God, Our Help
Topic: English Passage: Psalm 121
One of the songs we sang last week in the English service was called O For that Day. The song was written by members of a band called Enfield, and they wrote it in conjunction with a conference they led that was focused on heaven. Our Young Adult group attended that conference back in 2008. The song says:
“We are pilgrims on earth, and we long to be home. We were exiled in birth, then wandered alone. Until Jesus, the Lamb who was Slain in our place, Redeemed us and claimed us His own.
“We have hope in the place where suffering ends. All our tears wiped away and worship ascends. Where our Savior now sits at The right hand of God—Our Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.”
The chorus sings: “O for that day when our journey has ended. All of our hope found in heaven’s reward. When we will have the Messiah forever. And we will dwell in the house of the Lord. Yes, we will dwell in the house of the Lord”
That song connects to one of the major themes in the New Testament. We who have placed our trust in Christ and been joined to Him are pilgrims. We are travelers in a foreign land. Philippians 3:20 tells us our citizenship is in heaven. First Peter reminds us that we are aliens and strangers in this land. We are sojourners and exiles.
We are not in our true home, but we are on a journey there. Our journey in this life is not like waiting in line at the grocery store or the DMV. Our journey is a treacherous one, filled all kinds of dangers and toils and snares. Some of you know that more than others.
There is the physical danger of a world under the curse. That includes disease, sickness, and natural catastrophes. There is also the danger of those who hurt us, either unwillingly or willingly. They may hurt us emotionally or spiritually by introducing temptation. But they can also hurt us physically, again, either unintentionally or intentionally.
The New Testament repeatedly tells us that those who follow Christ will face opposition in this world. The Apostle Paul said, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Beyond those external dangers, as followers of Christ there is the constant battle against indwelling sin. It is this sin that keeps us from fully living to the glory of God and fulfilling His calling on our lives. It’s a daily war. This journey is an ongoing struggle.
Second Peter 2 describes Lot’s condition as he lived in the sinful city of Sodom. It says there he was “greatly distressed by the conduct of the wicked... He was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard.”
That’s the pain and the anguish of our journey in this life for the glory of God.
In that journey, however, the people of God have a confidence. And what we’re to be looking at today is a song pointing us to that confidence in a treacherous journey.
Three times every year, all “native born” Jewish men were required to travel to Jerusalem. These were called pilgrim feasts. As a man left his community, it might have been a small crowd, but along the way, the crowd would grow as more and more men joined the journey, hoping to arrive in time for the festival.
The three pilgrim feasts were the Feast of Tabernacles, Pentecost, and Passover. As you read the gospels, those are the times when the city of Jerusalem was filling with people as they celebrated God’s goodness and worshipped together.
Until they got there, though, they were on a journey. Jerusalem sits at the top of a hill, so no matter which direction you are coming from you were travelling uphill; you had to ascend. As the people made the journey, they would sing what are called “The Songs of Ascents.”
Those songs of ascents are collected for us in Psalms 120-134—15 in all. Our focus today is going to be the Song of Ascents from Psalm 121. Let’s all turn there and look at it together. Psalm 121. Even if you don’t know what it says already, the words may be familiar to you. Psalm 121, verses 1-8.
The average Psalm has 16 verses, so Psalm 121 is on the shorter side. It’s short and it’s focused. You don’t have a lot of background information that we need to unpack in order to understand it. What we have is a simple song focused on making one point. And that point is that God is watching over you. God is watching over you.
Before I looked more closely at the psalm this week, I used to think of verse 1 as depicting some kind of desperation, and then verse 2 gives us the solution. But now, I don’t think that’s the case at all. This is, from beginning to end, a psalm of confidence.
The opening line says: “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Some people think that’s talking about some kind of dangerous mountain road that needs to be travelled. But I think this is referring to someone who knows there’s a journey ahead but is confident he will make it safely to his destination. I think the hills point to the destination, but also to the source of help, the source on confidence.
For a travelling Jew, the hills represented Jerusalem, where the presence of God dwelt in a unique way. And here is a psalmist saying, “I am going to meet with God, and He is the one who watches over me.”
