A few weeks before the lockdown curtailed normality, I was able to head up the mountains for an evening to catch up with a good friend. The plan was to go for a walk and then get some food; so we took a route that he knew well enough, and I had never been on before. I love the mountains, I love the ever revealing beauty as you go higher. With every step, you see more of the splendour of the world we live in. It was a fantastic path, with some awe-inspiring scenes, even though it was not that high a climb, the view was surreal. It is one thing I love about the Mourne Mountains, they might be small, but they are mighty for what they offer in terms of climb and experience.
After chilling at the top, we made our way back down, as we walked the scenery started to disappear in front of our eyes. As we walked the same route, it suddenly felt like a different path. The difference? Fog! I have never experienced something quite like it, the sudden descent of the cloud onto the hillside. It was an unreal, a terrifying experience because suddenly I had no reference point by which to gauge where we were or how far we had to go or. Even as we looked back, there was nothing but cloud. From being able to see for miles, suddenly, all we could see was 4 feet in front of us. Thankfully we made it back down!
When the view changes
We go through life using reference points to navigate, the company of friends and family, specific points of our careers and education; even material things. We might not realise it, but our culture and context have conditioned us to use such things to judge our progress on the journey of life. We look to them to see where we are and how successful we have been. They are the markers of our culture: People, possession, and our positions act as markers for us to judge our process and success against others on this road that we call life. Even within the church, we find ourselves guilty of looking to the same things to judge our progress by metrics that are anti-kingdom: congregation sizes, budget, Facebook followers, Instagram likes, worship styles or website reach. We are obsessed with finding reference points to mark our success, or to give to our people so that they can know where they are in life or on their journey with Jesus.
Yet, there are those moments when the view changes; as the fog descends, or the earth shakes: suddenly, all that we looked too is gone, or has shifted. We might never have experienced it outdoors, but it is impossible to live life and not experience the horrifying reality of a changing view. When we lose sight of markers of old, or they simply disappear: someone passes away, a job is lost, or Facebook algorithms change…. The reason can be anything but the effect is the same: we find ourselves disorientated and confused, wondering where to look. I wonder what we would do like the view changes? In those seasons of change, what would become our marker and reference point?
Over the last few weeks, the landscape and view have changed for every person regardless of where they were walking. The world has collectively experienced something like a global earthquake as Covid-19 has taken hold of our cultures and contexts and begun reshaping them before our eyes. All that was normal has disappeared. The markers of old have been eaten up by the ground beneath them, and we collectively find ourselves lost and looking for guidance. The question is, where redo we look? What do you do when all that give meaning to our old points of reference in a moment changes? What do you trust when suddenly everything that was once solid now seems incoherent. It is not just that our view has changed, every facet of life has been altered in a conceivable way. As we come out of the darkness of this season, we are stepping into the light of a new horizon. All that was once significance now seem insignificant; and that we once sought after now feels trivial. The world has changed, and we are changing with it. This is a surreal time as collectively, society tries to figure out what tomorrow will bring and where to look to for help, meaning, and direction. Together we seem to have entered a dark valley, where we can see nothing over the horizon or nothing ahead and we long to know what way to go, or what will come. I wonder where you look too for reference, direction and meaning?
If we where on the mountain and fog descended, we might use a compass or map to navigate. They are tools that give us a constant reference point, unfortunately in life, there are no such tools. The world may search and trust in certain gimmicks for direction and guidance, that offer vague truths and principles. Yet they tend to be as accurate as the Christian doomsday prophets who are forever readjusting their date for Christ’s final return. We are forever searching for the guidance and direction we need and forever finding ourselves more lost and disoriented.
Yet, what if there was one constant in our world that we could trust? What if we knew there was something that regardless of context or view, it remained consistentt and fixed to guide us. What if there was one place that we could fix our eyes and be assured that regardless of circumstance, context, season or location that when we looked to it: it would be there. What benefit a constant reference might be!
