The opening verses of Psalm 121 came to mind as I neared the top of a mountain pass inI will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
Washington’s Cascade Mountains:
From whence shall my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth. (vv. 1-2, 1973 NASV)
The narrow highway gripped the side of a slope as it ascended the pass. I knew that the final curve opened to a splendid, mile-high view of
Mount Rainier. Like a mammoth ice
cream sundae, it would rise above little “ ,”
a liquid jewel set amidst meadows awash in lupine and other alpine flowers. The
site came two hours into a four-hour journey, so I’d pull off for a driving
break and just absorb the beauty. More important, the majesty of this setting
reminded me of the greater majesty of the Most High God. This same God cared
diligently for me, His struggling follower who needed His help. Tipsoo Lake
I drove that route several times that year. I was 31 and still single, struggling through the aftermath of my parents’ same-year deaths. I’d dropped out of graduate school and moved 2,000 miles back “home” to clean out their house and prepare it for selling. From time to time, I’d travel across state to the home of my sister, my only sibling, to help with her young family and business.
I’d been seeking the face of the Lord in the valleys, too, and appropriately my childhood home, to which I was returned, was in a “valley.” In the midst of sorting out my parents’ belongings and holding estate sales, I battled discouragement and fear. Now that I was alone, with no parental safety “net,” who would take care of me? My answers came as I determined to read through the Bible in a newer translation someone gave me. A fresh reading of psalms reminded me that ancient writers also wrestled with what-if’s. Psalm 121 was among those I underlined or starred, my way of noting, “Remember this!”
“Remember this!” is actually a theme of several psalms of which 121 is a part, the “Ascent Psalms” of numbers 120 through 134. “Ascent” literally means “goings-up” and this group was probably sung by pilgrims “ascending” toward Jerusalem for one of three major annual festivals. With an elevation of 2,400 feet,
was literally “up,” accessed by primitive roads known for physical and criminal
dangers. This accounts for the focus on remembering God’s “keeping” power. In
fact, the words “watch over” and “keep,” are the same Hebrew word, shāmar, repeated six times in this psalm. Jerusalem
CREATOR, NOT THE CREATION
When I stopped at this Mount Rainier viewpoint, letting its majesty fill my heart with awe, this wasn’t “mountain worship.” I knew that ancient Native Americans of that area called this “Tahoma,” “the mountain that was god.” I also was aware of a misunderstanding of Psalm 121 that some had from the original King James translation, which began “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from which cometh my help.” Period. Unfortunately, this earlier translation permitted the idea that people were helped or rejuvenated through the “spirit” of the hills or mountains. It’s an ancient idea. Even in Bible times, there were idolatrous worship spots in the nearby hills or “high places.” One prominent “deity” was a goddess named Asherah, connected with degrading sexual practices.
The mountain also reminded me that God always was, always is, and always will be. He is so powerful that His sculpturing of 14,410-foot ice-capped volcano took a symbolic flick of His finger. The One who ordered Creation and intervened in human history is worthy of my awe, devotion, and trust.
KEEPER AND WATCHER
Psalm 121 uses the analogy of a journeying pilgrim to remind us of His steadfast help and watch-care.
*He won’t let our feet slip (v. 3a). It was easy for pilgrims to stumble on the rocky, buckled primitive roads. This doesn’t say that God will send in an earth-mover to level the road. Even obedient believers face difficulties and dangers. They deal with emotional and physical pain. God permits that, often for our spiritual growth, but He draws the line at spiritual harm.
*He won’t sleep on the job (vv. 3b, 4b). This verse reminds me of the almost comic scene in the
Mount Carmel showdown between the prophet
Elijah and the prophets of the false god Baal. They’d both set up altars, with
the understanding that the “real” god would be able to supernaturally ignite
the sacrifice. Despite much carrying-on and body-cutting, the Baal-followers
couldn’t get results. Elijah taunted, “Shout louder…Surely he is a god! Perhaps
he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be
awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Of course, they followed a false, useless God. Soon,
Elijah’s God would ignite a pile of wood that had been drenched with water! (v.
29). We have a God of power and constant oversight. He doesn’t have “business
hours” for calling His hot line. When needs arise in the middle of the night,
He is there as much as during the day.
*He will watch over us (vv. 4, 5). When I care for my infant grandson, I check on him every ten minutes when he naps—and constantly when he’s crawling about the house! So much more are we in God’s watch-care. Of the many other Biblical references to God watching over us, I’ve always been drawn to these: “I will counsel you and watch over you” (Psalm 32:8). “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (Psalm 34:15, quoted in 1 Peter 3:12).
*He offers shade (v. 5). Like a wide-brimmed hat or shady place might protect us from the full blast of sun or even rain, God shields us spiritually. He is the “shadow of the almighty” of Psalm 91:1.
*He keeps us from harm, day and night (vv. 6-7). Travelers faced the blistering heat of day and the bone-chilling cold of overnight campouts along the way. In whatever changes we face in life, God is there for us. This isn’t to say that our lives will be like a luxury motel room. Instead, in these challenges we have His presence and power to get through the difficulties that will inevitably come.
*He constantly watches over us, wherever we go, forever (v. 8). “Thy going out and thy coming in,” the King James version says poetically. In the daily routines of life—going out to work, coming in to eat and rest—God watches over us. In our travels, wherever they take us—down the street or across the oceans—God watches over us. Most important, He is committed to doing this forever. This verse has echoes of the beloved Psalm 23, which in verse 6 speaks of “goodness and love” following me “all the days of my life.” It’s not just the duration of our earthly lives, but forever we enjoy this loving watch-care of God. He is our portion forever (Psalm 73:26).
As the pilgrims neared Jerusalem, and spotted the temple ahead, their hearts must have been full of gratitude that once again they’d made it safely to their destination. Although they knew God didn’t actually “dwell” in that temple (to think so would have been idolatry), it symbolized the relationship of God with His covenant people. They must have sung this psalm with real gusto!
In reading it today, we may not break out in tambourine-shaking joy like long-ago Jews. But when we face our own unknowns and difficulties, and need assurance of God’s watch care, it’s a vital psalm to study and claim. I know its truths sustained me through some of the darkest months of my life. As I revisit it, I am reminded of one big truth. No matter how deep my pain, or big my problem, God is my keeper and helper-- no matter what.
Next: Psalm 126