A sermon preached on Psalm 121 by Richard Keith on 25th March 2018.
Journeys are fun, dangerous and unavoidable. Journeys are fun because travelling takes us to new places, to see new things, to have new experiences, to learn things we didn’t know before. They mean we can see our current situation from a new location, to get a fresh perspective on our life.
But to go to these new places, we need to take risks. Travelling in the car, we are at the mercy of the skill of other drivers. Travelling by plane, we run the risk that the laws of physics will suddenly demand to be obeyed. That what goes up will unexpectedly go down. Travelling in third world countries we risk food poisoning, kidnapping and rare and unusual diseases. Every journey has its own special dangers, whether we are trying to cross the border or trying to cross the desert.
But we can’t avoid them. Life is full of journeys. Life takes us to places that we never wanted to go, that we never expected to see. In fact, life is a journey of its own. As human beings we travel from life to death, from the cradle to the grave. We are born, we grow, we live, we die. All along the way we are constantly changing.
But as Christians we travel in the opposite direction, from death to life. Jesus Christ, by his life and death and resurrection, has claimed us for himself. He has rescued us from death and sin and hell, and he calls us to take up our cross and follow in his footsteps on a pilgrimage that will lead us from the darkness of sin to his eternal kingdom of love and light.
Journeys are fun and dangerous and unavoidable. And Psalm 121 is a song for God’s pilgrim people, for people on a journey.
“I lift my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
There are three good reasons to believe that this psalm is a song for pilgrims, for people on a journey. The first reason is the best one. Under the heading Psalm 121 you will see that it is call a song of ascents. There are fifteen psalms grouped together called songs of ascents. Psalms 120 to 134. An ascent is a climb. It is a journey up. You make an ascent up the slope of a mountain or hill. And this group of 15 psalms were recited by pilgrims on a journey to the temple in Jerusalem. Because the temple was on Mount Zion and Jerusalem was in the hill country, people talked about going up, ascending to the temple. Like country people talk about going down to the coast. Psalm 121 is one of those songs of ascents.
The second reason that this is a psalm for a journey is in the very first line. “I lift my eyes to the hills.” Like a temple pilgrim at the start of his journey, would stop to look to the hills of Jerusalem, and think about what lies ahead. Just like we would pause before getting into the car to drive a thousand kilometres. Just like we would stop to pray before moving to a new town or starting to a new job. Looking ahead to the opportunities and challenges before us.
The third reason that this is a psalm for a journey is the hint of danger it contains. The expression of fear and worry. “Where does my help come from?” The dangers mentioned in the psalm are clearly associated with travelling. A foot slipping. The sun bringing harm during the day and the moon at night. This is what happens to people exposed to the elements, to people on a journey of more than a couple of hours.
Psalm 121 is a song for people on the move who are still short of their final destination, and concerned about the dangers ahead. I wonder if it is a song for you. I don’t know where you are on life’s journey. I don’t know if a new challenge awaits you. I don’t know if your final destination is far or close. I don’t know if you are wondering where your life is headed. But maybe this psalm is a song for you.
The psalmist writes,
“I lift my eyes to the hills.”
Hills are places that give good views from the top. They are also places of refuge, of safety. An army builds a fort on the top of a hill. An army on the run can climb a hill and defend itself from the enemy below. Hills are also places of danger, where bandits can hide, where paths can wander or peter out, where feet can trip and bodies fall down steep slopes. The psalm writer looks to the hills – half in anticipation, half in anxiety – and asks the natural question, “Where does my help come from?” Who will help me? Where will I find safety? How can I know that I will reach my destination? Does anyone even care?
Such doubts do not distract the psalm writer for long. For although he asks the question, “Where does my help come from?”, and the rest of the psalm acknowledges the risks and dangers of the journey ahead, it is actually a song of confidence. Of full assurance. Although he asks the question, he has the answer from himself straight away. He only asks the question because he wants to tell us the answer. “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
This is the message the pilgrim needs to hear. This is the answer that sweeps the doubts and fears aside. The Lord is my help. Not just our help. But my help. Your help. Not just all of you put together. But you and you and you. The Lord is your help. He is not just an imaginary friend. God is not just a lie you tell yourself so you don’t feel afraid. He is the Lord. He is the maker of heaven and earth. Not just a God of one location, with one little shrine, one little altar on the top of a hill. But he is the God of all the hills. The God who makes mountains from the depths of the sea. Do you know that they have found the fossils of seashells on the top of the Himilayas. God makes mountains from the depths of the sea. He is the God who pushes continents. The God of land and sea and sky and space. He made it all. This God, the Lord, is your help. The one who can smooth the journey ahead. The one who can strengthen your legs to carry you through. The God who will not only help you to your destination, but the God who is your destination. Your maker, your judge. The source from which your life’s river springs. The ocean to which your life’s river flows.
Where will your help come from? Your help will come from the Lord compared to whom all the dangers you will face are nothing.
“He will not let your foot slip. He who watches over you will not slumber. He who watches over Israel will neither slumber or sleep.” He doesn’t grow tired. He doesn’t clock off at the end of his shift. He doesn’t need a rest or a holiday. He isn’t caught unawares. He isn’t taken by surprise. He is the God of Israel. He is the shepherd of his people. He has planned to bless the world through them, and he watches over them to see his plans fulfilled. And because he is the shepherd of the flock, because he watches over the vast number of his people, he also watches over the individual. He is also the shepherd of the one lost lamb. You will not fall between the cracks. You will not get into trouble on one of God’s rostered days off. You will not seek his help and find his shop front closed. The sun will not harm you with its heat and glare. Nor will the moon – because a lot of crazy things seem to happen when the moon is full. Your God is on duty day or night. On weekends. On public holidays. Whenever you need him most.
It does not, however, mean that nothing bad will ever happen to you. The Lord who is the shepherd of his people does not lead them away from the valley of the shadow of death. He leads them through. The darkness is all around. The fear is close. But the Lord is closer and more powerful than anything else you might fear.
This is what the Lord Jesus teaches us in Luke chapter 21. Jesus says, “Not a hair of your head will perish.” But he does not promise that his people will not be persecuted. Or that they will not be put in prison. Or that they will not have to defend themselves before judges and princes. He does not promise that they will not be betrayed by their closest family members and friends. Or that some of them will not lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. But his promise is that they will be given the words to say in their defence, and that in the end they will reach their journey’s destination. They will win life.
I don’t know where you are in life’s journey. I don’t know if you are anxious about the future or more worried that nothing will change. But Psalm 121 is a song for pilgrims, for people on a journey. And what do pilgrims want to know? They want to know that they will reach their journey’s destination. They want to know that they will see God. And they want to know that he will be with them every step along the journey.
If you call yourself a Christians, if you trust in Christ, if you rely on his life and death and new life for your salvation, if his Spirit fills and leads your life, your destination is the heavenly Jerusalem. Not a temple made of wood and stone, but the very presence of God. And Psalm 121’s promise is that you will reach that destination. We don’t need to fear the hills because our God is the Lord of the hills. We don’t need to fear the sun or the moon, because the Lord made them both. We don’t need to fear the darkness, because the Lord said, “Let there be light,” and he can lead us through the darkness to his light. Because our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.