If you were to look at the King James Version of verse 1, you would find that the second half of the verse is not translated as a question. It’s translated as an explanation. “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where my help comes.” And I think there’s some merit to that translation.
But even if we were to receive this as a question, I would say it’s a rhetorical question, not one motivated by despair. Do you want to know where my confidence comes from? Do you want to know where I go when I need help?
Verse 2 makes the answer clear. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
This Psalm isn’t a guarantee that there will never be trouble or difficulty. If God promised us an easy life, we would never be asking or looking for help. We would never need any kind of assistance to lean on. What this psalm is declaring is that in this life, no matter what kind of difficulty surrounds us or is ahead of us, God is watching over His people. “My help comes from the Lord!”
As New Testament Christians, I think it’s important not to read this in a generic sense, but with a specific eye to whom our Lord is. Those of you who are reading Mark right now, you are seeing evidence after evidence of who the Lord is. The Lord is Jesus Christ.
Whenever you see the word “Lord” spelled out in the Old Testament with small caps, that’s not the normal word for “Lord,” which mean master. That is the covenant name of Yahweh, which points to God’s eternal nature. Yahweh comes from the verb that means “I AM.” That’s the name God chose to identify Himself with His people. He is the eternal I AM. He is self-existent. He has life in Himself. He has no beginning and no end. And the eternal God has promised to be there with His people. He watches over them.
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, “Yahweh” was translated as kurios, which means Lord. And so, when we get to the New Testament, that’s why people were so upset when Jesus took the title “Lord” or “kurios.” He was saying, “Everything that the God of the Old Testament is, I am.”
In fact, he used that very phrase when talking to the Jews. In John 8, He said, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” And the Jews picked up stones to kill him.
We know who this Lord is who watches over us. We see Him in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus watches over us.
To the world, that may sound like some kind of emotional dependency on an imaginary friend. But to the psalmist, and to us today, we know who it is we’re dealing with, and who watches over us.
What does verse 2 say? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. This is a reminder that the Lord is eternal and He is all-powerful. He made this world, and He’s the one who watches over me.
Where does your help come from? Where do you turn in times of difficulty or distress? I think we all know that Jesus is the Sunday School answer, but what does that look like in your everyday life?
Are you comforted by the fact that you have a retirement account? Are you comforted by the presence of your wife or your husband? Are you comforted by the fact that you got a vaccine? Or that you are in excellent medical care? Are you comforted by the fact that your type of cancer has an excellent survival rate? Are you comforted that you can defend yourself better than most? Are you comforted that you’ve got insurance?
Those things aren’t wrong, in and of themselves. In fact, those are part of God’s common grace in this life. But what we need to keep in mind is that behind all those things is God who watches over us. He gave us those gifts. And even if all those external securities fail, God is still watching over us. He’s with us to help us.
Psalm 73:26 says—My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Jesus Christ, who created this world and has full authority to calm seas and heal disease and send away demons, has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us.
As Psalm 46 says: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”
The eternal, sovereign Lord is our help. He’s watching over us.
Now, when we come to verse 3, the focus shifts. Verses 1 and 2 were about the psalmist. That’s why you see the words “I” and “my.” In verse 3, though, there’s a shift from the first person to the second and third person. The psalmist is no longer talking about himself. Instead he’s talking to his readers about God.
Look at verses 3 and 4—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.
When a baby begins taking his first steps, or when an elderly or weakened person is trying to get somewhere, someone is watching them. We all know that picture. We don’t want them to fall. We don’t want them to slip and get hurt.
But in verse 3, when it talks about your foot slipping or moving, the idea is much more significant than someone falling and getting hurt. If you were in a battle, and your foot slipped, you could die. If you were on the side of a mountain, and your foot slipped, that could be the end. Having your foot slip or move could mean the difference between life and death.
And for this songwriter, there is confidence that God won’t let that happen. There is no such thing as a premature death for God’s people. You might die younger than others. But it is never premature. God is watching over us.
The Lord will not slumber. He will not sleep. That means we are under His constant care. No parent can perfectly watch over their child. We need to sleep. It’s a daily reminder for every mother and father. “I need to sleep!” And maybe, rather than get upset about it, take it as a reminder of your humility. We need sleep, but God doesn’t. He is always on watch.
