This week our reading included two verses that share the themes of being focused and watchful. But the object of focus in each verse is nothing like the other.
In the first verse, an unidentified psalmist urges us to keep our focus on God: “We look to the Lord our God for his mercy, just as servants keep their eyes on their master, as a slave girl watches her mistress for the slightest signal” (Ps. 123:2). Focusing on God is not unusual advice to find in the Bible, but the level of concentration suggested in this verse elevates that activity to the highest level.
There are different reasons why a slave, or servant, would watch his or her master intently. If the master was cruel, the slave would mistrust the master and watch carefully as a matter of self-preservation. If employment by the master made the difference between the servant having basic needs met or being destitute, the servant would keep a careful watch so as to maintain the master’s goodwill. If a master was consistently kind, a servant may eventually become devoted to the master.
The true Master of this psalm is God. And the psalmist is aware of God’s mercy. How comforting it is to serve a master who is merciful, for mercy is comprised of compassion, kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. So the psalmist is urging us to be alert to God’s never-ending stream of compassion for our plights, kindness for our needs, understanding for our weaknesses, and forgiveness for our failures. It is good to be focused on such a loving Master.
Life would be so much simpler if that was the only focus that required constant vigilance. But it is not. Peter warned of another: “Be careful! Watch out for attacks from the devil, your great enemy. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for some victim to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Once again, we see the advice to watch and keep focused.
But there is a different reason behind this directive to keep watch. The devil has opposite motives and goals to those of the Lord. Cruelty, not mercy, characterizes this master. Harshness, hatred, ruthlessness, pain, and sorrow are his gifts to those who serve him. And yes, just like a lion, this would-be master will hunt, stalk, and ambush his prey. We need not fear this evil being who is vastly inferior to God, but we do need to respect his power and cunning and keep a close watch for the traps in which he specializes.
Peter and the psalmist knew that focus and watchfulness go both ways. Even if our ability to focus is often weak, we ourselves are the focus of strong spiritual forces. Our loving Master, Jesus Christ, watches over us in mercy and love. Our enemy, the devil, watches us to try to bring about our destruction.
Where is our focus? The psalmist and Peter had wise words of advice for us. In turn, we need to be wise and heed what they say by staying attuned to our true Master and keeping a cautious eye on the evil one who wants to rule over us.
© 2010 Arlina Yates