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Flight of the Dove (Psalm 124)

Fifteen of the Psalms (120-134) begin with the words, “A song of ascents.” The title may indicate that these were sung by worshipers ascending the road to Jerusalem for the three annual “pilgrim” festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Booths. All of these songs are brief, they employ a degree of repetition, and they focus on the hope of Zion.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)

The Bible’s wisdom literature is the center of the Old Testament (Testing, the governing lights, kingdom) and the literature of the time is as harmless as a dove but as subtle as a serpent. Likewise, this particular Psalm is not as simple as it seems. The Covenant-literary structure alludes to Israel’s previous history and thus her ethical responsibilities before God. This means that Psalm 124 is not merely a song of Israel escaping from her enemies. It is a song of Israel not getting what Israel deserved under the Law of Moses. She would indeed be cut off like the nations around her, but unlike them, she would be released from her prison, resurrected from the dead. She would be engulfed by the waters of the abyss, and yet rise again from them, cleansed and baptised for renewed mission to the nations.

The Psalm recapitulates the biblical Covenant structure, working from above (God: the past) to beside (Man: the present) to below (Inheritance: the future).

Transcendence: The authority of God
Hierarchy: His servant is set apart for service
Ethics: The promises of abundance, rules for success, and blessings and curses (plunder or plagues) are given to the servant
Oath/Sanctions: The servant agrees to obey (Oath: submission before heaven, and Sanctions: inheritance on earth)

Succession: The unjust are cut off and the just are given an inheritance

This fivefold pattern becomes sevenfold, a “new creation week”, when the Ethics section is split into its three parts: promise (Priesthood), method (Kingdom), and outcomes (Prophecy). You will find this pattern in Genesis 2-3 concerning Adam. This Psalm consists (basically) of seven sentences, with each sentence presenting a sequence of words in a “Covenant” process.

Psalm 124

TRANSCENDENCE (Creation)

A Song of Ascents, (Transcendence – Call to Worship)
by David. (Hierarchy – Confession)
If the Lord had not been for us (Law given – Praise)
Let Israel now say, (Law opened – Word)
If the Lord had not been for us (Law repeated – Offertory)
When man rose against us, (Sanctions – Communion)

Then alive they had swallowed us. (Succession – Commission)

  • The first stanza gives us the complete sevenfold pattern, and the thread which stands out here is the process of Covenant renewal worship,1See Jeff Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship. with David himself as the worship leader.
  • David calls to Israel to confess the name of the true God as her deliverer. The sevenfold structure requires the inclusion of the title and composer for it to maintain the symmetry.
  • At the center is a command for Israel to speak as a witness. On either side of this, lines 3 and 5 correspond to the Bronze Altar (representing the Land of Day 3) and the Incense Altar (represent the hosts above and below). Notice that it is Yahweh on both altars, covering Israel’s sins on earth and in heaven.
  • “Man” in line 6 in Hebrew is Adam, referring to all the nations of mankind but alluding to both the creation of Man on Day 6 and the High Priest at the sixth feast, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32). You will notice this “multiplied” Man corresponds to the singular David in line 2. He is a better Adam, the servant-king (or priest-king) standing upon the Land of Israel above the waters of the Gentiles.
  • This brings us to the point of the Psalm. Israel would only be swallowed, a Land submerged under a “flood” of Gentile invaders, if she disobeyed the Laws of Moses. The offerings of the priesthood would be rejected and rendered unclean, requiring the re-establishing of the Aaronic priesthood in the book of Zechariah.
  • The final line concerns Israel’s future. She was supposed to be clean so that she could minister to the nations at the Feast of Booths. If she refused to be priestly “bread” to the Gentiles, they would not come as guests but as scavengers. This is exactly what happened during the invasions by Babylon and Rome (and indeed was prefigured in Jonah).

The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or olive oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the Lord your God is giving you. Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 28:49-53)

HIERARCHY (Division)

When kindled (Transcendence)
[was] their wrath, (Hierarchy)
the flood (Ethics)
would overflow (Sanctions)

(No Succession)

  • “Kindled” at Transcendence refers to the anger of heaven. In Tabernacle terms, this is the Ark of the Covenant, symbolically open (as it is in Revelation 11:19) that Israel might be face to face with the Law of Moses. That fits with the overall theme of Hierarchy, which is the waters of Day 2, the Veil in the Tabernacle, and the Delegation of heavenly authority.
  • “Wrath” can be translated nose, nostrils, face or anger. The nations are put into a rage by God, who has smoke billowing from His nose. This biblical symbol relates to anger over the widow and orphan being mistreated, a reversal of the “bridal” smoke which accompanied the High Priest when he entered the Most Holy. Here, the Lord’s face is against the priesthood, as it was against the sons of Aaron (Leviticus 10:1-2).
  • The flood is literally “waters,” referring to those which were divided on Day 2, the “creational” veil between heaven and earth. The nations would rise up and cover the Land of Israel as the waters covered the earth in the days of Noah, and as the waters of the Red Sea engulfed the hosts of Egypt. David uses a similar flood symbol in Psalm 69:2.
  • Thus, the process begins with the Law of God, resulting in “hot and cold” judgment, fire from above and water from below, heaven and earth united in the removal of the corrupted mediators.

