We’re going to read together from Psalm 121, so if you’ll turn there. This is God’s Word:
“A Song of Ascents.
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.”
God’s Word. Let’s pray.
Our Father, in You are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We ask now that You would open the eyes of our heart that we might know You and that we might experience Your presence. And we ask that in Christ’s name, amen.
So Psalm 120 to 134 is a section in the Psalter, in the Psalms, that’s often called “The Song of Ascents.” Each one of the psalms has the little title at the beginning that says, “A Song of Ascents,” and there’s fifteen of them in total. We’re just going to look at one of them today; Psalm 121. And there’s three lessons that we’re going to learn from this passage. Let’s jump right into it. The fact of the ascent, the peril of the ascent, and the keeper of the ascent.
The Fact of the Ascent
So first, the fact of the ascent. And here’s the fact. It is a fact that the Bible, regularly across both Old Testament and New Testament, puts the Christian life in the language of the pilgrimage, in the language of the traveler, of the wayfarer, of the journeyman, of the one who’s looking to make the ascent up the mountain. And it also puts the whole plot of history and all human life within the bounds of God’s unfolding plot for this world across the centuries that has a real beginning and a real end, and that end is coming out in the future. The New Testament sometimes calls it Mount Zion. It is the second coming of Christ. There’s a real end in view across the pages of the whole Bible. And for Christians, these songs, this section of the Psalms, are here, the Songs of Ascent, because, well, we need traveler’s songs to sing on our way. We need the pilgrim songs. And well, why? Because there are dangers and perils on every side. The siren songs are always singing and calling us to leave the path of the ascent. And God has given us songs, the Psalms, another song, songs to sing along the way. And they aren’t magic. They’re not there to sing because they stop the dangers. Christianity does not promise that your circumstances in this life will get any better. What they’re here for is not to stop the dangers on the outside, to not stop you from drowning on the outside, but to give you a buoyancy of heart on the inside; whenever the circumstances around you are coming in and flooding in and pulling you down, that you can, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, singing the songs of the traveler be down but never out, that you can have a safety in your heart even when there’s no safety on the outside.
So if you look at verse 1, there's in all capital letters and small font what we call the superscription and it says, "A Song of Ascents." And every single one of the psalms, all fifteen, have one of these, but in this one and this one only, the prepositional phrase that we translate, "of the ascents," is ambiguous. It can either be translated, "A Song of the Ascents," or, "A Song for the Ascent," whereas the rest of them are all very clearly, "A Song of the Ascents." Now, what does it mean? What does that tell us? Well, the term, "ascent," in the ancient world, in Hebrew, typically, most commonly refers to the going up, going up the mountain by marching. And that means that it has military connotations to it. And a song in the ancient world means, "a song." And so this is a song for the going up by marching. And it’s for the going up. It can be translated, “a song for the going up” because most commentators think that it has a very specific context in view; when we read this specific one, Psalm 121.
What is it? And if you read it carefully, you know that it doesn’t tell us. There’s no explicit reference to where exactly the pilgrim is when they’re singing this psalm. But there are two main contexts that most commentators take you to, to talk about where these songs would have been sung in the Israelite world. The first is ceremonial context. It’s a marching metaphor, and often when David and Solomon and other kings win battles, they march back toward Jerusalem and outside the city choirs and bands would meet them and they would parade in and they would sing the pilgrim songs of victory; the connotation of the army marching home. And we’ve done this all the way up to the modern world, even into the Civil War at least. I don’t know about after that, but where we have armies march with bands it’s the same concept.
There’s another ceremonial context too that we know about that rose up in the intertestamental period, the time between the Old Testament and New Testament historical occurrences. And that’s that the priest, the high priest, at pilgrimage feast times, there are fifteen steps that go up to the south gate of the temple in Jerusalem; the fifteen steps that lead up to the gate called “beautiful” as it’s put in the New Testament. And the priest would sing each one of the songs of ascent for each step that they took. It took a while, but they would sing all fifteen as they marched up into the temple.
But more importantly, and where most commentators, most ancient near eastern, most Biblical scholars will tell you that these songs of ascent in the Psalms were the songs that the Israelites would sing as they did their three-times yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for each of the three great feasts; the feasts that God instituted. Passover that commemorates the exodus. Pentecost that commemorates the giving of the Law at Sinai. And the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles that commemorates the wanderings in the wilderness where they lived in booths or tents, literally. And these are the songs they would sing when they would go on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on their way. And it's a song for the ascent because most commentators think that this psalm was one that was sung when they would reach the hills outside of Jerusalem. So they could see Jerusalem on the horizon, and it’s Psalm 121, this is the song that you sing when you see Jerusalem off in the distance.
