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 ESV
Last week we began the Songs of Ascents with Psalm 120’s lamentation over living among those who reject God, which was fitting since every pilgrimage must begin with a discontentment for present circumstances. Psalm 121 presents the next steps of fixing our eyes upon our destination and establishing our hope that God will keep us safe through the many dangers that meet us along the way.
LOOKING TO THE HILLS
No one will ever venture away from home and the comfort of normalcy unless a yearning has stirred within them for more. Such is the holy discontentment that we described previously. We cannot live as strangers and exiles in this world until we have become sufficiently disillusioned with the world’s many promises of joy and satisfaction. To use the language of these psalms, we will not take the risk of traveling to Jerusalem without being first convinced that it is more glorious than Meshech and Kedar.
But now that we have experienced this discontentment, what is the next step? We lift our eyes toward our destination, toward God’s holy hill, Jerusalem. Interestingly, even though these first two verses sound much more hopeful than Psalm 120, they are actually expressing the same essential idea. Through his lament, the psalmist of 120 expressed his hope that God would ultimately rescue him from his sojourning in Meshech and dwelling in Kedar. Verses 1-2 of Psalm 121 now provide an explicit declaration of God’s expectant rescue as well.
We should make a note that many commentators view the hills of verse 1 in a negative light. They suggest that the psalmist is declaring that he will not fix his eyes upon the worshiping of idols that often occurred on the high places. While this interpretation is certainly plausible, I believe that the hills are instead representative of Jerusalem, and the psalmist is declaring his intention to look away from the things of this world and upward to God.
Sight is a crucial symbol within the Bible because we will walk toward what we are looking at. Only foolishness would claim that we can continue to move forward while setting our gaze upon what is beside or behind us. The high speed of automobiles helps to solidify this point. Far too many accidents occur because the driver is distracted with something in the backseat. Likewise, no hiker would ever attempt to navigate a rocky trail with his eyes fixated on something behind him. In the same manner, the hard and narrow path that leads to life is easy to stray from if our eyes are not set upon our destination. Our goal of eternal life, the Celestial City, is like the hill of Jerusalem, and we must have our eyes lifted toward it. The danger of veering off the path is too great to do otherwise.
Jesus gives this very warning to a potential follower in Luke 9. In verse 61, the man declares to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Seems reasonable, right? Who knew when the man would see his family again since Jesus had an itinerary ministry? Furthermore, many who became disciples of previous “messiahs” met their end via the sword of Rome. Why should he not want to say farewell to his family? Yet Jesus answers the man, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62).
Does this seem harsh?
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan portrays a similar scene. The main character, Christian, becomes convinced that his city (the City of Destruction) is doomed to meet the fiery wrath of God and that he must journey to the Celestial City in order to be saved. Upon learning this knowledge, Christian becomes incredibly distraught, and his wife, children, and neighbors all attempt to calm his fears. Eventually, he is told by Evangelist to flee this destruction by going to the Wicket Gate and beginning his journey down the Narrow Way. Christian’s response is immediate:
Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! Life! Eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain. (4)
Such an extreme response is necessary for following Christ. He has also demanded, after all, that we must love Him more than our own family (Matthew 10:37). The choice to follow Christ, therefore, cannot be made flippantly. To be a disciple of Jesus is to bear a cross (Matthew 10:38), being marked by death even as we yet live. If we seek to be like our master and teacher, how can we expect anything more pleasant than the humiliating rejection that He was given via the cross (Matthew 10:24-25). Becoming Christ’s disciple means choosing the path of greatest resistance, the way of rejecting the comforts and promises of this life. It means lifting our eyes toward the hills and the God who dwells in them. It means becoming an enemy to those who hate God and His Word. It means becoming a foreigner in the very place we once called home. It means considering our life lost for the hope of finding true life in Christ.
Such an action is exclusively individualistic.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying.
Far too often we forget the essential component of community in the life of the believer. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian who is outside of a local church. The assurance of our salvation is given to us through the affirmation of our brothers and sisters around us. We need each other far more than we can truly comprehend.
