January 13, 2019 | “Psalms of Ascents: Providence” • Psalm 121

Scripture Reading • Psalm 121 (NIV)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

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.


I really like John Muir … though, most of what I know about him I have learned secondhand – mostly from Sarah and from a PBS series I watched about National Parks. I would bet you have come across his quote “The mountains are calling and I must go” on a bumper sticker or t-shirt at some time or another. (This is actually just the first part of the quote from a letter he wrote to his sister where he talked about going to the mountains to work.)

That John Muir quote tends to come to mind when I am stuck in spring break traffic in Summit County … waiting to turn left across 285 on a Sunday afternoon … or just trying to quickly grab a few things from the grocery store … “Grr … ‘the mountains are calling,’ Muir said … ‘I must go,’ he said … why did the mountains have to call to everyone today?

Mountains symbolize so much for us … stability … peace … beauty … spirituality … Sometimes we are convinced, that if I can just get to the mountains, things will be ok. 

Sometimes, I wonder if we put more pressure on mountains than they were built to handle. 

“I look to the mountains … where does my help come from?” the Psalmist asks.

The claim of the Psalm is that as stable … as strong … as beautiful as mountains may be … our help doesn’t come from them. 

Our help comes from God, the one who formed and shaped the mountains. 

God, the Maker of heaven and earth is our help.

Psalm 121 makes powerful claims about God … God is our help …  God watches over us … God won’t fall asleep … God will be diligently watching … The Lord will keep us from all harm … The Lord is trustworthy and faithful … the Lord will guard and protect you. 

These are big claims.

These claims challenge the doubts and fears we find in ourselves … it even challenges some of the questions and fears we come across in other Psalms – like the painful cry at the end of Psalm 44, 

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
    rescue us because of your unfailing love (Psalm 44.23-26).

God, why aren’t you answering me? Are you sleeping?

Psalm 121 responds, 

[God] will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.


There is a theory that ancient Israelite travelers would recite Psalm 121 before they started a journey … a couple of bible commentators suggested this Psalm is even a responsive Psalm. A traveler would say the first two verses – I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from … My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. And a religious leader would respond with the last verses of the Psalm, something like a blessing for travelers … “God will not let your foot slip … The Lord watches over youThe Lord will keep you from all harm … The Lord will watch over your coming and going …” Powerful words of blessing for  someone on a journey … These are powerful words for us to hold onto as we make our way through life. 

I see substance behind this blessing in so many ways … like that Sunday the furnace wasn’t working, I felt so bad, but there was so much providence, so many ways I could see God caring for us that day … so much that pointed to God’s watching over us and providing for us … people who were wiling to help fix the furnace … because we were collecting blankets for for the food bank we had a ton of blankets around … people who are tough and adventurous and willing to make things work even when it is difficult. There are all of these places where we see God’s watchful and generous care. But there are other times when I’m not so sure … situations when I sound more like Psalm 44 (“God are you sleeping? God are you paying attention?”).

(I have told you this story before … and I hope it is ok to share it again … It is one of those experiences that has shaped me and stuck with me.)

A bunch of us were sitting around a table in a church fellowship hall … we were supposed to be eating dinner before our Wednesday night Bible study, but we were all too sad to eat. Our friend Jean, had just died after a painful, roller-coaster, battle with cancer. Doc, a retired veterinarian, and one of Jean’s closest friends said something like, “I just don’t understand … we prayed so much for Jean … how could God let this happen?” I think we all were asking that question in some way. We had prayed so much for Jean. We had been so worried about her. We had done everything we could think of to help and support her. And she had still died in this painful way. I imagine we felt a lot like whoever wrote Psalm 44 felt.

Later that week, after Jean’s funeral, we were back in that same fellowship hall … sitting around a table … Jean’s daughter thanked us for all the prayers … “The church’s prayers have meant so much to us,” she said. “We couldn’t have made it through this without those prayers … we could feel them … we could feel God’s presence with us … those prayers made all the difference in the world.” That was not how we were feeling a few nights before … I think she caught most of us off guard … her experience of God’s care was so different from we had expected.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, reflecting on Psalm 121, Eugene Peterson wrote, 

The promise of the psalm—and both Hebrews and Christians have always read it this way—is not that we shall never stub our toes but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us (Kindle location 523).

This reminds me of the encouragement the Apostle Paul shares with the church in Romans chapter 8 –

… I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.35-39).

As Jesus’ disciples, this is the good news that shapes our lives, the conviction that keeps us going and gives us courage: “Our help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth … the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore … nothing can separate us from God’s love.”