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“Keeping Watch”

Psalm 121
Bob DeGray
May 19, 2002

Key Sentence

Help for the journey is found in the guard who guides us.


I. Looking for help (Psalm 121:1-2)
II. The one who keeps watch (Psalm 121:3-4)
III. The watch he keeps (Psalm 121:5-8)


        Many of you know that I’m one of those ‘Lord of the Rings’ fanatics who has read the trilogy so many times I almost have it memorized. Yes, I went to see the movie on opening day. And I liked it, but I was sorry they had to leave so much out. Even what was there missed some of Tolkien’s best lines. Take, for example, the meeting in Bree between Frodo and Strider. Frodo is the bewildered hobbit doomed to carry the enemy’s ring; Strider, or Aragorn, is the heir of kings. Frodo has barely escaped the Shire, but danger has followed him, and only what seems a chance meeting with the mysterious Strider prevents disaster during the night. The next day Frodo allows Strider to lead him and his companions away from Bree.

        “After the Road had run down some way, and had left Bree-hill standing tall and brown behind, they came on a narrow track that led North. “This is where we leave the open and take to cover,’ said Strider. ‘Not a short cut, I hope,’ said Pippin. ‘Our last short cut nearly ended in disaster.’ ‘Ah, but you had not got me with you then,’ laughed Strider. ‘My cuts, short or long, don’t go wrong.’ He looked up and down the Road. No one was in sight; and he led the way down into the wooded valley.”

        In Strider the hobbits had found a guide and a guard. He kept them safe from dangers both known and unknown. In the same way we have a companion on our journey who is not only a guide but a guard, one whose cuts, short or long, don’t go wrong, one who keeps us safe from the journey’s dangers. Psalm 121, the second ‘Psalm of Ascent’ describes the one who helps and guards and keeps us, and how he does it. It tells us that help for the journey is found in the guard who guides us.

        Some of you may not be familiar with ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ but all of you remember the shepherds from the Christmas story. What were they doing before the angel came? Abiding in the fields ‘keeping watch’ over their flocks by night. They were the guards and the guides for those flocks and their job was to ‘keep watch’. In the Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, God himself is the one who keeps watch over us, protects us from evil and leads us into green pastures and beside quiet waters.

I. Looking for help (Psalm 121:1-2)

        But the image of one who keeps watch over us is even more present in today’s Psalm, 121. This is the meditation of someone who has begun their ascent, who is going up to Jerusalem from a far country where they were far from God. We saw last week that the lies that surround us, the distance, danger, delay and discord of our lives in this world are intended by God to be the distress which rouses us to seek him. This Psalm is the story of what happens when we do seek him, when we look to him for help. Verses 1 and 2: I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? 2My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

        I love mountains and even hills. One of the things that makes living on the Gulf Coast less than perfect is how flat it is. I think that’s why so many Texans go to Colorado for vacation, as we plan to later this summer. Colorado’s mountains lift my heart and give me a sense of joy and peace, and of the strength and sovereignty of God. But I even love it when the land starts to roll between here and Austin.

        The King James version attributes this same sense of wonder to the Psalmist as he left the flat plain he lived in and began his journey into the hills around Jerusalem: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” The implication is that as we look to the hills we find help. But as I’ve studied the Psalm this week, I don’t think that is what it’s saying. I do think the heart of the Psalmist lifted as he approached the mountains and hills of Israel. But I think he had mixed emotions.

        First, the hills of Israel were the center of idol worship. It was on the hills that altars to the god Baal were built, and poles were erected in honor of the goddess Asherah. A summary statement in 1 Kings 14 says “They set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree.” So for someone trying to follow God the hills were not necessarily a very positive place. As the Psalmist gazed up at the hills was he tempted by these false gods who offered him something without having to complete the long journey? Remember, these so called gods had no restraint. Temple prostitution was the norm - worship as an excuse for sexual sin. Drunkenness was also common among the priests and followers of these gods. Spells, enchantments, mediums and witchcraft all attached themselves to pagan religion. Furthermore, they each promised some material benefit - fertility, good crops, prosperity, if you paid the fees and did the worship.

