A song for the ascents.
Before we dig into the Psalm proper, I’d like to speak a moment on this heading, “a song for the ascents.” Most of the headings we find in our Bibles are additions put in by modern publishers to help us in following the flow of thought. They do not exist in the original languages.
This is not always the case in the Psalms, however. Many of the headings or notes we find in Psalms exist in the Hebrew text. See, the book of Psalms was something like an ancient Jewish hymnal. And so, we often find there notation for their musicians, or a mention of the author, or the historical context the psalm was written in, or in this case, the purpose of the psalm.
Psalm 121 is the second in a block of fifteen psalms labeled as “Songs of Ascent”, give or take how you translate it. Without any further explanation, we are left to speculate on what exactly this means, but we can make some fairly educated guesses. For example, it could refer to songs the priests sang as they went up into the temple to worship. It could also refer to songs that people would sing as they went up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple each year.
Even the psalm itself “ascends” in thought as it progresses, each thought building on the last to a grand final point. And so today we’re going to ascend this psalm together, one step up at a time, and learn what our God has to tell us about help.
We begin with the question:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
Where does my help come from?
It is again unclear exactly why looking at the mountains causes the author to wonder about help, but we can again, make a couple of good guesses. For one, mountains were often dangerous places. And not just dangerous to be on, but oftentimes they were sources of dangers. Criminals of all sorts would hide out there. Invading armies would cross the natural borders that mountains created in order to conquer the land. The natural barrier of mountains can even be responsible for some nasty weather patterns. So perhaps looking to the mountains caused our author to think about his problems. Problems he could deal with himself. After all what was he in the face on an invading army or a natural disaster?
Sitting in a moment of quiet and thinking over your problems, real or imagined, is a good way to start feeling helpless. To think that you can’t possibly have what it takes to overcome what you’re dealing with or what might be coming. You think, I can’t possibly deal with all that, who can I get to help me? What can I get to help me? And now you’re adding on top of that panic that you might not find the help you need and you have no idea what the consequences of failure might be.
I’m sure you’ve had this struggle. Are you perhaps even in the grip of it now? We like to think we live nice, orderly lives that we are in charge of, but there is so much out of our control. We just don’t think about it, we don’t realize it day to day. Our health, our finances, our relationships with others, the very world we live in… Any one of those could change at a moment’s notice, and it might not even happen because you did anything wrong. And it may not be in your power to fix it. What do you do when the prognosis at the doctor is grim? When some accident drains the bank account or a turn of the economy takes away your paycheck? When someone you care about decides that they’re just… done with you?
We want to be prepared. We want to deal with the situation. But we need help. Maybe that’s the reason the author was looking to the mountains. Maybe he was already feeling the natural fears of life and the mountains felt like a place of security. After all, it’s easy to hide in the mountains. And even if armies sometimes cross mountains to invade, mountains do provide a natural barrier. You can’t cross them in wide ranks and so it’s an easy place to defend from.
So maybe that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we’re already feeling helpless and a little panicked and we’re looking around asking… where does my help come from? The mountains? Well, probably not literally. But what would be the mountains we try to look to for help? It might depend on the trouble itself, but I’m guessing things like…
…our bank account
…our own strength or ingenuity
…our family or friends
…doctors or medicine
…government or authorities
These are the things that will keep us safe, right? We take care of ourselves generally. But if we need a little more we have family and friends we can lean on. And in extreme cases we can trust in professional help. The medical community or emergency services or law enforcement or government assistance. Sometimes just remembering that whole support network is there is enough to calm us down.
But the fact is that mountains are not a perfect barrier for troubles. Danger still gets through. Nor is any human source of assistance. I’m not calling any of those things or people unreliable, but they’re not perfect. They all can make mistakes. They all can be caught off guard. They all can miss things or make bad judgment calls or any one of a hundred other things because we are all sinners living in a sinful world.
So, you can look at the mountains in fear or you can look at the mountains as a source of sorta-protection but either way the question remains… where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
Okay, let’s not pretend we didn’t know this was the answer. Especially sitting here, gathered together to worship the Lord, we all know, intellectually, at least, that the LORD is where we find our help.
And we know what he has to offer. We know what a great help he can be. After all, he is the maker of heaven and earth. Not only does that mean he has unimaginable power to help us, it also means that all of this is his. He has authorship, ownership, and the authority to be in complete control of… everything.
So how will he use that immense power and authority to help?
He will not let your foot stumble.
He who watches over you will not slumber.
Yes, he who watches over Israel will not slumber.
He will not sleep.
Those are broad claims! A perfect God, always watching. But let’s explore what exactly that means… how he does this. Because I would guess that even though you knew this truth before coming here today, there are still times when you feel helpless. So, what does it mean to trust in God as your vigilant helper? Does it mean when trouble surfaces, we pray to God and then sit quietly while we trust and wait for him to fix everything?
Well, no, probably not. Because God helps through means. He created things here and put people in our lives to help us. So, when we have problems we pray, we ask him for help and support and guidance and then we go to the things and people he’s given us. Things like…
…our bank account
…our own strength or ingenuity
…our family or friends
…doctors or medicine
…government or authorities
But hold up. How is that at all different than before? It’s a change in attitude. First of all, it changes how we approach looking for help. We go to these things not as our saviors, but we go to them recognizing them as good gifts that God put in our lives for us. There is a big difference between saying “Doctor, heal me!” and “God, please use this doctor to heal me.”
