A song of ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
eb. 3, 2013
Imagine it’s 3013. Kentucky has just won its 372nd national championship defeating the University of Jupiter. The iPhone 100 has just been released. Those clothes you wore in the 70s are finally back in style! And archaeologists have just found a fascinating ancient artifact. After much study they determine it is something called a book – can you believe they actually used to print words on paper? This book contains a collection of spiritual writings with funny notations, numbers, and directions. These spiritual writings have titles like “Amazing Grace” and “One Bread, One Body.” The archaeologists conclude what they hold in their hands is a book of ancient hymns.
That’s what the Psalms are for us. What we hold in our hands thousands of years after its creation is Israel’s hymnal, a collection of hymns used in worship and liturgical settings. And like our hymnbook, the book of Psalms contains a variety of writings that span the range of human emotions and were often meant for specific liturgical settings. We have hymns that are more upbeat, like “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” and some that are more contemplative, like “Be Thou My Vision.” Some of our hymns relate to specific times in worship, like “Gather Us In” or “Go My Children with My Blessing.” Some of our hymns are personal, like “Here I Am, Lord” while others, like “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service,” are more corporate in tone. We have Easter hymns, Christmas hymns, and Pentecost hymns.
You find that same kind of variety in the psalms. The 150 psalms we have in the Bible cover everything from songs praising the king to songs giving thanks to God to a large collection of the psalms call the psalms of lament, where the psalmist cries out to God for deliverance from a difficult situation.
Sadly, though, most people aren’t aware of the spiritual and theological richness we have at our disposal with the psalms. When I ask someone their favorite psalm, 11 times out of 10 they will say, “Psalm 23! The shepherd, the oil, ‘my cup overflows.’ I just love it!” I’ll follow up by saying, “And what’s your second favorite psalm?” And they’ll say, “Psalm…24?” If we are only familiar with Psalm 23, then we are missing out on a vast reservoir of encouragement, inspiration, and emotional vulnerability.
One of the challenges that the Psalms presents to us is that studying them requires different linguistic tools and, frankly, a different part of your brain. The Psalms are not narratives or history or letters like most of the Bible; instead, they are poetry. Now, poetry written in English can be challenging enough to study, so imagine trying to do the same thing in ancient Hebrew, which was written right to left and had no vowels! This style of poetry is a little more involved than writing a haiku or rhyming words at the end of lines. Poetry is meant to evoke emotions and invite imagination, which can make it difficult to understand 2000 years later.
Still, if we are willing to spend the time, the Psalms are a spiritual treasure chest waiting to be explored, and like all biblical writings, they are opened up to us as we examine their context. Some psalms were written after a victory in battle and celebrate God’s protection. Others were written while the Israelites were exiled in Babylon and lament God’s perceived absence or ask for God’s deliverance. Some are written during times of personal illness and ask for healing. Others are written as songs of repentance after a sin.
That brings us to our passage for today, Psalm 121. While Psalm 23 is probably the most famous of the group, this one wouldn’t be far behind. Its words of protection and assurance have comforted countless numbers of people going through difficult times. But I believe a closer study of the psalm makes it even more powerful and applicable for us. The better you know it, the more it means.
We have to start our study before we even start the psalm, with what is called the superscription. A little over a third of the psalms have some sort of opening words of instructions. Often times, the superscription simply gives an author’s name, as in “a psalm of David.” Other times it gives specific instrumental instructions, like Psalm 76, which says, “to the leader, with string instruments.” Sometimes it even gives specific tunes names, like the superscription of Psalm 56, which says, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks’.” That just sounds divinely beautiful, doesn’t it?
The superscription of Psalm 121 is also revealing. It says it is a “song of ascents.” In fact, psalms 120-134 all have this same superscription. What this tells us is that these psalms were probably used on a particular journey. Three times a year, Jews from all over the region were required to travel to Jerusalem to partake in a religious festival. So they would pack up their stuff and head off toward Jerusalem and the Temple, which sat up on a hill. As they were ascending toward their destination, they would most likely sing spiritual songs to pass the time and to remind them of God’s presence with them. Those would be called songs of ascents.
So how might the meaning of this psalm change for us if we hear it as traveling music through the ears of a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem? Let’s see. “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come?” For travelers, hills could have two very different meanings. They might be a source of protection from bad weather, or could even signify the ending of their journey if the hill they see is Jerusalem. But the hills also contained many dangers, like robbers and predatory animals. And Jews would have known that many pagan religions had their worship spaces built on the tops of the hills around Jerusalem. So as they looked at the hills, which were full of promise and danger, they were reminded that they needed help.
