Delivered on Aug 24, 2014. You can listen to the exhortation here. All Scripture verses taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
OT Reading: Isaiah 43:1-13
NT Reading: Romans 8:26-39
Psalm 121 – Got Help?
Pastor Billy preached on Psalm 120 last week. As we look at Psalm 121 this week, I’d like us to see the continuity from 120 to 121 to 122. At the end of 120, the sojourner seeks help. He finds it in 121. He responds with joy in worship in Ps 122. They flow linearly like a single psalm.
We start today in Ps 121 with our daily churn, as Pastor Billy preached about last week, where we live our daily lives. We face our circumstances, sometimes a source of joy and other times a source of pain and suffering, but most times simply the churn of daily existence in a fallen world. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as it were for you fellow Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western fans. The Fall changed everything for us.
But as the Psalm 121 shows, the Fall did not change God. That’s where our hope and confidence lies.
A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
1. Yahweh as Creator in verses 1 & 2
2. Yahweh as the Guardian of His Covenant people and you as a covenant member in verses 3 – 6
3. Yahweh’s Future Blessings in verses 7 & 8
The name for God used throughout this psalm is Yahweh – God’s covenant name given to Moses and Israel at the burning bush. As we will see in this psalm, God’s care for us is inseparable from His covenant love for us.
Yahweh the Creator
In verse 1, the psalmist looks to the hills. Looking to the hills can have negative or positive connotations depending on the translation. Negative in the anticipation of an ambush while traveling. Robbers and thieves can use the rocks and crevices in the hills, plus the tactical advantage of the high ground, against the sojourner. This is still true in many areas of the world.
The connotation can be positive if the hills are at Jerusalem, seeing one’s goal. What a joy to have one’s destination finally in sight!
Or perhaps, as the hills point to the heavens and Yahweh, our covenant-keeping God. Either way, the real emphasis of verse 1 is the question at the end: From where does my help come? Is that not our question today in our fallen world?
The psalmist immediately answers this critical question in verse 2. The eternal God who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them is our help. Who can stay his hand? Isaiah 43:1-13 which Bart read earlier addressed that very well. Who can oppose him? Who can thwart his purposes? If our covenant-keeping God is for us, who can possibly succeed against us? Romans 8:31-35 gives the answer – nothing or no one in the universe can separate God’s elect from Christ’s love.
The Exegetical Bible Commentary observes:
The creedal statement, also taken up in the Apostles’ Creed, originally signified an apologetic statement on Yahweh’s sovereignty over all realms: heaven and earth, thereby excluding any claims by pagan deities. Yahweh alone is God.
When I lead the prayer time here during worship, I always declare the great privilege that we have to approach the Creator of the universe with our adoration, confessions, thanksgiving, and supplications. Phil 4:6 explicitly tells us:
…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Ponder that for a moment. God, who created all things – you, everyone you know and don’t know; everything you see and don’t see, from the sub-atomic quarks, to the microscopic bacteria, to the cosmic structures, and beyond the cosmos; everything in the physical and spiritual realms; everything that you know and all that you do not know. THAT God, the only God, wants to hear from you, yes YOU. He calls we who believe His children. In John 3:1:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
And what does that mean? Jesus lays that out for us in Matthew 7:7-11:
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Do you believe that? What great assurance we have when we do! And what if our personal churn is so great that we think that we need a can opener to get up to the bottom? Then listen to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 11:29-30:
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
But that doesn’t leave the rest of us off the hook. Scripture also tells us in Gal 6:2 to
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Our help comes from God the Creator, who also created the Church to be a blessing – especially to His elect. Are we living that out?
Yahweh the Guardian of the Covenant people and person – “Your” Guardian
Note the change at verse 3 from the first person of verses 1 & 2 to the second person. Commentators interpret this change in various ways. One popular interpretation is that the Psalm presents an internal monologue within the traveler – essentially talking to himself.
Another interpretation is that Psalm 121 represents a dialogue between two people, either a father and son or an Israelite traveler and a priest. The latter has support in the emphatic authority with which verses 3 through 8 state the blessings of being in the covenant.
Let’s look at the assertions here about our Helper in heaven. The reference to our foot not being moved spoke volumes to the Israelite traveling to Jerusalem. That area of Israel is rocky and mountainous. There was no REI back then from which to procure high-tech climbing and hiking gear with which to master the terrain. To the best of my knowledge, no one sold aggressively treaded sandals with Vibram soles with which to scale the mountains. Slipping and falling to one’s death on the rocky paths provided a very real threat to the traveling pilgrim in ancient Israel. Help was needed, and God provided that help.
The Psalmist observes that God never sleeps. This seems to reference the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Being from Philadelphia, home of the soon-to-be champion Eagles, I especially appreciate Elijah’s approach:
27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Obviously Baal wasn’t asleep, unless one considers non-existence a form of sleep. Pagan gods slept, ate, etc., just like the humans that created them in their fallen minds. Not so the Creator of the universe. Whenever, whereever, and however you need help, God is on duty and in sovereign control over all that comes to pass.
That sword has two edges. On the one hand, we can rest upon God’s great providence and trust in His sovereign will for our lives in every circumstance. Nothing surprises God since He ordains all that comes to pass. On the other hand, we live coram Deo: literally before the face of God. He sees all that we think, do and say. That fact can be disconcerting indeed! He sees our love for Him and others, but He also sees our sins in all their gory detail. We can hide nothing from God. Whenever we sin, we do so before the face of God, grieving the Holy Spirit within us. That’s a sobering thought, and one certainly worthy of daily reflection.
