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Well, good evening. It is my privilege for us to continue on in the Psalms of Ascents, so I invite you, if you haven’t already, you may have, would you turn to Psalm 121.
So I want to ask you a question tonight to begin. What is your go-to question when you are trying to break the ice in say a small group? What is the question that you ask? This is not a theological question, okay? This is just, what do you say to break the ice? What do you ask to break the ice?
This is my go-to question and my good friends will all know this about me, but here it is. Okay. If you had the choice between the mountains and the beach, where would you want to live? Okay. I already heard somebody say it. They said what I like. I know there are other options, right. I know like there’s rural farm life, okay. Somewhere in the country. I know there’s urban city, that may be your thing as well. But for just a moment, which of those two would be your choice? What would be your answer to that?
My choice, and my wife, my kids, my best friends will tell you, the mountains. I love the mountains. Perhaps it’s because I grew up a good portion of my life. I think one time I was trying to calculate this, but probably half of my life I grew up close to the beach, and for me enough with hot, humid, sand in the car, the shoes, and the kids, and hurricanes that we had, five one year down in Florida when I was down there in the same summer. Give me the mountains. I’ll take the cool mountain air, I’ll take the changing leaves and the valleys and the peaks.
Now some of you by now are already, your jaw has dropped and you say, “What are you talking about? You’ve got to be kidding me. Mike, I love the beach.” Well, that’s good. Whether you’re a mountain person, or you’re an ocean person, probably the experience has the same effect. Relaxation, calmness, a peaceful respite away from the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced life. You could probably add a lot of other descriptive adjectives to that list.
There is just something about occasionally getting away, out of our normal surroundings, that give us fresh perspective, renews our strength, realigns our direction, perhaps even gives us a new vision. And our leadership here at Christ Covenant, the years that I’ve been here, which seem to be growing, the years I’ve been here have been gracious to let us, as pastors and leaders, a time where we can get away to realign, to redirect, to breathe the mountain air or have the sand in your shoes or sandals, right?
So this past weekend, not this weekend but last weekend, was that kind of experience for me. Because of the generosity of a family in this church, I was able to go up to the western North Carolina mountains and the place is beautiful. This family has been so generous to Connie and I. And off of the back porch you have this vista of mountains and ranges from Grandfather Mountain all the way over to what I think is Mt. Mitchell, I’m not sure, probably.
And you have this beautiful place in the mountains, and I quickly find that back porch a place of prayer, reflection, evaluation, reading and study. When the clouds are not in the valley or blanketing the mountains, you can see for miles. I was scanning the one day that the clouds were not up right in the porch. I was scanning the view with a pair of binoculars, and into my view I could see an outcropping of rocks way over there, and I noticed it from the binoculars, and what I found out is that is Flat Rock. Flat rock, not the city or town of Flat Rock, but it is a stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, right. It’s a familiar place for me.
For many years now, Connie and I have gone up to the Blue Ridge and hiked the short trail off of the parkway at about mile marker 308 on the Blue Ridge, out at Flat Rock. It’s there we would sit down, look out over the valley, and do some serious evaluation of live for ourselves, for our kids, our grandkids now, and pray and ask the Lord for guidance, to reflect on God’s answers to prayer, for the many years that we’ve gone up.
I realized this past week we have gone up some 35 years up there. Almost every year, probably. Even when we were living in Florida we would drive up.
So this past weekend, by myself, I walked on that trail of Flat Rock, only to see the same little plaques that the forest rangers put out about the trees and the ecosystem and things, and they’re still there every so often, and I read them again. Then you break off the trail out into this overlook on this massive rock formation, and on the overlook is a beautiful valley. I sat there for hours praying, thanking and considering how God had again been faithful to answer our prayers for many years.
Here’s the catch, as we approach this Psalm 121 this evening. It is not the place that is special, or the place that possesses some strange power, rather the mountains for us have been a pointer to recall God’s faithfulness. It brings back memories of all the times we sought the Lord in prayer, talked of His faithfulness, recalled how over the years He worked out all things for our good and for His purposes. Our kids, the churches we’ve served in, including the one we sought to plant, and a host of other things.