That help comes to them from the one who made the hills in the first place: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Notice the scope of God in this passage, from the intensely personal (“my help”) to the cosmic (“maker of heaven and earth”). No matter what hills we encounter in our travels, God is so much bigger than them. Whether we hit a speedbump or slam up against a mountain of a challenge, whether we are seeking protection, deliverance, or simply rest, all of creation around us is a reminder of the creativity and provision of God. The cosmic creator is also our Creator.
This same God who created heaven and earth also watches over us. The next line says, “He will not let your foot be moved,” which is more accurately translated as, “He will not let your foot slip.” The journey to Jerusalem would undoubtedly involve walking on narrow paths, some of which may have steep drop-offs and no guardrails. One misstep and your song would end in a hurry. But God will not let your foot slip. Whether you walk confidently, stagger along, or use a cane or walker, God watches over you.
Even when it feels like God is far away from us, like God has turned God’s face from us and fallen asleep on the job, the psalm assures us that, “He who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep.” Pagan gods were thought to fall asleep during the winter, waking again for seasons of growth and harvest. But not Yahweh! Our God is not subject to such bouts of sleepiness. The journey to Jerusalem could be long, treacherous, exhausting. At the end of each day, the weary travelers would have to set up camp in unknown territory. But this psalm reminds them they didn’t have to sleep with one eye open because God had both eyes open, watching over them. We get tired, we wear out, our journeys seem never-ending, but God watches over us.
Once the pilgrims woke up and started back on the road, God was still with them, providing shade for them from the dangers of the sun and moon. Now, we understand about the dangers of the sun, but has anyone here ever bought a tube of moonscreen? Today, the moon poses no threat to us – unless you’re married to a werewolf! – but back then, before they had a full understanding of how the solar system worked, people blamed the moon for all sorts of trouble. Moonlight was thought to cause epilepsy and general craziness; the word “lunatic” comes from the Latin word for “moon.” So people needed protection from the heat of the day and the dark of night, and once again, God provides. And once again, we see a subtle dig at the false gods worshipped by the surrounding nations, including the sun and moon gods. The Israelites only needed one God, who they believed had power over the sun and moon and everything else. Whether it’s day or night, God watches over us.
In the last two verses, the scope of the psalm moves from a specific journey to a general affirmation of God’s guardianship. Our Bible says, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” These verses can be translated multiple ways, which impacts the meaning for us. Another way to say it is, “The Lord will keep you from all harm; he will guard your soul.” For me, there’s a big difference between God protecting me from evil and keeping me from harm, and from God guarding my soul and God guarding my life. That’s illustrates both the beauty and frustration of the psalms. They are intentionally ambiguous, leaving open a spectrum of interpretations, which means we have to do the work of figuring out what they mean to us personally. Right now, which means more to you: God protecting you from evil or keeping you from harm? God guarding your soul or your life?
The psalm ends with a sweeping statement of protection, reminding us that God is with us during our going out (to Jerusalem) and our coming in (from Jerusalem), both now during our current pilgrimage and for all the pilgrimages afterwards. This is no longer a song about the journey to Jerusalem; it is about the journey of life. From the moment Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, God’s people have been on a journey. Abraham and Sarah, the Israelites in the desert, the itinerant disciples – all of them were pilgrims passing through, walking the way God had put before them. We are doing the same, nomads in this world whose citizenship is in heaven. As we make our way, placing one foot in front of the other, Psalm 121 reminds us there is no place we can go that is outside of God’s gracious realm. God is always with us. God watches over us.
OK, one down, 149 to go! I encourage you to spend some time with the psalms, diving deeper into the meaning of them. Read them again as traveling music, songs to sing along our journey of faith. Hear them as community choruses, as the people of God raised their voice in praise, in lament, in thanksgiving. Whatever you are feeling, no matter how high or how low, the psalmists wrote about it, and there is solace and encouragement to be found there. The Lord is indeed our shepherd, but God is much, much more than that. My prayer is that the psalms become the soundtrack of your life as you walk with God along the way. I wonder what that would sound like…(sing “Psalm 121,” set to the tune of “O God Our Help in Ages Past”)
Tune: St. Ann (O God, Our Help in Ages Past)
I lift my eyes up to the hills,
From where will come my aid?
My help comes from the Lord who spoke,
And heaven and earth were made.
God will not let your foot be moved,
Your Keeper stays awake.
The Lord will watch o’er Israel
With every step you take.
God is our shade right by our side
We’re always in God’s sight.
The sun won’t harm us in the day
The moon’s no threat at night.
The Lord keeps watch over our souls
When evil’s at the door.
While going out and coming in
God’s with us evermore.