Yet salvation itself is not a communal event. The blood of Christ does not redeem entire families by simple proximity to a Christian. The journey of faith is one that each of us must walk, and in the end, we must each stand before God alone, naked and bare before His judgment. No one will simply wander into the gates of heaven. Many will enter stumbling and crawling, but no one will just happen to find the entrance. Few will find the narrow gate that leads to life. Find implies the necessity of searching.
Are you searching?
Have you lifted your eyes to the hills of the LORD?
Like Christian, have you placed your fingers in your ears and fled from sin and onto the path of life?
The journey can only begin with eyes lifted toward Jerusalem, toward our eternal home with the LORD.
THE LORD IS YOUR KEEPER
The main theme from verse 2 onward is God’s preserving power upon His people. Keep (or keeper) is used six times within the final six verses, making the point of these verses far from obscure. Like a resounding gong, this psalm seeks to drive the promise of God’s providential protection of His people into our minds and hearts. The LORD, our God, will keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.”
But why do we need this promise?
From what dangers do we need to be kept?
While I am not frightened of flying, few can deny how unnerving the idea of speeding hundreds of miles per hour tens of thousands of feet in the air for several hours at a time is. Consider that the first commercial airline flight took place on January 1, 1914, which means that the airline industry is only 105 years old. Something should be slightly unsettling about that knowledge. And yet before June, I plan to spend approximately 56 hours in the air.
Why take such risks?
For the sake of reaching the destination.
Journeys are dangerous, but some destinations are worth the danger. A pilgrimage is not for the fainthearted because staying home is always safer than traveling. By foot, car, boat, or plan, traveling is risky business. To quote Bilbo’s wise words to his nephew: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Fittingly, the first danger that the psalmist acknowledges is that our feet might slip. In a society where walking was the primary mode of travel, a sprained or broken ankle is a far greater inconvenience than a flat tire. But there is also the danger of our feet being swept off the path. This may come through carelessness, a failure to diligently follow directions. Or it could occur through dangers that force a detour. Whether our feet become injured, we wander from the path, or we are pushed off the road, each poses a serious threat to reaching our destination.
The elements are the second danger of which the psalmist warns. Being struck by the sun and moon in verse 6 may not sound like great threats today, but let’s consider their meaning. The sun is certainly easier to understand. Living in the southern Oklahoma, news stories can be read each summer of individuals who passed away due to having a heatstroke.
The moon is a bit different. The word lunacy derives from the belief that the moon could have direct effects upon one’s mental health. Perhaps this thought could be easily dismissed as a worldly superstition, since the moon’s varying gravitational pull does not seem to impact cognitive behavior. Or perhaps being moonstruck was caused by the comparatively great light of a full moon in a world without electricity. Maybe this “lunacy” was the result of a disrupted circadian rhythm, which we now know can have serious ramifications upon a person’s mental health.
Regardless, the psalmist’s point in using the sun and moon is to illustrate the unavoidable dangers of the natural world. Due to the sin of Adam and Eve, all of creation was plunged into the darkness and brokenness of sin. The earth, which was once meant to be cultivated into a gigantic Eden, now frequently harms we who were placed in dominion over it. Without proper protection, the sun and moon that give us light can also strike us down.
For the third danger, the psalmist simply states all evil. Unfortunately, the risk of traveling is greater than simply losing our way or meeting an unavoidable natural disaster; there is also the threat of wicked men. The heartbreaking reality is that there are people who earn profit for themselves through inflicting harm on others. White-collar conmen, drug dealers, or sex traffickers, the world has a greater number of truly malevolent individuals than we ever dare to think about. Especially when people design attacks purely to cause terror, the natural response is to shrink back in fear, to hide ourselves away from the rest of society, to retreat from the world.
It truly is dangerous business to walk out your door. Possibly more so than we understand. In fact, given that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is symbolic for the life of a Christian, we should not be surprised to discover that these dangers can also be symbolic for our spiritual journey. It is often said that the three enemies of our walk with Christ are our own flesh, the influence of the world, and the wiles of the devil. The dangers within this psalm seem to parallel those enemies.
