I love the Psalms. What I appreciate about them is that they wrestle with what it means to trust God in real life. There is no pretend or make-believe when it comes to the challenges of life. The Psalmist presents reality in what is sometimes uncomfortable honesty.
When it comes to the Psalms, one of my favourites is Psalm 121. I must confess that this Psalm is very personal to me. About fifteen years ago, I sat in my parents’ home in Merritton at the bedside of my dad perhaps twelve hours before his death. He was in a morphine-induced daze after a long struggle with health issues. I didn’t know what to say to him and so I turned to the Scriptures. I read to him Psalm 121. I read that Psalm for him, but I also read it for myself. It was not just my dad that needed God in that moment, it was me as well. I can never read this Psalm without thinking of that day.
I continue to turn to Psalm 121 because I believe it both challenges us and comforts us in our most difficult of circumstances. We are going to do something very simple: we are going to look at what we need to do and what we can expect God to do.
What We Need to Do
Sometimes we ignore the little notes that appear before the Psalm but we shouldn’t. This is called a song of ascents. What does that mean? Psalms 120-134 are all songs of ascents. These are the Psalms that would be chanted by the Hebrew people in Jerusalem as they made their way up to worship. And when I say “up,” I mean that literally. They would make their way up the temple mount to the one place where they were allowed to worship.
This is important because we should imagine that upward journey when they would sing the words, “I lift my eyes to the hills.” They would be doing exactly that as they were singing the words.
Hills and mountains are closely associated with God in the Bible. Thinking specifically about the time before David, who is thought to have written this Psalm, it was on a mountain that Moses met God in the burning bush, on a mountain where he received the Law, and on a mountain where first the tabernacle and then in the time of David’s son Solomon, the temple was built. This theme continues well past the time of David, including the New Testament and some of the experiences of Jesus.
But it was not just the God of Israel that was associated with hills and mountains. Throughout the Old Testament, there are references to the high places. Both Canaanites, the people who lived in the land before the Israelites, and the Israelites would go up a mountain or a hill, set up an altar and offer a sacrifice to a false god. In the Old Testament, the kings are often judged by what they did with the high places, whether they worshiped there, left them alone or tore them down.
When the Psalmist talks about looking to the hills and reflecting on the source of help, this is a challenge to decide which god we will trust. We can trust the true God, the creator God, the one who is not just on the mountain, but the one who created the mountains. Or we can choose to worship a false god.
You might think this is not very relevant. You don’t feel the temptation to go up the Niagara escarpment to set up an altar to worship and idol of stone or wood. But the truth is that there are many other things that we rely on instead of God. Let me give you a few examples from my life.
When I applied to Brock University thirty years ago, I was accepted as a history major. My passion was history and I still devour history books. But when I sat down to pick my courses, I realized that my only hope for a happy life was money. I immediately switched from history to business, so that I could get rich as quick as possible. I need to make two things clear. One is that I never did get rich. The other is that there is nothing wrong about being interested in or studying business. All I am saying is that I gave up what I really was interested in because I saw money as the god that saves.
While I was at Brock and was waiting for money to save me, I had some more immediate needs. I was having family problems, health problems, relationship problems. I needed help immediately. So I turned to alcohol. There was a time in my life when I decided to self-medicate by getting drunk every night. Somehow I thought it would help. It only made things worse. Again, I’m not saying having a glass of wine or a bottle of beer is wrong. What is wrong is turning to alcohol, drugs or any other addiction as your saviour.
I don’t know what gods are your temptation to build an altar on a high place. It could be popularity, pleasure, power. Psalm 121 asks us to look to the hills and to choose who we will seek our help from.
What God Will Do
The Psalmist does not leave us guessing. The one that we should seek help from is the God who is the maker of heaven and earth. There really is no competition when it comes to the results of trusting God. But what does that look like?
The Psalmist emphasizes God’s activity of watching over us. This is not a watching in the sense of observing, the way we watch our favourite show on TV. This is a watching in the sense of caring for, the way a parent watches their child.
I love the image of God not falling asleep on the watch. Years ago when our children with autism lived with us, it would some time be my responsibility to watch them in the backyard while Amanda was getting things done in the house. The problem was that Abby would wake up at 1 am for the day which meant I got up at 1 am for the day. In addition to that, Logan was a runner who loved to escape from us and he was really good at it. So there I would be in a lawn chair, falling asleep because of my early morning, trying to listen to the sound of Logan’s humming because my eyes were to tired to stay open. That is not what God is like.
I like the idea of God’s watch over us but I struggle more with the idea of God protecting us from all harm. It’s not that I don’t want him to protect us, but rather reality shows that everyone, including those who are followers of Jesus, experiences harm. What do we do with this?
A basic principles of biblical interpretation is that we interpret Scripture with Scripture. We need to ask if the Bible teaches that we will never experience harm. Since we are in Lent, it is worth asking if God let Jesus experience harm. Christianity is based on the fact that God led Jesus experience extreme harm on the cross. It is not just Jesus, prophets and apostles throughout the Bible experience harm.
But maybe the Psalmist didn’t believe that those kinds of things could happen? Unlikely. If the Psalmist is indeed King David, we can look at his life and see that he experienced some very tragic events, including the death of some of his children and betrayal by another. When we look to the other Psalms, over and over we read about the suffering that he was experiencing.
So what does it mean that God will protect us from all harm? It can’t mean that we will never experience any physical harm because the rest of the Bible plus reality says otherwise.
It may be helpful to look at a story from the Bible. In Daniel 3, we find the account of three young Jews who are in exile in Babylon. They are pressured to worship a false god under pain of death, a painful death of being thrown into a furnace. I find their response to the threats very inspiring.
If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)
Although they ended up being saved from death, their faith was not based upon it. While it was possible for their bodies to be destroyed, who they really were could not be harmed because of their faith.
This is the story of the early church. Christianity grew faster than any other religion in those first century because of how followers of Jesus responded to persecution and martyrdom. The same thing happens today in many parts of the world. Christians die every day, from disease or physical attacks, but who we are as children of God cannot be harmed.
Let’s go back to Jesus. His greatest victory took place on the cross. It was the moment when he seemed the most God-forsaken that he had accomplished what he was also meant to do. The Romans could kill his body but they were unable to harm Jesus in who he really was.
Psalm 121 is a very relevant Psalm for us all. We will all encounter difficult moments. emotionally, spiritually and physically. In those moments, we must look to the hills and choose where we will find our help. There are many false gods that are eager to offer their services to us. Their marketing is attractive but they really do not have the goods to help us in our need. When you look to the hills, look beyond the pagan altars on the high places and seek the temple, the place where the true God dwells.
Enter into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Experience adoption as sons and daughters of the Make of heaven and earth. God will watch over you with sleeping. He will keep you from harm. That doesn’t mean you won’t experience pain or difficulty. Even Jesus suffered. But your suffering does not need to destroy you. God will meet you in your pain, his hand of protection will be upon you.