1 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.
The 121st Psalm is both a beautifully stunning and exceptionally powerful piece of Biblical poetry.
I’ve witnessed this Psalm’s use on a variety of special occasions in the lives of individuals like baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals.
I've heard it read at the dedication of a Habitat for Humanity Home and the laying of a cornerstone for a new church building.
It is one of those rare texts that translates in a way that it sounds both beautiful and powerful even in English.
What’s even more amazing is that if you know a little background the potency of this Psalm becomes even more profound and meaningful.
The problem is it also suddenly becomes a Psalm that asks us to reflect on our own practices and our own faith journey. It moves from a Psalm that makes for a cool decoration in a home or quote at the bottom of an email to something that challenges us in a way we might rather not be challenged.
Psalm 121 is often known as the Pilgrim’s or Traveler’s Psalm.
It is clearly evident that the one who wrote this text is one about to go on a journey. It particularly spoke to pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem on holy days. It was so powerful that the tradition became that when a pilgrim entered the Holy City of Jerusalem at the end of their sojourn, they would begin singing the Psalm and would often sing it again as they headed out of the city for home.
Now a journey in ancient times was fraught with dangers and peril. While we know today that the dangers were from criminals, wild animals, and natural disasters, many people of that time believed that the mountains and hills that needed to be crossed were where evil spirits resided. These evil spirits were part of the myths from pagan religions and had no basis in reality, nor were they any part of the faith of those claiming to follow the one true God—the Holy One of Israel.
These superstitions had such power over the population that shrines were set up along the roads through the hills and mountains as good luck charms to ward off the evil spirits that were “out to get” the weary traveler.
This Psalm then is a direct assault on these pagan religions and the shrines that even good Jews would use in order to gain favor or ensure good luck. While these folks trusted in God, they figured a little extra good luck or karma created by offering sacrifices at these shrines to these false gods and spirits wouldn't hurt anything. Travelers were basically trying to hedge their bets.
The Psalm is also a specific attack against the two major pagan religions of the day. One of these was the Egyptian religion whose primary god was Ra—the sun god. The other was the Chaldean religion whose primary god was represented in the moon and stars. Verses 5 and 6 in the Psalm remind the reader that these gods have no power when confronted with Yahweh.
The Psalm powerfully reminds the people that the only true God is Yahweh. The God who by only his word created all that is. It is a reminder that the God of Abraham created the very sun, moon, and stars that these other peoples worshiped.
Wow! What a powerful declaration.
The great question that confronts me now that I know this is, am I like these folks?
I’ll be honest—I want to fully trust God, but sometimes I figure it doesn't hurt to hedge my bets a little. You know hold back from turning my entire life over to God –-just in case.
And sometimes I let other gods replace the one true God. Like the pagan gods, they are things I can see and touch. Wealth and titles and status and popularity…
I worry about or seek approval from these things instead of following in the one true God. The Lord who promises to neither sleep nor slumber, the God who promises to protect us from evil and who is with us in our going out and coming in both this day and forevermore.
This Psalm is powerful. It is beautiful. And like all good poetry it contains more than we might see at first glance. And that which we discover in its meter challenges us to re-examine our life, which is what our Lenten journey is all about. For as another philosopher once poetically said “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
O Lord we do believe; please forgive our unbelief. Amen.