        Do you see where I’m going with this? If we lift up our eyes to the world for help we may find temporary satisfaction, but ultimate disappointment. When we’re in trouble we can go back to all the world’s easy answers: Solve your problem by counseling, solve your problem by having an affair, solve your problem by escape to the bottle, solve your problem by new age meditation and channeling, solve your problem by success, by acquiring more and more material goods. If you fix your eyes on the world’s answers you will get the world’s answers - but ultimately you will find that all of them are a cheat and a lie and a scam.

        So the Psalmist lifted his eyes to the hills. He saw their majesty, but he also saw the temptations of the false gods worshiped on those hills. He was probably also aware of the danger of those hills. In Biblical times it was common for bands of thieves and marauders to make their hide-outs in the hills, and to prey on those traveling on the roads. The parable of the good Samaritan presumes that it is a fairly normal thing for a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho to be beaten and robbed and left for dead. So entry into the hills carried a sense of heightened danger and real fear.

        When we lift our eyes just far enough to see the world and not the God who made it, we can easily be consumed by fear. Relationships can be fearful things - their stresses and trials can cause us to want to retreat from our marriages, our children, our church. We also fear financial difficulties - loss of job, inability to pay the bills. We fear sickness and disability. Furthermore, we fear things like crime, terrorism, and the decline of morality. In the Sunday School we’re just completing, “I Will Fear No Evil,” Ravi Zacharias has shown the fearful power of evil if faced apart from God. The hills are full of terrors, and if that’s as far as our eyes go, we will be too.

        So what the Psalmist really says is “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Is that where my help comes from?” and the implied answer is ‘No.’ Verse 2 “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” The world can offer us certain answers, certain helps for the journey, but none of them can really give us what we need. Instead our help is supposed to come from the Lord.

        What is this help? The Hebrew ‘ezer’ is used a number of times in the Old Testament, sometimes of military help, sometimes of other kinds, and in the Psalms often of God’s help or rescue. On the military side you may remember this word from 1st Samuel. When Israel defeated the Philistines, the prophet Samuel was there, and he had a large stone set up as a memorial for Israel to remember that they had won this battle only by God's help. He named the stone, and the place, Ebenezer, literally "stone of help". Another interesting use of this word is in Genesis, where God says that for Adam, before the creation of Eve, no suitable ‘helper’ was found. A helper is someone who comes alongside another to provide assistance.

        So our help comes from the Lord. He comes alongside to provide assistance for the long journey. He is our companion, the one who guards and guides. Yet he is also the one who made heaven and earth, and so he has complete power to keep, protect and watch over those he helps. He is not a false god, he is not a small god, but he is the great God, the only true God, the creator of all things. He made the mountains and the hills through which we pass. He is greater than they are, the effortless master of any danger they might represent. He can help us because of who he is.

II. The one who keeps watch (Psalm 121:3-4)

        So the first question this passage raises is ‘Who do you look to for help?’. If you look for help in man’s ways, man’s plans, man’s efforts, the things men worship you will inevitably be disappointed, because there is no help there. Every believer needs to realize constantly that help for living the Christian life and walking on the Christian journey comes from the Lord, and him alone. Any other source of help is counter-productive to our pilgrimage. Verses 3 and 4 serve to encourage our confidence in the God who helps us: My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. 3He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber; 4indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

        Do you remember when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal? We read in 1 Kings that he had them set up altars on Mount Carmel - probably a high place of Baal worship. Then he challenged them: “You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire__he is God." The prophets of Baal prepared their altar and cried out all morning, but nothing happened. Elijah taunted them “Shout louder! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Gods like Baal, the gods we find on the hills are ultimately a sham. But our God is not like those false gods. He never slumbers, he never sleeps, he is always there by day or night to catch hold of us when we fall.