So last Saturday as I looked across the valley, over a few hills to a familiar place that we sought the Lord for many years, that little place called Flat Rock served for me as a pointer, a reminder of the great, loving care of the God that we serve and of His faithfulness, his protection, and our security in Him. It’s not the mountain, it’s not the beautiful views, or the ocean, or the downtown apartment high-rise, or somewhere else in the world. They are not the focus. They are the created thing that points to another. They serve to direct our attention to another One who is greater.
So our passage this evening has the same purpose. Often it has been called the Traveler’s Psalm because of its theme, its context, and qualities. It is written as a reminder that our ultimate help, our final protection in life, in death, is from the Lord.
So with that, let’s read Psalm 121. Since we haven’t stood up for a while, let’s stand as we read this together. Psalm 121.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
He will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.”
You may be seated. Let’s pray together.
Father, thank You for Your Word. It is living and active and sharper than any two-edge sword, and I pray that as we study this text together that Your Spirit might take it and plant it deep in our hearts, that we might be different people. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Psalm 121 is the second so-called Song of the Ascents. If you were here last week, Kevin led us off in our brief series that we’re doing for the next several weeks in these Songs of Ascents that run from Psalm 120 to 134. These are the going-up hymns sung by the Jewish pilgrims scattered across Israel on their way to the holy city of Jerusalem. Kevin began us last week in 120, pointing out the distress these traveling pilgrims experienced because of slanders, lies, and deceitful tongues. Calling out the Lord, He answers. God answers, and says, “Wait for justice and pursue peace.” That was a summary of the message last week.
So it is worth noting as we transition and progress to the next psalm, 121, it is the only Songs of Ascents that begins with a question, the only one. “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come from?” And I think the opening question is revealing. Here is a weary soul, almost home from their long and dangerous journey, and gradually in the distance hills come into focus, and they are strengthened by the reminder those hills bring. No doubt in need on this journey where does my help come from, and looking up, there are the mountains that surround Jerusalem.
Their thoughts are brought back to remember, that’s the place where God, where Yahweh was worshipped. Those hills point me to remember a vital truth that on this journey, He has been and always will be my ultimate help.
The British pastor, Charles Spurgeon, wrote that Psalm 121 is several steps in advance of its predecessor, Psalm 120, for it tells of the peace of God’s house and the guardian care of the Lord, while Psalm 120 bemoans the departure of peace from the good man’s abode and his exposure to the venomous assaults of slanderous tongues. In the first instance his eyes looked around in anguish, but here they look up with hope.
It was the explorer and missionary David Livingston, and I’ve had the privilege to see his statue in Zimbabwe, who read this psalm with his father and his sister before setting out for southern Africa. This so-called Traveler’s Psalm has been used so often by Christians as a wonderful prayer over loved ones embarking on a dangerous journey.
This is what James Boice writes: Some commentators have suggested that this psalm may have been the traditional evening psalm, song, for the last encampment of those who would arrive in Jerusalem the next day, noting that the next psalm, 122, has the travelers actually standing within the city walls, and that certainly may be the case.
So again, why does this writer begin with a question? It is because there is another side to the hills, metaphorically speaking. The psalmist wants to remind us of the dark side, the sinful side, the sinister side of the hills they peer into.
Have you noticed that we humans are incredibly prone to find all sorts of things to turn to for help when we have a need? For a moment, answer these questions.
Where do you go for help when life is hard? When there is uncertainty, and there’s fear, there’s a personal or family crisis?
Where do you go for answers to all the turmoil that life’s journey has brought you?
The writer is seemingly preaching to himself as if it were to us, the Church, is asking the critical question – What are the hills you look to for help? Are they idols that take the place of God?
You see, in the one sense, the hills are pointers to God, they were a visible reminder as they ascended into Jerusalem. But on the flip side of that, there can also be an inherit danger we must be aware of.
This is why Calvin, John Calvin, picks up on this when he writes this: In thinking about the mountains, they are, and here’s what he says, whatever is great or excellent in the world. Whatever is great or excellent in the world.
There are a lot of great and excellent things in the world that we have access to. The mountains can be pointers, but can also be idols that we turn to. When we are weary in the journey, tired of the fight, in danger from our enemies, the great and excellent things of the world can falsely appear to become our guide, our strength, even our savior. Our gifts, our friends, our family, our comforts, our money, our pastimes, our hobbies, our work, our accessibility to technology, and a myriad of other things that can be idols, to be looked at and quickly trusted and given help to support.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many helps that God has provided for His people to use and benign from. There’s no doubt about that. But they are not ultimate. They can easily take the rightful place of God when we are in need. Calvin summarizes well again when he says we ought not seek safety anywhere except in God alone.
