Psalm 134 – A song of ascents
Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord. And may the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.
Being a pastor is a stressful job. Now, please don’t hear that as self-serving, or self-pity, or as some sort of passive-aggressive cry for help! Being a pastor is also a richly rewarding calling. But the statistics routinely reveal the toll ministry takes on the men and women who embrace that holy call.
- 75% of pastors report being “highly stressed”
- 90% work between 55 and 75 hours per week
- 90% feel fatigued and worn out “all the time”
- 80% of seminary trained pastors remain in ministry less than 10 years
- 78% have been forced to resign due to conflict in the church (63% more than once)
- 70% say they have a lower self-esteem now than when they entered ministry
And here’s a surprise: the current COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made it any easier! I was recently speaking with a pastor friend who has two close colleagues who are retiring early because, “They just can’t take it (COVID conflicts) anymore.” What’s the best thing we can do to help them?
Psalm 134 is the last of the 15 “songs of ascent” that Jewish pilgrims sang on their way to the Temple. It is short (only three verses) and to the point. It begins, “Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord!” (vs. 1) It’s a song about pastors…well, sort of. It is written for the “night shift” priests in the Holy Temple, the ones who “stand by night.” Basically, it’s a song of encouragement to hang in there through the long, dark night…literally and figuratively.
If you’ve ever worked an overnight shift at any job, you can appreciate this psalm! The night shift is always harder to endure—there’s the disconnect you feel with the rest of the world, the loneliness of working when everyone else is sleeping. Working the night shift isn’t usually as interesting or rewarding or praiseworthy as the daytime shift. It’s easy to feel unnoticed and underappreciated.
The night shift priests in the Temple were responsible for keeping the lampstand lit, keeping the sacrifices burning and guarding the gates against any intruders (Ex. 27:21; Lev. 6:9; 1 Chr 9:22-27). Those were all important and essential roles, but not particularly glamorous ones. Psalm 134 reminds them, however, of their primary role. And that is to “bless the Lord!”
These are God’s servants who are called to “stand by night.” The Hebrew word here can mean standing literally, but it can also suggest “standing for” or “standing against” something. In fact, these unglamorous pastors had to do both. They had to stand against sin, selfishness and injustice; they needed to stand against their own discouragement, loneliness and fear. And the best way to accomplish that was to remember to take a stand—to stand up for God—to “Lift up your hands…and bless the Lord” (vs. 2).
But then the song moves beyond this “Hang in there, guys” sort of encouragement and gives way to an affirmation and blessing: “May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion” (vs. 3) The prayer for these night shift priests is that Almighty God will notice the unnoticed, appreciate the unappreciated, and bless those who bless Him.” Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message puts it this way:
Come, bless God, all you servants of God! You priests of God, posted to the nightwatch in God’s shrine, Lift your praising hands to the Holy Place, and bless God. In turn, may God of Zion bless you— God who made heaven and earth! (Psalm 134, MSG)
Being a pastor is a stressful job. Sometimes it’s hard to find the joy of that calling, especially when things seem dark and lonely. If we want to help them out, the writer of Hebrews offers this observation:
Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them? (Heb. 13:17, MSG)
But let’s face it, every follower of Jesus faces the same kinds of night shift challenges. Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” But he also told them, “Take heart! For I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) When the road gets long, when the task seems impossible, when we feel like unnoticed and unappreciated disciples, we are not alone! If our world is dark, we need to make a “night shift.” We begin by blessing the one who is able and willing to bless us back. Stand up for Him and give Him the glory. And “May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.” Stay thirsty, my friends!