My notes and thoughts about Psalm 121....
Verse 2: "My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
Confidence in the Creator
As I noted in the previous post, the author of Psalm 121 is on a journey. He probably traveling to the high hills where Jerusalem is located, and he asks, From where with my help come? From where will help come for the journeying person? Verse 2 provides the answer. For the psalmist, the first step of confidence is to recognize that the God whom we call upon for help is the same God who made heaven and earth.
I grew up in a denomination in which creeds were never a part of worship. Not until I joined our local United Methodist church in my late teenage years did I learn the Apostle’s Creed contains this line: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creed contains the same affirmation. The phrase is such a simple one we may miss the fact that it came from Psalm 121.
When I was in college, I had a poster on my dorm room wall. The poster depicted a small white church and a background of timber-covered hills. The caption read, "I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help." A friend pointed out that the caption needed the question mark of the original verse; otherwise, a person might think the hills (and generally, the natural world) provided help, rather than God.
That's a fine distinction, especially considering the picture of a church. Nevertheless, it's a point worth remembering. "The Star Spangled Banner" has several verses, and the first verse (the one we always sing) ends with a question mark: ".... does that spar spangled banner yet wave....?" Technically, at that point in the song, we don't if the battle is won and the flag is safe! We need Key's other verses to have confidence in outcome. Similarly with Psalm 121. Verse 1 provides the question which must be answered by the second verse: "My help comes form the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
Marvels of the Universe
I love science and wrote a study book a few years ago about science and religion. Here are some interesting facts I found on the internet. Did you know that the furthest galaxy known to us is named IOK-1 and is about 12.9 billion light years away? Of course, a light year is the distance light travels in a year---5,878,630,000,000 miles--traveling at the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. (The Space Shuttle travels 5 miles per second). Our whole galaxy is “only” 150,000 light years across. Traveling at light speed, we need four years to get to the nearest star (besides our sun). So we must travel 13 billion years to arrive at that distant IOK-1 galaxy.
At the other end of the scale of size, a DNA molecule weighs 0.0000000000000001 grams and is about nine feet long. A nine-foot molecule is found in every one of our cell’s nucleus. As many people know, the DNA molecule contains a double-stranded helical pattern of the chemicals adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine which in turn produce the proteins that authorize our body’s various functions. Our chromosomes contain 3 billion “base pairs” of DNA, and we have 46 chromosomes. So all the DNA in each of our bodies is about 2.0 x 10,000,000,000,000 meters, or nearly 70 round trips to the sun.
You could think of the smallest creatures on earth as the single-cell amoebas, or perhaps viruses (scientists disagree if viruses “lives” the same way as cells). The largest creature, in turn, is actually the largest creature that as ever existed: the blue whale. They are nearly 100 feet long and weigh nearly 200 tons. What amazes me, however, is that blue whales survive on some of the earth’s tiniest creatures, a shrimp called krill. Blue whales eat 8000 pounds of these shrimp, and blue whales’ eating mechanism includes a filter by which they can expel ocean water while consuming the shrimp.
To me (and to many religious scientists whom I've read over the years) data such as this is not only fascinating in its own right but also witnesses to the greatness of God’s creation.
A temptation of the religious life is to place ourselves as the center of God’s whole concern: as if ever answered prayer and every serendipitous event was sent by God for our personal benefit. But another temptation is to think that our problems--so tiny within this world of seven billion people, and in this universe of such vast size--are things we should not bring to God as if God were too busy. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Creation and Redemption
The scriptural linkage of God's creation and his redemption can be found in some of the later writings of the Old Testament.(1) Here are good examples from the exilic chapters of Isaiah.
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
Who made the depths of the sea a way
For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the Lord [in exile in Babylon] shall return,
And come to Zion with singing (Isa. 51:10-11a).
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless (Isa. 40:28-29)
In Psalm 19 we find a similar linkage: God’s creation and providence, and the will of God expressed in the divine law:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world....
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple....
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb...
Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of this kind, too. God has established the wonders of creation.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great …
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains...
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work....
The whole psalm through its conclusion depicted the glories of God's works in creation, and causes the psalmist to rejoice in the Lord, and to hope in God.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
These longer psalms depict in picturesque, poetic fashion that simple phrase: my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Jesus and Creation
Jesus himself links creation and salvation, as we read in this lovely passage, Colossians 1:15-20.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Just as the prophets and psalmists connect creation and redemption, the author of Colossians weaves together those themes in his letter. A commentator writes: "To say that this fullness of God [the active fullness of God in all things, as attested in the Old Testament] dwells in Christ... is most likely to mean that just as there is nothing in heaven or earth that is outside the divine presence and power, so also there is nothing outside the scrip of Christ's presence and power, because Christ now sums up all that God is in interaction with the cosmos."(2)
Some people like to ask, "What would Jesus do?" when they face a dilemma or challenge. But it's not as if Jesus is leaving us all alone to deal with life's troubles. When we fail, he is there--with this vast and tremendous power---to heal us and help us. When we face the worst challenges, he is accompanying us and carrying us. The scope, beauty, and detail of creation can remind us of his care.