And that means that it’s less the context of the military marching band victory back to Jerusalem and more of the ethos of the journey of peril and danger on every side on the way to the mountain of God. It’s more, well it’s more like the hobbits and the dwarfs on their way to the Misty Mountain singing the famous songs – “Far above the misty mountain cold to dungeon deep and dragons of old. We ere away, o break of day, to the pale enchanted gold.” It’s a little bit more like that than it is a military marching band.
Sang Their Travels
The point – ancient peoples sang their travels. They sang their hopes and they sang their fears. They sang as people on the way. They sang songs. And Isaiah 30:29, let me just read it to you very quickly, this is what God says to Israel: “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart, as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go, to the mountain of the Lord and feast.” And that means whenever you’re heading into pilgrimage, you’d better bring your flute or whatever instrument you happen to play because you’re going to sing the whole way! And that’s exactly what the Songs of Ascent are. They’re songs for the journey to Jerusalem, to the pilgrimage.
But William Johnson, one commentator, he says this. "The idea of the pilgrimage itself, however, is increasingly remote in western man's thoughts. The traveler's songs of hope, they're almost lost entirely today." We don't sing traveler's songs anymore, not like the ancient peoples; we drive cars. But they're not lost for the church – the songs, the songs of the pilgrimage, the traveler's songs – they can't be, no matter where else they're forgotten. And that's because the New Testament, Hebrews 3 and 4 and Paul, all over the place, frames the Christian life in the exact same language as the Old Testament frames the life of the pilgrim Israelite. Paul and Hebrews says that we are wandering exiles, passing through the wilderness to the mountain of the Lord, coming to the heavenly Jerusalem on the ascent. This is the exact way the New Testament frames our life as well. The songs are for us too. The New Testament quotes the Songs of Ascent six times, which is not that often, but every time it does it's because it's saying that the pilgrimage of the Israelite is a shadow. It's a shadow of a greater reality, and that greater reality is the true pilgrimage that God has unfolded in history. And that's the pilgrimage of the Christian on the way to the heavenly mountain.
And let me just give you some examples of this in the New Testament. Philippians 3:14 – “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Or, more to the point, Hebrews 12:22 – “You are going to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the city of the living God.” All I want to say by way of this first point is simple. The pilgrimage, the journey, it’s real; it’s the unfolding movement of history. And everybody is one it. You are either walking on the journey on the path of life or in the wilderness of darkness. And God’s plan is unfolding and the end is in sight; it is coming. And some of us, because of the dangers and the toils and the snares on every side, because of the siren songs that have sung in your ear, you’re here but you’ve not been walking. And singing the song itself is an invitation to awake, awaken to the pilgrimage itself and to come back on the path and to walk by faith in love of God and love of neighbor. The very singing of the song, you see, it’s an invitation.
The Peril of the Ascent
Okay, so what about the details of this psalm, secondly. This psalm is answering the question, “What do you face on the journey?” And the answer is that you face the peril of the ascent. Now the New Testament teaches us that there are three great enemies to the Christian life. You have three great enemies if you’re a believer. And the three great enemies are the world, the flesh, and the devil. And just to make it simple, the world is everything that’s wrong outside of you. The flesh is everything that’s wrong inside of you. And the devil is the one that wants to destroy you. And in this passage, two of the three great enemies are present in Psalm 121. What are they? Well, to find out you have to look at the hills.
Let’s look at the hills in verse 1. The wayfarer says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, and from where does my help come from?” What’s happening here? My family and I got to travel at the very end of our time in Scotland – we’ve just moved here from Scotland – through the Highlands of Scotland. And the most beautiful place that I have ever seen, still today, is Glencoe in Scotland. Some of you’ve been there. If you haven’t, Google it. Not right now! But in a little while, Google it and you’ll see that it has a haunting beauty, unlike any other place I’ve ever seen. And when I was there, I lifted my eyes up to the hills, and I said, “From where comes my help?” And I said, “From the Maker of heaven and earth.” From the One, the God who made these hills! And Psalm 19 tells us that, but that is not what this text is about. It’s true, we look at the hills and the mountains and we say, “God is the Maker of heaven and earth. How beautiful!” But that is not what this is about. What are the hills here? What are the hills in this passage?