He guards us. He protects us. He preserves us. That’s what it means to say that He keeps us. That’s the key word in verses 3-8. Verse 3 says, “He keeps you.” Verse 4, “He who keeps Israel.” Verse 5, “The Lord is your keeper.” Verse 7, “He will keep you from all evil. He will keep your life.” Verse 8, He will keep your going our and your coming in.” You cannot escape the message of this psalm. God is watching over you.
This psalmist understood that there was nothing inherent in him that compels God to watch over Him. It’s a result of God’s faithfulness. That’s why verse 4 reminds us He’s the One who keeps Israel. In love and in faithfulness, God has promised to watch over all His people, and so this psalmist is confident God is with him.
In the Old Testament, God’s covenant people were the Israelites. Anyone who wanted to draw near to God had to come to Israel. But now, in the New Covenant, we know that the way is through Jesus Christ. People from every nation and tribe and tongue enter into the family of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
That should be a great comfort to you. That should be a confidence. Are you worthy of God’s constant, watchful care? No. I’m not worthy. None of us are. Are there times we sin and grieve the Lord? Yes. But even those times do not remove His sustaining grace from His people. Because He has made us His own in Christ Jesus.
We are secure in Christ. For those of you who have repented of your sins and trusted fully in Christ, God holds you in His hands, and He will not let you go. He’s got you until the end.
If you have never surrendered your life to Christ, our message to you is that you do it today. Recognize that you are a sinner before God, and trust that He will forgive you on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead in glory, will come to judge those who oppose Him and to rescue His own. Come to Jesus. Surrender your life to Him and He will be for you, not against you.
For those of us who have already trusted in Christ, Psalm 121, along with many other passages of Scripture, is a call to live with confidence. It’s not a confidence that life is going to go great at all times. It’s a confidence that God is always watching over me, because I’m part of His people. He helps me. And he protects me.
Look at verses 5 and 6—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.
In the wilderness, or in the desert, the sun can kill you. Heat stroke sets is, and you’re gone. So, what you look for is shade. Shade brings relief. Shade lifts your spirits; it empowers you for what’s ahead.
I think that’s the idea of mentioning the right hand. The right hand symbolized someone’s power and strength. God is a protector who strengthens us. Protects us from what?
Well, verse 6 gives a very specific response. The sun and the moon. The sun caused heatstroke and death, the moon at night brought cold, which could be deadly. But since this is a song, I think it’s valid for us t take the psalmists references to protection from the elements and expand it metaphorically. I think what he’s doing here is emphasizing the comprehensiveness of God’s protection. He protects you by day, and He protects you by night. He never sleeps. He is watching over you all the time.
And that’s exactly what the closing verses of this psalm say. Verses 7 and 8—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.
God is the perfect watchmen. He’s your perfect guardian, if you belong to Him. He sees everything you do. He’s laid it all out. Nothing escapes Him. The Lord protects you from all evil and at all times. He watches over you.
There’s not a lot to explain here in terms of what it’s saying. God watches over His people. He never stops. What’s important for us, however, is to think about how a song like this should impact our lives. What does it mean for us? How do we apply this song to our lives. You can spur one another one with conversations like this, but let me suggest some good starting points.
This being a psalm, I think the first response we should have here is praise. Praise is the first response.
This is a song overflowing with gratitude. It was written by a man overflowing with gratitude and praise. He had seen God watch over him, and now he calls us to worship alongside him. He can’t contain Himself. He can’t contain the message. His help comes from the Lord.
A second response to this psalm should be proclamation. Proclamation. This psalm wasn’t placed here for individual singing. It was included here so that multitudes of travelers could encourage one another in the journey. And even those who weren’t travelling could hear them sing.
This is part of what we’ve been seeing in First Peter. Your life was designed to be a witness in this world to the goodness of God. And you can demonstrate the goodness of God even when you’re surrounded by difficulties. You can persevere, you can endure, because Christ is with you.
