A Song of Help

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 121:1-8

Do you ever need any help? Where is the first place you look when you do – family, friends, maybe the government? Those are all fine, but don’t forget the most important of all sources of help.

I used to visit a man who was afraid to leave his own house. He had what the psychiatrist called agoraphobia – from agora, the Greek word for “market place,” plus phobia, or “fear.” Agoraphobia is the fear of going out in public. This quiet, gentle man was afraid of people and what they might do to him. He was crippled by fears of a thousand real or imaginary dangers that lurked outside his door. No amount of persuading could coax him out of his house.

But of course, there were almost as many dangers inside the house. You’re scarcely any safer there. You could slip and fall in the bathtub, or trip down the stairs. Your house could catch fire; who knows when a faulty electrical appliance might start smoldering? Your furnace could be broken and your family could all be overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning while you sleep. Or cancer-causing radon gas might be seeping silently into your basement. Your tap water could be contaminated with all sorts of nasty bugs and harmful chemicals. You might be infected with E. coli bacteria from your food, or mad cow disease from your meat.

When you stop to think about it, we all live in constant danger. Those who are inordinately afraid of things are diagnosed as being mentally ill. With cool logic we label their phobias neatly. But the fact is, we all need help. We just might not always be aware of how much help we need. And most of us have more fears than we would care to admit.

QUESTION AND ANSWER

The 121st Psalm offers a wonderful antidote to all our fears and phobias.

I lift my eyes to the hills –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip –

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your

coming and going

both now and forevermore.

Psalm 121, niv

Notice that this song of help begins with a question and answer

I lift my eyes to the hills –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

When the psalmist speaks of lifting his eyes to the hills, he isn’t talking about enjoying the pretty outdoor scenery. The hills in Palestine were places of danger and difficulty. They were wild, rough and rugged. Travel there was hard. The hills hid the lairs of dangerous animals, including those of the two-legged human variety. Accidents happened in the hills. Violent attacks there were a frequent possibility, as Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan illustrates. A traveler could easily become confused or lost in the hills. A person could stumble there and fall a long, long way. So when the psalmist looks at the hills, he’s thinking about help needed, and protection sought from all kinds of dangers and threats. “Where does my help come from?” That’s an important question.

The hills in Palestine were also the places where different answers to that question were suggested. The hilltops and high places were the sites for pagan shrines. Several years ago I was traveling in the country of Bhutan, a remote and beautiful Himalayan kingdom. The views of hills and mountains on every side were breathtaking, but as I looked up I could see the prayer flags of Tibetan Buddhists fluttering in the breeze on almost every high spot. I couldn’t help but think about the very different belief system those flags represented. Something much like those religious symbols would have greeted our psalmist’s eye too. As he looked up to the hilltops he would have seen there the altars to Baal, and the Asherah poles of the local idol-worshipers. These represented imagined alternative sources of help. “Come worship here,” those hill-shrines proclaimed, “and we will ensure your safety.” “Bring your offerings to us, and our power will give you success and prosperity,” declared the idols on the high places.

“No,” says the psalmist. “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Not from creation, he says, but from the Creator. Never mind the hills; he was looking to the One who made the hills and everything else for his protection! He didn’t count on help from man-made idols, but from the living God – the one and only power behind and above all. As Christians, we don’t put our hope for safety and well-being in forces of nature, or in human cleverness and ingenuity, or in good luck. We don’t ask for help from false gods or any other supposed power or force. At least we shouldn’t, because our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalm 124:8). That is our bottom-line security.

GOD WATCHING OVER US

Note the key emphases here in the 121st Psalm. This psalm is, first, a celebration of God’s constant, eternal vigilance.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

(vv. 3-4)

The God of Israel is always alert, always on the watch, always taking care of his people. Sleep for us is a symptom of frailty and dependence. We all need our rest, don’t we? When we are asleep we’re not only vulnerable; we are unaware of whatever may be happening around us. But our God is never weak or tired; he never nods off or takes a much-needed break. He’s not like Baal, the god whose priests the prophet Elijah taunted on Mount Carmel. “Pray a little harder,” Elijah suggested to those idol-worshipers. “Maybe your god is sleeping, or away on a journey.” In contrast, of the God of Israel it is said:

. . . he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

(vv. 3b-4, kjv)

I’ve often read that verse with people who were facing surgery, just before they were taken off to the operating room. It’s a marvelous reminder that God is always awake, even when we’re not. Nothing interrupts or interferes with his watchful care over those whom he loves.