Real and Present Danger
And the answer is that the hills – well, there’s two problems with the hills. One is obvious; it’s on the surface of the text. And one is a little more hidden that you have to do some work to find it. But the first problem is the hills are the domain of real and present danger. You see, the journeyman here is afraid for his life. This is talking about physical vulnerability. He sees the hills and he says, “I’m afraid! Where does my help come from?” You see, anxiety is starting to creep up in his heart about what he is about to face. One commentator says it this way. “In the ancient near east, the hills are consistently the place of real danger. Hills and their valleys are where the thieves do their work.” And just to know, there is a 2,000-foot elevation change from outside Jerusalem to Jerusalem and so he’s probably looking at the climb. He’s probably looking at the climb.
And we also know from Jewish tradition it became a custom at some point in Israelite history that the Israelites on pilgrimage would not ever sleep in an erected house or structure while they were on their journey because they were trying to live out the sufferings of the wayfarer like it was at the time of the exodus and after the exodus in the wilderness wanderings. And so they're sleeping outside and they're facing the hills, the heights, the climbs. And what are the hills? The hills stand for any domain of danger in our lives that gives rise to fear. I mean it's something that we occupy our lives with all the time. It's as raw and real as the issue of safety is what's being talked about here. The pilgrim is facing real anxieties about being safe, of facing disaster, disease, and death – to put it into the three "D”s.
For us, it’s not the mountains; we don’t get afraid of facing the mountains anymore, unless you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail or something. But for us, it’s anything; it’s any domain that gives rise to your raw fear deep down in the core of your being. For some of you, it’s putting your sixteen-year-old behind the wheel for the first time and seeing them out of the driveway. That is the hills, you see. It’s dodgy parking lots late at night. It’s the worry you have over your children. It’s all sorts of things. It’s the hills, and it exists in every single one of us – the fears that we face about being embodied spirits that are vulnerable. This is addressing a most basic issue, and that’s human vulnerability.
Help from God
And it’s antiphonal, which means that it’s a sung conversation. So you see in the first two verses, there’s one speaker – a first person speaking. “I look at the hills and I’m afraid.” But then there’s a different speaker in verse 3; a different group that are singing back to him. It’s antiphonal. And what does the person sing back to the guy who’s afraid when he says, “I’m anxious. I’m afraid. Where is my help?” And just listen how raw and vulnerable and physical the issue is here. Verse 3, “He will not let your foot slip.” It’s literal. He is at a real danger of a fall; it’s a 2,000-foot climb. “He won’t let your foot slip. God will not let your foot slip.” Verse 3 to 4, “He who keeps you will not slumber. He doesn’t sleep.” In other words, “While you sleep under the stars at night in the middle of the valleys where the thieves do their work, He is awake.” You see?
Verse 6 is a great example of Hebrew poetry where the two opposites refer to a whole, to be inclusive of everything. So if you see verse 6, “The sun will not strike you by day nor the moon by night.” In other words, it’s saying, “God will always protect you, in the sunshine or in the nighttime.” But more concretely it’s a reference to sunstroke by day; you could die of sunstroke. Or by night of what the ancient peoples and really into the modern world people viewed as what’s often called moon stroke. Well, I said in the first service I don’t know what the medical professionals might say to me at the end, and I’ll await your comments, but for most centuries, people have had some view of moon stroke, of the fact that the phases of the moon do something to us to change us biologically in some way. And that’s probably what’s being referred to. I think the modern term is “solenoplexia.” Wikipedia told me that!
Here’s the point. Here’s the lessons we learn. The Bible, this psalm, the fact that it exists means that the Bible addresses our vulnerability as physical beings. It gives us a way to deal with the fears that we face as people that are embodied and feel the curse of pain that’s been put upon this world, the curse that theologians call “the curse of the thorn.” The fact is that we are only relatively safe at any time. And most people have been much more vulnerable than late modern people throughout the centuries. And this psalm is telling us that that type of vulnerability is not neutral; it is a religious issue because it is a derivation of the curse condition of Genesis chapter 3
God Put This Here
And the second thing it tells us is that God, He put this here. And that means that He gives you a song to sing when you are afraid because He cares for our bodies. He made us as embodied spirits and any situation in which the Spirit is removed from the body, that is a death condition, also derived from the curse of Genesis 3. And to put it more practically, God hates it when our feet slip. God desires that none might perish and God made the world good. It is not His desire to have sin rule over the world and cause the curse of the body, of bodily pain. And we learn that because throughout the Old Testament about the hope that He is going to bring to the pilgrim, it’s total. Just listen to one example. Isaiah 49:10 – “The hope of all peoples, on all the bare hills shall be their pasture. They will not hunger or thirst. Neither the scorching wind nor the sun will strike them any longer. He will make the mountains into roads.” He will make the journey safe.
