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Where Do We Look For Help?

Series: Psalms Book 5

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 27, 2011

Psalm 121:1-8

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Take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Psalm 121. We continue our way through the songs of ascent. We said the last time, in describing the meaning of that term, that is probably refers to the pilgrims on their way from various parts of Israel ascending to Jerusalem, which is on a mountain, coming up from the valleys and the byways and the highways on their way to Jerusalem for worship at the great festival. And so these songs are pilgrim songs sung by those who are on their way to Jerusalem to worship.

As we read Psalm121 tonight, I want you to be on the lookout for a number of words that are repeated that are very significant in this psalm. Watch for these words — shade, help, and especially keep. These are words that are used to describe what God is and does for His people. He is our shade. He is our help. And especially, repeatedly in this psalm, He is our keep. That's a term of His providence, of His protection. He keeps His people. Be on the lookout for it as it is repeated through the psalm. Notice also that as we read about the hills or the mountains in the very first stanza of the song, the hills do not constitute the source of the psalmist's security. The hills are not his refuge; they are in fact a menace. You can understand how this might be. Travel in the mountains or the hills could be dangerous. It's a place where one's foot could easily slip and you come to harm. And of course robbers can hide in the mountains and present a danger to pilgrims. And so as he lifts his eyes to the hills they are not the source of his help, they’re the source of his fear, and he has to ask, “What is the source of my help?” Well bear those things in mind as we read God's Word, and before we read it, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we thank You again, at the end of Your day, the Lord's Day, the Christian Sabbath. We have the privilege of gathering under Your Word with Your people. We truly wouldn't be any other place Lord. And we're here because we do know where our hope is found and we need to be refreshed in that hope and we need to taste and see that You are good and we need to hear from Your lips the words of life. So teach us tonight as we pay heed to Your Word read and proclaimed. By Your Holy Spirit, open our hearts to understand it and to believe it and change us by it. We ask all these things in Jesus' name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it:

“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.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

This psalm asks a vital spiritual question. And the psalmist supplies the monumental spiritual answer to that question and then having supplied that answer, begins to preach that answer to himself. And we need to preach that answer to ourselves. So I want to look with you tonight at this vital spiritual question, this monumental spiritual answer, and I want us to learn how to preach it to ourselves.

A VITAL SPIRITUAL QUESTION: WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF OUR SECURITY?

Let's look at the question first and you’ll see it in the very first verse. What is the source of our security? That's the question. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The psalmist, pilgrimaging on the way to Jerusalem, looking at the threatening hills and mountains surrounding, asks the question, “Where does my help come from? What is the source of my security?” It's a very interesting question, isn't it? For a psalmist in inspired Scripture to be asking that question, that's a very interesting question. In fact, it really bothers Calvin that the psalmist asks this question. Calvin, in his commentary says, “He's talking like an unbeliever to ask where his help comes from!” And then he begins to ponder this question. “What then is the meaning of this unsettled looking of the psalmist who casts his eye now on this side and now on that as if faith directed him not to God?” And Calvin's answer is this — “The psalmist is reflecting a condition which is common to believers, that even though we know our help is in the Lord, even though we know the Lord is our source of security, when danger surrounds us we tend to look here and there and everywhere but the Lord for our security. And so in God's kindness He has the psalmist ask this very question so that we may ponder where our trust really is and make sure that it is securely placed in the only place of confidence.”

So is the psalmist having an internal discussion about this question? In other words, is the psalmist asking himself within himself, “Where is my hope? Where is my security? Where is my safety?” Or is this a conversation between fellow pilgrims as they’re walking along the way? Are they speaking to one another about where their confidence is? I don't know, but whatever the case, it does let us know that God's people struggle with the subject of this psalm. Now it's important for us to zero-in on the specific spiritual question and issue that is at hand. The question is this — Where does our help come from? Where, let me ask it more specifically, where does your help come from? Where do you look for help? What is the source of your protection? From whence do you derive your sense of security? In the end, there are only two answers to that — God or anything and everything else.

But for the sake of thinking through this, let me break it down into three answers. Some of us try to find security in ourselves and through what we do. When we find ourselves in dangerous and challenging situations, we sometimes try to find an answer for our insecurities in the activity that we do. We try to fix the situation. Other times we look for a sense of security and help and stability in other things. It may be in circumstances or it may be aid from some other location rather than God. But ultimately, whether we look to our self or whether we look to our circumstances, neither of those things can be the source of our help and our security. The only source, the psalmist tells us, is in God. And so it is a vital spiritual question asked here — what is the source of our security?