Jesus and the Temple
Another way to link creation and redemption, is to remember that Psalm 121 is probably a song about traveling to the Jerusalem Temple---and then connecting the Temple to Jesus.
Within the long Old Testament narrative, the Temple (God's special place of dwelling) is connected to the land promised to the Israelites by God, and that land in turn is connected to the goodness of all creation.(3) We may not immediately think of the Temple and creation together, but they are different facets of God's care for his people and, by extension, God's care for all.
As you read the New Testament, you can make connections between Jesus and creation (as we just saw), and between Jesus and the Temple. For instance, in John's story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, Jesus calls attention to his own body as the Temple, that is, the place where God's presence on earth is present in a special way. Jesus was Jewish, of course, and was not rejecting his own people and their worship, but he was announcing God's special "dwelling" in the world in the person of Jesus.
In addition to his own discussion of the Temple and its sacrifices in chapters 7-10, the author of Hebrews calls Jesus the Temple High Priest who fully understands our struggles and intercedes for us.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.
I know I'm repeating myself, but this passage (along with others) should eliminate any misunderstanding of Jesus as someone we shouldn't "bother," or who we're supposed to "impress." True, our own problems may be small compared to those faced by other people. But any problem, any struggle and weakness, is something to take to the Lord. Jesus understands that sometimes we are strong and capable, and sometimes we are ignorant and weak. But Jesus wants to help us and intercede for us because he understands the struggle of being human.
To return to our psalm: Verse 2 of Psalm 121 affirms that God is our creator and helper. God did not create all things and then let the universe run unsupervised. God creates all things, claims all things as his own, and cares for all things. We've constant and continual, beneficial access to the God who is Master of DNA and IOK-1 and everything else.
1. One analysis of this theological development in Israel's scriptures can be found in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II, The Theology of Israel's Prophetic Traditions (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 240-241.
2. Andrew T. Lincoln, "The Letter to the Colossians," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 299.
3. For instance, the Priestly Source, the hypothesized post-exilic document incorporated into the Old Testament canon, included not only priestly laws in the Torah concerning Israelite worship but also the Genesis 1 text. "P" linked creation and Sabbath with God's covenant to Israel and Israel's worship in the land.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Saturday, January 28, 2012
|An early 1900s postcard|
Based on childhood experiences, I’ve always struggled with an emotional kind of fatalism---not an intellectual fatalism, i.e. a pessimism about inexorable fate, but rather an emotional anxiety about what lies ahead. "What if?" is my emotional default mode when life seems uncertain. The first month of the calendar year (especially the first week or so) increases this sense of anxiety and anticipation: what will the new year bring? What if life changes in a moment (which it probably won’t but possibly could)?
Psalm 121 provides me tremendous emotional comfort about what I do believe very solidly: that God cares for us, guides us, comforts us in trouble, and has “the big picture.” We need these promises all year long, but the new year makes this simple psalm all the more meaningful.
In addition to the works cited, I've gained much information about this psalm from two online articles,
James Limburg, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners.” http://www2.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/5-2_Psalms/5-2_Limburg.pdf
David G. Barker, “‘The Lord Watches Over You’: A Pilgrimage Reading of Psalm 121.”
Several other notable commentators on this psalm can be found at: http://www.preceptaustin.org/psalm_121_a_commentary.htm
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore (NRSV)
These websites provide the Hebrew text: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/364288/jewish/Prayers-for-the-Final-Moments.htm
Verse 1: "I lift my eyes to the hills."
Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents,” 120-134. Tribes of Israelites went up to Jerusalem to worship (Deut. 16:16, Psalm 24:3, 122:4, Neh. 3:15, 1 Kings 12:28, etc.). My colleague Clift McCann writes in The New Interpreter's Bible, “While certainty is not possible, it is likely that this collection was originally used by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or as part of a festal celebration in Jerusalem.” He also writes that these psalms are all short enough to be memorized and several contain references to everyday life, implying that these psalms reflect the experiences of everyday people traveling or arriving at Jerusalem (1).