Today, Psalm 121 declares to us such a reference point and constant! Today, we are reminded to look to God for all that we need in life, regardless of where we find ourselves looking from. He is constant. Whether on the mountain top, in the valley, walking through the wilderness or clinging on during an earthquake, we can and should look to God. The one who is constant, sovereign, and above all things, the one who remains faithful and consistent regardless of circumstance. The one who is the same yesterday, today and forever and the one who gives real meaning to those who look to him. God is the constant reference that we are looking for.
Psalm 121 | NIV | Look to the Lord
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 3 He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; 4 indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 5 The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 7 The LORD will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; 8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
A few weeks ago, we looked at Psalm 120, a Psalm that marked the beginning of a section known as the Psalms of Ascent (120 – 132). Fifteen Psalms that were used by pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem. They contain a reference to the trials of our pilgrimage in this world: trials, suffering, adversity. Yet, they also speak of the assurances that come from looking to and trusting the Lord on that journey: Blessing, peace, direction and protection. Psalm 121 is the second of these Psalms. Psalm 120 reminded us to look to that which is unchanging (God) in the midst of distress. Of the importance of crying out to God in prayer and repentance, Psalm 121 builds on that as we are presented with a picture of God the sovereign protector who regardless of circumstance is with his children amid the chaos of the world.
Psalm 121 is a song and prayer for the weary travelling, it is one to be sung when life causes anxiety and fear to abound when the things we look to fade and so many voices to call us to trust them. We stop, sing and pray the truth of God the protector. God our constant guide and reference point, whether in celebration or Pandemic. We have one in whom we can trust, one to whom we can look and one who will forever go with us. The Lord is more than our guide, helper or reference point in this journey of life he is also our keeper. As we remember that our help comes from the one who is sovereign over heaven and earth.
The voice in this Psalm is both an individual speaking, and one being spoken to. As the ‘I’ and ‘you’ are singular in their tone. Meaning that this could be an individual speaking and declaring the truth of God the protector and guide, or the voice of someone speaking to an individual on the pilgrimage that is life. Regardless the message is the same: We must look too, and trust in the Lord for our help, providence and protector. He is the one in which we can trust.
1 – Knowing Where our Help Comes From (1-2)
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
What a question to ask! it is probably one that we have all been wondering over the last eight weeks of lockdown, as normal evaporates like the steam off our morning cup of coffee, and we find ourselves living in a world that seemed unimaginable even in January. All that was once gave us confidence now looks as secure as Ice Cream in the microwave. Governments feel limited, Celebrities have gone quiet, our leaders lost. All our usual sources of wisdom and guidance have like the roads around us gone quiet. Thus, the question we ask here is the right question for everyone one of us to consider:
“Where does our help come from?”
Knowing Where to Look
We are presented with the image of a traveller who’s eyes are focused to the distant skyline; he sees the hills/mountains that are ahead. It is an image that that could either represent a place to be feared or a place of sanctuary and safety. I think the duality of this lesson is useful for us, it reminds us that the point is not to where they look, but, the fact that they can look past the hills to known the answer to their question.
Here we are challenged to consider what we have been looking to in these moments in fear or hope, then to look past them! Often it is the same things in which we find a sanctuary that often causes us to become fearful for our future: health, finance, family, possessions or positions. Like the weary traveller, we must again renew our gaze and look to the only one who can help us – the Lord. As the Psalmist answers his own question with a declaration over not just one journey, but life. Our help comes from Yahweh (Lord) the maker of heaven and earth. Thus, the Psalmist can look away from the sanctuary the mountains may offer or the dangers he may face in them to the Lord who made them!
The Maker of Heaven and Earth
The maker of heaven and earth is not just a statement of belief from the traveller. It is a declaration to all of the power of the Lord: He who creates this world will also defend. God is as active today as he was in the beginning! He who called his people will also protect his people. In a context where people believed gods were limited to a specific geographic area, we are reminded of a God who is not limited to one place but holds the heavens and the earth in his hand.