Now before we talk very briefly about the second enemy here, let me just ask the question, “What is the help that’s on offer? What is the help that only God can give here?” And you get a hint at it in verse 5 when it says, “The Lord is the shade at your right hand.” Whenever in the Psalms that the problem that’s attacking you is nature, the psalmist usually refers to God as your shade in your hand, like an umbrella in modern terms. Whenever it’s human beings that are attacking you, it’s usually “God is your shield.” And in Psalm 3 there’s a parallel instance where David prays and says, “O God, You are the shield all about me.” And commentators will say it’s a funny prepositional phrase there when he says, “the shield all about me.” And likely it’s that there were all sorts of types of shields in the ancient world. And in what instance do you need a shield that is all about you, not just on your arm? And as one pastor put it, it’s the shield that you wear when you’re going into the fire, not away from it. In other words, the shield all about David is a seed shield. It’s for when you’re going up to the castle wall and they’re pouring down the hot coals and throwing the javelins down from above and you need a shield that is literally all about you.
And what that tells us in the Psalms – what’s being offered, what help is being offered? Well, when he says "a shield all about me," he's saying, "Look, I'm stepping into the fire, not away from it. The circumstances around me – I'm going towards the danger, towards the wall!" You see, it's not magic. What's not being offered here is that if you believe in Jesus Christ, if you accept the Christian worldview, if you trust in Jesus and walk with Him, the promise of the Bible is not that life gets easier, not in this life. That's not what's on offer here. That's not the shield or the shade. It's what you need when you're going into the fire, when you're going up to the castle wall. It's a buoyancy in your heart that only the Holy Spirit can give, you can't get it anywhere else, that can keep you afloat when all your circumstances are pulling you down. Here's the point. Take your fears to the Maker of heaven and earth. Pray then, and He will give you help.
The Second Enemy
Alright, very briefly – who is the second enemy here that we need help from? And it’s not as obvious on the surface of the text but there’s a hint about it in verse 7. “The Lord will keep you from all evil.” That little phrase, “all evil,” in the Old Testament is typically a reference to the principalities and powers of darkness. It refers to Satan and his demonic forces. And let me just show you how this is the case in the passage as well. Verse 1 – the hills. The hills across the Bible not only stand for a place of physical danger but also as a domain outside of the protection of the city of the mountain of God in Jerusalem where it’s thought, by the ancient peoples, that demons particularly possess the peoples of the hills. It’s where the high places are. It calls them in the Old Testament the “high places” because they’re on the hills. It’s the place where you go to worship idols, you see. Jeremiah 3:23, “For in vain you look for salvation in the hills.” That’s a reference to false gods, you see. 1 Kings 20:23, “The servants of the king of Syria said, ‘The gods of Syria are the gods of the hills.’” Or Deuteronomy 4, “Beware, lest you raise your eyes up to the heavens and you see the sun and the moon and you bow down and you serve them” – things that the Lord your God has made that are not gods.
You see, the hills, the sun, the moon – these are all evil. These are references, this is an argument against the demonic forces. This is what’s underneath the passage; it’s what’s underlying it. One commentator says this. “Verse 6 needs to be interpreted as an argument. The sun and the moon, the heavenly bodies which are often worshiped and credited with divine powers in the other religions are here being stripped of their powers before the face of the true God.”
Many of you know the story of John Paton, the Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides. He proposed to his wife in Glasgow as a young man and said to her, “Will you marry me? And in two weeks we’re going to the New Hebrides where the last people that visited were eaten by cannibals.” So that’s one way to do a proposal. If you’re thinking about proposing anytime soon, you could try that one! When they got there, they were in a hut that they had built and it’s a very famous story – they came for them. And they came to do that which one would expect them to do. And they waited and waited and they never came in. All night, the tribesmen stood outside the doors but never came in. And Paton got on with his work and a year later he had learned the language, he had shared the Gospel with the chief of the local tribe and the chief of the local tribe got converted; he believed in Christ. And they sat around the fire and the chief said, “That night when we came for you, who were the men with drawn swords keeping us out?”
