Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
One of the joys I have found in worshipping with you is revisiting some of the old hymns that I sang as a child at the Ogiville Church of Christ. To be honest, I haven’t sung some of these songs since I was a child. It has brought back of lot of precious memories to me and admittedly some not so precious memories.
But that is the way of life. It is like a journey that we take with all the memories that occur along the way. It is the memory of our home being next door to the Ogiville church and my parents were not active church goers at the time. One dear lady from the church who lived just down the road would walk over every Monday morning and bring us a little fresh baked treat and tell us that she missed us at church.
I remember the Sunday that mom got us all up early and told us to get dressed because we were going to church. That was new and we asked why. Her answer was direct, “So that blankety-blank woman won’t be over here in the morning.”
Not the best reason for going to church but it was the turning point for our family and we have been committed to the faith ever since. Indeed, life is like a journey.
But what if we were talking about a once in a lifetime journey? What if we were talking about a pilgrimage that would take months and from which we may not return?
Psalm 120 through 123 are called the Psalms of Ascent. They were sung in worship services at the Temple to remind them of a difficult time in their past. They had been conquered by the Babylonians and carried off to captivity. They spent a lifetime dreaming of their home and then by God’s hand they were allowed to return.
Of the million or more who had been carried away, only 70,000 would make the return trip. The remainder of the Jewish people were scattered to the winds as captives, servants and slaves. But the news reached them that the temple had been rebuilt and God was being worshipped again in Jerusalem.
It was in the heart of every one of those castaway Jews to return at least one time to the Temple or maybe even to live their again. But that decision could be a life and death decision. Life and death if their masters said no and life and death to travel months on the roads to Jerusalem where you were prey to the wicked and unbelieving.
Few took their families but made the trip alone so if they perished, it would be only them. Can you imagine what it took to set foot on such a journey? To kiss your family good-bye not knowing if you would ever see them again.
All the way there, they would lift their eyes to see the hills of their beloved Jerusalem. To see the holy mountain where the Temple stood. These Psalms would commemorate all those who braved that journey and honor those who did not survive.
And so these Psalms begin by addressing where their help would come from along this journey. Their help would come from the Lord. But there was a bittersweet truth to that help. God was not always to be found in the immediacy of their situation. They had to see beyond those circumstances and look above their conditions.
What does that mean? It means that they still had to walk for months, they still had to brave the deserts and the thieves, and they still had to face the hatred of all those despised them along the way for being Jews.
It is no different for us along our journeys of life. We too look to the Lord along our way as we journey to our New Jerusalem to meet our Lord face to face. But we still have to brave the spiritual deserts we will encounter, weather the betrayals of those who just wanted to use us and face the hatred of those who despise us for being Christian.
I think of a church in Delaware who have been ordered to vacate the building where they worship because they pose a public nuisance. Now understand, they own that building. They bought it years ago when they decided to move to the inner city where they could minister to the homeless and troubled. Then the downtown began to revitalize and it was the thing to live and shop there.
Suddenly a lawyer for the city shows up to tell them to cease from worshipping because they pose a problem for progress. They charged that they were causing parking problems despite the fact that Sunday morning was quiet and two banks offered them the use of their parking lots.
The case has gone to court but it is clear now that being a Christian is not becoming easier. Only the Lord knows what our children will be facing in their journey of faith. We too will have to learn to trust God more to protect us than man.
The psalmist then reminds us that the reason for our hope is found in the constancy of God. He doesn’t change!
Using the comparison of walking through the desert sands, the writer says we find firm ground to walk upon because our God is steadfast, faithful and dependable. He literally will not allow our feet to be moved from under us by shifting sands because He has chosen to watch over us personally.
Then the writer describes this watch care that God gives us by describing Him as our keeper.
Now I know my wife says I need a keeper now and then and I realize now a little bit more of what the psalmist meant.
There are times that I do need a keeper as most men do. I was painting the archway to our house last week and was moving the ladder as needed. I got to one point and there was just this little spot I believed I could reach by just turning on the ladder step and reaching with my other hand to paint. It was not a wise idea.
The ladder began to pitch and all I could think about was that dark stain landing on the sidewalk and being there for years as a reminder of my foolishness. So as I fell, I pitched the paint tray and roller into the flowers and landed on the sidewalk with the hands and knees. I knew instantly that my knees took the worst of it but I was amazed that the tray landed upright and the roller missed the dirt.
I did what most people do in that moment. I looked around to make sure no one saw me fall and gave a quick prayer of thanks for no broken bones and no splattered paint.
Yes, I should have known better but that’s why we all need a keeper now and then. We need that one who knows us better than ourselves and who knows when we are going to cross that line. I am sure the Lord shakes His head now and then when He looks down on some of the things we do but he still keeps us.