Yahweh, the one who transcends time and yet remains active in it. It is a vision of Gods nature that remains in place throughout this Psalm and one that challenges us to consider the pitifulness of those things that we might be trusting in his place through the seasons of life. Furthermore, it is made clear to us from the beginning of this Psalm than Ultimate salvation (eternity) comes not to form created things, but from the Lord our creator; only he can save! It is not by our effort, nor any scheme of man. As Christians, we read this in anticipation of Jesus, and the Cross. We know that salvation is a gift of grace received through faith in the one who offers it. The Cross is the greatest protecting act of the Lord, for all who would put their trust in him.
How might you answer that question: “Where does my help come from?” During this Pandemic, I wonder (even as disciples) what we find ourselves looking to for security and hope in these difficult days: What stats, or potential cures, or, conspiracy theories offer us something? When instead, we should be looking to the Lord. Let us stop and consider if we are genuinely looking to the Lord for our help, security and guidance; or if we find our gaze lost in the mountains our of fear or hope as we travel.
2 – The One Who Keeps (3-4)
He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; 4 indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
As the Psalm develops from this point, it is dominated by the word ‘Watch’ (Hb Shamar ), it presents a clear image of protection, and could easily be translated as a guard. The image is of God as a guardian! Hence: the Lord who watches over the nation of Israel is also the Lord who watches over his children. Thus, we see the specificity and closeness of the Lord’s protection and guard on the journey of life. In a world of where the ground under us is constantly shifting, there is not only one to whom we can look that is constant, there is one on whom we can make our stand on whom the ground under our feet will remain as steady as the truth of his sovereign reign.
He will Make Straight our Step
When we walk with the Lord he will not let our foot slip, meaning he will keep us on the right path as we trust in him. It is the wonder of grace that he who saves us will also keep us. Hence, we look to God despite circumstance or fear, and he will straight our step. It is not suddenly that our pilgrim through life becomes easy; fear of stress and strain. No, it is a matter of context, that in light of the gift of salvation, everything in this world is assessed through the might of the Lord who made the Heavens and Earth. Then, by His direction and the work of the Holy Spirit in us the disciple we will walk well, even when the road is difficult will be able to walk straight because of he who walks with us.
Thus, the image of Gods sovereign keeping is one of both the individual and nation. An awe-inspiring picture that is highlighted further by a reminded of the constant nature of God’s keeping. The Lord who keeps us on the steady ground is also unchanging in his keeping: God has no need for sleep or rest. As the Lord watched over Israel, he will watch over all those who look to him.
Those who Love the Lord, he will keep on the right path, the path that leads to life. Furthermore, He is ever vigilant in his keeping because he is unlike us in our nature. When humanity creates God, they create them in their likeness, they are more powerful extensions of the ideal image of ourselves. Yet, still limited, hence where pagan Gods failed to act because they might be asleep, Yahweh can be trusted because he is ever faithful. (See 1 Kings 18:27). Yahweh is a God who is always there, acting protecting, and keeping. He is an ever-present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:10). Today, we know this most vividly through the dwelling presence and work of God the Holy Spirit in our lives. The one who is the peace of God promised (Luke 24:49), and the one who helps us as we travel the road in front of us.
Knowing Where We Look
I wonder in this Pandemic what we look to for peace? So often I find myself trusting in things other than God for identity, security, direction and purpose in regular times without even realising it – and I am meant to be a minister! It is the danger of idleness when life is just running along with fine, we find ourselves subconsciously trusting things created rather than the creator. We find ourselves being confident not in the Lord, but in our achievements, possession, positions or acts.
Maybe this lockdown has brought us down a peg, I know it has for me as God has reminded me how flimsy the idols of this world are. Like Baal failed to act in 1 King, when we need real help, hope, or healing created things will let us down and leave us looking for more. Today, let’s look to the one who loves us and by his action keeps us walking on the right path, and by his, Spirit is present with us and watching over us.
3- The One Who Watches (5-6)
The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The third section of this Psalm builds on the truth that has already been declared about God. The Image of God’s watch or guardianship is extended through the imagery of shade. A picture that seems peculiar, especially in the context of Irish weather, where the sun is forever shaded by the clouds! Yet, when we remember the arid and dry conditions of the land in which this Psalm was written, suddenly the picture and beauty of shade become more appealing.