        Verse 3 says “He will not let your foot slip. He who watches over you will not slumber.” Remember these are Psalms about a journey, a long pilgrimage through a foreign land, as we set our sights and our gaze on home, on a future forever with God. But when you are on a journey, one concern is that your foot will slip. I remember the first time I went on a fifty mile hike with the Boy Scouts. We were pretty young, our packs were heavy, and that first day out it rained. One slip could have meant a broken bone or worse for any of us. In fact it was not until a couple years later when some of us hiked that section again that we realized part of that rainy journey had been on the edge of a cliff we couldn’t even see. A slip can be catastrophic.

        A slip on our Christian journey can also be catastrophic. It starts with pride or selfishness - a feeling that we don’t need the help of this one who accompanies us, or a feeling that we know a better way, a shortcut. But our shortcuts often lead right toward the false idols, or past a cliff of temptation where one slip will plunge us into adultery, violence, or debt. But even here we have hope. God, who never slumbers, watches our steps. He never takes his attention off his children, never lapses. In theological terms he is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. He knows what’s going on, he’s with us and he can do anything to help us. Like shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, this watch keeper never abandons or neglects us.

III. The watch he keeps (Psalm 121:5-8)

        Verses 5 to 8 give us the comforting details of what this one who is our guide and guard does as he watches over us: 5The Lord watches over you– the Lord is your shade at your right hand; 6the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 7The Lord will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life; 8the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

        The Lord watches over you. That’s the key verb for this message: it occurs six times in eight verses. The New American Standard translates it as ‘the Lord is your keeper.’ The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says, “The basic idea of the root is "to exercise great care over." This often involves keeping or tending to things such as a garden (Gen 2:15), or a flock (Gen 30:31), or a house (2Sam 15:16). It can involve guarding against intruders, as the cherubim do who guard the way to the tree of life in Genesis 3:24.

        Often this word speaks of God as the one who guards and guides his flock, who tends his garden, who builds his house. He is the one who keeps watch, day and night over his people. As the Psalmist says, "The Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night." That's an interesting image, isn't it? You can easily imagine the dangers of the sun: excessive heat, thirst, sunstroke, fatigue, all the things that accompany travel in a desert. But it's not easy to imagine any similar danger from the moon. We think of the moon as pretty harmless _ pretty and harmless. Why would we need protection from it?

        There are several possibilities. For one thing, just as the ancients didn't see hills the same way we do, they may not have seen the moon the same way we do. Remember the word 'lunacy' or madness, comes from the word 'luna' or moon. Moonlight was a source of madness, and something to be feared. They may also have feared the dangers which haunted the night, lying in wait for the unwary traveler. Another possibility is that the sun and moon in these verses represent the sun god and moon goddess, Baal and Asherah, who were worshiped on those hills. If so, the verses would be claiming that God, who never sleeps, can fully protect from the evil temptations of those gods. He can protect from every danger of day or night.

        But how do we apply this truth to our journey? We’re on a pilgrimage, passing through a foreign desert and longing for a better existence in the presence of God. What do these verses promise? They simply promise safety for the journey. It's not that the sun will never be hot. It's not that the night will never be treacherous, but God will keep us safe from enemies physical, moral or spiritual as we place our trust in him.

        The method God uses to keep us safe is simply to go with us himself. Like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, our journey is too important to trust to others. We need a guard and a guide, and God has chosen himself to be with us, through the Holy Spirit, through the Son, and as the Father. Jesus says “I am with you always” and the Father says “I will never leave you or forsake you.” We don't need to fear the dangers of the journey, because the one who is with us will guard us. We might even be wounded, because this is a very real battle _ but we will not be defeated.

        One of our favorite Bible stories, of the three young Hebrews in the fiery furnace, brings to life this truth of being guarded by God. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are told by the king they must bow down to the idol. But they say “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves in this matter. If we are thrown into the furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” What happens? When the king looks in the furnace he sees “four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” It was almost certainly Jesus. Why was he there? He was guarding his people from harm.