Psalm 121 is written to us so that we are reminded to turn away from the world’s answers and to turn our attention, our hope, our ultimate trust in the God who made us, knows us, and has our good always in His heart.
This is the constant reminder we need, our help comes from the Lord.
I envision these returning Jews ascending the hills, outside of Jerusalem, singing this song to remind them not of the hills that provide help, but of the Lord who has been faithful to provide, faithful to keep, faithful to protect, faithful to the end.
So the writer exclaims it is the Lord who is their help. And to prove that, he answers his own question in the remaining seven verses, not only to convince himself, but to convince all of God’s people. He lays out why God is our only hope and help.
First of all, he says, remember that He is the creator of heaven and earth, verse 2. The creator of heaven and earth. To be sure, He is not one of many gods, small g, that resides in the hills, or is the hills. No, this is the creator of the hills, the one who made the mountains, the oceans, the distant stars, the smallest particle in the universe, the One who made the heavens and the earth.
Listen to what Job heard from the Lord when He answered him. “Out of the whirlwind, He said, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge. Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to Me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut the sea with its doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place.”
Then the writer of the Hebrews says of Jesus, He is a radiance of His glory, the exact representation of His nature, and upholds the universe by the word of His power. He is the One who made the world. So could He not, with all His vast resources and infinite at His disposal, infinite things, to care for the pilgrim on his or her journey, could He not do that? And the answer unequivocally is yes, that’s what the psalmist is saying. He is the creator of the world.
Isaiah 40:12-23. Let me read this to you.
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows Him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before Him,
they are accounted by Him as nothing and emptiness.
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with Him?
An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
He seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not be moved.
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.”
And then verse 25:
“To whom then will you compare Me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of His might
and because He is strong in power,
not one is missing.”
The Christian is not to idolatrously look for God among the hills, among the excellent and great things of the world, but to realize He is bigger than the creation, He brought all this into existence. These all point to the greatness and glory of God their creator. As Psalm 19 puts it, the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims His handwork.
He is the creator, yet He is also in all of His vast power, He is personal.
Look at the next verse, verse 3: He will not let your foot to be moved.
The progress of the pilgrim will not be impeded, thwarted, or stopped. He is so affectional towards us that He will preserve us in all respects in perfect safety, Calvin says. God is exhibited to the faithful as their guardian, that they may rest with assured confidence on His promise. In short, never will the hearts of men be led to good earnest to call upon God until a persuasion of truth of His guardianship is deeply fixed in their minds.
The psalmist declares that the purpose for which God is our keeper is that He might hold us up. This idea of foot to slip means sliding, falling, trembling, staggering, tottering, or shaking. You get the picture. He is not only our sovereign creator, but He is eminently personable. A God that has demonstrated in how He has been faithful to us, His covenant people, Israel.
Verse 4. He is also faithful to His people. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. He kept His covenant people. His people, Israel. He said I will be your God and you will be My people, and so He will continue to keep His promises.
Five times in this psalm the writer says the Lord will keep us. He was faithful to His covenant people, He will be faithful to His new covenant people. Look at Israel and how God loved her, saved her, disciplined her for her good, but always wooing her back. He keeps His promises and pursues His people. You know what? He doesn’t grow weary as a pilgrim traveler inevitably does. No, He is always ready, always active.
The end of verse 3 and 4. He who keeps you will not slumber. He will neither slumber nor sleep. God doesn’t need a nap like we do, or a break from life’s busy-ness. He doesn’t fatigue or grow so tired that He can’t help. The word literally means to snooze or nod off. God doesn’t sleep on the job, we never find Him too busy to keep and care for us. He doesn’t go away for a break. No, He is always close by our side.
Verse 5 and 6. For He is an ever present keeper, both day and night. The Lord is your shade on your hand, the sun shall not strike you by day or the moon by night. He is by your side, literally. At your right hand, available, present, never absent.
Calvin says God is called a defense at the right hand to teach us that it is not necessary for us to go far in seeking Him, but that He is at our hand, or rather stands at our side to defend us.
