A Series Through Psalms 120–122
As we saw in Part 1, the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120–134) were songs the Israelite pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem for the annual feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Booths. These fifteen songs are in cycles of three, and Psalm 120 began the first cycle with the psalmist far from God, dwelling in the tents of warlike, deceitful pagans. Yet the LORD was still his deliverer, even when circumstances were dire. Psalm 120 ended with verse 7: “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” The psalmist was far from Jerusalem, his desired destination. Enter Psalm 121: the pilgrim is on the road, and he remains confident in God’s protection and provision even through the dangers. We find longing, excitement, weariness, and anxiety here, but underlying everything is a hearty trust in the LORD who is trustworthy. That is why the sojourning psalmist can have hope. He must ask himself a serious question: Is God up to the task? It is often the same with us, is it not? We trust God, but can we know that he is worthy of our trust? Well, as we will see, Psalm 121 gives us an answer: This God of all creation is God for us.
God is Caring for Us
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (vv. 1–2)
Imagine you are an ancient Israelite on your way to Jerusalem. The sun is out, blinding your eyes, and the road is hard. Wild animals, bandits, dehydration—the dangers seem to swirl around you. Add to this the fact that the path is not exactly level; you are literally going up to Jerusalem! You can picture yourself, weary from the road, coming to the hills around Jerusalem. You lift up your eyes and ask where your help comes from. Well, Psalm 121 begins with the right answer: help comes from the LORD himself.
What a comfort this must have been for weary pilgrims. They knew that Yahweh was the one who kept them on the way. They could expect good things from the hand of their Maker, Redeemer, and King. This ought to be a comfort for us as well. Perhaps it is good to think about Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 120 here:
Why has Christ commanded us to address God as “our Father”? To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer what should be basic to our prayer—a childlike reverence and trust that through Christ God has become our Father, and will much less refuse to give us what we ask in faith than will our parents refuse us the things of this life.
There is an expectation of care and concern here (both in HC 120 and Psalm 121) that ought to give us confidence as we go to our Father in prayer. Just as the ancient pilgrims could know their help came from the LORD on their physical journey, so we can know that we have help from the same source on this pilgrimage of the Christian life.
Perhaps a question is important here: Why the hills? Well, the hills were where the Temple was, and that was the pilgrim’s destination. There was longing on the road, but also danger. This was not an easy trip—they did not load up the family minivan and hit the freeway like we do today. It would have been a long, arduous journey with varying emotions—much like the Christian life as we await the New Jerusalem on this fallen earth.
Sometimes in psalms we read a question that is not answered for a while. We tend to call these psalms of lament. That is not the case in Psalm 121, however, for the question in verse 1 is answered immediately in verse 2. The LORD comes to the psalmist’s mind as soon as he considers the hills. Why? In answer, perhaps we can consider the words of Psalm 87:1–3: “On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.” Jerusalem was on Mt. Zion, surrounded by hills. In ancient times, people believed that the gods lived at the summit of a mountain. Although that was a common thought applied to many different mountains in the Ancient Near East, it was only true in one case: the only true God dwelt on Mt. Zion in his temple. That is where the help comes from—not from the hills themselves or even from the city in the hills, but rather from the God who lives up there. Help comes from the Creator. The imagery is directing your eyes to the hills, and God himself is looking back at you. Why can this bring comfort and hope? It does so because these are God’s hills. Yahweh spoke these hills into existence in the beginning, just like everything else. This is the One with all authority and power, and he will bring the pilgrim to himself. It is the same for us, Christian. God is the one who helps and saves us. That is his work. Trust in your Creator to sustain you! We are tempted to trust in other things, of course. And in a sense, there should be trust in other things—I trust the brakes in my car to keep me from ramming into the vehicle ahead of me when the light turns red. But this is different: trust in God is ultimate trust, which only the Maker of heaven and earth truly deserves.