Jerusalem, the city which God designated as his dwelling place (Isaiah 8:18), is indeed a place to which one must ascend. The Mediterranean, which is sea level, lies thirty miles to the west, while the Dead Sea, only about 15 miles to the south, is nearly 1300 feet below sea level. Mount Zion itself is about 772 meters in elevation
So our psalm begins, “I lift my eyes to the hills.” The Hebrew word har could be also be translated “mountains.” The psalmist travels upon the roads to Jerusalem, perhaps feeling all the discomfort that we experience when we walk uphill: extra effort, tired legs, the need to pause, catch breath, and take a drink.
The psalm does not actually mention Jerusalem, or the journey there. That's one reason why the psalm seems to universal. It does not require that we imagine Jerusalem or even associate the poem with its presumed original context. This psalm is a poem has long been beloved by people relying upon God during literal journeys as well as life's challenges and metaphorical pathways. For us, “the hills” can be any kind of destination, at some distance and with some amount of risk.
Journeying toward God
Our relationship with God is a kind of destination, too. Are we at the place we want to be spiritually? Have we conformed in many ways to God’s will? God might expect us to follow him closely (Matt. 5:47-48), but we know very well that we don’t meet that expectation. How wonderful, then, that we look to a God who not only calls us to conform to his will but also gives us grace, help, and assistance when--not if, but when--we fall short. Following Jesus is also acknowledging our inability to follow him well and, in turn, experiencing his help.
In addition to confident prayers like Psalm 121, other psalms express honestly feelings of discouragement and emptiness about God, for instance, 42.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (vss. 1-2)
To me, Psalm 121 is the yang, the bright place, and Psalms 42 (along with 43) are the yin, the dark place, of having faith in God. Instead of traveling to Jerusalem, the psalmist cannot go to the Temple, apparently because of sickness (42:10). The writer has a different kind of struggle than the psalmist of 121, who is uncertain about the journey to the city. As I like to tell people, the psalms contain very human struggles--but the psalms are also God’s word to us! Here in Psalm 42--in God’s own word--we have a song about a person who can‘t find God.
We feel that way in our lives on different occasions. We may feel estranged from God because of some moral and ethical lapse. In those cases, it’s important to remember that God hears our prayers and accepts our sincere repentance. We may still feel emotionally terrible, but our emotions do not determine the extent to which God loves us and wants to help us be healed and restored. "God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything," assures the apostle John (1 John 3:20).
We may feel distant from God because of some other emotional lack. If your self-esteem is low, or if your trust has been hurt by someone, you may have difficulty accepting love from anyone, including God. That has always been a struggle for me, but especially in my younger days.
We may also feel betrayed by God! You were let down by something your Christian acquaintances did, and your faith is hurt. You might feel that you were a good, faithful person and yet your life fell apart: you suffered a divorce, an illness, an unfair job loss, or other circumstance. It can be difficult to admit, but we may feel intense, though subconscious anger and even hatred toward God when bad things happen.
If we're in a position of spiritual confusion or discouragement---or if things are going well for us--Psalm 121 can give us confidence as we face "the journey," because its verses give us several affirmations of God's unfailing care.
You might immediately think: How do I affirm God’s care when there are, indeed, difficult and even evil circumstances in my life? How can I feel positive about God’s protection when I’m facing all kinds of problems and challenges?
Faith and Doubt Go Together
I like these words by Lewis Smedes. "Some people try to use faith as a wedge into the worry-free life. But faith does not put worry to sleep. Hope is the child of faith, and worry is the child of doubt. But doubt is the twin sister of faith. The French theologian Ellul had it just right: 'The person who is plunged into doubt is not the unbeliever but the person who has no other hope but hope' Unbelievers do not have to doubt. Believers doubt precisely because they live by faith and not by sight. And they hope precisely because they live by faith. So worry tags along with doubt as long as we live by faith and hope."(2)
We know that even the most routine trip is not 100% safe. I used to hear people say that a large percentage of automobile accidents occur within a few miles of one's home. In one of my parishes, I heard a story of a friend’s father, who had been struck by lightening as he worked his own farm. The day was only partly cloudy; the accident was just a freak occurrence. Nothing dire happens to us during the vast majority of days---and of course we shouldn't fill our days with dread about some unknown, upcoming disaster---but trouble, when it comes, often does catch us by surprise.
If we think about "the journey of life" metaphorically, we call to mind many risks and uncertainties. This job seemed to be God's will and a perfect fit for me, one might say, but it has turned out to be very stressful. Is God preparing me for something better down the way, or am I just experiencing temporary difficulties? Since we cannot predict the future, we always look to the unknown with at least a little bit of respect for life's unpredictability.
Is this wrong of us, to feel anxiety and uncertainty? After all, the Bible contains several verses where Jesus or the angels console the frightened. The angels tell the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy" (Luke 2:10). Jesus tells the disciples "Do not be afraid" (Matthew 28:10 and "Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" (John 14:27). in Luke 24:38-39, Jesus also says, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself …” Remember that the disciples had all forsaken Jesus; would you return to a friend who had abandoned you? Yet it is to these pathetic friends---sinners like you and me--that Jesus bids to have no fear. Paul also entreats us, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6).