You see, the host of God’s army are real, and we don’t see them all the time, but this is no mere mythology. And so are the powers of darkness that dwell, that have fallen from before creation. And this passage is telling you two things. Do not fear. Take your fears for your bodily existence to the Maker of heaven and earth and He will lift up your heart because the world does not have ultimate power over you. And secondly, take your fears, well, the evil powers of darkness, they do not have power over you, not before the God who is the Maker of heaven and earth. He is the protector and He is greater than all of your enemies and He will keep you if you walk with Him.
The Keeper of the Ascent
Very briefly, thirdly and finally, the keeper of the ascent. Let's just ask for one moment, "What does it mean that the passage keeps referring to the keeper?" Five or six times it uses the verb, "keep," "keep," "keep," and "keeper." And one of the reasons perhaps, some commentators will say, is that each of the fifteen Songs of Ascent picks up on one word from the Aaronic benediction of Numbers chapter 6 and use it over and over again. “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” The word for Psalm 121 is “keep.” It’s six times, I think – “keep,” “keep,” “keep,” “keep,” and “keeper.” What is a “keeper”? Well, it’s not a position in soccer! Well, it is, but not at this point in history; not yet! A “keeper” is a term here that literally refers to a guard or a watchman or the night watch. And of course the classic image of the night watch is of the man, the men, the guards who, when the night comes and the enemies are lurking around the gate and 2 am rolls around – what happens to the night watch? They fall asleep, every time. If you've ever seen any British sitcom about the Middle Ages, they always fall asleep! It happens in Shakespeare! The night watch always falls asleep.
God Never Slumbers
And well, you get the point. The strapline of the passage is verse 4. It has the word, “Behold.” That means, “Wake up! I’m about to tell you the point!” “Behold,” verse 4, “He who keeps Israel does not slumber nor sleep.” In other words, the night watch of Israel, the keeper, while all the other night watchmen and those who watch over our hearts, you fall asleep. But He doesn’t. He never falls asleep. He’s a perfect night watchman. No matter what you’re facing in life, He never falls asleep. The term “slumber” there refers literally to a midday break. In other words, when you need to take a coffee break after lunch, when you have learned that trick to close your eyes as you sit up straight before your computer screen to trick your boss at 2 o’clock that you’re awake and working, God never needs that and He doesn’t put His head down on the pillow at night.
I had a friend at New College when I was studying there, it’s the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh where I was before, and we were in a prayer group together. And he said that every time he starts to get prideful he comes back to Psalm 121 because it reminds him that when he goes at night and puts his head on the pillow that he is not God because God doesn’t do that. He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He’s in control and we aren’t. We’re vulnerable but He isn’t, you see. So that means when you are afraid you need to lift up your hearts to the Lord, take your fears to God, talk about your heart and talk about your heart and talk to your heart about the God who keeps you and you need to look at your keeper.
The Other Hill
And where do you look when you’re looking for your keeper? And the answer is that you have to look at another hill. You have to look at the Son of Man who stood outside Jerusalem and looked upon her when He was on His pilgrimage on the Passover Feast and He wept for her because He knew what she would do to Him. And He stood at the bottom of a hill, the ultimate pilgrimage, the ultimate wayfarer, and they put the wood upon His back and prepared Him for His journey. And He went up the mountain. And instead of getting the safety of the mountain of the Lord as the pilgrim does here when they reach Jerusalem, He cried out to God and He said, “I lift up My eyes. Where is My help?” and there was silence. He heard nothing. He got no reply, you see. There was no help for Him in the terrors of the night when the sky turned black so that there could be for you when you’re afraid. Can God keep you afloat when circumstances are pulling you down in your heart? And the answer to the question is, “The One who did not spare His only Son for you, can He not give you what you need to walk on the path to the mountain?”
We’ll close with the words of Augustine. “Who is there who will neither slumber nor sleep? When you see one among men you are deceived. You will never find one. Trust not then in any man. Every man slumbers and will sleep. Seek not your keeper among men.” Amen. Let’s pray.
God, we ask that You would lift up our hearts to the Lord. We thank You for the Gospel. Turn our face toward the heavenly Jerusalem. We ask in Christ’s name, amen.
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