Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 12, 2017
Psalm 121 Commentary
If Psalm 32 was the perfect Psalm for the beginning of our Lenten journey because of its classic description of “the way we should go” to move from guilty silence to joyful song, then Psalm 121 is the perfect Psalm for the next leg of the journey, because of its profound assurance that God will keep us safe all the way to our destination.
Psalm 121 is the quintessential traveler’s song, probably sung by the Jewish pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem where they would meet their God in one of their festivals. I say “probably” because there is some question about the exact meaning of the superscription above each of the “songs of ascent (Psalm 120-134).” But if the order of the Psalms means anything, we can be reasonably certain that Psalm 121 is a song for that pilgrimage, because Psalm 120 is spoken outside of Jerusalem and Psalm 122 is firmly within Jerusalem. But regardless of that interpretive question, it is certainly the case that many believers have taken comfort from the words of Psalm 121 as they embark on any arduous trip. And the trip to Golgotha is surely filled with difficulty and danger.
The idea of danger is suggested by the image of “the hills.” Of course, it is true that some scholars take that as a reference to God as the rock who provides us security. That interpretation depends on the old KJV translation of verse 1: “I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.” But most modern translations read the Hebrew of that verse not as a declaration, but as a question. As I lift up my eyes to the hills that are filled with danger, where will my help come from?
The most obvious danger would be bandits; think of Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. But a careful reading of Psalm 121 suggests other, more spiritual, dangers. As we journey up to Jerusalem to meet with Yahweh, we will pass through territory where smaller regional gods are worshipped. Could it be that those words about Yahweh neither “slumbering nor sleeping” are a sly reference to the fact that the nature gods of the Canaanites, most notably Baal, were thought to sleep during the winter? Elijah alluded to this in his challenge to the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:27). Unlike that god of thunder and rain and fertility who needed to be awakened before he would come to the assistance of its adherents, Yahweh is always wide awake. There is no danger that he would nod off, leaving his pilgrims unprotected.
And could it be that the reference to the sun and moon in verse 6 is an allusion to the celestial deities who were worshiped at hilltop shrines? Nearly all of the surrounding nations worshiped the great lights in the sky. Who’s to say that those gods aren’t more powerful than the God of this little nation of Israel? Their presence up there on the hills was a clear and present danger to the pilgrims on their way to Mt. Zion.
Their journey was filled danger, both physical and spiritual, as it is for us on our way to Golgotha. With a little imagination, the culturally savvy preacher should be able to show her congregation that we are surrounded by the modern day equivalent of those ancient dangers. We are in harm’s way.
So as we trudge along, marching to Zion (as the old hymn put it), we lift up our eyes and we ask, “where does our help come from?” The Psalmist gives a wonderfully complete answer. Of course, our help comes from Yahweh—not just God, not a generic deity, but Yahweh, the God who has entered into an unbreakable covenant with Israel. Our help comes from the God who has said, “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you,” the God who has demonstrated his faithfulness in the mighty acts that have shaped the lives of his people.
The next words in verse 2 underline the power of Yahweh. He is not a regional god or a nature god; he is, in fact, the creator of all regions and all nature, “the Maker of heaven and earth.” Not only does he care about us as we journey into his presence, but he has the power to guard and keep us from all evils, including the mighty sun that scorches us by day and the mysterious moon that drives us crazy at night (“lunacy” from luna, moon). There is nothing up there in those hills that can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I know, I know, that’s a big jump—from the covenant God who powerfully watches over Israel to the Man of Sorrows who died in weakness and shame. But it is Lent, after all. We are on a journey to see the living God, and we see him most clearly in his dying Son. Psalm 121 assures us that when we set our feet on the path home, God in Christ will get us safely there.
The multiple assurances of safety in Psalm 121 do raise troubling questions though. Is there a pilgrim among us who has not had his foot slip? Yet the central promise of this Psalm is this clear declaration: “He will not let your foot slip.” And who in this pilgrim throng has had a life devoid of harm? And yet the Psalmist assures us that “the Lord will keep you from all harm.” For a careful examination of those promises see my previous comments on this Psalm in the October 10, 2016 commentary on this website.
Let me try another tack on this Second Sunday of Lent. Comments by Patrick Henry Reardon in his Christ in the Psalms jogged my thinking about what it means that Yahweh “watches over” us. He gives an almost allegorical interpretation of “the hills” in verse 1. He wants to think not of the hills filled with danger for us pilgrims, but of the hills on which Yahweh has done mighty acts of redemption for his people.
Think of the various mountains that have loomed large in the history of redemption: Moriah, on which Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac and received a redoubled covenant promise; Sinai, on which Moses was given the covenantal Law; Nebo, where Moses was able to see the entire Promised Land; Carmel, where Yahweh defeated the apparently dominant Baal; the mount on which Jesus gave his famous sermon outlining Kingdom living; the Mount of Transfiguration, where the glory of the Lord Jesus burst through the veil of his flesh just once; Golgotha, where our redemption was finished; the Mount from which Jesus ascended after giving his disciples the commission that would bring the Gospel to the nations. Let us lift up our eyes to those mountains, suggests Reardon, and we will know where our help comes from.
That way of reading Psalm 121 might seem a bit fanciful, but what happened on those hills does give us a more profound sense of what “watches over” really means. Rather than merely keeping his eyes on us, those peaks of redemption remind us that God has always gotten deeply, passionately, even painfully involved with our lives as we journey through this barren land. While God’s watching does not mean we will never slip and get hurt, it does mean that God is literally with us each step of the way, experiencing our pain, and giving us the directions and the strength to complete the journey.
Let me put it starkly. The God who told Abraham to sacrifice his own son, surely the most awful demand ever made of a child of God, is the God who sacrificed his own Son, surely the most awesome thing God could do for his children. Whatever else we make of “watching over,” we can be sure that it involves God incomprehensible sacrificial love for his wandering children. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we can be sure that “the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.”
So as we continue our Lenten journey, let us “lift high the cross.” “Come, Christian, follow where our Savior led, our King victorious, Jesus Christ our head. So shall our song of triumph ever be: praise to the Crucified for victory!” (“Lift High the Cross,” by George Kitchen)
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Here’s another way to think about the Lord’s “watching over.” In Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell is a nine year old boy whose father has been killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack in the Twin Towers. Understandably, Oskar is deeply disturbed by that terrible loss. So when he finds a key in his father’s closet, hidden in an envelope marked “Black,” he is more than interested. He sets out to find the lock that the key will open, convinced that it will tell him something important about his dead father.
So, all by himself, at nine years of age, he sets out to visit every “Black” in New York City. Consulting his telephone book and a map of the city, he goes out to meet total strangers in search of that lock. As we read the book, we are worried for him, wondering how he can do such a thing all alone. And we wonder with more than a little disgust where on earth his mother is in the whole thing.
Finally, by a convoluted set of circumstances Oskar learns that it wasn’t his father’s key after all. It was simply a key hidden in a vase that Oskar’s father had bought at a rummage sale. Angry that his search was in vain, Oskar destroys everything associated with his search. But that’s when he discovered that his mother knew about his activities all the time. In fact, she had contacted everyone in New York with the name Black, telling them what Oskar was doing. All of them knew ahead of time that he was coming and, thus, gave him generally friendly receptions.
She gave him the freedom to conduct his search alone, but she was watching over him all along by going ahead of him and setting up his appointments. Oskar had to go alone to accomplish his mission, but she prepared the way so he was safe.
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