Psalm 121

Week two of the 15 week Psalms of Ascent sermon series – 120-134 using Eugene Peterson’s “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” as a reference.  Feel free to preach in its entirety or any parts of it. Make it your own.

Last week in Psalm 120, the writer despairs at the departure of peace because of being slandered. This week, the writer lifts His eyes with hope.

To begin, there are a couple of thoughts about the opening lines of this psalm –

I lift my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

First – From the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: In the long journey to Jerusalem pilgrims had to camp in the desert or arid regions along the way. At night, lookouts were set on the top of the surrounding hills to guard the encampment from robbers who knew people were traveling for pilgrim holidays. Think about this. These robbers whose equivalent in our society would be the ones who steal Christmas presents from underneath the tree on Christmas eve. The guards in the hills would be there to protect them from the most unscrupulous of the bad people. Last week the psalm talked about those who say bad things about us– this week, we’re looking at people who do bad things to us. This first train of thought is from the perspective of one who, before entering his tent for the night, looks toward the hills and sees the sentry, but also sees another guardian – the Lord.

What comes to my mind here is the story from 2 Kings 6 when the servant of Elisha arose in the morning and went out and saw the army surrounding them, and the servant said to Elisha, what are we going to do? Elisha said, do not worry, those who are with us are more than those who are with them. God open his eyes to see. And the servant saw the Lord’s army surrounding them.

The second thinking or another way of thinking is covered in Peterson’s A Long Obedience, from where parts of today’s sermon comes.

During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship, much of it practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred male and female prostitutes were provided… people were lured to the shrines to engage in “ACTS OF WORSHIP” that claimed to enhance the fertility of the land and protect you from evil, and at the very least, would make you feel good. There were all kinds of spells and chants against the perils of the road. Do you fear the sun’s heat? Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god. Afraid of moonlight madness? Go to the moon priestess and buy protection. There were shrines, priests, gods and goddesses for whatever fear you had. Baal, Asherah, sun priests… It’s not unlike the traveling snake oil salesmen that people in the 1800’s dealt with. This oil will cure this disease or pain. And all of them were frauds and cheats. But desperate people turn to desperate hope. Unscrupulous people prey on unsuspecting and vulnerable people. I remember an older friend who lost her husband years ago back in the Ohio Valley, she had no kids and they had a good retirement. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had seen his obituary in the newspaper and that she had no family, and they came calling – preying on her. Fortunately, we were able to counsel her against having them back in her home.

Historical writings tell us that this is the kind of things a Hebrew, setting out on a journey of faith 2,500 years ago would have seen in the hills. A look to the hills for help ends in disappointment. In spite of all their beauty and majesty, they are just hills… And all the hope and promises that come from them are nothing but lies. On hilltops we worshipped idols and made loud noises, but it was all for naught, only You, Lord can save us. ~ Jeremiah 3:23

Psalm 121 rejects the worship of nature, rejects a religion of looking at the stars, rejects a religion of those who cast spells… Psalm 121 points us to the Lord who created the heaven and the earth.

At the start of their song, “Shoulders”, For King and Country puts it this way:

I look up to the mountains… does my strength come from the mountains? No. My strength comes from God who made heaven and earth… and the mountains.”

Help comes from the Creator, not the creation. Sun, moon, rocks, locks of hair… none have any power over us. We need not fear any supernatural assault from any of them. I have never worried any of the times I have been told anyone had cast spells over me… and I have been told. “The Lord will keep you from all evil.”

The promise of the Psalm as it has been read by Hebrews and Christians is this: No injury, no ilness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us. Nothing from without us can overcome God’s purposes that He places within us.

Peterson reminds us that nothing ever written is more true and realistic than the Bible. The Bible does not suggest that becoming children of God removes the trials and difficulties from our lives. What it promises is preservation from all the evil in them. Nothing that happens to us has any power to get between us and God. The great danger that Psalm 121 tries to keep us from is to look somewhere other than God for our help. Does this mean we do not call 911? That’s ridiculous thinking. Does this mean that we do not go to the doctor? Of course not. God gives us doctors. God has blessed us with medical advancements.

