For the past seven weeks we have been looking at the Psalms we have grown to love. Google lists the Psalms that we are looking at as the most popular psalms that people look for.
We’ve looked at what the Book of Psalms are about, and we also looked at perhaps the most popular Psalm – Psalm 23 – The Lord Is My Shepherd. We looked at Psalm 34 and verse 8 “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalms 34:8 NIV). Five weeks ago, we studied Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God”. We’ve looked at Psalms 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God” and Psalm 51, “Create in me a pure heart, O God”. Two weeks ago Robbie preached from Psalm 118, “his love endures forever”. Last week we looked at the longest chapter in the entire Bible, Psalm 119 in which 170 out of 176 verses speak about the Word of God.
Today we are looking at Psalm 121. Notice that the Psalm commences with the title, “A song of ascents”. Actually, this title applies to 15 psalms, starting with Psalm 120 through to Psalm 134..
The word “ascents” means “steps” or “going up.” One of the reasons they are called Psalms of Ascent is because they were sung by Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the three annual feasts. There were three main feasts in Jerusalem each year: The Feast of Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles
The big one of all these feasts was the Passover. The whole family would come for Passover while only the men were required to go up for the other two feasts. Jesus would have sung these songs with his family as they made their way up to Jerusalem each year for the Passover. We read in Luke 2:41-42: “Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom” (Luke 2:41-42 NIV). Notice that they went up to Jerusalem? Jerusalem is located at about 2800 feet above sea level, and so no matter what direction you approach the city from, you are always going “up” to Jerusalem. For example, walking the 27-kilometres from Jericho to Jerusalem the road rises by about 1,000 feet.
So, they are called Psalms of Ascent first of all because they were sung by pilgrims literally going “up” to Jerusalem.
But they are also called Psalms of Ascent because the psalms themselves have an upward motion. They begin with the believer crying out to God in trouble far away from Jerusalem, and they end with believers offering up praise to God in his temple courts. And so, these are travel songs – full of beautiful imagery, meaningful expression and divine wisdom for the journey.
Have you ever gone on a road trip and put together a playlist for the journey? That’s what the Psalms of Ascent are. They are short, easy to memorize, and meant to be sung in praise and worship to God. God’s people have always been a singing people and a worshiping people, and God gave us these psalms to help us give expression to the feelings in our heart as we worship him in prayer and song.
In the Bible, Jerusalem represents the city of God, the place of the temple, the place where God chose to dwell and to meet with his people. That’s why many would make the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And so, as we read the Psalms of Ascent today, they hold great meaning for us as well. Because as Christians we also are on a journey – we are on a spiritual journey. We are all at different stages of our journeys. Some of you may not realise it, but even though you have not made that decision to follow Christ as your Lord and Saviour, God is working in your life. You are right at the very beginning of the journey, maybe at a crossroads. Some of you are here, some of you are over there, and, well some, may be well over there!!
It doesn’t matter what stage on the faith journey you are on, life will throw those curves balls. The road becomes rockier, narrower, and therefore hardier. For several of the Jews making that journey up to Jerusalem, it wasn’t always safe and so they would sing this psalm of ascent. Look at verse one, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains - where does my help come from?” (Psalms 121:1 NIV). Remember, they were traveling and looking at the mountain where Jerusalem was up the top. It was from the foot of the mountain that they looked up and ask where their help come from.
A few times in the Bible, we are encouraged to look up – to look up and see the majestic God. God says in Isaiah 40:26 says, “Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of His great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26 NLT).
It may have been that when the Jewish pilgrims were at the foot of the mountains, they looked up and asked where will their help come from? Climbing any mountain over 1000 metres high would be difficult. Anyone who has climbed the majestic Mount Warning know that it’s tough work rising over 1,156 metres. For the pilgrims, they knew that wild animals lived on that mountain, they knew that they could be robbed, and they knew that the track leading up the mountain wasn’t always smooth.
But as the pilgrims reached the foot of the mountain, they knew where their help to face the mountain would come from. Verse two declares, “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalms 121:2 NIV). They knew that their help would come from the Lord.
It is helpful to note of the name for God that is used not only in this psalm but in all fifteen of the Psalms of Ascent. He is “the LORD.” And when you see “LORD” spelled out in all capital letters like that, the Hebrew word is “Yahweh,” which is God’s covenant name. It is a name that speaks of God’s covenant relationship with his people and his faithfulness to them.
The name Yahweh in the Old Testament pointed to God’s covenant relationship with Israel. As followers of Jesus, you are also in relationship with the LORD. You are part of God’s covenant people, and you can trust God’s faithfulness to you in Christ. When you read the Old Testament and see how God helped Israel and took care of them, you can rest assured that He will do the same for you. Where does your help come from? It comes from the Lord God who is faithful to His promises.
After personally celebrating the Lord’s help in verses 1 and 2, the psalmist turns to give assurance to others in verses 3–8.
First, look at the first half of verse 3: “He will not let your foot slip…” (Psalms 121:3 NIV). I read an interesting take on this phrase and its meaning. Jason DeRouchie is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He points out that the word combination depicting the foot slip in verse 3 is never used in Scripture of physical falling. Rather, all four of its other occurrences uses it figuratively for someone who is overcome by divine judgment (Deuteronomy 32:35), personal sin or weakness (Psalm 38:16), or enemy oppression (Psalm 66:9; 94:18). So, when the psalmist wrote, “He will not let your foot slip” he was most likely speaking of the perseverance of the saints.
