Psalm 121: Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places
Blog by Rob Vandeman
At the beginning of the Christian journey when an individual says no to the world and yes to God, they sometimes falsely assume that all their problems are solved, all their questions answered, all their troubles over. They think that as new believers they are now among the privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with their spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by their peers or coworkers, who aren’t disobeyed by their children…. And they are wrong. No sooner have they plunged, expectantly and enthusiastically, into the river of Christian faith than they get their noses full of water and come up coughing and choking. No sooner do they confidently stride out on the road of faith do they stumble and fall bruising their knees and elbows. For many, the first great surprise of the Christian life is in the form of the troubles they meet. It is not what they had supposed and are awakened to something very much different. And then they look around for help.
Psalm 121 is a quiet voice, gently and kindly telling us, that we might be wrong in the way we are going about the Christian life and then very simply, showing us the right way. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come?”
The psalm issues a sort of “travel advisory” and focuses on three possibilities for harm as the travelers are making their way to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. A person traveling by foot could at any moment step on a loose stone and sprain an ankle. A person traveling by foot, under the protracted exposure to a hot sun, could become faint with sunstroke. And a person traveling for a long distance on foot, under the pressures of fatigue and anxiety, become emotionally ill (which was described by ancient writers as moonstruck or by us as lunacy).
Today we would update the list of dangers. Law and order can break down with dismaying ease: a crazed person with a handgun or explosives can turn an otherwise normal situation into instant chaos. Disease can break through our pharmaceutical defenses and invade our bodies with crippling pain and death. An accident can without warning interrupt our plans. We may take precautions but we cannot guarantee security.
In reference to these hazards the psalm says “He will not let your foot be moved… . The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.” Are we then to conclude that Christians never sprain their ankles, never get sunstroke, never have any emotional problems? That is what it sounds like. Yet we know plenty of instances to the contrary.
What Will Christians Experience?
A psalm which has enjoyed high regard among Christians for so long, must have truth in it that is verified in Christian living. Let’s look at the psalm again. The person on the way of faith gets into trouble, looks around for help (“I lift up my eyes unto the hills”) and asks a question: “From whence does my help come?” As this person of faith looks around at the hills for help, what is he, what is she, going to see?
Some magnificent scenery for one thing. Is there anything more awe inspiring than mountain peaks lit up by the morning sun? * Does anything in this world promise more in terms of majesty and strength than the mountains? But a Hebrew pilgrim at the time this psalm was written would see something else. During this time Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this was practiced on hilltops where shrines were set up and groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes were provided (both men and women); persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would make you feel good and protect you and the land from evil.
That is the kind of thing a Hebrew pilgrim would have seen on the hills. It’s what disciples still see. A person of faith encounters trial or tribulation and cries out, “Help.” We lift our eyes to the hills, and offers of help, instant and numerous appear. “From whence does my help come?” From the hills? No. “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Has God Gotten Bored?
A look to the hills always ends in disappointment. For all their majesty and beauty, for all their quiet strength and firmness, they are, finally, just hills. And for all their promises of safety against the perils of the road, for all the allurements of their priests and priestesses, they are, all, finally lies. As Jeremiah put it: “Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains” (Jer. 3:23).
And so Psalm 121 says no. Our help comes from the Lord. The promise of the psalm is not that we will never stub our toes, but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in and for us. The only serious mistake we can make when illness comes, when anxiety threatens, when conflict disturbs our relationships is to conclude that God has gotten bored in looking after us and has shifted his attention to a more exciting person, or that God has become disgusted with our meandering faithfulness and decided to let us fend for ourselves for a while, or that God has gotten too busy to sort out the complicated mess we have gotten ourselves into. It is the mistake that Psalm 121 prevents: the mistake of supposing that God’s interest in us waxes and wanes in response to our spiritual temperature.
The Christian life is not primarily a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons, gold medals and stars in our crowns with others who have made it to the winners’ circle. It is first and foremost a journey where we are preserved by God, accompanied by God, and ruled by God and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord preserves us from evil and will keeps watch over our lives.
We know the truth of Luther’s hymn: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for Lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.” We pilgrims of the way believe that life is created and shaped by God and that the life of faith is an exploration of the constant and countless ways in which God’s grace and love are experienced. Faith is not a precarious affair of chance escape from misfortune and evil. It is the solid, massive, secure experience of God who keeps watch over our lives.
*Most of my teenage years were spent in Denver, Colorado and from the breakfast table in our family home I could look to the west, to a spectacular view of Mt. Evans, a majestic peak of 14,265 feet in elevation. No wonder I always put the wrong emphasis on the opening line of this psalm. And I apologize if I have spoiled it for you!