Now, as you share this message with others, there’s a third important response to keep in mind. That is the response of wisdom. Wisdom. Biblical wisdom means seeing biblical truth in its proper context and in its proper relationship to the rest of Scripture.
You need to keep in mind that this is a song. That’s the genre. It’s poetic. It’s figurative at times. This is an emotional expression to the truth about who God is and what He does. It is not, however, an iron-clad promise that you’re never going to get sick, or you’re never going to get in a car accident, or you’re never going to die. Again, if that were the case you wouldn’t need a helper. You wouldn’t need a protector.
I can’t take a psalm like this and then presume on God’s protection by driving 90 miles per hour down Rosemead Blvd. That’s not what this Psalm is saying. You still need to exercise wisdom in your daily decisions.
At the same time, though, wisdom, like we talked about last week, understands that this life ends. Unless Christ returns first, I am going to die. Man is mortal. But, I am not going to die one second earlier or later than God has decreed. Jesus has got me right in his hand.
And this leads me to our final response from this psalm: Confidence. So, there’s praise, proclamation, wisdom, and confidence.
Why did these Israelites who sang this song travel to Jerusalem three times a year? Why go through all that trouble and all those expenses?
They went because God had called them to do it. And if God had called them to do it, they went with the confidence that God would watch over them. They were being obedient to His will, so they were confident he would watch over them.
Again, this psalm does not erase personal responsibility, but what it does erase is the paralyzing fear that would keep you from fulfilling God’s plan for my life. So, while you shouldn’t be driving 90 miles per hour on the streets, you also shouldn’t be driving in a panic, overwhelmed at the possibility of an accident. God doesn’t want you to live like that. He is watching over you. He’ll take care you. Your concern is His business.
Jesus told His disciples, “Don’t worry. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need.” He was talking about food and water and clothing and shelter. When you do God’s work, He supports you. He provides for you. He makes sure you’ve got everything you need to complete the work He’s laid out for you.
What’s our primary work on this planet? What is the mission God has called us to? To proclaim His goodness in Christ Jesus. As we talk to believers that means we are spurring them to love and good works. As we talk to unbelievers, it’s a plea for them to turn from their sin and trust in Christ. That’s why God has us here.
That’s why, since the beginning of the church, there have been men and women willing to leave their homes and their home churches to preach Christ and plant churches all over the world. They were confident that God would watch over them. They trusted that God would be faithful.
I think that was also part of Jesus’ plan when He told his disciples to go into Israel without any extra bread or money. He wanted them focused on their task, and He wanted them to trust that he would provide. He was building their confidence.
In terms of the logistics, we may not have to do ministry in exactly the same way the Apstles did, but we go out with the same message and the same confidence. God is watching over us.
And when your work is done, He’ll bring you home, whether that be through sickness or martyrdom or simply old age. He will bring you home.
And this really is the great parallel for us as part of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus. We are going to face sickness and death in this world. We are going to face difficult times. We are going to be assaulted physically and spiritually, but our future is guaranteed. Our eternity is secure in Christ. Nothing can change that if we belong to Him.
You are an heir with Christ. You have a glory waiting for you that cannot be compared to any suffering in this life. And for those who love God and are called according to His purpose, all things work together for good. You will be conformed to the image of Christ. You will be glorified one day.
If God is for you, who can be against you? Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.
Don’t let the message of Psalm 121 pass you by. Take a moment and really think about the problems you are facing right now, today. What kind of problems are you facing? What are you afraid of? Maybe it’s related to money. Maybe it has to do with your health. Maybe it’s connected to an upcoming event or a personal relationship. Maybe it’s something at work or something at school. Maybe it’s a sin that you feel like you just can’t defeat right now. Think about what that is that is causing you some level of distress, big or small.
And now, remind yourself: “God is watching over me. My Lord Jesus Christ, the maker of heaven and earth, is watching over me.”
All your days have been written in His book, and He calls you to come before His throne in order to find grace in your time of need. Cast your cares on Him.
Let me end by reading from the final verses in Isaiah 40, and then we’ll close in a prayer. Just listen to the words of our Lord.
Isaiah 40:26-31—Lift up your eyes on high and see [the stars]: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.