The language is metaphorical. The cold of night, the heat of day, denoting all kinds of inconveniences. The sense then is this, that although God’s people may be subject in common with others to the misery of human life, His shadow is always at their side, to shield them from receiving any harm.
So this leads the psalmist to the final, and perhaps the strongest, argument to convince us to trust and look to God only as our helper and our keeper, and that is in verse 7 and 8. He is a protector from all evil to the end. The Lord will keep you from all evil. He will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in. Nothing of evil happens to us apart from being sifted through the caring and loving and powerful hands of God.
Now I want to shift for a second, and say perhaps you’ve been wanting to say this the whole time. Well, Pastor, that’s all good for you to say, but my life is full of stops and starts, pitfalls. My life is full of suffering, of fear and uncertainty. I’ve been the recipient, Pastor, of all sorts of evil, and you seem to be saying that God protects us from all evil and that we should have this kind of utopian experience in the Christian life. How does this connect with reality, Mike? Have you not looked around and seen this sinful, fallen world, where all people suffer, including Christians, who often suffer profoundly? Mike, how would you say as a pastor the believer in North Korea or Ukraine reads this psalm?
My short, abbreviated answer is resoundingly, yes, God is the protector of His people from all evil. Otherwise, either God doesn’t care or is powerless to do anything about it. Consider two thoughts. This is the abbreviated side.
First, we are given this model prayer, the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray and explicitly ask God, deliver us from evil. What kind of God would lead us to pray this way if He couldn’t do it or He didn’t care?
Secondly, there is in the shadow of this psalm a theology of perseverance, a theology of perseverance. No evil, regardless of its nature, can separate the believer from his heavenly or heavenly Father. Grace that has begun in the heart is continued and brought to completion. We can be confident that the Lord will keep our life from beginning to end, from the start to the finish.
Listen to the words of Jesus in John 10. My sheep hear My voice and I know them and they follow Me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.
Then Paul adds this. Romans 8:35 through 39:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure,” Paul says, of this, “that neither death nor life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, no powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else created in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We are ultimately kept from all evil. So the psalmist has been convincing us in argument that nothing but this faithful God is worthy, is able, is ever present at our side, of being our faithful keeper.
So here’s the implied ask from those facts. Are you, Christian, growing in your trust of Him on your pilgrim journey? What idols of the world do you need to turn from and look to Him alone to keep you to the end?
To someone here tonight who is exploring Christianity, wondering what God is all about, what is keeping you from looking to this God alone for protection, for comfort, for hope, and ultimately for salvation? Do you believe that His heart, if you’re not a believer, do you believe that God’s heart is affectioned toward you? If not, why?
Parents, what better way to pray than using Psalm 121 for a child heading off to school, so appropriate for tonight. Or a son or a daughter’s entering college. The Traveler’s Psalm. A friend deployed to somewhere in the world. A missionary going to a foreign land in a difficult place. Friends, I want to say this, sometimes the Christian does get sunburned and scared at night, and sometimes the Christian is martyred for their faith. These experiences, though, do not nullify this psalm or make it any less relevant to our life or to our prayers. This is ultimately about the promise that God is completely trustworthy in spite of the hardships and heartaches we have in this earthly life, so we can and we should trust Him. We can claim His promises to be our keeper, our shade, our ever present protector, until the pilgrim journey in this life is over and He brings us home. Then we reach, as the hymn writer says, on Jordan’s shore, safe and happy and secure.
I lift my eyes to the hills, from where is my hope come from? My hope comes from the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth.
Let’s pray. Father, we have many, as Calvin said, many good and excellent things to put our hope on in this pilgrim journey. Just as these Jewish travelers were moving into, back to Jerusalem, saw the hills, were reminded of Your faithfulness, may we see life and answers to prayer, in friends that encourage, in churches where we worship, and all the things that point us to Christ, may we see Him as our only hope and trust. We are thankful that You are faithful to the end, that You are our shade, our helper, our guide, ever present by us. Not absent, not slumbering or sleeping. So remind us today as we go home tonight and go into our work week, wherever we go, remind us and convict us of the idols we trust in. Our hearts are idol factories. May we look to You, O Lord, and lift our eyes unto You, our hope and our joy and our trust. In Jesus’ name. Amen.