Monday, September 20, 2021

Lockdown Devotional -- Psalm 121



What do you do when you can’t manage, when things get too hard? How good are you at asking for help when you need it? Everybody’s different, aren’t they? We’ve all met people who would cheerfully sit back and let everyone else do everything for them. Equally, there are many people who will never admit to having any need at all. Most of us are somewhere in between, or, more likely, we know how to ask for help in some areas of life, but not others.

When I was in primary school (and maybe I’m showing my age here!) we learnt a poem called Gordon’s Creed, by Adam Lindsay Gordon, which said (in part):

“Question not, but live and labour
Till yon goal be won,
Helping every feeble neighbour,
Seeking help from none

I think this reflects something in the Australian psyche: a pride in our self-sufficiency, a disdain for not being personally strong enough. There is a certain self-contempt for the weakness of not standing on your own two feet. Yet the truth is that we are all human, and we are not all-powerful or all-wise. We are fragile, we are mortal, and nothing in this world is certain. All of us need help at some point. If we don’t admit our need and look in the right place for help, we end up looking in the wrong place, and clinging to things that can’t really help us at all. So where do we find the help that we really need?

The Psalmist asked the same question in Psalm 121:

 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore.

It is worth noting that this psalm is one of the “songs of ascents” – psalms that were traditionally sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the great feasts of the Jewish calendar. Jesus and his disciples would have sung these psalms on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover.

If you’re like me, you look at the first line of the Psalm, and wonder why he’s looking at the hills. It seems an odd place to start, but scholars suggest 3 possible reasons, and I think there is something we can learn from each of them:

1.      He is gazing at the wonders of creation and is reminded of the Creator. Surely the one who is powerful enough to make the universe, (including these towering hills), and so glorious that he makes them awesome, and so loving that he makes them beautiful; surely this God is one we can utterly depend on?

2.      The Old Testament makes frequent reference to the “high places”.  These were hilltop shrines to pagan idols where the Israelites would sneak off to worship the Canaanite gods even if they also brought their sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. But you can’t have an each way bet with God. As Joshua said long ago to the Israelites (Joshua 24:15) “Choose this day whom you will serve!” We all have to choose our allegiance: shall it be the gods of this world or the Creator of heaven and earth?

3.      The hill country which one had to pass through to get to Jerusalem was a dangerous area. Robbers lurked in the caves on the cliffs, and so did wild beasts. The Psalmist looks up and sees the dangers ahead of him but presses on because he has put his trust in God’s protection.

And God is our help and protection. He is our solid ground, our rock our foundation; if we stand on him our foot will not slip (verse 3). He watches over his children continuously, he neither slumbers nor sleeps (verse 4). You may recall the story, in 1 Kings 18, when Elijah had a showdown on Mt Carmel with the prophets of Baal, to see which god would respond by sending fire from heaven. When the prophets of Baal prayed for hours with no result, Elijah mocked them by suggesting that perhaps their God had gone to sleep. Not so with our God, he watches over us constantly, so we can sleep with confidence.

And the God who keeps us is “the shade on your right hand”, we are under the shadow of his wings, as, for example, in Psalm 36:7 How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings or Psalm 63:7 For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. And our God protects us from both the sun (physical danger to our bodies such as heat, thirst and sunburn) and the moon (which was thought to be associated with lunacy, so this is about our mental and emotional well-being). And, of course, the sun and moon were almost universally associated with pagan deities, who were often assumed to put curses on people if they were not appeased, so this is about our spiritual well-being as well.

He is the God who cares for everything, for every aspect of our lives, our going out and coming in (verse 8). He stands between us and the evils that would destroy us. He is the one we can always turn to for help.

Now, none of us today are pilgrims walking up through the hill country to Jerusalem (especially while Covid travel restrictions apply!), but we, too, are pilgrims, for we are seekers after the city which is to come (Hebrews 13:14), and our true citizenship is not on earth, but in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  And we don’t do it on our own. We walk the road together, supporting one another on the journey, as pilgrims have always done. Most of all, we do it with Christ, who commanded us to “take up your cross and follow me”. And, though the journey may sometimes be hard, it is not something we need to be afraid of, for he has gone before us to make a way.

We do not need to fear that God is unwilling to help us, because the cross is the proof of how far God is willing to go for our sakes. We do not need to fear that God is unable to help us, because the resurrection is the proof that God is all powerful. And we do not fear that we need to walk alone, because he has given us his Holy Spirit to live within us, and he has promised that he will be with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

So, the core issue here is: where do we look for help when we need it? Where is our security found? In ourselves? That will take us so far, but then we hit a brick wall. No human being has the power to overcome calamity on his own, let alone conquer over death and judgement. Do we find our security in having money in the bank and a roof over our heads? Jesus had something to say about laying up our treasure where moth and rust can destroy, or thieves break in and steal.

There is a better way. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way (chapter 12):

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

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