Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 16, 2016
Psalm 121 Commentary
Walter Brueggemann is a giant in Old Testament studies. Among his many contributions to the field is his famous distinction among Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of re-orientation. Psalms of orientation are those Psalms in which all is well because the writer is experiencing a “season of well-being that evokes gratitude for the constancy of blessing.” Such Psalms articulate joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and the reliability of God and God’s creation and God’s governing law. Psalm 121 is a Psalm of orientation, probably intended to teach the children of Israel the basics of Israel’s faith.
Psalms of disorientation are written by believers who have experienced a breakdown in the kind of child-like faith expressed in Psalms like 121. Their lives are now in disarray, as they are surrounded by enemies, or languish on beds of illness, or struggle with unanswered prayer, or wonder where God is and when God will act. All the certainties expressed in the Psalms of orientation seem child-like and naive now, and the Psalmist doesn’t know what to make of the world. Psalm 22, for example, is filled with such disorientation.
The Psalms of re-orientation are penned by believers who have come through the disorientation to a new and more mature faith. God’s grace has come in new surprising ways and life is now oriented around God again, but in a more realistic way. Psalm 73 is a good example of such a Psalm.
When preaching on Psalm 121, it might be helpful to acknowledge that it will seem naïve and child-like to anyone whose faith is being challenged severely. Indeed, Psalm 121 may seem downright untrue to such a disoriented believer. So I suggest that you pick up on the fact that Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms of Ascent that Israel sang to its children as they went up to Jerusalem. It was specifically designed to teach the children of God how reliable God is even in difficult times, like the long pilgrimage up the steep hills and mountains of the Promised Land. A sermon I preached many years ago shows how you might preach on Psalm 121, taking account of Brueggemann’s insights.
Have you ever sung with your children on a long trip? That’s what Psalm 121 is–one of Israel’s songs for the journey. When we travelled long distances with our kids, we would sing songs with them to keep them occupied. I remember singing all the songs on a certain Bill Gaither (yes, Gaither) tape a hundred times on a trip to Denver. Then we moved on to “Old MacDonald” and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” and “B-I-N-G-O.” And when the boys got older, there was the ever popular and exceedingly irritating “Ninety Nine Bottle of Beer on the Wall.” As we hurtled over the Great Plains, we sang with our children to keep them happy.
As the people of Israel tramped through the hills of Judea on their way to Jerusalem for the great feast days, they sang songs like Psalm 121 to keep the children of God happy. They weren’t on a pleasure trip in an air conditioned car over smooth ribbons of interstate, so they didn’t sing little ditties. They were on a spiritual pilgrimage on donkeys or their own two feet on paths that were narrow and dangerous, so they sang deeply spiritual Psalms. That’s the key to understanding this Psalm and the other songs for the journey. Though they were travelling physically from their homes all over the Promised Land to God’s home in the temple in Jerusalem, their journey was really spiritual. They were on a journey into the very presence of God.
We are on the same journey. We have been delivered from bondage to the power of evil through the Red Sea of Christ’s blood. We have been led into the Promised Land by the power and light of the Spirit of Christ. We have been abundantly blessed, but we are still a distance from God. We believe in him, but we don’t experience his presence as fully or as often as we should and could. We walk by faith, not by sight. Our journey into God’s presence is neither short nor easy nor safe. So, as we join Israel on pilgrimage, their songs will lift us.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?” The Israelites were literally looking up at the hills through which they climbed as they made their ascent up to Mt. Zion on which was perched the Temple where God was present in the Holy of Holies. Even if you live in relatively flat Michigan as I do, their question is still our question, our central question for the journey. Where does my help come from? My help comes from high above the hills, high above Jerusalem, high above the Temple. “My help comes from the Lord, Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.” My help comes from the one who has the power to make the universe. Because he has that kind of power, I can be sure that no matter what I meet on my journey, he can help me, so that I will finally come into the presence of God.
What kind of help can we count on? Well, there is a constant refrain that runs through this song for the journey. “Yahweh watches over you.” Yahweh is mentioned 6 times and watch over is found 5 times. As you travel through this world on the way to your face-to-face meeting with your Maker and Redeemer, you can count on that—Yahweh watches over you. That is one of the most familiar, most beloved, most comforting, and most puzzling ideas in all of God’s Word.
Years ago Bette Middler sang a lovely song entitled, “God is watching us.” Do you remember that heartbreaking conclusion? “God is watching us…from a distance.” Where’s the help in those words? I much prefer the old hymn with which we’ll end the service. “Why should I be discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home; when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is he; his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
But what does “he watches me” amount to? Does he merely observe me, however closely, but do nothing? Or does he watch and then intervene? And if so, then how do we account for those times when he doesn’t seem to intervene? Was he not watching at that time? Was he, as Elijah said when he mocked Baal, “deep in thought, or busy, or travelling, or sleeping (I Kings 18:27)?” My help comes from the Lord who watches over me. But what on earth does that mean?
Well, this song for the journey spells out in simple child-like language three results of God’s watching over. Verse 3 sings, “He will not let your foot slip” as you journey to God. This is not talking about physically slipping. Any child knows that God doesn’t keep us from slipping in that way. When I was ten years old, I was walking along the crossbar of a swing set, showing off for a girl, when suddenly my foot slipped and fell and broke my left arm. God let my foot slip. Many of us have done things like that, so Psalm cannot mean that God will keep us from physically slipping. And this is not talking about stumbling morally. We’ve all done that on our journey.
