Summary: God is a capable, caring and constant Keeper.
This week I read about a cartoon that appeared in newspaper several years ago. The first panel showed a man entering a gas station. In the background were his car packed for vacation, his flustered wife fuming, and his children bickering. The man said to the gas station attendant, “I am a man. I am lost. And I am asking for directions.” The next panel showed the man getting back into the car and the gas station attendant saying to a friend, “It must be some kind of self-help program for husbands.”
As they travelled from their homes to worship God in Jerusalem several thousand years ago, the Hebrew pilgrims also needed some help on their journey. But the help they needed went far beyond just needing some directions. They often travelled long distances on foot and there were numerous dangers along the way. They faced the threat of being attacked by wild animals and, like we see in the account of the Good Samaritan, there was always the danger of being ambushed by robbers. During the day, they had to deal with oppressive heat and the direct rays of the sun – and I don’t think they had any SPF 50 sunscreen to protect them. At night, they had to camp out in the open, exposed to the elements.
So it’s not surprising that the second of the fifteen psalms of Ascent that these Hebrew pilgrims sang on their way up to Jerusalem deals with the help that they need as they make that journey. Once again, let’s read that Psalm out loud together.
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.
Psalm 121:1-8 (ESV)
Let me make a few general observations about this Psalm and then we’ll see how we can apply this Psalm to our own journey toward becoming mature disciples of Jesus.
1. “The hills” – three possibilities:
There is certainly no universal agreement about the significance of the hills mentioned in verse 1. As with many places in the Scripture where several interpretations are possible, it seems that God leaves the language intentionally ambiguous so as not to limit the passage to one specific meaning. According to the most frequently proposed ideas, the hills could picture:
Although we can’t know the setting of this Psalm with certainty, it certainly seems possible that this is the song that the Pilgrims would sing on their last night before they arrived in Jerusalem, with the hills of Jerusalem in the background.
As we’ve already discussed, the people were also constantly looking up to the hills during their journey since those hills were often the place where the dangers they faced came from.
During the time this Psalm was used in worship, Palestine was overrun with pagan worship, which was usually practiced on the hilltops. Thus, we have all the references in the Old Testament to the “high places” where people were lured to participate in the rituals that promised fertile lands and protection from evil.
Given the rest of the Psalm, that seems to be the primary picture the Psalmist had in mind. As the Hebrew pilgrims approached Jerusalem, the option to seek help from those high places would have been right there in front of them.
2. Key word – “keep/keeper”
As you read through this Psalm, what would you consider to be the key word? [Wait for answers]. That’s right – the words “keep(s)” and “keeper” appear a total of six times in the eight verses of this Psalm. So it would probably be a good use of our time to take a moment to understand the meaning of the word.
The Hebrew word is “shamar” which comes from a root word that originally described a sheepfold. When a shepherd was out in the wilderness he would gather thorn bushes to erect a makeshift corral for the sheep at night. Those thorns would then protect and guard the sheep from harm. So the word came to convey the idea of guarding and protecting.
3. Pronouns change from first person (I, my) to second person (you, your) between verses 2 and 3
This is a really interesting feature of this Psalm, leading many to conclude that this particular song was sung first by the Psalmist in verses 1 and 2 and then the rest of the community answered back in song in verses 3 through 8.