“From Where Does My Help Come?” (Psalm 121)

 

Our help comes from the mountains, which represent God’s dwelling-place. He created them, and all heaven and earth, out of nothing, and therefore his sovereignty and power is infinite and unlimited. No one can prevent or hinder the Lord from helping and protecting his beloved ones.

Psalm 121:1-8 (text); Psalm 48; Romans 8:31-39

April 29, 2012 Download and print this sermon (PDF)

Psalms 120-134 is a group of 15 psalms that are commonly called “Songs of Ascents.” These include various individual and corporate songs sung by pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem during certain national feasts. Other Jewish interpreters say these were also sung by exiles returning form Babylon.

The Delectable Mountains (Pilgrim's Progress), 1837. Engraved by A.LePetit after a picture by H. Melville (click to enlarge)

The Delectable Mountains (Pilgrim's Progress), 1837. Engraved by A. LePetit after a picture by H. Melville (click to enlarge)

In particular, Psalm 121 is a favorite of many Christians, as it instills confidence in the pilgrims on their difficult and dangerous journey, a reflection of their lifelong walk with God till the end. It’s a beautiful, oft-quoted psalm in praise of God who protects, keeps and preserves his people. One verse that has given comfort to all Christians in times of danger, difficulty, affliction and other sufferings is verse 4: “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” The God who created the heavens and the earth loves his creation so much that he is deeply involved in all its affairs, never taking his eyes off the world, especially towards his people.

Remember Elijah’s battle against the priests of the idol-god Baal in 1 Kings 18? After the idol failed to respond to their prayers (of course a wooden or stone god never will!), Elijah mocked the priests, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v 27). Baal must be minding his own business, or maybe even taking a nap!

But not so with our God. He is not a pagan deity who created the world and left it alone. He is the sovereign King of creation who governs it. He is called Providence, because he upholds, nourishes and provides for it. He also uses means, including people and events, to perform his work of governing and providing for his creation.

All of these he does for the good of all his creation. But he has his gaze fixed especially on his own people whom he has chosen and loved before he created the world. So we read in Psalm 121 very personal affirmation of confidence in the Lord, with personal pronouns: “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”

Verse 7 also says, “The Lord will keep you from all evil.” Will God really protect us from all evil—sickness, accidents, enemies, joblessness, broken relationships? Christians are not immune to sufferings like these; Jesus actually warns us that in this world, we will have tribulations. If this is so, then is Psalm 121 merely a prayer? Or is this truly a promise that God fulfills in us?

These questions lead to other frequently asked and important questions? If God truly keeps us from all evil, how long will he remain faithful to his promise? Will he keep his promise even when we keep falling into sin? Are we still “eternally secured?” Should we feel confident because of this saying:“once saved, always saved”?

Today, we will meditate on the theme of Psalm 121, “From Where Does My Help Come?” under three headings: (1) From the Creator Lord; (2) From the Keeper Lord; and (3) From the Preserver Lord.

From the Creator Lord
The pilgrim going up to Jerusalem, on seeing the hills and mountains around Jerusalem, asks, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, From where does my help come?” He might be thinking about all the dangers that lie ahead—wild beasts, deep ravines, cliffs, hunger and thirst, and worse, evil men—and wonders who will help him in his time of need.

If this song is sung by pilgrims returning from the exile in Babylon, the hills may be the ones on the way from Babylon. There will be many great obstacles as well, like those around Jerusalem. Others even say the hills can be the “high places” of the pagan neighbors where they have set up their altars to their idol-gods. The pilgrims may be wondering who would help and protect him from these pagans who worship idols.

More probably, the mountains around Jerusalem remind him of the Lord in the temple at Mount Zion, who is his help, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore” (Psa 125:2).

Remember the series on Biblical mountains? In Scripture, God often met with his people and spoke to them in the mountains. At Mount Eden, Mount Ararat, Mount Moriah and Mount Sinai, God revealed himself and his perfect will for them. So mountains often symbolized the place where God is, who is their help, as David sings,

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God!
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
Within her citadels God
has made himself known as a fortress (Psa 48:1-3).

The mountains remind the Jewish pilgrims of the Lord who dwells in the beautiful temple at Mount Zion. From this mountain comes help from the Lord, the Fortress who protects them. Their help is not from the sea, which often is in roaring chaos, because it represents Gentiles. Help does not even come from their own land, because it is often ravaged by drought, famine, pestilence, storms and other disasters.

Their help comes only from the mountains, which represent God’s dwelling-place. He created the hills, and all heaven and earth, out of nothing, and therefore his sovereignty and power is infinite and unlimited (Gen 2:4; Exod 20:11). No one can prevent or hinder the Lord from helping and protecting his beloved ones, as Job confesses, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2; see also Jer 32:17; Matt 19:26).

If he created all things, is there anything that he cannot do? Did he not give all pleasurable things to our first parents in Paradise? Did he not send the great flood, but saved Noah? Did he not create Isaac in Sarah’s barren womb? Did he not send all the plagues to Egypt to redeem Israel from slavery? Did he not part the sea and the river so his people can cross on dry land?

