By Steve Wyatt
My parents grew up in Heaven. Well, “almost Heaven.” You can’t hear me but I’m humming right now. We West Virginians are proud of our mountains and hills. We see them as strong and beautiful—even protective.
Sadly, our family moved to Illinois when I was 11. And where we lived, it felt like God had taken a giant steamroller and flattened the place!
I live in Arizona now and am once again embraced by mountains. They’re different than the rolling, lush hills of West Virginia. But there’s no denying that they are equally majestic! My home sits among the foothills of Gavilan Peak and when I read my morning paper on the patio, that mountain shouts to me the great power and glory of my God.
Not long ago, I sat there and imagined what the early pioneers must have felt when they first laid eyes on those crusty peaks: “Duh, what are we gonna do now?”
That’s how the ancient Jews must have felt, too.
A Song of Ascent
Psalm 121 is a traveling song, a song Jewish worshippers would sing while ascending the hill of God to visit the house of God. They sang it antiphonally—the group in the rear sang a few lines and then the group up front sang a few lines in reply.
Why sing while climbing? Because ascending mountains was difficult for travelers on foot. The paths were steep and craggy. That’s why it was such good news when Isaiah said that in the day of the Lord, “every mountain and hill [would be] made low” (Isaiah 40:4, 5).
Without being too precise with the original Hebrew, it means this: Although West Virginia may be almost Heaven, Heaven itself is more like Illinois.
Which was good news, because these mountains, though beautiful, were a haven for bandits. They reached high into the sky, but the steepness of the climb could bring even the stoutest heart low to the ground.
Just like the mountains in your life. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?” (Psalm 121:1).
The most difficult challenge in any climb is to know when you need help. That’s no small admission in our culture. To ask for help means I am weak and can’t make it unless I get help. I am not in control. That’s why I “lift up my eyes.”
A Cry for Help
What kind of help are we talking about? Not what you might think. This help isn’t the strength you may think you need to complete your climb, to reach the top, to plant your flag on another high summit. That’s not it.
The help God promises, the help that “comes from” him (v. 2) can be unpacked in one word: watches. It’s the key term in this psalm and is repeated five times in eight verses.
“The Lord watches over you” (v. 5).
He’s the watcher and we’re the “watchees.” He watches us as we cross every mountain. He watches with such faithfulness that he knows every circumstance we face. In fact, he “will watch over your coming and going” (v. 8).
Time out. That’s not poetry. It’s a very technical Hebrew promise.
When you wake up in the morning and go out into your world to work and barter and play—but also when you come home at night to rest—the Lord is watching over you. “Coming and going” is merely a beautiful way of saying, “Every moment he’ll be watching.”
And because he’s watching over you, “the sun will not harm you by day” (v. 6). Arizonans get that. If we’re climbing in the desert, there’s nothing more dangerous than the sun. Dehydration. Cramping. Heat stroke. Shock. Organ failure. Death. The sun can kill.
But because he’s watching you, “the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” That seems strange. In the ancient world, the moon was often associated with the mental impairment caused by advanced years. So he’s watching, whether you’re hiking around in the brightness of your youth or have become impaired by the limitations of a dusky, maybe even poorly functioning mind.
A Promise for the Night
In your waking and sleeping, in your coming and going, from the rising of the sun through the moonlit night, our God, who “will neither slumber nor sleep” (v. 4), will not only watch over you, he will be “your shade” (v. 5).
So if he’s making shade, that means he is also my protector. He’s my bodyguard. And he’s not just sitting idly, watching from afar. He’s at my “right hand,” exactly where I’d want someone to be when I need him.
Because he stays so close, “He will not let your foot slip” (v. 3)—another striking phrase in a psalm filled with striking phrases.
It’s a common theme in Scripture, but it doesn’t mean what you want it to mean. It doesn’t mean you are guaranteed physical safety or financial security. It’s a reference to obedience. It doesn’t mean you will never experience pain or discomfort. It means God will help you stay obedient. He will stand watch over your soul and guard you from taking a spiritual tumble.
It doesn’t mean you will never sin. It means God will not allow any outside force or person or circumstance to harm any soul that puts its trust in him.
A Reminder About Life
That’s the hopeful message of this traveler’s song. Nothing eternal is at risk in your life. So climb in peace. Climb high, climb strong, climb with joy.
Just remember that everything temporal is at risk: your job, your body, your money. So when the psalmist says, “The Lord will keep you from all harm” (v. 7), he’s not promising that you’ll never get sick or face financial reversal or deal with any other such problems. This psalm began with a call for help; remember? So the psalmist obviously needed help!
Don’t read this song as God’s promise of a challenge-free, pain-free, discomfort-free life! No, the promise is that if you’re God’s pilgrim, and if you’ve placed your trust in him, then when you face a mountain you cannot climb, God will not allow you to be destroyed by the challenges, discomforts, and losses you might face.
That’s God’s promise. No matter what happens to you, he will provide the support, guidance, and restoration you need to make it to the peak of his holy mountain.
Nothing you need will be withheld. You won’t be cushioned, but you will be kept. Not pampered, just protected.
While driving home from yet another in a long string of radiation treatments, my late wife lifted my eyes. Her cognitive abilities had, by this time, become severely diminished. Even speaking was a challenge. I didn’t know it then, but I know now; Cindy was dying. Her climb was nearly over.
But she said to me words that still watch over me. “Steve, I get it now. Nothing I’ve done ever mattered—except what I did for Jesus.”
And with that, my help arrived.
The truth of Psalm 121 won’t fit on a Hallmark card. These aren’t words for the faint of heart. They are intended for those who face a steep, even treacherous climb. But even then, “the Lord will keep you from all harm.” And even in those craggy, hard-to-climb places, when you can’t see your way through, he will watch over you. And he will most assuredly help you.
And when “forevermore” kicks in? You’ll find, as Cindy has already found, that every valley you’ve had to trudge through will “be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed” (Isaiah 40:4, 5).
Steve Wyatt is a minister and freelance writer in Anthem, Arizona.
Our money, our homes, our jobs, people’s opinions of us, and even our families often provide us with a false sense of security. Even when things aren’t going well, the sense of insecurity we feel when we lack these things is false.
How secure do you feel? On what do you base your feelings of security?
Psalm 121 assures us that we are very secure. The words of this passage provide an antidote for the false sources of security and insecurity in our lives. Memorize it or read it daily to remind yourself that you are fully secure in God’s love.