These verses may be building on the imagery of Gods sovereign watch (v3). The God who never sleeps keeps watch over our step during the day (the shade and sun), and we can further trust his vigilant watch during the night (the moon by night). Other commentators suggest that the imagery of verse 6 is somewhat different:
“The sun and moon may be used as a merism simply to say again that God is on a twenty-four-hour watch over his people. Secondly, in the Ancient Near East, both sun and moon were thought to be deities that could bring harm on people. Of course, Genesis 1 makes it clear right from the start that in Israel the sun and moon are God’s creation and are not gods. ”
– T Longman “Psalms” 13.0377.
Some others reflect backwards on this Passage through Matthew 17:14-23, where Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy. One specific word in that passage in verse 15 “selēniazomai” which is translated in various ways: seizures (NIV, NLT), epileptic (NKJV, ASV, ESV), lunatic (ASV, KJV) but could also be directly translated as one “who has been moonstruck.” It makes little sense today, but it reminds us of the sincere belief around the time of Jesus that the moon could have an effect on people in profound ways. We are, however, unable to say if that belief stretches back to the time of the writing of Psalm 121.
The Beauty of the Lords Protection
Regardless of the specificity of the imagery in this section of the Psalm, the lesson and point are clear – God will protect. Imagine you have been on the arduous journey through a barren and dry land on the way to Jerusalem. There are no service stations on the way, the road has no tarmac and, you travel under the very real threat of bandits. Thrown in a warm and dry climate: this is not a nice stroll in Ireland, this is a long journey made under inhospitable conditions. Imagine as you struggled up a dessert track what a distant sight of shade might offer you. The relief it would bring from the sun, the protection it would offer you from the inhospitable elements; the comfort to rest. The Lord’s protection is like this sort of shade on our pilgrimage through life. Yet, it is so much more! As we walk for Him, and with Him, he gives us places to rest and lean into him so that we are refreshed and ready for the journey ahead.
Yahweh’s protection is not the assurance of an easy journey, it is not some false promise that when we come to faith in Jesus, the road suddenly becomes a travelator (like in the airport) and all we have to do is stand on it. No, while salvation comes from the Lord, and we can be assured of his protection, we must also play our part. The protection of the Lord is the assurance that as we walk the one who controls all things goes with us, and before us; in the assurance of our eternity we can rest comfortably knowing that whatever this season might bring, our God is greater and his guard over our life secure. Thus, the lesson is that the pilgrim is well guarded against all fears, whether well-founded or unfounded: God will protect us as He works all things to his purpose. Thus, the pilgrim travels with confidence, knowing that the Lord is actively protecting him from all kinds of dangers, seen and unseen.
A Reminder of Pentecost
As we draw close to Pentecost, we are reminded that the protection of the Lord is ever close to us through the Presence of God the Holy Spirit at work within us. Thus, this Psalm reminds us that these truths are for those who are pilgrim-disciples: those who have looked to Calvary and seen the beauty of the Cross as the greatest act of protection from the Lord. Where he took the curse and threat of sin upon himself and dealt with what we could not. In doing so, defeating the ultimate weapon of the enemy, and so defeating death and making real the assurance of Psalm 121 to all who might look to him. The question is: Where does your help come from?
4- The One Who Protects (7- 8)
The LORD will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; 8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
The final section of this wonderful hymn of praise continues on what has already been spoken! God is the one who watches and protects his people – at all times! The emphases in this final Stanza is that this is true in all the seasons of life for the Children of God. Those who are adopted into his family can be assured of his watch, guard and love over their whole life: “Your coming and going.” Furthermore, God’s sovereign protection is consistent – “both now and forevermore.” His children can be assured of the protector of God in every area of life! In the smallest and most insignificant ways, we can be assured that God is with us and protecting us, whether on our way to work, sitting at home, adventuring through the mountains, at home with children, serving in the depths of Africa, or praying at home by our bedside. The Lord God is there with us, protecting us. From birth to death, when our faith is in the Lord then we are assured of his protection.
