Today’s Daily Office serves up several psalms from a “collection” called the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120 to 134), which scholars suggest were sung by ancient Jewish pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for major religious feasts. My favorite commentary on this collection can be found in a book by Pastor Eugene Peterson titled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (which – for my money – is still one of the most thought-provoking titles I’ve ever come across), and he offers a memorable reflection on these words from Psalm 123:
I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he shows us his mercy. (Psalm 123:1-2)
Now, even though these words are set in the context of worship (which, unfortunately, tempts us to “spiritualize” them and to overlook the implications of what they’re saying), it’s important to note that they are commending to us a form of slavery. The psalmist recognizes that God is the master – a good and merciful master, to be sure – but still: the One whose authority is unquestioned and whose command must be anticipated and obeyed.
If we’re honest, of course, I’m not always sure that this is a truth we’re eager to embrace. Oh sure, we’re willing to give lip-service to the notion of God’s Lordship over our lives. But in a culture that values and celebrates personal freedom as much as ours does, I think we’re often secretly convinced that we have a right to “cut some corners” on God’s instructions – or at the very least – we have a right to expect leniency when we decide that God’s expectations are asking too much of us.
But for all of our supposed liberty, are we truly free? As Peterson points out, even our declared love for freedom leaves us surprisingly discontented by all the obstacles that still prevent us from obtaining what we think we desire – and surprisingly addicted to all the powers (work, success, lust, comfort, substances…the list goes on an on) that still compel us to pursue things that ultimately fail to satisfy. As Peterson says: “We trade masters; we stay enslaved.”
But here is where Peterson offers a valuable reminder:
“The Christian is a person who recognizes that our real problem is not in achieving freedom, but in learning service under a better master.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 65)
Isn’t this the same dynamic that the Apostle Paul is pointing to when he writes to the church in Galatia?
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another (and the more accurate translation would be “be slaves to one another”) humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
As a great philosopher (I think it was Bob Dylan) once said: “You gotta serve somebody.” So, who will we serve today?
May our eyes look to the hand of the LORD our God, just as the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master. And may we discover in our servitude that we have been given the freedom that truly makes us free.