Psalm 121 is a reminder that we do not have to walk around with a defeatist attitude. Verse 3 hints that

the God who created the mountains and hills, is a personal God. He will not let your foot be moved. Think of the significance of this line alone. A foot…. one foot. In a group of say 10,000 pilgrims– there are 20,000 feet, and the Psalmist says He is such an intimate and personal God that He is able to protect each foot from slipping. On the shifting sands of a seemingly God forsaken desert, He protects each foot. The desert is not forsaken. You are not forsaken! If He said feet, it could lose some significance, because there were 20,000 of them. But it says foot – He will not let your foot be moved. So foot being singular, the “your” must be singular as well. And as we draw the lens out, with 300+ million people in the United States, He will give guard to your foot to keep it from slipping. Drawing the lens out further, with billions and billions of people on earth, He is concerned about your firm footing…. not just both of your feet, but He is even closer… one of your feet… You may as well think of it as each hair on your head…. I did not read this… In my meditation on the Scripture, God pointed out the significance of this to me so that I could point it out to you. And then He pointed me to a song and Diane agreed to sing it –

Diane has a song – Small Enough….

That’s our God – Big enough to help, small enough to care. Small enough to care, big enough to help. The same God who works in the big things works in the little things. The God of Genesis who brought forth the sun – the light out of darkness, is the same God who keeps your foot from slipping.

Verse 7 – He preserves them from all evil. And He delivers the pilgrims to their destination. These pilgrims, with deserts to be crossed, robbers to be overcome, enemies to be avoided, the afternoon sun to be tempered, the sick to be tended to, and the elderly to be supported, proclaimed that He will not let your foot be moved – that He does not sleep. And he fulfills His promise to be with them and He once again delivers them. As He has done over and over and over…. God delivers them. He preserves them from all evil.

We pray in the Lord’s prayer – Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

The Christian Standard Bible – which I like translates verse 7, “The Lord will protect you from all harm; he will protect your life.”

We often think at times that we and those we love are not protected. People get cancer, people die, people get ALS and Alzheimer’s. We go on ambulance calls and are unable to save the person. How can we think the Lord will protect you from all evil – all harm? The NIBC says, “He may not keep us in the way we want to be kept. He may not keep us from sorrow. He may not give us bodily deliverance.

An agnostic once asked Joseph Parker, a Congregationalist minister who died in 1902, the agnostic asked, “How did God protect Stephen in the Bible?” Many of you know they accused and then lied about Stephen as recorded in the Book of Acts. Stephen was then stoned to death. That’s a good question – How did God keep Stephen from evil? It looks like evil got the best of him. Parker replied… “He enabled Stephen to say, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”. God did not save Stephen from the stoning, but from the spirit of hate and a desire to retaliate. WOW. Or a Rick Flair “Wooooooo”

And finally, verse 8 – The Lord will preserve thy going out and they coming in from this time forth, forevermore. – – – The Lord will keep you in your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.

The NIBC says these final words of the Psalm deserve special attention. While many of you love the first two verses

I lift my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.–

While the Lord has drawn our attention this morning to verse three and the foot – your foot…

While we’ve been reminded that the Lord will keep us from evil.

The NIBC reminds us to not overlook the final words of this week’s Psalm – The Lord will keep you in your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.

I do not assume you ever walk in to a room and forget why you walked in? Uh huh.. OK.. I thought so.

Do you know why psychologists say we do that? It’s because of the doorway. They say as we move from one realm to another, our mind leaves what was in the last room in the last room – in other words, what happens in vegas stays in vegas. The NIBC says the doorstep indicates a division between the home and the world. The home with it’s intimacies and the world with it’s publicity and turmoil. The home with its instinctive sharing and the world with its competition. The home where, as I say in a wedding ceremony – the home is to be a place of refuge, verses across the threshold in the world where temptations and trials try to triumph over us. Most of the time we pass from one to another without thinking about it, without thinking about a sense of change. The Lord will keep you in your going out and your coming in…

Once in a while the going out or coming in carries a more significant meaning. A daughter goes out the door to go to the military. A son goes to the mission field. A son or daughter goes away to college. An individual walks in the home from a funeral of one of their loved ones who will no longer be sitting in their favorite chair. The faith of the psalmist is that neither those who go out or those who come in are ever alone.

Eugene Peterson says, The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can talk uninterrupptedly with our Lord. It is not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we compare our gold medals and blue ribbons with others who have made it in to the winner’s circle. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God, we travel the same ground everyone else walks on, we breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, we’re under the same government, pay the same price for gas and groceries, and are buried in the same ground. The difference is that each breath we take, every step we make, and every cookie we bake ( I was looking for something to rhyme), In all we do, we are preserved by God, we are accompanied by God, we are ruled by God, our help comes from God. So that no matter what doubts we have or no matter what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, He will keep our life.

The way may be long, the uncertainties many, but the Lord shall preserve thee in thy going out and in thy coming in. He may not keep us the way we want to be kept, but He will surely keep us. As Butch Gattens said one time – Sometimes He gives you refuge and sometimes He gives you armor.

I lift my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

“And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you.” ~ Psalm 39:7