When Job questioned God because of his great sufferings, God answered him in Job 38, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Where was Job when he created the whole universe and everything in it? Who makes darkness and light, rain and snow, mountains and deserts? Who provides food for the lions and the ravens?

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Our Lord Jesus Christ assures us that our Creator God is our help. He provides food for the birds of the air, and clothes the lilies of the field. He sends rain on the just and the unjust. If God provides for all his creation, how much more will he provide for you? “Not a hair of your head will perish” without his knowledge and permission (Luke 21:18). So Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matt 6:25-34).

Our help comes from the hills, which remind us that God is our Creator God who helps us. Let us remember that whenever we assemble together for worship on the Lord‘s Day, we draw near to him just as Israel drew near to him on his holy mountain, the heavenly city of God (Heb 12:22). Here, in this gathering of his saints, we find help in our time of need, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

From the Keeper Lord
In verses 3-8, the key word is “keep.” Six times, the psalmist tells us of his confidence, “The Lord will keepyou.” What does he mean? The verb “keep” variously means “to guard, watch over, attend to carefully.” This is the same word used in Genesis 2:15 when God put Adam in the garden of Eden not only to “work” or tend it, but to “keep it” as in guard or protect it.

The psalmist lists three things that God does to guard and watch over his people. First, “He will not let your foot be moved” (v 3). As they walk on rocky terrain, near cliffs, and slippery slopes, God does not let their feet slip or let them stumble over rocks. God protects not only their feet from injuries, he protects their very lives; he “has kept our soul among the living and has not let our feet slip” (Psa 66:9).

Second, the Lord “who keeps you will not slumber nor sleep” (v 4). He is not like the pagan god Baal who does not respond, and is in perpetual sleep because it is mere wood or stone. Since the Lord is the keeper of Israel, he is also your keeper, always watching you, keeping you from evil. He is like the night watchman in the bank who stays awake all night to protect the bank from thieves and robbers. A security guard who sleeps on the job is not doing his responsibility.

Not so with our Lord. Because he is the Almighty God, he does not need rest or sleep or entertainment to keep himself from being bored while watching through the night. Because danger lurks everywhere and in all places, God’s watchful eye is fixed on his people day and night, seven days a week.

Third, the Lord guards you from the dangers of your pilgrim travels day and night. During the day, he is “he is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day” (vv 5-6). The near eastern desert is an unforgiving place. It is extremely hot, and streams of water for refreshment and rest are few and far in between, and no food anywhere to satisfy their hunger. Remember how the Israelites grumbled against Moses as they travelled in the barren wilderness? They were dying of thirst and hunger because of the heat. But God gave them water from the rock and manna and quails from heaven. And all throughout their wanderings, he provided a cloud to give them shade.

At night, the Lord provided a pillar of fire to guide their way in the darkness. Literally, God was “a lamp to their feet and a light to their path” (Psa 119:105). As David says, “For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (Psa 56:13). Walking in God’s lght is life, and without his light, there is darkness and death.

Verse 6 adds that the Lord will keep the pilgrim from being struck by the moon at night. What does this mean? Ancient people feared, just as some people today do, that the moon is able to cause emotional, even mental, disorders. Think of the words “moonstruck,” and “lunatic.” Being moonstruck does not only mean being in love or sentimental, but being crazy. And a lunatic, derived from “luna,” the Latin word for moon, is a person out of his mind.

The Lord keeps, guards and watches us intently. We need his help and protection. Psalm 121:3-8 takes the form of a benediction, “The Lord will keep your life” (v 7b). This is similar to the great Aaronic benediction “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you” (Num 6:24-25). As he watches us, we walk in the light of his glorious face.

Christ our Shepherd watches his sheep constantly. He is awake at all times, day and night. All through the night, he committed his sheep to his Father in his prayer before he died, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost” (John 17:12). He does not let your feet be moved, because he is the One “who is able to keep you from stumbling” (Jude 24).

From the Preserver Lord
Finally, in verses 7 and 8, the psalmist says that our help is in the Lord who preserves us forever, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life” (v 7).

Throughout the Psalms, this is a major theme. For examples, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psa 16:1). “[His saints] are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” (Psa 37:28). “Preserve my life, for I am godly” (Psa 86:2). “The Lord preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy” (Psa 145:20).

His protection follows you when you go out the door of your house to go to work, school or market. He guards you all day as you work, study or do your errands, until you go back home at night into the protection of your home. God’s preservation lasts not only all day long, but throughout all your lives, even for all eternity.

But you say, How can this be when I suffer from all kinds of evil and sufferings? Is the psalmist only praying this song? Is he merely wishing that God will protect him? No, God truly preserves his people. This psalm is surrounded by other psalms which speak about God’s people suffering in their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me” (Psa 120:1). “Our soul has had more than enough… of the contempt of the proud” (Psa 123:4).

God’s promise of preservation is primarily, in his preservation of your soul, and only secondarily, in his preservation of your body. Psalm 121 does not promise a bed of roses, and a life of comfort and ease, because the pilgrim’s life is full of sufferings. Rather, the psalmist promises the Lord‘s preservation of your faith in times of temptations and trials. Your feet will not be moved by heresies, false teachings, and persecution. He will keep you in the truth, because his eyes are always watching for the devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).

