The past few years, I’ve done some meditating on and reading about a favorite psalm, 121. I thought I’d post some of my notes and thoughts, first on my “Changing Bibles” blog and now this one.
Based on childhood experiences, I’ve always struggled with an emotional kind of fatalism—not an intellectual fatalism, i.e. a pessimism about inexorable fate, but rather an emotional anxiety about what lies ahead. “What if?” is my emotional default mode when life seems uncertain. The first month of the calendar year (especially the first week or so) increases this sense of anxiety and anticipation: what will the new year bring? What if life changes in a moment (which it probably won’t but possibly could)?
Psalm 121 provides me tremendous emotional comfort about what I do believe very solidly: that God cares for us, guides us, comforts us in trouble, and has “the big picture.” We need these promises all year long, but the new year makes this simple psalm all the more meaningful.
In addition to the works cited, I’ve gained much information about this psalm from two online articles,
James Limburg, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners.” http://www2.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/5-2_Psalms/5-2_Limburg.pdf
David G. Barker, “‘The Lord Watches Over You’: A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121.”
Several other notable commentators on this psalm can be found at: http://www.preceptaustin.org/psalm_121_a_commentary.htm
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore (NRSV)
These websites provide the Hebrew text: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/364288/jewish/Prayers-for-the-Final-Moments.htm
Verse 1: “I lift my eyes to the hills.”
Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents,” 120-134. Tribes of Israelites went up to Jerusalem to worship (Deut. 16:16, Psalm 24:3, 122:4, Neh. 3:15, 1 Kings 12:28, etc.). My colleague Clift McCann writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible, “While certainty is not possible, it is likely that this collection was originally used by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or as part of a festal celebration in Jerusalem.” He also writes that these psalms are all short enough to be memorized and several contain references to everyday life, implying that these psalms reflect the experiences of everyday people traveling or arriving at Jerusalem (1).
Jerusalem, the city which God designated as his dwelling place (Isaiah 8:18), is indeed a place to which one must ascend. The Mediterranean, which is sea level, lies thirty miles to the west, while the Dead Sea, only about 15 miles to the south, is nearly 1300 feet below sea level. Mount Zion itself is about 772 meters in elevation
So our psalm begins, “I lift my eyes to the hills.” The Hebrew wordhar could be also be translated “mountains.” The psalmist travels upon the roads to Jerusalem, perhaps feeling all the discomfort that we experience when we walk uphill: extra effort, tired legs, the need to pause, catch breath, and take a drink.
The psalm does not actually mention Jerusalem, or the journey there. That’s one reason why the psalm seems to universal. It does not require that we imagine Jerusalem or even associate the poem with its presumed original context. This psalm is a poem has long been beloved by people relying upon God during literal journeys as well as life’s challenges and metaphorical pathways. For us, “the hills” can be any kind of destination, at some distance and with some amount of risk.
Journeying toward God
Our relationship with God is a kind of destination, too. Are we at the place we want to be spiritually? Have we conformed in many ways to God’s will? God might expect us to follow him closely (Matt. 5:47-48), but we know very well that we don’t meet that expectation. How wonderful, then, that we look to a God who not only calls us to conform to his will but also gives us grace, help, and assistance when–not if, but when–we fall short. Following Jesus is alsoacknowledging our inability to follow him well and, in turn, experiencing his help.
In addition to confident prayers like Psalm 121, other psalms express honestly feelings of discouragement and emptiness about God, for instance, 42.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (vss. 1-2)
To me, Psalm 121 is the yang, the bright place, and Psalms 42 (along with 43) are the yin, the dark place, of having faith in God. Instead of traveling to Jerusalem, the psalmist cannot go to the Temple, apparently because of sickness (42:10). The writer has a different kind of struggle than the psalmist of 121, who is uncertain about the journey to the city. As I like to tell people, the psalms contain very human struggles–but the psalms are also God’s word to us! Here in Psalm 42–in God’s own word–we have a song about a person who can‘t find God.
We feel that way in our lives on different occasions. We may feel estranged from God because of some moral and ethical lapse. In those cases, it’s important to remember that God hears our prayers and accepts our sincere repentance. We may still feel emotionally terrible, but our emotions do not determine the extent to which God loves us and wants to help us be healed and restored. “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything,” assures the apostle John (1 John 3:20).
We may feel distant from God because of some other emotional lack. If your self-esteem is low, or if your trust has been hurt by someone, you may have difficulty accepting love from anyone, including God. That has always been a struggle for me, but especially in my younger days.
We may also feel betrayed by God! You were let down by something your Christian acquaintances did, and your faith is hurt. You might feel that you were a good, faithful person and yet your life fell apart: you suffered a divorce, an illness, an unfair job loss, or other circumstance. It can be difficult to admit, but we may feel intense, though subconscious anger and even hatred toward God when bad things happen.
If we’re in a position of spiritual confusion or discouragement—or if things are going well for us–Psalm 121 can give us confidence as we face “the journey,” because its verses give us several affirmations of God’s unfailing care.
You might immediately think: How do I affirm God’s care when there are, indeed, difficult and even evil circumstances in my life? How can I feel positive about God’s protection when I’m facing all kinds of problems and challenges?
