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Read A Sample
Layne McKeel, a senior adult, ventured out of his house during the coronavirus pandemic to get a few supplies at his local grocery store in Georgetown, Tennessee. He’d been shut in for some time, but his disability check had arrived and he needed some food and staples. When he reached the checkout counter, his bill was $173. As he counted out his money he was surprised to find himself thirty-three dollars short. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. It’s an embarrassing moment.
McKeel quickly began grabbing things to put back on the shelf, but the seventeen-year-old cashier stopped him. Her name was iconic—Elizabeth Taylor. Reaching for her purse, the teenager paid McKeel’s total bill out of her own money.
When someone asked her why she did it, Taylor said, “It was all essential stuff. . . . We’ve seen a lot of older people, and they’re all trying to buy groceries and a lot of places have run out of stuff, and so the older people are kind of taking the downfall for that. I just try to give back when I can.”1
Life often catches us short. It’s embarrassing to find ourselves needing help, but we all need all the help we can get, especially in times of crisis. We all need grace—grace that’s more than sufficient.
So many of the psalms are written for pilgrims needing help on the path of life. As we read Psalm 121, we can hear the psalmist crying out, “Lord, I need supplies for my journey. I need help. I need guidance. I’ve lost my way. Can’t You show me the right way to go? Can’t You meet my needs?”
In this beautiful psalm of just eight verses, we’re encouraged to trust God even when life gives us what we haven’t asked for. The confidence expressed in Psalm 121 is rooted in the grandeur of the psalmist’s vision of God—the Maker of heaven and earth, the Lord who can be trusted to help us at every point along the journey, through the sunny passages as well as the darker treks through forests of night. The psalmist lifts his eyes to the hills above and sees the One who is not only the destination of the journey, but also the strength for every step of it.
In spite of all the perils we encounter, the mountainous crags and the desert wastelands, we can trust the Lord. Yes, He is awesome and we feel small and insignificant, but the psalmist assures us that God bridges the gap. He is never too great to care; we are never too small for His caring. The psalm reflects on a God who soothes us in our anxiety and watches over us as a shepherd with his sheep.
As you hold your Bible open to this wonderful chapter, you find these important words in superscription: “A Song of Ascents.” What does that mean?
There are fifteen of these special psalms, the first of them being Psalm 120. In those ancient days, the Israelites would travel to Jerusalem for feast days at the temple. Coming from whatever distant town they called home, the pilgrims would make the long journey by foot, walking with their families and friends and enjoying their holiday travel. They were eager for good times in the Holy City, seeing friends again over the feast and making sacrifices to God. Scholars believe the songs of ascents were written to be sung along the road from the lowlands of Palestine up to Jerusalem.
As the travelers walked up that natural incline, the uphill trek to Jerusalem, they’d sing another of these joyful psalms at each new level. In fact, if you read them in order, you can almost see the stages of the journey, moving onward and upward toward the temple, where the people would arrive for the worship of God. These psalms are the music of the uphill journey.
We’ve seen something of the historical context. But of course these psalms are alive, not limited to ancient history. For us today, the pilgrimage songs become metaphors for our own spiritual journey. Though we don’t often attend sacred feasts in Jerusalem, the road we walk takes us from the lowlands of our present circumstances to the higher place to which God has called us. The songs of ascents contain essential truths for our journey through this life, as we make our way to be with God for eternity. We can quickly grasp their symbolism and find deep encouragement in these little songs.
The Possibilities for Help on our Journey
The Bible never lies to us by claiming that life is easy. Christianity is no free pass; there are no shortcuts to bypass the essential human experience. But somehow people get that mistaken idea, and when they eventually face trouble—as they always do—they come to the irrational conclusion that the presence of trouble implies the absence of God. A greater mistake cannot be imagined.
God’s Word reminds us that we are pilgrims and strangers in a foreign land whose roads are filled with hazards. The road is long, weary, and dangerous. It winds through veils of tears and acres of muck and mire; but the long and winding road finally comes to the City of God, the place of joy and feasting. Simply stated, that’s the biblical view of life in the world.
So where can we go to find traveler’s assistance?