A MONUMENTAL SPIRITUAL ANSWER: GOD IS THE ONLY RELIABLE SOURCE OF YOUR SECURITY

And the monumental spiritual answer comes in verse 2. God, God Himself, the Lord, is the only reliable source of your security. Look at the words of the psalmist. “My help comes from the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.” Notice this singular personal acknowledgment and appropriation of this hope, of this place of security, of this sense of security, of this source of security — my help. Now compare that to the language of Psalm 124 verse 8. We’re going to get to that psalm in just a little bit. And Psalm 124 verse 8 may well have been John Calvin's favorite verse in the whole Bible. Now you don't even need to turn there to know what it is because if you've ever heard Derek Thomas use a call to worship, here's how it goes: “Our help is in the name of the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.” Psalm 124:8. Calvin used that for the call to worship for every worship service and that's why Derek uses that as a call to worship because of his appreciation to the influence of John Calvin on his theology on life.

But did you notice the difference here in this psalm? It's almost like that but it's not quite that, is it? It's not, “Our help is in the name of the LORD,” it's what? “My help comes from the LORD.” The psalmist personally, individually acknowledges that the Lord is his help. Now it's important for us to have both of those things. Our help is in the name of the Lord and my help is in the name of the Lord. There is both a corporate and a personal and individual aspect to the Christian life. Those things are not competing; they’re not in contradiction. We need them both. If all we have is the pronoun “my” in our spiritual vocabulary we're in trouble because we need one another. God did not send us off into the world by ourselves, all on our lonesome. He gave us a family, a church family in the first place, to walk the walk of faith, to be pilgrims and sojourners in this world. We need the “our” of the Christian life as well as the “my” of the Christian life. But this psalmist is making a very emphatic personal statement. “My help comes from the LORD.”

True religion, you see, is in the pronouns and you need to ask yourself the question, “Can I really say my help is in the name of the Lord? My help comes from the Lord who made earth and heaven?” You see, the psalmist is telling us on God's behalf, “You look up to Me and I’ll look out for you, I’ll watch over you, I’ll shade you, I’ll help you, I’ll keep you. I am your help.” And the response of faith to that is to say, “You are my help. My help comes from the Lord.” Can you say that? Is that where your sense of security is? If you’re a believer, the ultimate answer to that question is “yes.” That is where your sense of security comes from, but that does not mean that you do not wrestle with the first verse of this psalm in the course of your own spiritual experience because our faith is weak. That's why one in the gospel says, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

PREACHING PROVIDENCE TO YOURSELF AND ENCOURAGING YOUR FELLOW PILGRIMS WITH IT

And that is exactly what the rest of this psalm does. It not only states a vital spiritual question, “Where does our help come from?” it not only gives a monumental spiritual answer to that, “God is the only reliable source of your security,” it shows us how to preach God's providence to ourselves and to encourage our fellow pilgrims with that providence and you’ll see that in verses 3 to 8. In fact, in verses 3 to 8, you will see eight sermons that the psalmist preaches to himself about God's providence over him. To drive home this one grand truth that God is our help, the psalmist preaches sermons over and over to his own heart and to his fellow pilgrims about God's protection. Listen to them.

First of all, in 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.” Notice the first sermon. You see it there in verse 3. He will guide your steps. He will guide your steps. He will not let your foot be moved. In other words, He won't let you fall. A friend of mine wrote a book about the history of the Highlanders, I don't know, fifteen, twenty years ago. And he titled it No Great Mischief If They Fall. It was a reference to the Highland soldiers in the service of the king's army and their English commander making reference to the fact, “Oh, if we lose a few Scotsmen, what does it matter? Who cares? No great mischief if they fall.” That is not your God's attitude towards you. That is not God's attitude towards His children. He will not let your foot slip. He will guide your steps; He will not let you fall. So there's the first sermon that the psalmist preaches to himself. “I'm going into the mountains, I'm on my way to Jerusalem, I'm on my way to the feast - the Lord will not let my foot slip.”

Second, notice what else he says in verse 3. “He who keeps you will not slumber.” And then look again at the end of verse 4. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” And so the psalmist preaches a second message to himself. He's never asleep! He's always watching! What do we love to hear the choir sing from Mendelssohn's Elijah? “He watcheth over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.” It's one of the great contrasts between the God of Israel and the gods of Canaan and the Mesopotamian gods and some of the Egyptian gods, all of whom who are depicted in various artifacts of culture, as sleeping from time to time. When gods in Mesopotamia didn't answer their people's prayers, their people said, “Well, our god was sleeping.” And Elijah goes out of his way to emphasize that in contrast to the false gods, to the Baals, the God of Israel never slept. He never took a nap. He was never asleep. He was always watching over His people. And the psalmist here just reminds himself of that. “Lord, You are always watching. You never take a break. You’re always looking out for me. You’re not only the One who guides my steps, but You’re always guiding my steps. You’re always watching. You’re never sleeping.”

Third, notice here this language that “He will keep you.” It happens twice. Look at verse 3. “He who keeps you will not slumber.” Verse 4 — “He who keeps Israel.” Now that language, the language “keep” there, is the language of protection. It's the language of providence. It begins here and it echoes throughout the psalm. This word, “keep,” or the noun, “keeper,” comes out often in the psalm. Why? Because protection is the burning issue for a pilgrim who is traveling through hard and lonely country. What that pilgrim wants is protection and so the language is repeated over and over. He will keep you; He will protect you; He is your keeper; He is your protector. He protects Israel; He will protect you. And so he preaches this to himself. “He will guide me. He will always guide me because He's never sleeping. He's watching over me and He will keep me. He will protect me.”