Psalm 73 uses the imagery of feet slipping to describe the psalmist almost falling into his envy of the foolish and prosperous. Therefore, our wandering feet could easily be counted as our flesh’s tendency to wander away from the LORD.
The sun and moon, which are ever-present in this life, parallel with the influence of the world upon believers. Like the sun and moon, we cannot exist apart from the world, yet we must always be wary of their dangers, which are all the more intensified by their ubiquitous presence.
Finally, the maliciousness of men is readily compared to the evil one, from whom we pray to God for deliverance. If these symbolic interpretations seem like a stretch, I would argue that the poetic nature of the Psalms absolutely warrants these types of application.
To be honest, with all these dangers in mind, life will probably go much smoother if you do not follow Christ, just as staying home is less risky than traveling abroad.
Walking out your door will always have greater risk than staying behind it.
Picking up a cross will always be harder than leaving it on the ground.
Dying to self will never be immediately more appealing than living for self.
Following Christ is a call to come and die. It means acknowledging that our very bodies are not our own but were bought with the price of Jesus’ blood, making us His bondservants, slaves to His grace.
His yoke is easy.
His burden is light.
But the way is narrow and hard.
Few will find the gate to life at the path’s end.
Following Christ is a one-way flight, a journey from which there is no return.
Only those who endure to the end will be saved. The call for endurance, of course, implicates difficulty.
With so many “dangers, toils, and snares,” how can we ever hope to arrive safely at Jerusalem, the Celestial City?
The psalmist answers by admitting that we have no such endurance within ourselves. God alone can keep us secure until the end. He expresses this confidence in God for three reasons.
First, God does not slumber. By God’s design, we are never more vulnerable than when we sleep. Of course, we can certainly wake ourselves quickly when danger may be near, but sleep itself remains a state of helplessness. I believe this is meant to be a divine limitation upon our pride. We can never escape the necessity of sleep; thereby, we are daily reminded of our creatureliness, that will never be gods. Repeatedly the New Testament writers urge us to be watchful and to stay awake, yet we are only capable of so much vigilance. Our own attentiveness can never fully protect. We are limited, finite, and dependent upon rest. Our God, however, is not. His rest upon the seventh day of creation was, much like Jesus’ baptism, intended to model our behavior. The LORD has no limitations nor does anything lie outside His watchful gaze. Even among the dangers around us, we can pray with David: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).
Second, as God kept Israel, so He will keep us individually. Here the psalmist is calling us to reflect upon God’s steadfast love toward His people in general in order to find confidence in Him personally. The account that is repeatedly remembered in the Scriptures is the Exodus. But as Christians, we are now able to also recount the greater exodus, how God freed us from our slavery to sin. If God was willing to rescue us from our sins by the blood of His Son, how much more will He be faithful to deliver us from other dangers as well!
Third, God made the heavens and the earth. It is glorious news that God desires to be our helper and keeper, but that fact remains nothing more than a pleasant sentiment unless God can actually do it. Joyously, the LORD’s hand is not to short to save (Isaiah 59:1)! Because He is the all-mighty and sovereign Creator, God is entirely able to keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.” What a magnificent truth! God absolutely can preserve us to the very end of our journey, and, in fact, this is our only hope of reaching our destination. Just as we are justified by God’s grace, so are we also preserved by His grace. Without the strength and guide of the Spirit within us, we could never endure to the end and be saved.
Of course, this promise of perseverance does not guarantee ease. God does not promise to make the journey smooth for His people; He promises to see them safely to the end. Often it is through the challenges and hardships that God both teaches and shapes us. By His providence, the dangers around us become the instruments of our growth and progress. Our great hope, therefore, is not that we will be spared from all tragedy, sorrow, and pain; it is that in the midst of those things God will ultimately work each of them out for His glory and our good.
Brothers and sisters, lift your eyes up to the hills. Set your sights upon Jerusalem, our heavenly home with the God. The journey is perilous indeed with dangers always at hand. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), yet by the LORD’s strength and provision, those who seek it will find it (Matthew 7:7-8). Follow Christ and look to Him as your keeper both now and forevermore.