        So in the fiery furnaces of our lives we should expect the presence of one who guards. Last week, when we were reminded to cry out to God in distress, it was possible to think of God as someone far away, but now we know he is as near as the shade on our right hand. We’re not crying out to someone on the far side of the universe, or even the far side of the ceiling. We’re calling to one closer than any other, who won’t leave us. As Paul says "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." His love is always guarding us.

        Not only does he guard us, but he guides us. Verses 7 and 8 say "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." God is the one who directs our path away from the dangers of this world. It’s true that if we harden our hearts and force our own direction we can walk into danger. But in spiritual terms, if we allow ourselves to remain soft hearted, to walk where God wants, no spiritual harm can come to us.

        Notice that Psalm 121:7 says "he will watch over your life" _ he is keeping watch, as a shepherd keeps watch over his sheep. "He will watch over your coming and going." Just as the shepherd leads his sheep out to the field in daytime and back to the fold at sunset, so the Lord leads us out to where there is nourishment, leads us back to rest and care. He doesn’t lead us down dead ends, into barren fields or into the den of the wolf. He leads on safe paths _ paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

        And he does it "now and forevermore." This is one of those ‘now and not yet’ things that we will experience partially now and fully later. The ancient Hebrews didn’t fully grasp that the Lord saves for eternity, but we know that when we put our faith and trust in him, it changes our fate for all time. We move from darkness to light, from death to life, and we experience his presence now and forever. Though in fact his presence now is not as direct as it will be later. He doesn’t overwhelm us with the sense of his presence now, because that’s reserved for our homecoming celebration.

        Just as a king will travel to battle without pomp, and be with his army without ceremony or circumstance, so the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit travel with us in life’s battle while giving only very rare glimpses of their majesty. But back home that same king will invite the heros of his army into the palace and with great splendor and ceremony give them their rewards. And one day God will receive us before the throne in heaven and with great celebration will give his heroes their well done.
        What does this Psalm model for us, by way of application? First, that a believer who encounters difficulties on the journey should not look to the world for help in time of trouble, but to the Lord. In practice this means having a strong preference for responses to life’s problems based solidly in Biblical truth.

        Second, that the one who helps us is the creator of the world, and therefore sovereign over it, and he never takes a vacation from caring about our needs. In practice we have seen that his help comes principally in the form of guiding or guarding. Just as Frodo learned on the long path to Rivendell, help for the journey is found in the guard who guides us - not Aragorn son of Arathorn, but Jesus, son of Jehovah.

        Is this for real? Do we ever really catch a glimpse of a supernatural God guarding and guiding? Sure we do. Believers tell stories all the time of how God worked out the timing of some particular event so that they would be spared from accident, injury, attack, expense or even death. Twice in my life I have been in cars that spun a full 360 degrees in the middle of a crowded slippery highway without hitting anything. I don’t know what you would attribute that to, but I see God at work. Even in the World Trade Center disaster, where so many died, many more escaped, and some of the stories of why they weren’t there that day are clear testimony to God’s sovereign choice to guard many of his people, though he does call some home.

        As far as guidance goes, I could tell you many stories of how God has clearly guided Gail and me through decision making processes. But I don’t have to tell you any because we share a story called ‘knocking on doors only God can open.’ We did that. He opened the door. We own a building. If that’s not guidance, I don’t know what is.

        So these are two practical truths: that God guides and that God guards. You and I are wise enough and Scripturally sophisticated enough to know that this doesn’t mean he keeps us from every struggle, trial, danger or distress. But the Psalm teaches clearly that he is with us in those things, that he is the one we rely on for help, and that from time to time we catch a glimpse of his sovereign hand moving in the shadows to miraculously or circumstantially provide the guidance and protection we need.

        Eugene Peterson, writing in ‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ captures that truth well. “The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord, not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our gold medals with those of others who have made it to the winner's circle. To suppose that, or to expect that is to turn the nut the wrong way. The Christian life is about going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens of the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

        The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will guard us from every evil, for he guards our very lives.