Read Psalm 121:1-8
I like the idea of going on a religious pilgrimage. Some of my friends have. I suppose getting in the car and driving to church is a kind of pilgrimage, but it doesn’t have the same mystique, somehow, as traveling with a group on a common journey to an unusual place.
Within the book of Psalms, the songs numbered 120 through 132 are likely songs for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals. They are the “psalms of ascent” because Jerusalem is a high elevation in the land. Call them “songs for going uphill.”
But “uphill” seems like a metaphor for other times. Recall the myth of Sisyphus, who daily rolled a stone up a mountain only to have it roll back down. That may be a a fair description of your own life!
Among these psalms (among all of the psalms, in fact), I particularly love 121. To me, this little psalm is the Bible in a nutshell. It begins with human question: I’m on a journey, and I need help; who will help me? The answer: the God who made heaven and earth. You can’t get a better answer than that! The creator and master of all spiritual and physical reality is concerned for and available to help an everyday person who reaches out to God in need and faith. Furthermore (verse 4), this is the God who has always been the Lord of Israel, known throughout biblical history as a God who, though sometimes seemingly absent and silent, does respond and rescues us with love and power.
God keeps us. The word “keep” can mean possession, or protection, or faithfulness (as “to keep a promise”). God has claimed us in a loving way, and God protects us as we go through life’s difficulties, even the most awful. God is a “place” of rest and shelter, a cool place to go when the course of our lives becomes uncomfortable and exhausting.
God keeps our very lives. Even when it seems that evil is stronger, God keeps us from the ultimate powers of evil; our lives continue with God after our physical death, because God keeps our lives.
God “will keep your going out and coming in, from this time forth and for ever more.” What a promise for your whole life! Think of all the times you leave your home and then come back; it’s all part of the way your life is going. God protects and helps us through all those small and long journeys.
Does the psalm really promise everything it seems to? Read through the psalm, and you may think that God will protect you from every danger, that you’ll never be sunburned or uncomfortable, that no evil will befall you. You know that life is just not like that. Terrible things happen to people.
But the difficulties and pain of life do not negate the watchful care of God, who somehow can bring good out of evil and turn pain into joy. Writer David Barker notes, “The spirit of the psalm is to evoke trust in Yahweh, the Keeper of the pilgrim, and the Keeper of Israel, the Maker of heaven and earth. Often things that happen in the life of the pilgrim would not be his or her choice. But the psalm is not pointing in this direction. The direction is upward, toward God. The believer must recognize that life is a gift from God, the Giver of life. The pilgrim can rest confidently, knowing that God’s glory will prevail, and that justice … and righteousness …will ultimately rule.”(1)
The psalmist invites us to do something paradoxical: on whatever journey we’re on, we keep a look-out for what’s happening on the path, but we mostly look upward toward God, and that’s where our gaze should remain.
(I think about this whole psalm at my site https://hundredtwentyfirstpsalm.com.)
1. David G. Barker, “‘The Lord Watches Over You’: A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121.” http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/19-Psalms/Text/Articles/Barker_Ps121_BS.htm