Psalm 123 is a communal lament in a particularly desperate tone. This is not just a pious expression of humility but the cry of a man on behalf of a people who are feeling humiliated, possibly in some military context. He says that they have been ridiculed continuously by arrogant men and have been completely impotent to do anything. The situation might be reminiscent of the way in which Goliath of Gath ridiculed and humiliated Israel while they sat trembling in their tents. Warfare in the ancient world was a dirty game and ridicule and fear tactics played a big part. The traditional style of military ridicule was very often aimed at the faith of the people as much as at the people themselves. There are many imprecatory psalms which record the mocking words of the enemy since the psalm writers felt that such words could only serve to give God the best possible reason to act. In Psalm 3 David complains that ‘many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.” In Psalm 22 the writer tells of how ‘All who see me mock me; they hurl their insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him, since he delights in him.” These taunts were against the fact that the individual was trusting in God and the enemies are delighting in God’s absence. Psalm 123 does not record what the arrogant were saying but we can justifiably imagine that it was something like this. And the principle that the psalmist is appealing to is that often repeated scriptural statement: none who trust in God will ever be put to shame.
The writer of this psalm seems to have taken some of this kind of ridicule onboard since there is a sense of great distance from God in this prayer. It seems like the psalmist was beginning to wonder whether God had abandoned his people. He has lost any sense of connection with God and is reduced to pleading for whatever scraps of mercy may fall from God’s table. In some ways he sounds like the prodigal son when he returned to his father in rags expecting to be received back as a servant. Such is his sense of destitution and rejection that he feels on behalf of his people. So a man who feels an infinity away from the throne of God lifts up his eyes and cries in desperation. He feels that he is ‘way down’ while God is ‘way up’ and so he approaches God asking to be received like a helpless slave. So the psalm expresses a humble approach to God with something of a prodigal son type attitude. The principle is clear: come with the humility of a slave and be received with the honour of a son.