We Can Look Around for Help
The psalmist says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills” (v. 1). He has prepared for his journey through the mountains to Jerusalem. As he enters the road, he takes a moment to gaze up to the horizon. He thinks of the miles ahead, the twists and turns and surprises, the old friends and new ones whose acquaintances he will make. He thinks of the dust and the heat, the darkness and the thirsty miles. He admires the graceful line where the mountains embrace the sky.
I’ve always been intrigued by the prominence of mountains in the Bible. Many great things happened on mountaintops: the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, the transfiguration of Christ, the message on Mount Olivet, Elijah’s prophetic showdown on Mount Carmel—and, of course, all of history turns on a crucifixion one dark Friday on Mount Calvary. Climactic moments in the biblical narrative always seem to seek higher ground.
You may not live anywhere near the mountains, and you may even prefer the beach as a vacation destination. I must confess that I’m a “mountain man” at heart. I boast with pride to all my friends around the country that I’m twenty minutes away from the mountains and twenty minutes away from the ocean. On a couple of occasions, as I’m quick to point out, I’ve partaken of sea and slope in the same day! Some of us like to show off, you see. I know people who water-ski and snow ski on the same day, just for bragging purposes to impress their friends back east.
But there’s something grand and majestic about mountains. They set the landscape and the people in context. Nothing calms my spirit or helps me to get things in perspective more effectively than a visit to the highest hills. I drive up into the Laguna Mountains and find a special place where I can survey the natural grandeur and reflect on my Creator. If I’ve lost Him in the confinement of the city, I can find Him in the immensity of the peaks. Something about the majesty of mountains invokes the majesty of God.
That happens in the Scriptures too. Listen to Isaiah 55:12: “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you.”
Psalm 125:1–2 captures the same idea: “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds His people from this time forth and forever.”
There are many passages in the Old Testament that describe the mountains as a place of blessing, but we know all too well that mountains can also be a place of danger. Rarely does a winter go by that we don’t hear of someone being lost in the mountain terrain. The snow cover cuts off the navigation of outdoorsmen, who cannot retrace their steps out of the wilderness.
In ancient times, mountains were sites of danger and hardship. Their rocks and caves hid wild animals and bloodthirsty bandits. Pagan cultures built their temples in the mountains. Godly pilgrims found a sense of majesty in the high country, but they also found a sense of danger and a fear of the unknown. It was a place of fear and of hope, of danger and of salvation. The Lord God could be sought there, but pagan gods were enshrined there as well.
The psalmist must have thought of these things, reflecting on the many meanings of mountains. He gazed upward at the outset of the journey and said, “I will look to the hills.”
We Can Look Within For Help
I must confess to falling victim to a widespread misconception about this psalm. Maybe you’ve experienced it too. Many of us were raised with the traditional King James Version and its time-honored punctuation. It can be misleading in this particular instance.
Take a good look at the first verse of Psalm 121. The psalmist says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help?” The New King James Version, which we primarily use in this book, has corrected the punctuation, but I used to misread the two phrases as one: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (KJV). I used to conclude that we look for help from the mountains.
But that’s not what the psalm says at all. The writer makes a statement: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” He breaks off and asks a question: “From whence comes my help?” What a difference a dash makes! The traveler looks to the hills, then he looks inward. And as he looks inward, he asks himself the question, “Where am I going to find help?” He feels all the hesitancy and concern many of us do before we set out on a long journey. Traveling has a measure of insecurity about it, because we’re out of our comfort zones. What if something terrible happens while I’m out of town? Who can I turn to?
This is what writers call an “internal monologue”—and what you and I call “talking to ourselves.” Is that a healthy thing to do? Well, the fact is we do it all the time. Our Psalm 121 traveler is talking to himself. He feels a little anxiety about getting through the high hills to arrive at his faraway destination of Jerusalem. And he naturally thinks, Will anyone help me if I get sick or I’m attacked or I run out of money?
He looks around. Then he looks within.
Finally, he looks above.
We Can Look Above For Help
In the second verse, we find the solid foundation of this psalm: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” At last the psalmist comes to the point that provides the essence of his song. He is telling himself, “I’ve looked up to the mountains, and I find no help. I’ve looked within, and I find no guidance. But finally I’ve looked up, and I’ve realized the source of my help. It comes from no one but God.”
What a lesson for life’s travelers on this earth: My help comes from the Lord.