On Psalm 121, the late Dr. James Boice noted that
Protection by God, under the watchful eye of God, is the dominant idea in the psalm.
We clearly see this from a word used 6 times in the psalm, finding it in verses 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8. God “keeps” and is our “keeper”. The Hebrew word translated “keeper” is samar and according to the Complete Word Study Dictionary means “to watch, to guard, to care for. Adam and Eve were to watch over and care for the Garden of Eden where the Lord had placed them (Gen. 2:15)”
Note the similarity to the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6:24, where God promises to keep his people – to guard and care for them.
Samar points to God’s providential care for His elect. Our Confession of Faith defines God’s providential care in Chapter 5 as:
God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
The Confession goes on to say that:
…in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly…
Now, we could spend weeks just unpacking those two paragraphs. What a powerful summary of the solid basis for our trusting in God’s providential love for us. Nothing happens by “accident”, but everything has a part in God’s keeping of us and His creation – all to His glory. Remember that God is infinite and we are not, so we will not understand how everything works together for our good. As God tells us Isaiah 55:
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Throughout the bulk of Psalm 121, the psalmist lists blessings associated with God’s providential care. He notes that the God who keeps corporate Israel, and by extension the Church, also keeps the particular members of Israel and the Church. The psalmist’s easy transition between Israel and “you” in verses 3 & 4 clearly recognizes this continuity.
The psalmist notes God’s providence in a series of metaphors. God is our shade, protecting the traveler in the desert of Israel and the elect today in the desert of our broken society and the churn therein. God protects us from the baking sun during the day and the terrors in the dark at night – John Carpenter’s horror movies notwithstanding. This providential protection excludes the superstitions both of ancient Israel and today, including, but not limited to, astrology. God alone ordains all that comes to pass, not the sun, moon, stars or any travels or alignments thereof. We look to the stars to see but a small portion of God’s power and glory, not a superstitious roadmap. Scripture provides the only infallible guide for faith and practice in our lives.
In verses 7 and 8, the psalmist switches to the future tense. The Lord will keep us from all evil. He will keep our life, including our going out and coming in forevermore. What a powerful set of promises that have no end!
So, does this mean that the elect Israelite and Christian will not see trouble, trials, or suffering? That’s not our experience nor is it the Psalmist’s message. Again, Dr. Boice observes that:
The point of Psalm 121 is not that we will not have problems, but that God will keep us safe as we go through them.
Eugene Peterson in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction points out that the psalmist doesn’t promise the we will never encounter tribulations and suffering, but that “no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us.” That again points us back to Isaiah 43, Isaiah 55 and Romans 8.
The Puritan commentator Matthew Henry also took this approach when he wrote that:
“He [God] will take care that his people shall not fall. Thou shalt not be hurt, neither by the open assaults, nor by the secret attempts of thine enemies. The Lord shall prevent the evil thou fearest, and sanctify, remove, or lighten the evil thou feelest.”
Psalm 46 recognizes this reality as well. It starts out by observing that
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear…
Also, note that God’s help doesn’t always come in the manner we anticipate or in the timing that we would choose. Life in our broken world is full of churn and turmoil. Fallen humanity seems dominated by the philosophy of deferred gratification as the insidious crippler of youth. The Bible presents a different perspective. From Isaiah 40:
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Brothers and sisters, be prepared wait on the Lord. His timing is not always our timing, but history demonstrates that His promises are sure.
Leslie Allen in his commentary on Psalm 121 rightly observes:
In practical terms life cushioned from all unpleasantness was never the lot of the Israelite, any more than it has been that of the Christian. But believers in any age hear this message deep in their hearts and are encouraged thereby to bear the heat and burden of the day and to sleep with contentment. God’s servants may entrust their lives to him as to a faithful Creator and derive strength from the knowledge that the peace of God keeps their hearts and minds.
Dr. Boice also encourages us:
The mature Christian is neither blind to trouble nor in fear of it, for he is following after Jesus Christ, who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Indeed, Christ has overcome the world. The psalmist looked to the sovereign providence of God the Father as he traveled the rough and dangerous terrain to God’s holy temple. God provided many shadows and types in previous times, pointing forward to a savior. But now God has spoken to us by His Son, having provided the Savior He promised as far back as Genesis 3:15.
Christ came to fulfill the law of God, obeying it in perfect fulfillment of the Covenant of Works, doing so in our place. Then, as Peter observed in Acts 2:22-23:
22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
But Jesus did not remain in the grave, for Peter goes on to declare that
24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
The same power that God used to create everything from nothing is the same power that He used to raise Jesus from the dead. The merciful and loving providential care that the psalmist declared is the same mercy and love by which God forgives our sins and imputes Christ’s righteousness to all who will rest in Christ alone for their eternal salvation. Friends, believe the good news of the Gospel.
Do you fear that the churn of this fallen, broken world, of a society absorbed by and reveling in sin, will absorb you? Overcome you? Do your fears, concerns, needs, and sufferings press in from every side? From where does your help come? Together with the psalmist and all the saints, know that your help comes from our Triune God.
Our help comes from God the Father, who created all things and providentially guards, upholds, and continuously cares for us.
Our help comes from Jesus Christ, the second Person of the the Trinity and Son of God, who lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected for our salvation. He sits at the Father’s right hand, ever interceding for us.
Our help comes from the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who applies Christ’s salvation to us, illumines the Scriptures for us, and works in us to perfect us and help us live lives pleasing to God.
As we make our pilgrimage through this fallen, broken world, let us always remember with the psalmist from where our help comes 24/7/365 as we live coram Deo – before the face of God, the covenant-keeping God who keeps us today and forever.