The other thing celebrated in this song of the Lord’s help is God’s comprehensive protection. He protects his people from all harm and danger. He protects them against accident or injury in all their travels: “He will not let your foot slip” (v. 3) – no broken ankles on those treacherous mountain trails. “He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (v. 8). There is also a promise here of protection against illness and evil: “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night” (v. 6). The sun was a very real threat in that harsh desert climate, and the moon was thought to be a menace as well. The ancient belief in the power of the moon to cause physical or mental harm was widespread. We still sometimes call a person with mental illness a “lunatic” (from the Latin luna or moon). But God shields his people from both sun and moon – and anything else in between. Nothing can hurt them, neither real dangers nor imagined terrors, by night or by day. “The Lord will keep you from all harm” (v. 7).

But now honesty compels me to acknowledge that there is a problem here. The problem is that the psalm seems to promise too much. Is this all literally true? Do believers have a blanket guarantee of a trouble-free existence? Are we to conclude that Christians lead charmed lives, that nothing harmful or hurtful can happen to them. That would mean that believers would never get sick, never have accidents, never die. Well, obviously we know that is not true. It never has been. We’re not always kept in our “going out and coming in.” Christians can and do go out to highway crashes; they come in to diagnoses of cancer. We are spared none of the tragedies and suffering of life.

But then is the 121st Psalm not true? Well, that can’t be either. For one thing, it doesn’t seem false. For thousands of years now believers have been singing this song of help. They have quoted its words, cherished its promises. It speaks to us. It rings true to our experience. Our help does come from the Lord. The Lord does keep us from all harm.

That’s true, but it’s not a simple truth. We could think of it as a deep truth (deeper than surface appearances), a complex truth (more complicated than a simple reading would suggest). Sometimes, when harm threatens us, God does protect us from it literally. He delivers us out of the accident unhurt. He shields us from the danger. He heals us from the sickness. And when he does that, we lift up our grateful thanks to him. But sometimes God doesn’t do those things. Then we must conclude that the harm from which we are protected must be ultimate or eternal harm, and we must wait for the Lord to heal our suffering bodies and our wounded spirits. The assurance we have isn’t that nothing will ever go wrong for us. Rather, our assurance is that even if things do go wrong, God our Father is still watching over us in ways that we can’t understand. His promise is that even if evil befalls us, it can’t hurt us permanently. Nothing can interfere with God’s care, or thwart his purpose to bless us in the end.

THREE CONCLUSIONS

Let me draw three conclusions from this biblical song of help:

First, as a Christian, I can be sure that God knows and cares about me, down to the smallest details of my life. Nothing escapes his attention, nothing is too insignificant for him to be concerned about. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus told his followers. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Mt. 10:29-30). My life is not left to chance. Nothing just “happens” to me. God is always watching over me.

That’s a reassuring truth in a world where most of us are anonymous. Do I matter? If so, to whom? Life is cold and impersonal in our technological society. Call for help and you get a recording telling you which buttons to push on the phone. Open the mail and there’s a computer-generated letter: “Dear David Bast: Because you are such a valued customer we want to make the following special offer to you personally. . . .” Go to the polls or try to voice your opinion and you realize you’re just one grain of sand on the beach. What difference doI make? But you and I do matter; we are important. We’re important to God himself. The Creator and Ruler of the whole universe is interested in every detail of your life, and mine. He loves us so much he cares about everything to do with us.

My second conclusion is that God’s providential care for me is not an automatic guarantee of happiness, at least as I tend to define it. The Bible does not promise that I will never be touched by evil. The Psalms never teach us to sing that everything’s coming up roses. It’s just not true. The best doesn’t always happen; sometimes the worst does. Sometimes our feet slip, and we fall, and our bodies are broken. Sometimes the sun “smites us by day, or the moon by night.” We become sick in body or in mind. In the end, we die – every last one of us. The Bible doesn’t say that everything in our lives is good. It does say that the final outcome of our lives will be very good. God guarantees that. Our assurance is that in everything God works for the good of those who love him – for our salvation, our eternal health and wholeness.

My last conclusion is this. I can stake my life, I will stake my life on the faithfulness of God in fulfilling his promises to me. You know, it’s possible to endure an awful lot of suffering if you believe there’s meaning in it. If you know there is a God who is all-loving and all-powerful, who is watching over your life in every detail, who unfailingly works out his good purposes for you, who sends everything that happens to you as a part of his plan to make you just like Jesus, that makes all the difference in the world. Then your life has a purpose. It makes sense, no matter how difficult things get.

So remember this Psalm, this song of help. When you travel, when you feel threatened, when you’re facing danger, when old fears have a hold of you, read it. Memorize it. Recite it. Pray it. You’ll find that your help will come from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.