Fourth, and you’ll see this especially in verses 5 and 6, the psalmist reminds himself it's not only that the Lord will keep him, the Lord will protect him, but that it is the Lord who is his keeper. Listen to him speak of it in verse 5. “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade.” So he rejoices in the fact that it is the Lord Himself who is his keeper. It's not simply that the Lord provides him protection. It is not simply that the Lord is an instrument of his protection through some other resource, but that the Lord Himself, in a very direct way, is his keeper. And not only that, a refreshing shade. “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.” If you've ever been out in a hot, Mississippi summer you know how refreshing shade can be. The image is instantaneously understandable to you. And if you've ever been in the Middle East in the summer, you know how heat and dehydration are a constant challenge, especially in the wilderness portions. And so the Lord Himself is declared to be our keeper and our refreshing shade. And the psalmist preaches this to himself.

And then again, look at verse 6. “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Here, he says, “Lord, You will protect me from the perils of day and of night.” Obviously sunstroke and dehydration are a reality of travel in the Mid East in this time in the midst of heat. And then of course there are the fears of night. And here he says, “Lord, You will protect me from the perils of day and the perils of night. You will protect me from the known and the unknown. You will protect me from the most overpowering forces, forces that are beyond my understanding. “The sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” And he reminds him of this. There's nothing, there's no force out there that is greater than the force of the Lord's protection.

And then again, look at verses 7 and 8 as he preaches three more sermons to himself. “The LORD will keep you from all evil.” Now this, of course, does not mean that you never experience any hardship or difficulty or that you’re never affected by evil in this life, just like Psalm 23 doesn't tell us that we won't go through the valley of the shadow of death. It just tells us when we do, He will be with us. But what is being said here? We’re being told that the Lord will protect you from and arm you against all evil, and so the psalmist preaches that message to himself, to take it in.

Then, we're told at the end of verse 7, “He will keep your life.” In other words, the psalmist is saying, “The Lord is concerned about my whole life; my whole existence is a concern of the Lord.” It's almost an Old Testament version of what? Jesus turning to His disciples and saying, “The hairs, the very hairs on your heads are numbered.” There is a comprehensive providence over you and over your life by the Lord and the psalmist preaches this message to himself. “He is concerned for my whole existence. He will keep your life.”

And then, not only is He concerned for the whole of your existence, look at how the psalm ends. He is concerned for the whole course of your life, from beginning to end. “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” I love the way that Derek Kidner describes this. He says, “The psalm ends with a pledge which could hardly be stronger or more sweeping. Your going out and your coming in is not only a way of saying ‘everything.’ In closer detail, it draws attention to one's ventures and enterprises and to the home which remains one's base. Again, to pilgrimage and return. And perhaps even by another association of this pair of verbs, to the dawn and sunset of one's life. But the last line takes good care of this journey and it would be hard to decide which half of it is the more encouraging — the fact that it starts from this time now or that it runs not to the end of time but without end, like God Himself, who is my portion forever, from this time forth and forevermore.”

And so the psalmist preaches to himself all these eight sermons about God's providential protection so that he can really take in and internalize the truth that God is our help, He is our shade, He is our keeper, and He will keep us. You know, it's very interesting, William Plummer, after commenting on this psalm and making numerous beautiful and helper devotional thoughts, right before he ends his devotional thoughts on this psalm throws out this sentence and here it is: “Good men must be very unbelieving to make it necessary for the Almighty so often to assure them of His preserving and protecting care as He does no less than five times in this psalm. Good men must be very unbelieving to make it necessary for the Almighty so often to assure them of His preserving and protecting care…” Well that's almost the flipside of Calvin's concern at the beginning of this psalm, isn't it? But it's very, very practical and relevant because the Lord knows that you are quick to despair and you are weak of faith and so He doesn't mind pulling up next to you and saying over and over in your ear, “I will keep you. I will help you. And your foot will not slip. And you will not finally fall because I am your God and I made the heavens and the earth and I will be your help.”

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, this is a message that we need every day. It's a message that we need when we think about rearing our children. It's a message we need when we think about walking in integrity in our work and in our vocations. It's a message we need in caring for elderly parents. It's a message we need in our marriages. It's a message we need in uncertain economic times. It's a message we need when we look at our world, at our nation, changing before our very eyes and we don't like what we see. This is a message we need. It is perhaps simple to understand but it is not so easy to fully believe. But the psalmist knew we needed to believe it and so he showed us how to preach it to ourselves. By Your Holy Spirit, teach us to preach Your protecting providence to ourselves. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

Would you stand for God's blessing? Peace be to the brethren and love with faith from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ until the daybreak and the shadows flee away. Amen.

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