It’s true that as we move through our lives there are times when life seems particularly scary and dangerous. And when we cry out for help, from where do we hope our help may come? Police? Parents? Friends? The bank? Nature? Our help is ultimately in and from God! God as the only One who is constantly dependable, constantly loving, radically just and radically merciful, who not only loves but also helps us.
Do you believe that? Does your living reflect that? But what does that even actually mean?
Psalm 121 is part of what is known as the pilgrimage[ii] psalms. They were typically sung as part of a journey – usually a pilgrimage journey – to Jerusalem and the temple. The Old Testament prophets often urged the People of Israel to lift up their eyes…[iii] But however tempting it may be to believe, this isn’t just about them noticing the beauty of nature. The hills around Jerusalem were notorious for harboring predators. Criminals. Highwaymen. Thugs. We may think of that Jericho traveler who was robbed and beaten in the hills of Jerusalem before the Good Samaritan came along to help him. And so we can imagine the pilgrim psalmist nervously describing a perceived threat: “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills and then wondering from whence will my help come? Who will HELP me, who will protect me from robbers?” And of course, the Psalmist’s answer is: GOD! Will Willimon writes of how he finds it especially telling that whenever the Hebrew word for help is used it’s never a call for ‘people’ to show up – it’s always a call out to God! It’s usually God and not nature or anything else who is being presented in scripture as our primary helper.
This is not saying that, when sensing a threat, it’s up to us to panic and to do everything we can frantically to take control of our circumstance: buy extra insurance, burglar alarms, guns, develop higher xenophobic walls of hostility. Of course we must do whatever is prudent to mitigate risk in our lives, but according to this psalm, we do so calmly and rationally with the quiet confidence that God’s got this!
God works 24/7, never takes time off, never sleeping on the job, despite how at times that may be exactly how it feels[iv]. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ or as Malan Nel, a favourite teacher from some years ago, used to say: ‘No-one wakes up earlier than God!’
It’s comforting to know that God’s care is wide-awake, alert & constant. That is particularly comforting to know as we find ourselves walking through some of those dark valleys we encounter from time to time. It’s those time that, looking up at the hills and sensing a threat, we are most likely to begin asking questions: “Who is God? Does God care for us?” That’s not so much us asking: “Is there a God?” as “Is God there for me?” Psalm 121 answers with a resounding and unqualified, “Yes!”
But seriously? Isn’t that actually just wishful thinking on our behalf – naïve spiritual hoping? Isn’t it actually up to us to do and to be whatever help we may need? Aren’t these scriptural promises of divine help actually just rhetorical hyperbole, designed to make us feel better about our circumstances– but actually totally over the top?
We become so used to hearing folks, our politicians e.g., promising all sorts of exaggerated things in order to make us feel better or to get elected, things that no-one actually believes. Isn’t this kind of like that – not really true, simply meant to make us feel better about our lives?
While understandable, those questions are usually not what we ask when we are walking through the valley and we need help. That’s when we need the calm, confident, firm reassurance of a God who is not only love, but who is love for us. Of course we know that sometimes, when we pray, the help we receive is not as we thought we needed. Sometimes, we don’t receive the exact healing we were hoping for, or our child’s marriage isn’t saved the way we had hoped. And sometimes how things turn out may STILL make no sense. And yet the promise is clear…
Knowledge that God is a helper who is constantly there for us during our life journeys is a great gift as we walk through the valley. …though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.[v] And that of brings us to that one journey at the end of our lives: death. Some of us are clearly more at the beginning of our journeys, others midway, while others are kind of getting closer to the other end. And yet even there, the Psalm says quite explicitly: “whether going or coming,” God goes with us, not only now, but “from now until forever from now”[vi]
Will Willimon sums up: ‘The same God who has been there, helping us, reassuring us of God’s help against the smiting of the moon and the smiting of the sun, day and night watching over us, is the same God who watches over us as we journey toward the end. In fact, maybe one reason why we seek reassurance of God’s providential care, day and night, in good times and bad, as we journey through life, is so that we will be adept at seeking God’s help at the end’.
Where does all this leave us? What ‘robbers-in-the-hills’ threats are you currently facing? Psalm 121 reassures us that we are not alone in having to face whatever comes, Just as Jesus struggled through his wilderness experience, we’re told that the angels never left him.
…and so to us.
Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2020.
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[i] Acknowledging, and drawing freely from, Will Willimon’s reflection & commentary on Psalm 121 Ministry Matters (March 2020)
[ii] Psalms 120-134
[iii] Isaiah 40:26; 49:18; 51:6; 60:4; Jeremiah 13:20
[iv] WE may think about Psalm 44:23-26 where that, apparently, is exactly how the psalmist felt: Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day? Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us? Why do you bury your face in the pillow? Why pretend things are just fine with us? And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt, held down with a boot on our necks. Get up and come to our rescue. If you love us so much, Help us! God “never sleeps or rests.” (The Message)
[v] Psalm 23
[vi] Psalm 121:8