It hurts when I hear people, including some Christians, use the phrase “Have mercy” so cavalierly. After all, it is essentially an appeal to God, whether they realize it or not. And no appeal to God should be made vainly or regarding silly matters of no consequence. Few probably appreciate the origin of the phrase or its true character, but it is important for us to move beyond the loose exclamatory use of these two words and to see them in their true context. Following the Babylonian captivity, an unnamed Jew wrote a series of psalms, each with the heading “A Song of Ascents,” for the children of Israel to sing together as they traveled back to Jerusalem to worship. Each tends to build on the psalms before it, creating a collection that helps transition the mind from the situation back home to preparation for worship in Jerusalem. In the midst of these psalms lies Psalm 123, a brief offering filled with emotion and meaning because it captures how God’s people of all ages live between two worlds—the materialistic world dominated by the prince of the power of the air and the kingdom of heaven in which God Himself reigns. Therefore, this psalm expresses faith in an important way. It looks to the Lord above with a renewed perspective of deep need and with gratitude for His patience, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, and love all the while keenly aware of the world’s enmity toward God’s people and all things spiritual.
The psalmist opens with purposeful longing for God’s attention and protection, but also with an eye to see beyond the earth’s horizon to engage God who is spirit in his cause: “Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens” (Psa. 123:1). He remains all too cognizant of his own position upon the earth, and this is essential for any who appeal to heaven. The recognition of the distinction between heaven and earth and the need of man and the power of God lies at the heart of prayer and all appreciation for the attention God offers in listening to His people’s petitions (1 Pet. 3:12; 1 John 5:14-15). But the relationship between man and God matters as we look to Yahweh for help. Indeed, to approach Him as anything other than humble servants who realize that every appeal depends on the gracious character of a loving Master is to miss the essence of what makes the relationship possible. “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, So our eyes look to the LORD our God, Until He has mercy on us” (Psa. 123:2). There is such longing in this description, a patience and perseverance that only faith can maintain, and this precisely fills the hearts of those dedicated to the LORD with full confidence in His mercy along with the recognition of their great need for it. The world is fraught with trials and tribulation, dangers and difficulties, hostilities and heartache. Nevertheless, God’s mercy abounds. And our confidence in this should permeate our existence to the point of eliminating all doubt. This is essential because of the constant pressure the godless and the faithless of this world will often apply against us. The worldly will despise the spiritual; those who value luxury will ridicule those who value sacrifice; the disdain of the proud in this world will rise up to humiliate those already humbled for their need for God. “Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us! For we are exceedingly filled with contempt. Our soul is exceedingly filled With the scorn of those who are at ease, With the contempt of the proud” (Psa. 123:3-4).
Have mercy. Two simple words. Placed in their context, they express such faith in the love of God. And that is how we should think of them—meaningful, heavenly, spiritual. It is not about condemning a casual use of a phrase so much as about calling for higher speech through spiritual thinking. We all need God’s mercy so desperately. So let us appreciate it, and let our speech honor it, and so honor the God who offers it.