they were to do so because of Who God is: a consuming fire (12:29).
God Likes to Shake Things Up
Think of a chalk-artist drawing on a sidewalk in some big city. While he’s drawing the chalk dust obscures the art. But when he finally blows away the excess, what emerges is the masterpiece.
Moses’ law was like scaffolding which was soon to be shaken off to reveal the immovable city of the Unshakeable God. God’s voice shook Sinai when the Law was given. But He was about to thunder once more from heaven.
We ought not to think of the current shake-up of the world as “on par” with the shaking which is referred to in this text. However, we should think of our shaking as the aftershocks of that shaking. What happened when Jesus shed His blood, died, rose again, and ascended to the throne of majesty (Heb. 1:3)? In short, God shook the whole world. The result was that rebel principalities and powers were overthrown, and their jurisdiction was now handed over to Son of Man.
Fear, Folly, or Faith
The early Jewish Christians were faced with very uncertain times. They stood between the beast of the Roman Empire, and the seduction of the Judaizers. Worldly fear leads to folly. And folly has many faces. One temptation was to return to the familiar structure of Moses’ law. It would have let them “belong” again. On the other hand, they could simply renounce it all and blend in with the pagans.
We see this fear leading to folly playing out in real time. Over-reactors and under-reactors. Nail-biters and conspiracy theorists. Hoarders and protesters. There is folly in cowardly panic. There is folly in thinking you’re invisible. COVID-19 may very well be the means of your death. It might also be the means of peeling open your heart to show you a festering fear of earthly things.
But what it is not is a meaningless blip. It is a warning that God has shaken the world from heaven. You don’t get to ignore the rumblings. When God shakes the world, unbelieving men run to folly, because they won’t receive the gracious humbling from the hand of the Lord.
But for Abraham’s children, we feel the aftershocks of Christ’s kingdom being established throughout the world, and we fear not the face of man, or war, or plague, or economic disaster. God is our good King, and we serve Him.
Like Paton in the Tree
John G. Paton, a Scottish missionary to the cannibals of the South Pacific, once had to spend a whole night in a tree while hiding from the savages who were hunting for him. He said of that night, “If it be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree, to feel again my Savior’s spiritual presence, to enjoy His consoling fellowship.” In another close encounter with death he said: “With my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary, and now swaying the scepter of the universe, calmness and peace abode in my soul.”
That is what genuine faith in the midst of trial is able to declare. Faith stays its mind on the Lord, and therefore is kept in perfect peace. Faith knows that when all around my soul gives way, Jesus is all your hope and stay. Faith comes to the City of Zion, and knows that no matter how topsy-turvy the world may be, the King of the World is unshakeable. God calls through such trials for proud man to repent. He humbles you in order to lift you up. He shakes away the impermanent things, so that you might cling to the only permanence to be found: King Jesus.
God is shaking this whole world up so that you would look to Christ. So that your hope in all earthly deliverance would fail, and that you might turn in humble faith to trust in Him Whose Kingdom cannot be shaken. He has humbled us to the dust, so that in the midst of the dust of this great shaking we might look to an unshakeable Christ, who lifts us up with Him into His glory.
Text: James 2:14-26
James sometimes gets a bad wrap that he doesn’t like faith. This is straight up not true. Faith is a recurring focus (1:3,1:6, 2:1, 2:5) James says in 2:1 that we are to hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, and hold it in such a way that our faith changes your life. In the second half of the chapter, James is concerned about those who hold the faith in the wrong way. Their faith is dead because it does not work. So here’s the simple message, “Living Faith is Faith that Works.”
Dead and Stuffed Faith (vs. 14-17)
James begins with two sobering questions, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (vs. 14) The implied answers are “Not much good, and no they can’t.” Suppose a Christian brother or sister is lacking in basic essentials like food and clothes. Suppose one of you says “be warmed and filled and God bless” while brushing off this person who is not warmed, filled or blessed. These are just empty words because of the speaker’s idle hands. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (vs. 17). This lifeless faith is what you would find in a spiritual taxidermist shop. You can go in and admire the remarkably life-like cougar or trout or Reformed Calvinist. There’s a world of difference between life-like and living.
Belief is Not Enough (vs. 18-19)
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works” (vs. 18). In the Christian life, faith and works go together like inhaling and exhaling. As Billy Graham said, “Faith is taking the Gospel in; works is taking the Gospel out.”
Faith without works is not only dead, it’s demonic. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe––and shudder!” (vs. 19) The demons have accurate theology––they know God, but no practical theology––they don’t obey God.
Abraham’s Faithful Work (vs. 20-23)
Abraham, James says, was justified by his works when he offered up his son Isaac on the alter (vs. 21). In Genesis 22, God tested Abraham’s faith to see if he would obey. At the base of the mountain, Abraham commands his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” These are two remarkable verbs––the boy and I will worship and come again. What was Abraham going to do at the mountain top? He says worship. Worship is to hear and obey God, even in a life shattering circumstance. Abraham said they will worship and then “we will come again.” How is this possible for Abraham to kill Isaac at the mountain top and then for them both to come back to the base camp? Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise Isaac from the dead” (Heb. 11:19).
Abraham’s faith and actions were united and in his believing obedience, and God justified him. Faith was active each step up the mountain (vs 22).
Justified by Works
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (vs. 24) What’s James point? Abraham both believed God and acted on that belief. James and Paul are not arm wrestling over faith and works but are rather locked arm in arm defending against dead faith and dead works. Paul would say “We are saved by faith alone” And James would promptly add “And this faith is never alone!”
Rahab’s Working Faith (vs. 25)
To add some more spice in the stew James holds up the prostitute Rahab as a faithful worker. Rahab was justified by works when she hid the Israelite spies and then lied to the soldiers about which way the spies scampered. Faith and faithfulness is not simplistic. Faith requires wisdom, shrewdness, courage and a deep understanding of who your faith is in––the Lord Jesus Christ.
Living Faith, Living Work (vs. 26)
James concludes that faith without works is like a cold body on a coroner’s table. The body can be intact, but if it’s just the body without any movement, the body is dead. No heart pumps, then no life. But a pumping heart is evidence for a living body. Our faith is like the heart with the first pumps of life. That first squeeze of the heart is absolutely vital to your life. But the second and third and millionth pump are also important and necessary to keep you alive and active. Faith is needed at the beginning of your Christian life, and it is needed to keep working at each new pump. “For as the body apart form the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” But Jesus is the living Lord who gives you life. So your life as a Christian will hold living faith full of living work.