In the Old Testament this phrase in verse 3 most often refers to spiritual slips, when we slip off the path to God. For example, in Ps. 73:2, the Psalmist took his eyes off the Lord and began to envy the prosperity of the wicked. The result, he says, is “my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” Psalm 121 is a promise that, no matter what happens to us, Yahweh will not let our foot slip off the path to God. We will be able to complete our journey into God’s presence.
Verses 5 and 6 sing, “Yahweh is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Neither the heat of the sun nor the cold of night, neither the dangers of the day nor the madness of the moonlight, neither cancer nor stroke, depression nor anxiety will keep you from finishing your journey into the presence of God. Yes, those things may come into your life, but the Lord will shade you, protect you, watch over you in such a way that all the dangers that fill the world by day and by night will not keep you from your destination.
Finally, verse 7 sings the ultimate help. “The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life.” Those words may stick in our throats, because, of course, all of us have experienced harm in this life. We all bear scars from the multiple wounds of life. That’s why it is important to ask what this means. A look at the original Hebrew is most helpful. The word harm doesn’t mean hurtful things. It means evil. And the word life means soul. As we journey to God we can sing that God will not let evil harm our soul. The journey is long and hard and painful, but God will keep evil from destroying our soul. The Lord will help us on our journey into his presence, so that even in the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to fear evil. He watches over us, so that evil cannot keep our souls from meeting God face to face.
Does that explanation help you to sing this song? I want to make sure that it becomes one of your favorite songs for the journey, so let me add two things—one from the New York Times and the other from the New Testament. The one from the Times has to do with how God watches over, and the other from the New Testament reminds us of who watches over.
In the New York Times Magazine there was an article by William Safire titled “Overwatch.” Safire had heard President Bush use the word in a speech about the war in Iraq. “Our troops will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and eventually overwatching those forces.” Never having heard that word “overwatch” before, Safire, a wordsmith with a distinctly left orientation, assumed that it was some sort of right wing political jargon.
But he discovered that it is military language with a long history. Here’s the definition: ”a tactical movement technique in which one element is positioned to support the movement of another element with immediate fire.” Let’s say that a group of tanks is engaged in direct battle with the enemy. Up on the hills surrounding the battlefield are several more groups of tanks who can at a moment’s notice pour overwhelming fire down on the enemy if needed. Those supporting units take a position where they can observe the terrain and provide effective cover for the tanks down below. Those tanks on the hills are overwatching the situation—not leading, nor partnering, but overwatching.
Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas led that motley crew to arrest him. As they surrounded Jesus and the eleven apostles, Peter whipped out his sword and hacked off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus put the ear back on, told Peter to put up his sword, and said, “Don’t you know that I could have called twelve legions of angels.” That’s 72,000 angels, invisible to the overwhelmed apostles who felt all alone against the sword-wielding mob. But overwatching them, looking on from a strategic position, was enough fire power to obliterate their enemies. When they felt most alone, God was overwatching them.
I wonder if that helps us understand this song for the journey. Sometimes when he watches over us, the Lord gets directly involved and actually fights our battles for us. We call those miracles. Sometimes when he watches over us, he partners with us, so that we fight along with him. We have this sense of cooperating with God. And other times when he watches over us, he overwatches us, so that we feel that we are fighting all alone. We think he isn’t watching over us in those moments, but he is in fact overwatching us, surveying the whole terrain of our lives ready to provide effective help when and how we need it most.
That brings me to my New Testament lesson in Ephesians 1, which re-orients our faith in the God who watches over us. The old song, Psalm 121, assures us that the God who watches over us is Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, who sits on the throne at the center of the universe. But you and I know a new song, the song of the one named “Yahweh Saves,” which, as you know, is the meaning of the name, Jesus. Ephesians 1 reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth, the Man who died and rose for us, has ascended to the throne at the center of the universe, where he rules all things for the church. That gives us a whole new way of understanding the God who watches over us.
The Ascension and Coronation of Jesus re-orients our faith in God’s care as we journey upwards to our final meeting with God. Ephesians 1 assures us that God is not at a distance, because of the work of Jesus. He is at the right hand of the Father, and he is at our right hand as well. He sits in the throne-room and he is “with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).” Here’s how Q and A 49 of the old Heidelberg Catechism explains the practical benefits of Christ’s ascension. “First, Jesus pleads our cause in the presence of the Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven…. And third, Jesus sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee….”
Because of the ascended Christ, we are intimately connected to the God who watches over us. As we continue our journey into the presence of God, there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus. “Why should I be discouraged? I know he watches me.”
The more mature and travel-worn pilgrims among us may still find Psalm 121 to be naïve and unrealistic. My wife was telling me the other day about a line in Lewis Smedes’s wonderful memoir, My God and I. He was writing about how awful high school was. As he walked the halls of Muskegon High School all alone, he says, “God may have been with me, but he sure didn’t make it very obvious.” Undoubtedly, that was a time when God’s constant care took the form of overwatching. Only later did Smedes discover that his God was always with him.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!