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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Psalm 121--A Guard and Guide for the Journey

Psalm 121  \: A Song of Ascents

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence cometh my help?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore. (NKJV)

            From the alienation of Psalm 120, the Psalmist moves on to hope—his eyes rise to the hils, from whence his help comes.
            The Bible is full of mountains and high places.  Jerusalem, the site of the Temple itself, is built on the crest of a ridge, as can be seen from looking at a relief map of ‘Eretz Yisroel. Before the building of the Temple under Solomon, or even the moving of the Ark of the Covenant to that city by David, the tabernacle—the Temple’s prototype, stood on a mountain at Shiloh. Mount Zion is the symbolic heart of the city of Jerusalem. The Covenant of God was ratified by the tribes of Israel on the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim.  The Torah was given at Mount Sinai, or Horeb.  Abraham was forbidden to sacrifice his son Isaac and received God’s provision of a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple.  With the coming of Jesus the Messiah, mountains play an important role as well.  Jesus delivers his ethical instructions in the Sermon on the Mount, he is transfigured and communes with Moses and Elijah on a mountain, and he was crucified to make atonement for our sins on the hill Golgotha.
            Hence, when the Psalmist raises his eyes to the “…hills, from whence cometh my help”, he is looking to a place from whence God speaks or acts for the salvation of his people.  This is why the collection of Psalms 120-133 are Psalms of Degrees, or, as more recent translations put it better, ascents.  The journey to Jerusalem is one that climbs upwards.
           To the Psalmist, God is Shomer Yisroel, the keeper of Israel, his church.  This word shomer, or its verbal form, appears in verses 4-8. It may refer to either an armed guard protecting a party of travelers or one who is concerned with the day-to-day tending to the necessities of the journey—indeed, it refers to one preserving the travelers.Some scholars have suggested that in ancient times, a party of pilgrims might sing the first two verses, to be answered by a priestly guide with the remainder.  The Psalm thus speaks of God's care for his pilgrims.
            In an age of good roads, air travel, well-paid police forces, and air-conditioned, fast-moving vehicles, we tend to be a little heedless of the possible dangers of a long journey.  But the ancient Israelite moved from his home—perhaps in the Galilee, the Hill Country of Ephraim, the Golan, or the Negev on foot.  His roads were stony pathways where he could easily stumble and fall.  The Middle Eastern sun might easily give him sunstroke.  Nighttime, when he camped in the open, could provide cover for wild animals, bandits, or military scouts from hostile surrounding nations. Hence, it was necessary for the pilgrim to have some assurances of safety, and these the LORD gives.
            As New Testament Christians, we know that this Keeper of Israel has taken on our nature and walked with us.  We know he has suffered the pains of our lives, even to criminal execution when innocent.  But we know as well that he has also conquered death on our behalf, and now hold all power in heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18), including the keys of hell and death (Rev. 1:18).
            Such is the one higher than we are under whose eye our “goings out” and “comings in” occur as we make our pilgrimage through this life to the heavenly city.  Yes, the road is rough and dangerous, but we have a strong guard as we travel it, one who wants us to reach our heavenly destination.

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