“I know the Lord will help me”. These were my inner thoughts during a recent case of pneumonia I worked through. I did all the things I needed to do: (a) went to the doctors for treatment, (b) took my treatments, and (c) rested as instructed. I should have been confident in my recovery. My prayers were filled however with, “help me Lord to get through this”.
I happened to stumble upon Psalm 121, and realized that this had essentially been what my prayers consisted of. This speaks to the great wealth of spiritual insight of the Psalms, inspired human prayers to the Lord from which we can gain so much insight. The insight is found in the faith of the psalmist, the trustworthiness of the Lord, and the faith formation that occurs throughout the psalm. Below are just a few thoughts that came to mind while reading this psalm.
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. (1-2)
With these opening lines, the Psalmist admits that he/she is undergoing a crisis of faith. Some struggle has come into psalmist’s life and it has demanded a need to take personal inventory of the situation. “How will I get through this?” is probably not a sentiment too remote to the psalmist; definitely a concern many still vocalize today.
From the beginning of this Psalm, “getting through” is a matter of perspective of faith. Things may not always go well for us, challenges will come our way and for that matter sometimes linger with us through our lives, and to face these struggles the psalmist says that we must lift up our eyes.
The psalmist begins at the bottom and then makes an affirmation of faith by turning to “the hills”. This is probably a reference to the hills of Zion, the mountain of God, where the Ark of the Covenant resides in Jerusalem and represents the presence of God. The hills of Zion remind Old Testament faithful of God’s presence, assistance and providential care (Psa. 20.3).
The psalm is more explicit in the question “where does my help come?” One might see it as a rhetorical question, presupposing the obvious answer; however, it may be designed to be responsive, calling for its readers to join in with the psalmist with the answer that help comes from the Lord, the Creator.
In either case, the point is clear: when in a crisis and we lose our moorings, we must turn to the Lord for He is our helper supplying (Heb. ‘ezer) the things we lack to have an anchored faith in trouble waters.
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. (3-4)
The confidence and assurance begins to accelerate in the psalmist, and he showcases the Lord’s personal care and his national care over Israel. So many times difficult circumstances are evaluated as if the Lord has left us, or as if we have been forgotten; the psalmist instead, affirms that this is the wrong perspective. The Lord never falls asleep on the job. He is ever-available.
Through strife or struggles the faithful cannot be “moved”, for they are “kept” by the Creator. In other words, the Lord is still with his people as a helper in difficult times supplying what is needed. This is not some abstract notion that God is with Israel, or now with the Church; instead, it is a statement of personal care and a promise that the Lord will “preserve” ( Heb. shamar) you – “your feet will not be moved”.
It is only through ignorance of God’s promises, or a lack of faith, that one can believe that troubled times equates to an absence of the Lord. Troubled times remind us that this life is temporary, and a better day of rest approaches for the child of God (Heb. 4.8-11). It is during difficult ailments that one approaches God more and more, and in turns becomes more familiar with his grace (2 Cor. 12.6-10). Through this reliance upon God, He preserves us and keeps his people.
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. (5-6)
As the psalmist declares the Lord as our “keeper”, he further expands this idea by affirming that the Lord will even protect us from the elements of nature – particularly those of the wilderness. He is described as a “shade on your right hand”; the imagery of the right side generally represents power and fellowship (Acts 7.56; Gal. 2.9).
In the day, there is shade from the blistering sun of Palestine. He allows us to compose ourselves during overburdening trials. Even Elijah when fleeing the difficult times in his life, and was in the wilderness was cared for by God while under a “broom tree” (1 Kings 19.4-8). It is not that God removes our struggles, but He gives us the strength to carry on through our struggles (Phil. 4.10).
In the night, when the moon shines, the Creator provides shade. Shelter from the elements of a wilderness at night is quite helpful for typically the temperatures drop considerably, and the evening predators begin their search for food. Moreover, if the idea is being in flight due to enemies, shade would allow one to hide from one’s pursuers. To be protected at night, when one typically slumbers is a beautiful picture of care in the face of potential dangers.
The imagery of both sun and moon, day and night, are designed to emphasize the Lord’s overarching care. He does not keep us only during the obvious difficulties, but He keeps us during those less obvious but equally challenging moments in our lives. In essence, there is no place in our lives that we should not acknowledge the Lord’s presence and providential care.
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. (7-8)
The psalm ends with a promise. The promise is that the Lord will keep us. The parallel of keeping from “all evil” and keeping our “life” is clearly seen when the psalmist writes that the Lord will be by our side preserving us, aiding us, in our everyday activities (e.g. “your going out and your coming in”).
To be kept from evil is not a statement set exclusively for moral evils, but it is a statement regarding the Lord’s care during troubled times. Many times in the Bible “evil” is not synonymous with spiritual or moral problems, but instead it is a generic term for calamities, illness, and troubles (Josh. 31.17, 21). The psalmist is therefore declaring that God will keep us – preserve us – when we need our Divine Helper (v. 1-2). Truly He will keep our lives.
This psalm reminds us to always trust that we will be kept by our Creator. We will always be granted sure footing during the times the test our souls.