And not only does our help come from the One who created us and all things, but he is also our covenant LORD. That is the significance of the capital letters in the LORD’s name in Psalm 121:1—this is Yahweh, the covenant making God who has revealed this name to his people. As Christians with more of redemptive history to consider and more special revelation to assure us, we can know that this covenant God is our redeemer in Christ. In large part, Christian maturity is increasingly coming to realize our dependance on God. So look to the hills and see help coming from your LORD and Savior. He is caring for us.
God is Powerful for Us
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. (vv. 3–6)
Perhaps it is time to consider another question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism. Here is HC 121:
Why the words “who is in heaven”? These words teach us not to think of God’s heavenly majesty in an earthly way, and to expect from his almighty power everything needed for body and soul.
The all-powerful God is the One who helps us. As we consider his powerful help, we can say that it is capable, comprehensive, and continuous. One of my favorite things about this psalm is that the Hebrew word translated as “keep” in the ESV is used eight times in this psalm. The message is clear no matter the language: God will give us what we need. He is capable of helping us no matter the problem. So do not ultimately depend on yourself or anyone/anything else. And when you do, repent. Look to the One whose power is capable, and rest in him.
God’s help is also comprehensive. That is what is meant by the contrast of the sun and moon, or going out and coming in. These contrasts are meant to tell us that the help includes everything in between. Coming and going, day or night, your help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth. And what blessings for pilgrims! Yahweh keeps his people in such a way that they will not stumble, instead they will have a permanent night watchman, plenty of shade, and protection from evil. The psalmist is on the way to God, but he also knows that God helps him presently. It is the same with us. We are on our way to the celestial city, but even in the meantime God is with us. God the Father has chosen us. God the Son has redeemed us. God the Holy Spirit has been poured out into us. When we go in and when we go out, from the womb to the tomb, from call to benediction, from God and to God—in all these times and all these places, Christ leads us and the Holy Spirit strengthens us. This help that is capable and comprehensive is also continuous. Why? Because our God never changes.
God is Unchanging for Us
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 forth and forevermore. (vv. 7–8)
In the words of Derek Kidner, “To be kept from all evil does not imply a cushioned life, but a well-armed one.”1 Our life will not be easy, but our Savior is up to the task of keeping and helping us through it all. The LORD’s help is assured for all who trust in his name, and this help will never end. His help will outlast evil. Whether this evil is outside us or within us, God will overcome it. The Israelite pilgrims would have looked to the hills outside Jerusalem and thought of help. Christ hung on a cross on one of those same hills. Look to the hill of Calvary and remember that your Help hung there on a cross for you.
His help will also outlast your life. The circumstances of our pilgrimage can and will change. We ourselves can and will change. Yet through all of this change, God will keep our life. Sometimes we doubt; sometimes we wonder. But God remains true and faithful through it all, and he will receive us to glory (Ps 73:24). Consider verse 3 again—a sleeping watchman can lead to death and destruction, but God never sleeps, even when we do. This is true no matter what you are experiencing in your pilgrimage. Remind yourself of this, Christian! The same God who has saved you in Christ never rests. He is always alert and watching over you in love and power. Therefore, you can rest. Perhaps there is nothing we can do to show our faith and trust in God more clearly than to sleep deeply.
Finally, Christian, remember that God’s help will outlast this age. Think about verse 8 again: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” This is a way of speaking about the totality of our lives—the LORD will keep us when we are going out, when we are coming in, and everything in between. Whatever we go through on this earth, we can know that we have our God with us and for us, “from this time forth and forevermore.” This divine help is never going to end, Christian—it will take us all the way home. Psalm 121 reminds us that the happy ending is coming, but it is not an instant reality. The people of God still await the eternal Sabbath rest. But we can know that the final destination is just as certain now as it will be when we arrive one glorious day. Christ has us and will hold us forever.
Remember, we did not create ourselves, we cannot sustain ourselves, and we cannot save ourselves—these are all God’s jobs, and we are not up to the task. Thanks be to God, we do not have to be up to the task! Look to the LORD, trust in Christ, and rest assured, even on the road. And when you recite Psalm 121:2, remember the full context of the psalm, and respond with praise and adoration to the God who is caring, powerful, and unchanging for us. After all, your help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
- Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, reprinted 2008), 468.
©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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