ETHICS 1 – The Promise (Ascension)

The torrent (Transcendence)
had gone over our life (Hierarchy)
— (No Ethics)
then had gone over our life (Sanctions)

the raging waters. (Succession)

  • Moving to Day 3 symbols, the water here begins as a stream or torrent but ends as a flood, working from above to below. The ascension of the dry land on Day 3 is being reversed, picturing the undoing of the promise of Canaan to Abraham, the Land of Israel reverting to Gentile rule. In Tabernacle terms, the Bronze Altar is being extinguished and washed clean.
  • The word for “passing over” is not the one in Exodus 12, which connotes restraint. This word carries the idea of invading or marching over, as seen in Isaiah 8:8. This is not the kind of Passover (or Atonement in line 4) which sees Israel survive.
  • The word “life” is “nephesh,” covering the entire household on the Land, all the living creatures (Genesis 2:19), both humans and animals.
  • The fact that the central threefold section is missing, the two altars and the holy fire which united them via fragrant smoke, is wonderful, and terrifying, literary architecture. The two mentions of “life” refer to the Land and its legal representatives, but they cannot be separated from the overflow without ruining the symmetry.
  • Day 4, the Lampstand, is thus entirely missing. God has turned His face from the Land. Even the stars in the sky have gone dark, heaven itself robed in sackcloth.2The central line is also missing in the description of the creation of the firmament in Genesis 1.
  • Succession corresponds to Booths, Israel’s ministry to the nations, and indeed Christ’s inheritance of them. Here, through Israel’s failure, there is no dominion over the Sea. Instead of a world “formed” and “filled,” the nations are once again formless and empty before God (Genesis 1:2), covered in Ethical darkness.

The light of a lamp shall not shine in you anymore, and the voice of bridegroom and bride shall not be heard in you anymore. (Revelation 18:23)

ETHICS 2 – The Rules and Rulers (Testing)

Blessed (Transcendence)
[is] Jehovah (Hierarchy)
who hath not given us (Ethics)
to be torn (Sanctions)

by their teeth. (Succession)

  • “Blessed” is the obedient Adam, the perfect Man of Psalm 1 and the glorified Christ of Revelation 1. This explains the position of the Lord at Hierarchy in this stanza, God-as-servant, fulfilling the Law, and providing the turning point in the Psalm, from death to life.
  • “Given” in line 3 refers to the giving of a gift (found in the name Nathaniel, “gift of God”). This gift is sacrificial, Israel herself given to the birds and beasts under the Covenant curse. This is exactly what occurred under Babylon and Rome, the symbols finding their full expression in the Roman eagles and the Neronic beast from the sea in the Revelation.
  • “Teeth” at Succession refers to the feeding of the nations, as mentioned above, and also the wise judgment of God. Solomon’s great white throne was covered in ivory. Judgment under the Law was “tooth for tooth.”

ETHICS 3 – The Outcomes (Maturity)

Our life (Transcendence)
as a bird (Hierarchy)
has escaped (Ethics)
from the snare (Sanctions)

of the fowler(Succession)

  • The bird corresponds to the flocks of Day 5, yet here it is singular, perhaps the lone dove of Noah, picturing the Spirit hovering over the waters.
  • A new Israel heralds the end of the deluge. At Hierarchy, the bird is a priesthood of all believers after a judgment upon idolatry, robed in white with blue tassels on the corners (literally “wings”) of their garments, a reminder of the Laws of God (Numbers 15:38-39), and the four rivers of Eden, water as blessing and life rather than cursing and death.

OATH/SANCTIONS (Conquest)

The snare (Transcendence)
was broken, (Hierarchy)
and we (Ethics)
have escaped. (Sanctions)

(No Succession)

  • The fact that this Stanza corresponds both to the Great Flood and the Day of Atonement (literally, the Day of “Coverings”) deepens its meaning.
  • Notice that the snare was in the Sanctions line in the previous Stanza, but the same snare begins the Sanctions Stanza.
  • The Land is set free from bondange, and the flight of the dove heralds the dawn of a new creation.
  • In the symmetry of the entire Psalm, the second and sixth Stanzas are both missing their Succession. However, where it was Israel that was cut off at Division (corresponding to Circumcision and Passover), it is now the nations which are cut off at Conquest (corresponding both to Baptism and Jericho, Atonement).

SUCCESSION (Glorification)

Our help [is] (Transcendence)
in the name (Hierarchy)
of Jehovah(Ethics)
Maker (Sanctions)

of the heavens and earth(Succession)

  • The final Stanza is the revelation of Israel’s true glory, the Lord. Instead of the waters above and below being united in judgment, heaven and earth are united in their removal, the “no more sea” of Revelation 21:1. As the Shekinah filled the Tabernacle, so the Lord’s rainbow glory now fills the entire world.
  • “Maker” is literally “who accomplished,” perhaps carrying the same idea as Christ’s words “It is finished,” the act wherein He made all things new.
  • The fivefold Stanza also subtly follows the structure of the Ten Words, hinting that true glory is found only in obedience to God. If we humble ourselves before Him, we will be exalted as He was.

What human mind is able write lyrics of such subtlety? A mind brooding over the waters, inspired by the Spirit of God. It is interesting that Israel was only truly “submerged” centuries after this Psalm was written.


ART: The Flight of the Prisoners, James Tissot.

References   [ + ]

1. See Jeff Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship.
2. The central line is also missing in the description of the creation of the firmament in Genesis 1.

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