Unto the Hills (Psalm 121)
As the ancient Hebrew children of God made their way up to Jerusalem, they sang the Psalms of Ascent. One of those, Psalm 121, remains one of the most beloved selections from the sacred Psalter. Perhaps, it is because the Psalmist is enabled to paint a picture with mere words which we all can relate to. For as the Psalmist begins with the unforgettable phrase, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” the reader must face the juxtaposition of the serene vista of God’s creation, in their case the rolling hills of Judaea, against the unsettling view of a fallen world. For we make our ascent, even if we are following after God, in a valley of woe; a “world with devils filled,” a fallen world which threatens “to undo us.”
Yet, the Psalm is such a lovely charm to the believer’s soul, for while not denying that there are, indeed, enemies of the soul in this life, God in Christ, has shown us that He is for us, not against us, and if we will but “look up,” like the Israelites in the desert as they looked upon the serpent on the pole [Numbers 21:8], or like the Roman soldier who looked up to see Jesus on the cross (who declared, ““Surely this man was the Son of God” [Mark 15:39]), we who are troubled in this life may look to Jesus our Lord, who is shown throughout the Word of God, and especially in this Psalm, as our Defender.
The Psalm points to three ways in which God defends those who look to Him. First, let us see this truth in the passage:
God is our defender against ourselves in this fallen world.
“He will not let your foot be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber” (3).
We have no greater tormentor of our souls than ourselves. We seek to save ourselves, and we find loss. We seek to promote ourselves, and we are abased. We crave attention and discover isolation. Our sinful predisposition is towards sin. It is only when we look up to Jesus Christ that we are saved from such a cruel life of self-abuse. In Christ Jesus, He will not allow our foot to slip. Thus, the Psalms, also, declare, “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—let Israel now say—if it had not been the LORD who was on our side . . .” (Psalm 124:1,2 ESV). But if God be for us who can be against us (Romans 8:31)?
When I was a boy, I used to cross a great field to go to an old lady’s home. She made biscuits and bacon every day, early in the morning, when her grown, never-married son, would rise to go out to work. She left the remaining biscuits and bacon on top of that old stove top for me. I would come about ten o’ clock in the morning, already a full day’s adventuresome play in, and hop up on the uneven, weathered timbers of that back porch. Standing at the screen door, sweating from running through the cornrows to get there, I would announce myself, “Aunt Mary!” (all older women were “Aunts,” whether they were related to you or not; this one was). “Come on in, Mike,” she would whisper in a low voice as she shuffled in a cotton-feed-sack-print-dress across the cracked, pink and blue linoleum floor. “There’s a lot left. Edward didn’t eat much this morning.” Edward was my first cousin. He was about sixty, and I was probably five. That is what happens when you are born to older parents. You end up calling your first-cousins, “Aunt” and “Uncle,” too. Back to the kitchen. “Thank you, Aunt Mary,” I minded my manners as I made my way through the hundred-year-old house, creaking beneath every step. And I would go over, get me one of those fluffy cat-heads and a couple of those thick-cut slices, grab a china plate from the pantry and just make myself at home. I would sit at her little round, rickety table and go right for the centerpiece: fresh black-strap cane molasses. It always sat on the table, along with hot peppers in a glass bottle. As I prepared the mid-morning ritual, I would look up, and I would always gaze upon the same picture. This is the point of this story. Aunt Mary had apparently clipped this popular print from a magazine. She thought so much of it she framed it. The paper was wrinkled beneath the yellowed glass, but that did not diminish the power of the picture in the least. It was a painting, after that Victorian Romantic-fairy-tale-dreamy-like manner, of three children crossing a bridge. The youngest of the children, golden locks, and chubby cheeks was only a toddler. There was a Collie with them to guard them. Beneath them was a raging river, about to take out the bridge. It was a frightening scene to the dog, yet the children played serenely. Above them was an angel, watching over the children and, presumably, the dog. I don’t remember too much more about Aunt Mary, nor her home, nor anything else she cooked. But when I eat biscuits and black-strap molasses I can’t help but think of that quaint, idyllic painting: a painting of the truth, “He will not let your foot be moved.” “He will not let your foot slip.” I thank God that though the years have passed, and I have crossed many bridges, and some have washed away, and I have nearly fallen into the abyss, and sometimes I am sure that I have crossed bridges about to wash out that, like the children in the picture, I didn’t even know about. But God has been faithful to save me, even from myself. He has not let me slip away.
Note the second way that He defends His children.