Yet, doubt and anxiety is part of our humanness. Even when we rely upon the scriptural promises, we recognize that we fall short of perfect faith. As Smedes and Ellul reminded us above, doubt and concern are aspects of living by faith. Plus, some anxiety has to do with personality traits rather than faith per se; some of us are psychologically and physiologically geared toward moderate or excessive anxiety. Some things worry me terribly that don't bother you at all, and vice versa. Neither of us have had success at overcoming the things we worry about; thank goodness 2 Cor. 12:7-10 teaches us having struggles isn't foreign to religious experience.
Having faith may even place us in positions where life becomes even more fearful! Oswald Chambers writes, "It is not easy to have faith in God, and it is not meant to be easy because we have to make character. God will shied us from no requirements of His sons and daughters any more than He shielded His own Son. It is an easy business to sit in an armchair and say, 'Oh yes, I believe God will do this and that'; that is credulity, not faith. But let me say, 'I believe God will supply all my needs,' and then let me 'run dry,' no money, no outlook, and see whether I will go through the trial of my faith, to sink back and put my trust in something else. It is the trial of our faith that is precious. If we go through the trial, there is so much wealth laid up in our heavenly banking account to draw upon when the next test comes."(3)
Thinking again about Psalm 121:1, the psalm gives us an situation where the writer is, indeed, in the midst of a difficult and uncertain situation. But the psalmist is able to affirm hope and faith in God’s concern, even though the situation is one of uncertainty and exertion.
I found a sweet book at a used book website: Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, written by J. R. Miller and published in 1899. I've enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago---my grandparents were children in 1899---and the strength another person derived from these same verses as he read them in a different time.
Miller writes, "Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay I the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God."(4)
He continues, "We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen.”(5) It's not just unbelievers whom Miller describes, but also people of faith who neglect looking to God, for one reason or another.
“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. Negative people are a drag upon one's morale. Unfortunately, negative people find kinship with one another and soon you have a group of negative people who make you depressed! (Fellow Christians can be just as big a drag on your morale as anyone, if they're negative people, and congregations can be "downer" kinds of places, too.)
But looking up in the theological sense means to focus our feelings, plans, and everyday lives upon God. Remember that famous set of verses in Proverbs: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" (Prov. 3:5-6). That doesn't mean we should jump, foolishly and headlong, into a circumstance: insight is one of the precious ways we can discover God's will (along with prayer, the advice of friends, serendipitous reassurances, and so on). But our insight also does not substitute for God's all-knowing wisdom! By trusting in and acknowledging God we affirm his overall guidance.
I never look forward to life's trials, and their prospect worries me. And yet I've a long series of amazing evidences of God's guidance in my life to which I can look. I can affirm that God has never failed to be with me in every situation and circumstance, even those I can't understand.
One of the greatest things about "looking up" to God, is that God does not at all rely upon either our attentiveness or faithfulness before doing great things! Isaiah 42:3 reads, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Sometimes the smallest flicker of faith is all we have, but God is still good and powerful.
Matthew 20, too, reminds us that God’s love and grace are freely given to us, and God gives us grace just as freely and generously when we come to God late in life, as he does for those who serve him for years. Miller is right, we grow in the direction in which our eyes habitually turn, but our eyes are beholding not a God who waits for us to "shape up." We look to a God who has already taken all the steps necessary to rescue us from the things that plague us. God is a God who deals with our sin through Jesus and thus forgets our sins, never counting them against us.
Another wonderful scripture is Luke 24, which illustrations how Jesus takes the initiative even when we’re not looking up. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. Jesus appeared to them unrecognized and talked with them. They did not even recognize after he talked with them a long time. Finally he became recognizable to them when they shared bread. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” They thought there was no longer reason to look to Jesus. And yet their hearts must’ve been sufficiently open that, when Jesus broke the bread, they suddenly knew the truth.
The psalmist of 121 has faith in God's power. In all the subsequent verses, which we'll study next, the writer shows us different but complementary ways that God loves us and comes to our assistance.
1. J. Clinton McCann, "The Book of Psalms," The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 1176.
2. Lewis D. Smedes, Standing on the Promises: Keeping Hope Alive for a Tomorrow We Cannot Control (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 35.
3. Oswald Chambers, The Quotable Oswald Chambers, compiled and edited by David McCausland (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 2008), p. 94.
4. J. R. Miller, D.D., Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm (New York: THomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899), p. 5.
5. Miller, pp. 8-9.