In the image of a pilgrim, the writer assures the sojourner that God sees them on their journey and protects them from the scalding desert sun or the dangers that come by night.
One commentator even noted that protection from the moon is reference to the term ‘lunar’ from which we get lunacy. God protects us from the moments when our burdened hearts would have us do things that border on lunacy.
Beginning in the 7th verse, the writer extends the protection that God affords us not just to the earthly dangers we may encounter but also as our preserver from the demonic forces that rage around our souls.
We see the troubles that accompany our journey in this life but God sees the danger of these events allowing evil to enter our soul. We think we fight flesh and blood but He knows that there are forces arrayed against us from another realm.
That is why the writer uses some form of the word that means ‘to keep (shamar)’ six times in the course of merely eight verses.
But there is a big difference between having and keeping.
For instance, I might have a favorite shirt. It is my possession. However, if I keep a pet. He is not merely a possession; he is dear to me. Therefore, I watch over him not for my sake, but for his. I protect him from harm because if he suffers, it hurts me too.
Likewise, God does not merely have us. God keeps us. We are God’s beloved, and immeasurably dear to Him. We are not merely possessions in the eyes of the Lord, because if we suffer, it hurts God too. What a life-changing thought!
Now understand that as wonderful as this may sound to you and me, it is not an easy pill to swallow. We like what it says but we don’t always take it to heart. Let me explain.
Our culture promotes individualism and self-sufficiency. We tell our children that if you work hard and apply yourself, you can have or do most anything. Yet life is littered with the ruined lives of those who gave it their best effort but were waylaid by life.
We all know someone who received a medical diagnosis or suffered injury on the road or at work. They didn’t plan on those things. They just happened and all their good intentions and efforts failed them.
We soothe ourselves by saying they just had some bad luck but remember, we don’t believe in luck. We believe that all things are seen by God though all is not sent from God.
We need to be more honest with our children. Bad things happen to good people. Life doesn’t come with guardrails. And most of all, we don’t know it all or have all the answers.
At some point we all have to face the reality that we simply cannot be our own gods. If we try to be our own gods, life will remind us otherwise sooner or later. We will have to look to the hills and ask for help.
Some people think they feel closest to God in the midst of good times, when everything seems to be going well. Yet, these people get quickly discouraged when they hit challenges.
Others, however, discover a greater closeness to God in the dark and challenging times. They have no choice but to acknowledge the limits to their own power and their need for His.
Picture it this way. It is as if God runs slightly ahead of us on the path of life and waves at us to follow higher and higher up the mountain.
When I was in seminary, we often went to the Smoky Mountains. They were our back yard. I remember one night when we thought it would be a great idea to go to Klingman’s Dome. For those who have not been, it is the highest point in the Smoky’s and has a viewing tower at the top.
When we set out, it wasn’t long before the fog closed in. By the time we got to Newfound Gap, we were driving at 3 miles per hour because we literally couldn’t see in front of us. At points, it was safer to walk in front of the car, so it wouldn’t go off the side. Remember I already admitted that there are times we need a keeper.
When we arrived at the foot of Klingman’s Dome, we had to finish the rest by foot. The observation tower is a spiral stair and as we made our way up, we began to realize that we could have made this journey for nothing if the fog continued.
But as we reached the top, we crested the clouds and the full moon lit the mountain tops that rose above the clouds. It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. It was worth the effort.
God is leading us to a place that words cannot describe. A place devoid of sin and shame and filled with the best of eternal life. Eye has not seen; ear has not heard nor mind imagined what God has prepared for us.
We are still pilgrims here and there are journeys still to be made before we break through these clouds.
The view where God stands may be spectacular, but getting there calls for more courage, skill, confidence, and gifts than we currently feel we possess.
For the original writer, the destination was Jerusalem, Zion, the city of God; but if we let Jerusalem represent the place where God is for us, then this psalm can be about all our going out and coming in—our births and our deaths, our hellos and good-byes, our expanding and our decreasing, our risky adventures and our safe returns home.
As easy as it seems to lose our grip on God, it is nice to know that God does not lose a grip on us. Our security as a community of faith and as individuals is not ultimately resting on “getting everything right.”
God has already decided we are not throwaways. Someone has already assumed a certain amount of responsibility for us and stays vigilant even when we sleep and even when we slip. We allow ourselves rest, partly because we know God’s watchful eye and protecting hand are always there.
This truth also finds expression in John 10:28, when Jesus reminds his disciples that those who belong to him can never be snatched out of his hands.
There may be some pain in this journey—and even death—but it will not be meaningless pain or a meaningless death, and you will not experience it alone. There will be resistance and there will be danger, but the Lord will be with you. So, keep going.
When you break through the clouds, the view will be worth it. Just keep on the path, know where you are going and keep looking up to the hills.