– Psalm 121
Wow… The last couple of weeks have been stunning – in every imaginable way. Today, the sun is shining, and Harvey has long passed. But the enormity of the destruction left in the storm’s wake across southeast Texas is mind-boggling. After a week of digging out, everyone pretty much has a plan for the near future, even if life remains unsettled. Somehow, it doesn’t feel as if the Lord was watching over us and protecting us from harm.
Psalm 121 is a psalm of ascent, which means it was a psalm that was sung as faithful Jews from all over Israel journeyed – literally, ascended – to Jerusalem for the major Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Along the road, guards stood high on the hills and mountains to watch over them, to warn them of coming danger, whether of the two-legged or four-legged variety. These sentinels sounded the alarm, so the people could take cover or prepare for battle.
Sentinels played an integral role in ancient Jewish life, even beyond their necessity during pilgrimages. Vineyards and orchards had watchtowers – stone towers – built up for the same purpose: to watch for any foe and to cry a warning to the workers and landowner when threats arose. Finally, on an even larger scale, watchmen were placed around Jerusalem (around most all cities and towns), always guarding, looking for approaching danger on behalf of the people living there. These sentinels were the people’s protectors, their buffer between themselves and harm. So, when the psalmist asked, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – from where does my help come?” all the Jews knew the answer: help comes from the guards, the sentinels atop watchtowers, the protectors of cities, towns, crops, and travelers. But that is not the correct answer. Help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and earth, the One Who watches over His people day and night, Who sees our coming and going, and Who keeps us from harm.
What are the guards you depend upon to protect you, your sentinels in the event of crisis? Is it the plans and construction of your home? Are you trusting the maps of flood plains? The city planners and engineers who promise you will be safe? On what were you depending as the waters began to rise? Federal Emergency Management? Police and military personnel who led evacuations? And now as we begin to recover and reassess, on what are you depending? Insurance? Family and friends? Wise financial planning? How dependent are we upon the infrastructures that provide oil and gas and electricity? Or the supply line that assures we have food and medicine? At times like this, we are – or should be – acutely aware of how little control we actually have over our lives, and we ought to assess our confidence in the custodians of our lives.
The Jewish people trusted in their guards; they depended upon them. Yet, the Romans conquered Jerusalem. All the warnings sounded and all the strength of the Jewish people could not stop the Roman Empire from subsuming Israel and Jerusalem, very much like the waves rising across our cities and towns and into our homes. All the warnings, all the preparations, and nothing could stop it from happening. Our guards may be good, but they are not God.
That is the point the psalmist wanted to make: our help comes from the Lord Who made Heaven and earth. Life is fragile, and fate is capricious. As so many of us have discovered, the futures we plan for ourselves are merely hopes, not guarantees. The name Israel came from Jacob’s struggle with God (Gen. 32). Many of us are struggling with God these days. I think that is good. I don’t see the wisdom in blind faith that never questions or doubts God. It is in our struggling with Him that we learn, grow, and are changed. Israel means “God prevails.” When God departed from Jacob after the night of struggle, Jacob left with a new name and a new limp. God prevailed in Jacob’s struggle, but Jacob was forever changed. He became the Father of the Twelve tribes of Israel.
Our Lord remains faithful, loving, and watchful. Is it accurate to say He will never let us come to harm? The answer to that question is in how we define life and time. The Lord Who watches over us, Who measures our steps and protects us from all harm, is the same Lord Who saves us from death – but only after we have passed through it. I’m not sure how you define harm, but my definition includes death. I’ve always felt that death was harmful. But it’s not the last word.
Some years ago, I was going through a crisis, which one I cannot now remember, but I do know the sentinel that failed me was my expectation of God’s behavior and obligation to me. Praying and pleading with God for help and answers and understanding, the response I received came from 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” I can remember thinking, “Try again, God! I need a better answer than that!” But I tell you today, He did not lie. His grace is sufficient for you. All that you need, all that you face, and all that you lost do not equal the abundance of His grace in you and for you. I wouldn’t know that if I had not struggled with God, nor would I have learned He is our only true help at our deepest place of need. I walked away from the struggle changed, and I hope you do, too.
We should never confuse our sentinels with our God, even sentinels of thought or opinion. Sentinels are good and useful, but the only place – the only place – where you are truly safe is in the heart of God. He watches over you, over your coming and your going, and He keeps you from harm now and forever more.
In Christ –
© 2017, SFCM