The perseverance of the saints is the Christian teaching that says that once a person is truly "born of God" and "regenerated" by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, nothing in heaven or earth “shall be able to separate (them) from the love of God” (Romans 8:39). They are eternally secured or as it simply put “once saved, always saved”. This is a teaching that our church upholds as stated in our Statement of Beliefs.
The psalmist is not promising the absence of pain or even failure. But he is promising that, whatever that mountain may bring, the saved will not slip away from their salvation. No one can snatch God’s sheep out of his hand (John 10:27–30), and the one who has justified will never again condemn (Romans 8:33–34). What mercy! What promise! The sure confidence we have today that we will remain with God tomorrow is God himself. Thank Him. Remain dependent on Him.
The Psalmist says that the Lord our helper never sleeps on the job. Verses 3 to 4 says, “…he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalms 121:3-4 NIV).
We can sleep peacefully because our Lord doesn’t sleep. Isaiah also said this about God, “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary” (Isaiah 40:28 NIV). Yahweh is always awake, always aware, and always watching over his children.
And that is a key word in this psalm “watches”. It comes from the Hebrew word “shamar” which means “to watch over, to guard or to protect.” This word shows up six times in verses 3-8. In the NIV it is translated as “watches over” five times and then also translated as “keep” in verse 7. If you are in Christ, then He who watches over Israel watches over your life as well. The God of Israel is your protector. He is your guardian.
The Psalmist continued in poetic language about how God guards us: “The LORD watches over you - the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm-- he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalms 121:5-8 NIV).
Last Thursday, we were saddened to hear of the death of Soul and gospel singer Aretha Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.
I particularly remember Aretha singing in the Blue Brother’s movie. Aretha was a committed Christian. She was a lifelong Baptist with whom she gave God the credit for her unique voice. She started out in the 1950s as part of her pastor father’s gospel show. She made her first recording at the age of 14 at his New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
She was known for secular hit songs, but Aretha recorded a best-selling gospel album, Amazing Grace, in 1972, which is among the five Aretha recordings featured in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The two-record set includes the classic John Newton hymn as well as What a Friend We Have in Jesus and God Will Take Care of You.
In 1987, the year she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, she recorded One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, an album of sacred songs that won a Grammy for best soul performance.
Aretha had battled cancer since 2010, but rarely talked about it. In 2013 after cancelling a series of concerts due to an undisclosed condition, she told The Associated Press that her healing was considered “absolutely miraculous”.
She said, “I was talking to Smokey Robinson, my oldest best friend Smokey, talking about the fact that some doctors are not very well acquainted with faith healing,” she said. “And Smokey said, ‘Well, they just don’t know who your healer is.’”
In 2017, she was asked by the Chicago Sun-Times about the importance of her faith and Aretha said: “It is very important. It certainly has sustained me to this day.”
Well, the Lord did watch over Aretha throughout her life and as the psalmist wrote: “the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalms 121:5-8 NIV).
And that is the hope we have. Our help comes from the Lord, who watches our coming and going both now and forevermore (Psalms 121:5-8).
Whatever part of the road you are on in your journey of faith, we are to look beyond the mountains to the God who created them. Mountains are symbols of strength and stability. They are great in size, long-lasting and unchanging. The creation reflects the Creator. And so, the God who made the mountains is even greater in power and strength.
The mountains are also upward in direction. We tend to look down when we’re facing challenges. Our faces are downcast. Our focus is on our troubles and all our problems down here, and they just tend to drag us down further. But we are not to look down. That’s the wrong direction! The mountains are a reminder that we are to look up. We are to lift our eyes to the mountains. But don’t stop there. Are you looking high enough? You must look beyond the mountains to the God who created them because God is higher than all.
Remember these psalms were sung by travelers on their way to Jerusalem, and it is possible they may have sung this Psalm as they were nearing the hills that surrounded Jerusalem. In that case they were not only looking up at the mountains, but they would also have been looking up towards Jerusalem and the temple, the dwelling place of God.
Psalm 46:1 tells us: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1 NIV). We read in Psalm 90:2: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2 NIV). God is bigger than the mountains and God is before the mountains. We don’t look to the mountains for our strength, but the mountains get our eyes off of our problems and lift our eyes up towards Jesus.
In the very early days of the church, there was a man named Stephen. Luke described him as “full of God's grace and power”. He performed miracles and spoke about Jesus and yet this infuriated very religious leaders. They stirred up trouble against Stephen, eventually seizing him before the Jewish court. Lies were told against Stephen and then he responded. He started with Abraham, then spoke about Joseph, and then the whole story about Moses. Stephen then shared about David and Solomon. Then Stephen came to the punch line and boldly told all those who were present: “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:52 NIV). Then they became very angry at him and Luke simply but profoundly recorded what happened next: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55 NIV).
Did you hear what Stephen did. Facing death, he looked up! Stephen looked up and he saw not only the glory of God but Jesus. What a sight that must had been.
And likewise, we to are to look up! Look up by praying, crying, singing, and reading His Word.
Don’t just look to the mountains but look to the one who made the mountains. Look past the creation to the Creator. Our help comes from Him. He is constantly watching over you.