My notes and thoughts about Psalm 121….
Verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Confidence in the Creator
As I noted in the previous post, the author of Psalm 121 is on a journey. He probably traveling to the high hills where Jerusalem is located, and he asks, From where with my help come? From where will help come for the journeying person? Verse 2 provides the answer. For the psalmist, the first step of confidence is to recognize that the God whom we call upon for help is the same God who made heaven and earth.
I grew up in a denomination in which creeds were never a part of worship. Not until I joined our local United Methodist church in my late teenage years did I learn the Apostle’s Creed contains this line: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creed contains the same affirmation. The phrase is such a simple one we may miss the fact that it came from Psalm 121.
When I was in college, I had a poster on my dorm room wall. The poster depicted a small white church and a background of timber-covered hills. The caption read, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” A friend pointed out that the caption needed the question mark of the original verse; otherwise, a person might think the hills (and generally, the natural world) provided help, rather than God.
That’s a fine distinction, especially considering the picture of a church. Nevertheless, it’s a point worth remembering. “The Star Spangled Banner” has several verses, and the first verse (the one we always sing) ends with a question mark: “…. does that spar spangled banner yet wave….?” Technically, at that point in the song, we don’t if the battle is won and the flag is safe! We need Key’s other verses to have confidence in outcome. Similarly with Psalm 121. Verse 1 provides the question which must be answered by the second verse: “My help comes form the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Marvels of the Universe
I love science and wrote a study book a few years ago about science and religion. Here are some interesting facts I found on the internet. Did you know that the furthest galaxy known to us is named IOK-1 and is about 12.9 billion light years away? Of course, a light year is the distance light travels in a year—5,878,630,000,000 miles–traveling at the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. (The Space Shuttle travels 5 miles per second). Our whole galaxy is “only” 150,000 light years across. Traveling at light speed, we need four years to get to the nearest star (besides our sun). So we must travel 13 billion years to arrive at that distant IOK-1 galaxy.
At the other end of the scale of size, a DNA molecule weighs 0.0000000000000001 grams and is about nine feet long. This nine-foot molecule is found in every one of our cell’s nucleus. As many people know, the DNA molecule contains a double-stranded helical pattern of the chemicals adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine which in turn produce the proteins that authorize our body’s various functions. Our chromosomes contain 3 billion “base pairs” of DNA, and we have 46 chromosomes. So all the DNA in each of our bodies is about 2.0 x 10,000,000,000,000 meters, or nearly 70 round trips to the sun.
You could think of the smallest creatures on earth as the single-cell amoebas, or perhaps viruses (scientists disagree if viruses “lives” the same way as cells). The largest creature, in turn, is actually the largest creature that as ever existed: the blue whale. They are nearly 100 feet long and weigh nearly 200 tons. What amazes me, however, is that blue whales survive on some of the earth’s tiniest creatures, a shrimp called krill. Blue whales eat 8000 pounds of these shrimp, and blue whales’ eating mechanism includes a filter by which they can expel ocean water while consuming the shrimp.
To me (and to many religious scientists whom I’ve read over the years) data such as this is not only fascinating in its own right but also witnesses to the greatness of God’s creation.
A temptation of the religious life is to place ourselves as the center of God’s whole concern: as if ever answered prayer and every serendipitous event was sent by God for our personal benefit. But another temptation is to think that our problems–so tiny within this world of seven billion people, and in this universe of such vast size–are things we should not bring to God as if God were too busy. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Creation and Redemption
The scriptural linkage of God’s creation and his redemption can be found in some of the later writings of the Old Testament.(1) Here are good examples from the exilic chapters of Isaiah.
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
Who made the depths of the sea a way
For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the Lord [in exile in Babylon] shall return,
And come to Zion with singing (Isa. 51:10-11a).
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless (Isa. 40:28-29)
In Psalm 19 we find a similar linkage: God’s creation and providence, and the will of God expressed in the divine law:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world….
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple….
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb…
Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of this kind, too. God has established the wonders of creation.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great …
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains…
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work….
The whole psalm through its conclusion depicted the glories of God’s works in creation, and causes the psalmist to rejoice in the Lord, and to hope in God.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
These longer psalms depict in picturesque, poetic fashion that simple phrase: my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Jesus and Creation
Jesus himself links creation and salvation, as we read in this lovely passage, Colossians 1:15-20.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Just as the prophets and psalmists connect creation and redemption, the author of Colossians weaves together those themes in his letter. A commentator writes: “To say that this fullness of God [the active fullness of God in all things, as attested in the Old Testament] dwells in Christ… is most likely to mean that just as there is nothing in heaven or earth that is outside the divine presence and power, so also there is nothing outside the scrip of Christ’s presence and power, because Christ now sums up all that God is in interaction with the cosmos.”(2)
Some people like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” when they face a dilemma or challenge. But it’s not as if Jesus is leaving us all alone to deal with life’s troubles. When we fail, he is there–with this vast and tremendous power—to heal us and help us. When we face the worst challenges, he is accompanying us and carrying us. The scope, beauty, and detail of creation can remind us of his care.
Jesus and the Temple
Another way to link creation and redemption, is to remember that Psalm 121 is probably a song about traveling to the Jerusalem Temple—and then connecting the Temple to Jesus.
Within the long Old Testament narrative, the Temple (God’s special place of dwelling) is connected to the land promised to the Israelites by God, and that land in turn is connected to the goodness of all creation.(3) We may not immediately think of the Temple and creation together, but they are different facets of God’s care for his people and, by extension, God’s care for all.
As you read the New Testament, you can make connections between Jesus and creation (as we just saw), and between Jesus and the Temple. For instance, in John’s story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, Jesus calls attention to his own body as the Temple, that is, the place where God’s presence on earth is present in a special way. Jesus was Jewish, of course, and was not rejecting his own people and their worship, but he was announcing God’s special “dwelling” in the world in the person of Jesus.
In addition to his own discussion of the Temple and its sacrifices in chapters 7-10, the author of Hebrews calls Jesus the Temple High Priest who fully understands our struggles and intercedes for us.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.
I know I’m repeating myself, but this passage (along with others) should eliminate any misunderstanding of Jesus as someone we shouldn’t “bother,” or who we’re supposed to “impress.” True, our own problems may be small compared to those faced by other people. But any problem, any struggle and weakness, is something to take to the Lord. Jesus understands that sometimes we are strong and capable, and sometimes we are ignorant and weak. But Jesus wants to help us and intercede for us because he understands the struggle of being human.
To return to our psalm: Verse 2 of Psalm 121 affirms that God is our creator and helper. God did not create all things and then let the universe run unsupervised. God creates all things, claims all things as his own, and cares for all things. We’ve constant and continual, beneficial access to the God who is Master of DNA and IOK-1 and everything else.
1. One analysis of this theological development in Israel’s scriptures can be found in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II,The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 240-241.
2. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 299.
3. For instance, the Priestly Source, the hypothesized post-exilic document incorporated into the Old Testament canon, included not only priestly laws in the Torah concerning Israelite worship but also the Genesis 1 text. “P” linked creation and Sabbath with God’s covenant to Israel and Israel’s worship in the land.