The Lord is described here as the God who made heaven and earth. Do you think these words are window dressing, perhaps a flowery poetic device? Not at all. These words are chosen quite deliberately. The idea of being loved by a Creator who hung the stars in space and set the earth upon its course is a powerful source of encouragement. If He can guide the planets, surely He can guide our little steps. That’s why we find this phrase so frequently used in blessings the Hebrews granted each other.
Look at the following examples (emphasis added):
- “May you be blessed by the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 115:15).
- “The LORD who made heaven and earth bless you from Zion!” (Ps. 134:3).
- “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 146:5–6).
The power of this statement is wrapped up in the idea that since God is the Creator of all things, and since all things are His handiwork, His power is not to be questioned. The Creator has made everything we can see or touch or imagine; when we cast our hopes on Him, we’re not only coming to a God who cares, but a God who can.
God is not merely the Creator of all things; He is the Sustainer of all things as well. Paul writes to the Colossians, “By Him all things were created” (Col. 1:16). And he goes on to say, “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (v. 17). This is very important, for at some times during history God has been characterized by philosophers as a “cosmic watchmaker” who has created the world and then abandoned it to its own devices to tick away the moments until it runs out of time. That’s not the God of the Bible. After creation, He is intimately involved with the work of His hands, holding it all together. If, even for a moment, He were to remove His hand from this universe, it wouldn’t tick happily away like a watch in the grass; it would all fly apart into oblivion. But our God doesn’t do that. Instead, He continues to sustain us. He creates and He sustains.
On that day when your journey brings you face-to-face with disaster, you’ll be filled with an unaccustomed sense of helplessness. You’ll cry out, “Lord, I need help!” In your moment of deep anxiety, remember this: the One to whom you are praying is the One who made heaven and earth. He is the Creator God. I don’t know what kind of problem you may be facing—in the weariness of the journey, I’m certain it can seem all but insurmountable. But take a deep breath and a new look, in the perspective of the One who created and sustains every atom of the universe. He’s up to the challenge, don’t you think?
That thought renews our strength to carry on.
The Promise Of Help On Our Journey
We notice something slightly odd as we come to the third verse of this psalm. If we’re reading through it quickly, we may not even notice. The writer’s perspective changes from first person (“I”) to second person (“you”).
This may seem like so much grammatical wrangling to you, and you may be tempted to leave this one to your high school English teacher to worry about. But it’s actually a rather significant point. For example, some have made the case that an entirely new character has walked onstage and begins to speak in this verse. They suggest that in the first couple of verses, the psalmist asked the questions; now someone else, perhaps a priest, has come along to provide the answers.
I don’t buy into that particular interpretation. I believe what we have here is an internal dialogue in the heart of the psalmist—if you’ll remember, we detected an internal monologue in the opening of the psalm; now a dialogue is suggested as the traveler frames answers to his own questions. He has chosen to write it all down, of course, so the “you” really refers to himself and ourselves as well. “Who will help me?” he asks. He concludes, “Here is what God will do for you and for me.”
In the process of answering his question for our benefit, the psalmist uses eight small verses to make three immense points invaluable to our journey toward those hills. You’ll stand, as he did, looking down that road and up those mountains. Your heart will cry out to God, and here is what you’ll need to remember.
The Lord Perceives You
We can’t see God, but you need to know that He sees you—always. He knows you. Aren’t you glad that God knows who you are? Isn’t it unbelievable? The God who made heaven and earth knows you by name!
He knows the very hairs on your head by number. Jesus assured us of that (Matt. 10:30). That’s a very intimate kind of knowledge. Believe me, I’ve been up close and personal with the issue of hair quantity. I lost my hair twice during my battle with cancer, and both times it all came back. I am glad Someone is keeping inventory!
If God numbers the hairs on your head, don’t you think He’s up to date on the larger issues of your life? Don’t you think He knows exactly how you feel—and cares deeply? When you say, “God, I need Your help,” you need to know that He knows you. He perceives you.
Notice what the text says next: “He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (vv. 3–4).
Lloyd John Ogilvie told a story about Bishop Quayle, who was a leader in the Methodist Church years ago. One night, the bishop worked into the early morning hours trying to finish his work and solve his various problems. It happened that the Bible on his desk was open to Psalm 121. At a moment of intense pressure, Quayle was feeling tired and frustrated and annoyed. Suddenly his eyes fell on the startling words that told him God never slumbers, that our Lord watches over us on a twenty-four-hour vigil.