His watch is for eternity, “from this time forth and forevermore.” This is why Paul’s words in Romans 8:31-39 is one of the most encouraging passages in Scriptures. Absolutely nothing in this universe can separate us from the preserving love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, even death. Because after death, we enter eternity with God in the heavenly mountain.

Paul keeps repeating this eternal assurance for us. “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim 1:12). Other New Testament writers are also confident. Jesus is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2). The saints “are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:4-5). Christians are “those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ” (Jude 1).

They were all well-taught by Christ our Keeper, who said that he will lose none of those that the Father has given him (John 6:39), and “no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:29). In these last days, many false prophets will come with false teachings to deceive us, if possible, but the elect will never be deceived (Matt 24:24).

Carnal or Perfect Christian?
But there are many Christians who do not believe and trust in the words of Psalm 121 and the words of Christ and his apostles. First, they say that there are some passages that speak of true believers losing their salvation, such as Hebrews 6:4-6.

Does Hebrews 6:4–6 describe genuine believers who fall away into unbelief? It seems to say so, since the person described experience the blessings of a true Christian individually and as a member of God’s people. He has professed repentance, “have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.”

This reading of the passage, however, is absolutely unsound. In addition to Psalm 121 and the texts cited above, innumerable other Scripture texts affirm the preservation of true saints in their salvation. Many other texts in the epistle to the Hebrews itself asserts this truth. Christ will bring many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10), and “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14).

Like Israel, the Old Testament people of God, not all those who are members of the covenant community are true believers. So they might profess repentance and hear and be enlightened with the gospel truth and yet still reject it. Many in the church who partake of the Lord‘s Supper “taste the heavenly gift,” and yet are not truly saved. Since the Spirit indwells true believers in the church, the unsaved in the church also share in this blessing. In addition to the sacraments, they also taste the Word of God in the preaching. All of these blessings are only a foretaste of the perfection of the “powers of the age to come,” and all in the church—saved and unsaved—experience them.

But these passages are warnings to believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) to show the reality of their salvation, and to press on with diligence and wisdom. Without visible fruits of salvation, there is no assurance that those who are members in the visible church are true believers. This is why John says this about those who fall away, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Second, they say that if we teach that God keeps and preserves his saints forever, we will lead them into sinful lives. This teaching, they say, will lead to licentious living. Not so, because a true believer is indwelt by the Spirit, and will surely lead life in the Spirit. A true believer will manifest good works, for Paul says that the elect were chosen to live holy and blameless lives; God even prepared the good works that they will be doing. Paul says that a true believer is “a new creation.” And Jeremiah and Ezekiel says that in the new covenant, God’s people will be given new hearts and new spirits, and God’s law will be written on their hearts. How then can a true believer continue to live in sin and live licentiously?

Those who do not believe that God preserves believers for eternity make two extreme mistakes. On the one hand, they believe a Christian can be “carnal,” living in continual sin and immaturity (1 Cor 3:1). This is an absurd view, as we have seen. On the other hand, many of them also believe that a Christian can live a perfect life in this world, as John Wesley, Charles Finney, and Bill Bright taught, misinterpreting 1 John 3:9, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin… and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (KJV). Which is which? Kim Riddlebarger reflects on these two extremes:

What [“living in victory”] meant was that those who were truly committed to Jesus Christ and had made him Lord over every area of their lives would not be content to remain “carnal Christians.” If you were truly committed to Jesus, you would strive with everything in you to move into the “victorious life” … in Romans 8. In that passage, the Apostle Paul supposedly speaks of victorious Christians as people who had made the determination to walk according to the Spirit and to no longer walk after the flesh (Rom. 8:1, KJV). Those hearty souls who managed to completely dedicate themselves to Christ could attain that lofty goal spoken of by Paul as “more than a conqueror” (cf. Rom. 8:37).

Instead, the sinner… should see his struggle with sin not as failure to attain perfection and a “victorious Christian life,” but as proof that he is maturing as a believer, putting off the old corrupt and deceitful self, and putting on righteousness and holiness more and more (Eph 4:22-24).

Beloved friends, Psalm 121 is a great comfort to you. It gives you confidence that God will keep, protect and preserve you. But he does not leave you alone to fend for yourselves, to strive for righteousness on your own. This is an impossible task, for we are all sinful creatures.

He is with you in your pilgrimage to the heavenly city. How is he with you? He indwells you with the Holy Spirit, so that God’s law is always with you. Your good works are always with you This is your confidence: not that you preserve yourselves, but that you persevere in life and in death because God preserves you.

God is also a persevering God. He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psa 103:8). When you fall into sin at times, he will not cast you out into the outer darkness. He draws you near to him again and again until you mature in faith. He perseveres in loving and preserving you, in being merciful and gracious, even while he chastises you.

In your pilgrimage, look back, and see how the Lord has kept your life. Look forward to his protection and preservation until you reach the top of the heavenly mountain which he has reserved for you. Amen.

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