God is our defender from the physical elements in this fallen world.
For, thus we read, “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” (6).
Israel faced real enemies when the Psalmist penned these lines. And inspired by God they were. Yet, the promise surely transcends the imminent threat of Amalek. The Psalmist is surely employing the most obvious objects in our natural world, the light of the day and the lesser light of the night, to speak to the constant threats from a material world. Since the Fall, we are all subject to the trials and difficulties of this physical life on earth. Of course, this is not an elixir from sickness, nor a promise against growing old. This is a promise that nothing can ultimately do you eternal harm. No one, no earthly power, no heavenly power can ever break the bond of covenant love that God has extended to you through Jesus Christ His Son. If by faith you have received this gift, there is no earthly power to destroy you. Now. God might, indeed, answer our prayers to withhold sickness, to bring about healing, to hide us from the approaching enemy. Yet, He may, also, appear silent. His promises may be like the seed on the ground. The seed is filled with promise, but the time of sprouting, much less harvest has not come.
I think of the last days of my Aunt Eva. She was 99 years of age when she died. In her final hours, she had raised her hands to bless my wife, my little son, and, then, to kiss me and tell me to “keep up the good work of preaching.” Age and a slowing heart were closing in for the final blow against her. Yet, with the strength she had left, after blessing us, she fell back on her pillow and began praising the Lord. She repeated, “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord.”
And she, at length, lapsed into a terminal coma.
Now, I ask you. Was our God her defender? I was there. I know the answer. She was victorious in Christ as she passed from this life to the next. I am justified in asking, “O Death, where is thy sting?” Christ made a mockery of death as He transformed the cross from an instrument of shame into a sign of hope. Death, that most threatening of physical elements, is now, through Jesus our risen Savior, but a portal through which the disciple passes into the presence of glory.
Finally, let us see this most important way that God defends us.
God defends us from the spiritual elements in this fallen world.
“The Lord will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. The Lord will keep your
going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (7,8).
God is the most disciplined, determined Watchman. He watches over us against ourselves, against the physical threats, and especially against the spiritual threats. “He will keep you from all evil.” We know that John tells us that we have an anointing. We know that Paul says that if we are His, then nothing can separate us, not even the devil. Yet, we also know that Christ Jesus instructs us to pray, “deliver us from evil.” We are not to take our Defender for granted, but to look to Him, to appeal to His promises, and to run to Him for safety.” Foolish ones face the threats, like the ancient heretics, without the name of Christ and speak to evil powers that are much strong than they are. We do not go about casting out in our power, but we carry such a healthy respect of evil powers that we say, “The Lord rebuke thee” (Jude 9)! We hide ourselves in the “shadow of [His] wings” (Psalm 17:8).
There is a book that had a profound impact upon me some years ago. The book is The War Against the Saints by Jessie Penn-Lewis (1861-1927). Mrs. Lewis wrote the book to expose the wicked ways of the devil and his minions in their constant battle with the children of God. Some might find that “she finds a devil under every rock.” Yet, I would challenge the critic to recall that the book was written during a dramatic time of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Welsh Revivals, 1904-05 (the largest revival of the twentieth century). Penn-Lewis urges believers to take the threat seriously.
And so we should. But let us also take the promise of our Defender against all evil seriously. My beloved, there may be an enemy of your soul who goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8), but we have a Savior who has defeated this Beast (Revelation 19:17-21). We have a God who says He will “keep” us. This is nothing less than the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints enshrined in this Psalm of Ascent.
I found it interesting that Martin Luther’s great hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress,” while based on Psalm 46, actually contains, the very themes of God as our Defender as we see in Psalm 121. In the second stanza, God is our defender against ourselves, in the third stanza, God is our defender against spiritual powers, and, in the last stanza, God is our Defender against all earthly powers.
Did we in our own strength confide [my emphasis],
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!
Yet, all of these promises are anchored in the first verse: “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Your Defender does not overpower you in offering His armor and His sword. He requires that we repent and believe so that we come to Him to receive this eternal gift of His help. We must confess that we are powerless against these threats and that we bid Christ Jesus, as He is presented in the Scriptures, to be our Defender, our Savior. Yet, after you have done even that, you learn that it was only by His Spirit that you came. It was only by the gracious activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that you believed. Yes, it is a mystery of all mysteries. Your Defender died for you, rose again, and intercedes for you. He is coming again for you. He has promised, ““I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
This is our God. This Christ is our Defender.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.