Here was Bishop Quayle burning the midnight oil, worrying over so many things—and God was watching over him as he worried. Here was Bishop Quayle working for God rather than allowing God to work through him. It came home to the minister, with great impact, that such a life was exhausting and ultimately a losing battle.
In his inner being he heard the Lord say, “Quayle, there’s no need for both of us to stay up all night. I’m going to stay up anyway. You go to bed and get a good sleep.”2
Have you ever paced the floor at night because of your kids, a financial problem for which you didn’t know the answer, a sickness, or other problem in your life? If you’re like me, you worry and wonder who is taking care of things. Then you read in the Bible that the God in whom you have trusted, the One you ask for help, never sleeps. He never takes a day off, and He’s never out of town. You don’t even need a secret cell phone number or email address. God is right there, watching you, so close to you that you don’t even need to call out to Him. He’s watching over you, even as you sleep, because He loves you.
My late friend Ron Mehl wrote a book titled God Works the Night Shift. That’s one of the best titles I’ve heard in a long time. Isn’t it a great thought? God is always there, no matter when it is that you need Him. In the loneliest, darkest hour of the night, He is there because He doesn’t slumber or sleep.
The Lord Protects You
“The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” (vv. 5–6).
Now we come to another promise, and we remember the traveler whose eyes have looked to the horizon before his dangerous journey. He feels reassurance that God is keeping watch over him by night and shading him during the noon heat. Can you imagine a more devoted Master than that?
God is the pilgrim’s shade on his right hand. The word shade is very important. Travelers along the ancient roads in this part of the world felt deep anxiety about the desert heat. Sunstroke was a serious issue. If you’ve ever visited Israel and traveled up the long road to Masada, you know how stifling the heat can be—dry and oppressive enough to drain away every ounce of your vitality.
“The LORD is your shade at your right hand,” and again, it’s worth taking a close look at the particular phrase chosen to drive home the point. The phrase “right hand” suggests a wonderful truth about the place we hold in the heart of God. Psalm 98:1 says, “Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! For He has done marvelous things; His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory.” The Scriptures consistently speak of the right hand of the Lord as indicative of His power. He has given you shade in His right hand, we’re told. He protects you around the clock, with mighty power. That should bolster your courage.
He protects us by day. “The sun shall not strike you by day,” the traveler proclaims. The forceful words beat or hit or smite or kill help us fully appreciate the deadly assault of the Mediterranean sun and the safety of the shade available only in our loving God.
Then, when the day is over, He will protect us by night. Verse 6 continues, “Nor the moon by night.” Have you ever heard of being “moonstruck”? In the period of time when this psalm was written, there were all kinds of superstitions circulating concerning the moon. In fact, Matthew 17:15 records a story about a man who begged Jesus to heal his son. He described his deranged son in these terms: “For he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.” And if you dig just a bit deeper into the background of this word epileptic, you’ll discover that in most translations the word is actually moonstruck. People believed that the moonlight brought dangers, and the moon could be as deadly as the sun. You could be “struck” by both.
Needless to say, we’re a bit beyond primitive lunar superstition. We don’t lose any sleep over the prospect of being struck by the moon. And far be it from our sophisticated culture to fall prey to that kind of craziness—right? Not so fast: such ideas about the moon linger on. When we say somebody is crazy, we call him or her a lunatic. Craziness is lunacy. Both these words come from the word luna, or moon. Maybe we aren’t as sophisticated as we think.
In any case, many people suffer from night fears. Nearly every child has begged for a night-light. Aging people often come to fear the night as well. The darkness and loneliness of it hold special terrors for them. Some suffer from insomnia and the long, dark night becomes even longer—a difficult time for them to endure.
For all of us who have struggled or been struck by fear, whether of the sun or the moon or anything else on the horizon, the message is this: God is great. He will provide safety for you in the heat of the day, and in the terrors of the night He will never leave your side.
The Lord Preserves You
“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” (vv. 7–8).
This wonderful promise contains four precious truths.
The Lord preserves us from evil. God will help us make it through when evil and danger rear their heads. Think about the worst that can happen, the most evil thing that could befall you. Nothing is outside His control. Think about every kind of disaster that terrifies humanity. Every one you can name is subject to the God who preserves. Bad things do happen, but they happen within His supervision and long-term purposes. It’s foolish to believe things have gotten out of His control; it simply cannot happen.
