The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines contempt as “the act of despising”; “the state of being despised”; or “a lack of reverence for something.” This definition seems tailor-made for many of our interactions today. Whether on social media, mainstream media, or city streets, our society has fallen in love with contempt. That should hardly come as a surprise for a world-system under the influence of the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), the author of contempt himself. What is surprising, however, is how quickly we believers can be drawn into the fray. Our flesh yearns to sling the mud right back with a quick retort (online or in person), a sharp jab via text, or a passive-aggressive social media post. Not content with a stronghold in the world, contempt has effectively wormed its way into the church as well.
On one hand, perhaps this is understandable. After all, religious liberty in America is under attack; therefore, Christians in this country must deal with contempt from those who would like nothing more than to see the church crumble into oblivion (which will never happen, of course). On the other hand, we must be concerned with how we’re dealing with the contempt. We know that fighting disdain with disdain is wrong. But how do we respond? Psalm 123 provides some insight.
To You I lift up my eyes,
O You who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God,
Until He is gracious to us.
Be gracious to us, O LORD, be gracious to us,
For we are greatly filled with contempt.
Our soul is greatly filled
With the scoffing of those who are at ease,
[And] with the contempt of the proud. (Psa 123:1-4)
Look Up, Not Out
This psalm is one of a series, known as the Psalms of Ascent. These psalms (from 120-134) were sung by Old Testament believers as they made their way to the Temple, which was set on a mountain. Thus, they were singing them as they ascended the Temple Mount. Some of the psalms of ascent deal with the literal concept of ascending, as in “I lift up my eyes” in 123:1 (also 121:1).
The psalmist tells us in verse 3 that he is filled to overflowing with contempt. He has heard all of the jokes and insults, endured all the ill-treatment and prejudice, and he’s had it. This is when you and I would be tempted to dish the contempt back out to our enemies. But that’s not what the psalmist does. He has been caught up in the mud-slinging, but no more. It’s time to lift his eyes above the brouhaha and consider the King.
I don’t mean to say that we completely exclude all earthly happenings from our view. What I am recommending is that instead of clicking the “comment” box or searching for the perfect blend of “sanctified sarcasm” and disdain, we remember the King.
He is just. He will right all wrongs.
He is sovereign. No one takes office or gains a large platform without His knowledge or allowance.
He is good. Though the world may seem so very bad, the King (still very much on His throne) is good.
He is near. It may seem that God is a billion lightyears away from the situation you’re facing, but in fact, He is near, and He cares.
Finally, God is mighty. He is able to humble the proud and exalt the humble. His arm has not been shortened that it cannot save.
Instead of allowing our gaze to be filled with the scoffer, the scorner, and the mocker, we must lift our eyes to this God “enthroned in the heavens.”
Plead for Grace
With eyes lifted, we’re now ready to turn to the main request of this psalm: “Be gracious to us, O LORD” (v. 3), or as the ESV renders it: “Have mercy on us.” Either way, it’s clear that the psalmist is turning to the sovereign King with his heavy heart. I’m sure that his temptation was no different from ours, that his heart had a bent toward revenge. Though he had no smartphone or tablet with which to do his dirty work, I’m sure he had ways to sling the mud back into the face of his oppressor. But he didn’t. Instead of trying to solve the problem on his own terms, we find him pleading for mercy.
This is what happens when I lift my eyes from my circumstances to the God who controls them. Suddenly, I realize that He providentially rules even these people I consider my enemies. In contemporary vernacular, these people may be my neighbors, treating me disdainfully to my face or via the internet; or they may be public figures, doling out contempt from afar. Either way, the psalmist sets the example of pleading with God for mercy. We have a New Testament example of this as well.
In 2 Corinthians 12, we learn that the Apostle Paul had been afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” which he begged God to remove. Though it’s been the topic of much speculation, no one knows what exactly this “thorn” was. It may have been a physical malady, such as poor eyesight, or it may have been a difficult person. While Paul experienced no relief from his affliction, he was given one of the most precious promises in Scripture: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).
Whether in physical pain or relational angst, God’s grace will be sufficient for us. All we need do is ask.
Persevere in Dependence
Finally, Psalm 123 teaches us to persevere. We must keep our eyes raised, and continue pleading for mercy until God grants it (v. 2). I don’t mean to say that God’s grace will arrive like a box from UPS and that once you’ve received it, you’re all set. That would be nice, but we all know that’s not how it works. We must continue to plead for grace as long as we need it.
God’s grace is sufficient, but He doesn’t dole out tomorrow’s grace today. He gives us what is necessary for our struggle today. He wants His children to keep their eyes lifted, to remember continually that He alone is mighty to save and righteous to judge.
Verse 2 uses the analogy of servants looking to their master. Just as servants were dependent on their masters for food every single day, so we must depend on God’s steadfast love and new morning mercies with the dawn of each day (Lam. 3:23). As soon as we think we no longer need to lift our eyes or cry out to him, like Peter, we’ll fall into the waves (Matt. 14:22-33).
Do you feel “greatly filled” with contempt? Is your soul wearied by the arrogant and scoffer? Lift your eyes to the One enthroned in the heavens and plead for His grace.