Understanding His Protection
It is a wonderful statement and assurance that the Lord God is with us, protecting us from all the assaults of this world and the enemy. Yet, what do we do when the world tells us differently? How do we trust the assurance of Gods protection when so often our context is full of suffering and difficulty? How do we respond when our situations allow people to question the very realness of God? How do we believe in a God who protects when we are fearful for our jobs, health, and loved ones? These are all good questions to ponder, and there are better minds out there who have sought to answer them in a way that is real, honest, and true to Gods word. I would, however, briefly point to Jesus. The life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God reminds us that the protection of God in nature is like the Kingdom of God. It works in ways that we do not naturally understand nor see.
Furthermore, it works in ways contrary to our natural understanding of protection. Consider the Cross: that the greatest display of the power of God, and thus the protection of God would be in the cruellest of deaths that the then world could draw up is a reminder to us of what this protection looks like. That through it, God would deal with our greatest threat – sin, and defeat the most potent weapon of the enemy – death.
We Live in a Broken World
As we proclaim the protection of God, we do not seek to negate the reality of this world, the brokenness we see and the effects of sin. Yet, we point to the same hope and answer – the Cross of Jesus Christ with its silent victory and quiet vindication and a reminder that as the Kingdom of God is not of this world, so the active, consistent and sovereign protection of God over his children will not look like this world. Yet, we rest confident and assured by the dwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that as our eternity is secure so too will we be secure through all the difficulties of this life. Not that God will give us what we want, but that he will work all things to his purpose. This is the true help of the Lord, so today consider how you might answer the question: “Where does my help come from?”
Conclusion: Where Does Your Help Come From?
This Psalm is a pilgrim Psalm, sung in the ascent towards Jerusalem. It speaks of the protection of God over the journey, and it declares that same protection more broadly over the life of those who have faith in God – The Lord our Protector. Today, we see that protection made visible through the Cross of Christ, and known in the presence of God the Holy Spirit. We come to that protection through faith in Jesus, as we respond to His call on our lives and repent of our sin and trust in God. It is then that we can answer the question “Where does my help come from?” rightly as we declare
“My Help Comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
This is the basis of Psalm 121 and God’s protection that salvation comes from him alone, in the things of this world and in the matters of eternity, only God can reduce and deliver us! We must look beyond the fears of this world, and beyond those places in which we might seek to find a rescue to (the mountains) Him! Thus, as Christians through the witness of Jesus and the assurance we can declare boldly by our life and example:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:35-39 NIV
Finally, this Psalm is the image of journeying (A reminder to us of the reality of following Jesus) We are a people on the move, because we trust the one who moves with us, and before us. Thus, we are in the world and active through it because whatever threat may assail us our God is greater. We do not cower away like mice in a cave: we do not seek to live in ways unnoticeable so that we never need God’s protection. No, as the Lord is faithful to us, by the Holy Spirit at work within us, we seek to live faithfully to him by our life and example:
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” 2 Tim. 1:17
To have faith in Christ is to be assured of his protection, but it is also to trust the beauty of his example, thus seeking to live it out. Today, as we walk this journey of life, under the protection of the Lord let us consider how we are walking? What are we seeing as we walk? And, where God is calling us to witness for him through word and deed?
Furthermore, let us make sure our gaze is fixed on Him through the study of his word, and our allowing it to work in our hearts. Even during a lockdown, and as a scattered church we move forward together, we seek to show God’s love and our assurance of eternity in spite of the curse that is Covid-19, and above all, we must by our example, and life point to the great hope that is ours through the Cross of Jesus Christ. Today, let us our lives answer the question: Where does out help come from?” by showing it comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Questions to Consider:
- How have we seen the protection of God in our Lives?
- What places of Shade has God given us to rest in, and do we make use of them?
- When we consider the question ‘where does our help come from?’ what other things do we find ourselves thinking of instead of the Lord?
- What might it mean for us to live our of this assurance of protection in our lives amid a lockdown and changing world?
- Who today might need to hear the good news of Jesus?