The Lord preserves our existence. “He shall preserve your soul,” says the seventh verse. As our pilgrim narrator reassures us that God will keep our souls from all harm, he uses a particular word for soul. Hebrew writings usually reach for this word when the meaning is life. In other words, God is going to keep your life. It doesn’t end when you breathe your last breath. There is much more to the idea of life than the womb-to-tomb understanding to which we limit ourselves.
As we grieve at a funeral, we know we’ve come to a punctuation mark in someone’s life. And that’s what it is—but that mark is not a period, as we assume, but merely a comma. We need put no question mark on that one! You are an eternal creature. And He is the keeper of your existence, guarding your soul through earthly life and eternity as well.
The traveler looks at the long road before him, the hills above him, and reminds himself that this is one short journey in the world, set within a joyful journey in God’s eternal world. That context lifts his spirits.
The Lord preserves us every day. I love this phrase: “The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in” (v. 8). Sometimes when I rise in the morning and take a good look at the schedule blaring at me from my daily planner, I sigh deeply and feel like a slave to the world’s demands. Do you ever feel that way? Go out, come in; go out, come in. The days begin to look alike as they entangle themselves in urgent appointments—this meeting, then the next one. Yet God promises to preserve us even as we go out and come in—which is, by the way, a wonderful Old Testament idiom that expresses the regular routines of life.
This promise extends even deeper into the world of everyday responsibilities. Maybe you have small children at home. You look at the day and think, Boy, this is just like yesterday. And yesterday was like the day before. All I do is get up in the morning, take care of kids, wash clothes, clean up their messes, prepare them for school, run errands all over town, come home, make dinner, and fall in bed too tired even to sleep. Then I get up the next morning and start all over again. In your darker moments you begin to wonder, Is God involved in all of this? Does He care at all about the endless treadmill of my life?
Let me assure you that He does care. He watches over you and preserves you in your going out and in your coming in. This is a promise that God’s Word repeats over and over so that there may be no question about it. He cares.
The Lord preserves us eternally. The psalmist proclaims that the Lord will preserve us “from this time forth, and even forevermore” (v. 8). God’s care extends not only to every place and to every setting, but it also spans all of time and eternity. Time plays tricks on us, doesn’t it? For the child anticipating Christmas morning, it moves like molasses, and a week might as well be a year. For an adult, the years seem to fly, and we can’t believe how quickly each succeeding one whirls by us.
We begin to see time as our enemy. Its accelerating pace frightens and discourages us. If time is cold and uncaring, we think, then God must be too—but don’t ever think such a terrible thought, for it’s not so. God cares for us in time and eternity. Time is only His tool to bring us wisdom and perspective.
The Keeper Of Our Lives
A pious Jew in today’s world keeps certain elements in his home in keeping with the traditions of his faith. If you were to visit such a man, you’d come to his door and notice a small metal container on the outside doorway and also on the inside. He calls this little metal container a mezuzah. It enshrines for him, in a physical way, the words of Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 11, which tell us that we are to train up our children in the way they should go and that we are to teach them as they go out and as they come in.
So there at the doorway is the mezuzah. As the pious Jew leaves his home to travel to his place of work, he touches this little metal box with his right hand and repeats aloud a few of the words contained within it, asking God to preserve him as he goes out and comes in. His final words will always be, “The Lord keep you both now and forevermore.”
Whether we “go out” to travel around the block or around the world, the Lord is our keeper. Eugene Peterson writes about God’s watchful care over us:
The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; nor a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winners’ circle. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.
The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore, no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life.3
When the present begins to feel treacherous, we can smile and look right past it. We can lift our eyes above and take in the beautiful hills outlined against the horizon. Then we can cast our gaze beyond even those, past the horizon and into the face of our Father. We know He loves us and watches over us, over the entire journey here and in the next world.
No matter what the future holds, no matter what may lie around the next corner, our help comes from the Lord who loves us. Nothing can keep us from His love. Parkinson’s disease can’t do it. Cancer can’t do it. The coronavirus doesn’t even come close. No matter what it is you’re facing, whichever way your road bends—whatever obstacle looms before you in your road, that obstacle can’t do it either.
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