But more importantly, it changes our attitude when the help “fails”. And I put fails in quotes because when we trust in the Lord for our help, there isn’t failure. God is in control of it all, isn’t he? God uses the means here on earth to help us in the best way he knows, right?
If one source of help doesn’t turn out how we want… it is not a failure. God is guiding you along a different path. So…when the Lord is our help, we don’t have to fall to pieces and lose hope when one avenue doesn’t work. The Lord chose to let this happen. The Lord is still your help. If both of those are true, then there is still complete hope. God still helps, but he does it in the way he knows best.
The friend may not be there to help you move. The police may not have prevented the break-in or recovered your property. The doctor may have misdiagnosed you or wasn’t able to fix whatever it was. But when we know the Lord is our helper… that’s okay. Because God has not abandoned you.
This, perhaps, is a good place to interject a related thought as we celebrate kids’ ministry this weekend. Because this right here helps highlight why teaching our children about Jesus is so important. I know as parents you want your children to be safe and protected. More than anything you want to be there to help when there is trouble. And oftentimes, parents are the closest source of help that God uses for children. But as a parent, does it bother or even scare you that you can’t always be there? You can’t watch a child all the time, it’s not practical. And as they grow, they get further away. And someday… well someday it’s likely your child will be here on this earth when you are not anymore.
That’s okay. Because, just like all these other sources of help we talked about… it was never really you helping. It is God helping through you. And that is a very very good thing. You don’t have to be afraid or bothered that you might not be there when you’re needed… because God will be. God keeps working when you can’t. God picks up the slack when you’re not there. And God is even better at loving and caring for your child than even you are.
This is why children need Jesus, so they always have him to help. So he can always be there for them when you maybe cannot. Teach your children Jesus, and with him in their heart, they will always be safe.
Because for them and for us all, God does not rest. He does not sleep. He does not take his eyes off you for a moment. And he does not make mistakes. Earthly help may not always be there when you need them. They make mistakes, but the power behind them, God, is using them for your benefit and he is always there and he does not make mistakes.
The LORD watches over you.
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
In fact, it goes beyond the troubles we may tend to think of as needing help. God is here to guard and shield you from things no one else has any control over. No one can stop the sun or the moon (at least not outside of Bond supervillains). But God is your help and protection.
Because God has already helped against the most terrible force that no one else can control: death.
Sin is the real problem. Sin is in this world. It’s the reason so much is wrong, it’s the reason we need help so often. And sin is in us. When God says, “Do!” we say, “No, thanks.” And when God says, “Don’t!” we say, “Uh, why not?” And when God says, “Trust me.” We say, “I think I can do better.” Our disobedience to God earns us death. Not just the end of life here, but eternal death separated from God himself. You can’t change that, and no one and nothing here can.
That is the default destination we are born into. Talk about needing help.
But the Lord as our help? He just… makes it right.
The LORD will watch to keep you from all harm.
He will watch over your life.
I’d like to talk a moment about the last words in each of these lines. In the original language there’s some extra connotation to the literal meaning of these words. If we were to translate these words more literally, we might come up with this instead:
The LORD will watch to keep you from all evil.
He will watch over your soul.
When you look at that, and you consider our real problem (sin and eternal death), you can start to understand what it really, really means that the Lord is our help. He wants to keep you from evil. He wants to save you from sin and death. And… he’s done it. Jesus did it. He came to earth as a human being, as one of us, and lived under the law like one of us. And then he gave that life to you. At the same time, he took your crimes and he paid the punishment they deserved. He died in your place.
Jesus on the cross, shouting, “It is finished!” Jesus leaving the tomb on the third day. That is God as your helper. By his sacrifice you are forgiven your crimes and you are no longer cut off from the Lord. Eternal life is yours now, not death.
Now, I don’t want to be coldly logical about this, but let’s be honest. Getting you to that eternal life is priority number one. Anything else you might have to go through… no matter how horrible it might be… well, it doesn’t last, and if that’s what it takes… it’s worth it. Only eternity lasts. When God says that he wants to keep you from evil and watch over your soul, this is what he’s trying to accomplish. He died so you could have heaven. He will do everything he can to get you there.
The LORD will watch over your going and your coming
from now to eternity.
So sometimes it may seem like no one can help. But that’s only because we’re not seeing it. The truth is there is always always always constant help from God. The Lord has promised to watch over every step from here to the end. But we have to understand his goal. Everything he does is directed at getting you home safely. That is the mission. We may have to slog through some rough patches to get there.
At the same time God is not callous and malicious. God cares about your day to day struggles too. And so he has also promised this: as much help as you can bear.
What do you mean “as much as I can bear”? I mean that we need troubles. We couldn’t handle life being easy. If this life were perfect we would quickly forget we need God. We would quickly forget that we’re looking forward to something better. We need trouble to remember that we need God’s help. And God will help. God does help. Sometimes… sometimes that bad situation is the help we need. Think about a struggle you’ve endured lately. Think about one you might be in now. Maybe you can think of a way God is using that to bless you. Or maybe you can’t. Even if you can’t figure out the reason, you can still trust that God is using it to guide you home. That’s the help he promises.
Brothers and sisters, whenever you struggle, whatever you struggle, take this psalm and put it somewhere you’ll need it. Remember the Lord is your help. Remember how he has helped you through Jesus. Remember how he’s helping you now. He has bought you eternity and he is here every step of the road home. You always have his help.