Faith and Doubt Go Together
I like these words by Lewis Smedes. “Some people try to use faith as a wedge into the worry-free life. But faith does not put worry to sleep. Hope is the child of faith, and worry is the child of doubt. But doubt is the twin sister of faith. The French theologian Ellul had it just right: ‘The person who is plunged into doubt is not the unbeliever but the person who has no other hope but hope’ Unbelievers do not have to doubt. Believers doubt precisely because they live by faith and not by sight. And they hope precisely because they live by faith. So worry tags along with doubt as long as we live by faith and hope.”(2)
We know that even the most routine trip is not 100% safe. I used to hear people say that a large percentage of automobile accidents occur within a few miles of one’s home. In one of my parishes, I heard a story of a friend’s father, who had been struck by lightening as he worked his own farm. The day was only partly cloudy; the accident was just a freak occurrence. Nothing dire happens to us during the vast majority of days—and of course we shouldn’t fill our days with dread about some unknown, upcoming disaster—but trouble, when it comes, often does catch us by surprise.
If we think about “the journey of life” metaphorically, we call to mind many risks and uncertainties. This job seemed to be God’s will and a perfect fit for me, one might say, but it has turned out to be very stressful. Is God preparing me for something better down the way, or am I just experiencing temporary difficulties? Since we cannot predict the future, we always look to the unknown with at least a little bit of respect for life’s unpredictability.
Is this wrong of us, to feel anxiety and uncertainty? After all, the Bible contains several verses where Jesus or the angels console the frightened. The angels tell the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10). Jesus tells the disciples “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10 and “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). in Luke 24:38-39, Jesus also says, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself …” Remember that the disciples had all forsaken Jesus; would you return to a friend who had abandoned you? Yet it is to these pathetic friends—sinners like you and me–that Jesus bids to have no fear. Paul also entreats us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
Yet, doubt and anxiety is part of our humanness. Even when we rely upon the scriptural promises, we recognize that we fall short of perfect faith. As Smedes and Ellul reminded us above, doubt and concern are aspects of living by faith. Plus, some anxiety has to do with personality traits rather than faith per se; some of us are psychologically and physiologically geared toward moderate or excessive anxiety. Some things worry me terribly that don’t bother you at all, and vice versa. Neither of us have had success at overcoming the things we worry about; thank goodness 2 Cor. 12:7-10 teaches us having struggles isn’t foreign to religious experience.
Having faith may even place us in positions where life becomes even more fearful! Oswald Chambers writes, “It is not easy to have faith in God, and it is not meant to be easy because we have to make character. God will shied us from no requirements of His sons and daughters any more than He shielded His own Son. It is an easy business to sit in an armchair and say, ‘Oh yes, I believe God will do this and that’; that is credulity, not faith. But let me say, ‘I believe God will supply all my needs,’ and then let me ‘run dry,’ no money, no outlook, and see whether I will go through the trial of my faith, to sink back and put my trust in something else. It is the trial of our faith that is precious. If we go through the trial, there is so much wealth laid up in our heavenly banking account to draw upon when the next test comes.”(3)
Thinking again about Psalm 121:1, the psalm gives us an situation where the writer is, indeed, in the midst of a difficult and uncertain situation. But the psalmist is able to affirm hope and faith in God’s concern, even though the situation is one of uncertainty and exertion.
I found a sweet book at a used book website: Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, written by J. R. Miller and published in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago—my grandparents were children in 1899—and the strength another person derived from these same verses as he read them in a different time.
Miller writes, “Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay I the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.”(4)
He continues, “We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen.”(5) It’s not just unbelievers whom Miller describes, but also people of faith who neglect looking to God, for one reason or another.
“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. Negative people are a drag upon one’s morale. Unfortunately, negative people find kinship with one another and soon you have a group of negative people who make you depressed! (Fellow Christians can be just as big a drag on your morale as anyone, if they’re negative people, and congregations can be “downer” kinds of places, too.)
But looking up in the theological sense means to focus our feelings, plans, and everyday lives upon God. Remember that famous set of verses in Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). That doesn’t mean we should jump, foolishly and headlong, into a circumstance: insight is one of the precious ways we can discover God’s will (along with prayer, the advice of friends, serendipitous reassurances, and so on). But our insight also does not substitute for God’s all-knowing wisdom! By trusting in and acknowledging God we affirm his overall guidance.
I never look forward to life’s trials, and their prospect worries me. And yet I’ve a long series of amazing evidences of God’s guidance in my life to which I can look. I can affirm that God has never failed to be with me in every situation and circumstance, even those I can’t understand.
One of the greatest things about “looking up” to God, is that God does not at all rely upon either our attentiveness or faithfulness before doing great things! Isaiah 42:3 reads, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Sometimes the smallest flicker of faith is all we have, but God is still good and powerful.
Matthew 20, too, reminds us that God’s love and grace are freely given to us, and God gives us grace just as freely and generously when we come to God late in life, as he does for those who serve him for years. Miller is right, we grow in the direction in which our eyes habitually turn, but our eyes are beholding not a God who waits for us to “shape up.” We look to a God who has already taken all the steps necessary to rescue us from the things that plague us. God is a God who deals with our sin through Jesus and thus forgets our sins, never counting them against us.
Another wonderful scripture is Luke 24, which illustrations how Jesus takes the initiative even when we’re not looking up. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. Jesus appeared to them unrecognized and talked with them. They did not even recognize after he talked with them a long time. Finally he became recognizable to them when they shared bread. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” They thought there was no longer reason to look to Jesus. And yet their hearts must’ve been sufficiently open that, when Jesus broke the bread, they suddenly knew the truth.
The psalmist of 121 has faith in God’s power. In all the subsequent verses, which we’ll study next, the writer shows us different but complementary ways that God loves us and comes to our assistance.
1. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 1176.
2. Lewis D. Smedes, Standing on the Promises: Keeping Hope Alive for a Tomorrow We Cannot Control (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 35.
3. Oswald Chambers, The Quotable Oswald Chambers, compiled and edited by David McCausland (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 2008), p. 94.
4. J. R. Miller, D.D., Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm (New York: THomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899), p. 5.
5. Miller, pp. 8-9.