Sunday, February 26, 2012

Psalm 121:8: "The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in..."

We've arrived at our psalm’s last verse, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.”

In the style of Hebrew poetic parallelism (as I discussed with verse 3), verse 8 follows closely in meaning from verse 7. To say that “the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in” is another way of saying God keeps our lives (verse 7), but with the added, perhaps obvious but crucial promise that God will keep us “from this time on and for evermore."

Throughout this psalm, we’ve seen examples of God’s “keeping.” In this last verse, God keeps us through.... everything: family places, our kitchens, our living rooms, our daily chores, our errands, our employment places, our yard work, and all the time we’re in and out of our homes.  God keeps us now, and also forever.  You and I are inseparable from God, always!

Going Out and Coming In

Barker, in his article that I referenced in the first post, writes that this expression “going out and coming in” is used elsewhere in scripture: “to field for work (Deut. 28:6; 31:2), of carrying out duties as a military leader (Josh. 14:11) and as a king (1 Kings 3:7), and the comings and goings of life in general (2 Kings 19:27; cf. Isa. 37:28).”

I don’t mean to become nostalgic, but this eighth verse brings to my mind the contemporary time, and the main doors of our homes---the ways we come in and go out.  What is your main doorway now, and what have been the main doorways of your life?  In the 1990s, my family and I lived in a house on a corner; the front faced a cul-de-sac, but our carport and kitchen door faced the other street. Our kitchen door became the major entrance, which in turn made the house more homey. We (and visitors) stepped right into our kitchen and adjoining family room. Our comings and goings connected to our family space.

My childhood home was a late 1950s ranch house with large picture windows. The walkway to the front door was parallel rather than perpendicular to the house, and anyone coming to the door was already walking next to the house. The picture windows faced onto our street---a busy street for a small town, since the high school was nearby---and an overgrown pasture eventually cleared and readied for a new Presbyterian church. Our home and its “goings and comings” stays in my memory because I lived there from the age of 3 until I was in my 20s, and I was 50 when we sold the house after Mom moved to a nursing home:

Think about your own residence (and those of the past) and think about God’s guidance. Was your home a safe place, or one filled with tension and trouble?  How about your places of work? What were/are signs that God has accompanied you through good and bad times?

Also, think about ways God accompanies you as you come and go.  When you perform your day’s tasks---going in and out of your residence----imagine God guiding and protecting you as you come and go about your chores, your everyday business. What worries do you have as you leave and return? What choices are you facing? Picture God’s life surrounding you. Imagine being “hidden” in God’s life, as we thought about in the previous post.  If you don’t memorize any portion of our Psalm 121, memorize that last verse and keep it in your mind as best as you can.

The Faith Journey

Through these posts, I’ve been reflecting on faith as a journey, analogous to the journey made by the psalmist to the Jerusalem temple.  I’ve thought about how our journeys are filled with uncertainties, anxieties, questions, and the like---but God doesn’t disdain our anxieties and questions.  In fact, God is all the more tender and watchful when we struggle, as a shepherd leads a flock of sheep.

As I chatted with an acquaintance the other day, he referred to himself as a “doubting Thomas.”  I always feel like Thomas (John 20) gets a bad rap. After all, Jesus didn’t disdain his questions but addressed them.  We should not think that God becomes snooty if we have concerns, questions, and ideas; the psalms, not to mention the book of Job, are filled with concerns and questions about God.

The following page was posted on Twitter recently:  The author talks about faith as a journey through questions and struggles.  She quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” That has been true of my own faith journey, which I date from my childhood Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School, through my college decision to take Christian discipleship seriously, to my present middle age.  Some things that were hurtful and disappointing in one stage of my life gained an answer or a context farther on in my life. In fact, the most profound ways that God has answered my prayers have been through longer periods and “story arcs,” if you will.

One thing I wish I'd known earlier, is to have patience and a sense of humor about the faith journey. There is often a subtle temptation to think that, just because you are on a faith journey guided by God, that you are the sole object of God’s concerns---and that your ideas and perceptions about things must be God’s, too.  That leads to disappointment or arrogance. God loves you but also loves folk with whom you’re in contact, and God may be working through you to enrich someone else’s life.  The long walk of a faith journey becomes even happier as you gain a mature sense of humility and an ability to take things cheerfully in stride.

Having a sense of humor about other people and their foibles will also help you. “Oh, it’s so great he became a Christian,” someone might say.  That’s true---but just making a decision to be a Christian is only the beginning.  Some of the biggest jerks I’ve known in my life were strong Christians!  They saw things only their way, or they thought they knew best about everyone else, or they had mean attitudes, etc. etc.

These are harsh things to say, but I want to talk honestly about a pitfall in the faith journey: don't let other people derail your life's most important relationship. None of us are perfect and all of us make mistakes and fight inner battles and demons. It was years after my initial faith decision that I felt like I had my own act together. You’ll do well on your faith journey if you don’t base your faith upon other people.  Have a good chuckle about human frailties and the fragile egos of people----including pastors, who struggle, too.  Don’t let your disappointments define your faith journey.

Our Covenant Relationship

As I write all this, I never want to imply that a “faith journey” is a wholly individualistic thing.  It's individualistic in the sense that you, with your unique qualities and talents and experiences, are special to God.  But remember that our psalmist is a Jew who was conscious of the covenant relation God has with his people (verse 4).

We, too, are in a covenant relationship with God.  God wants to guide us, but God also wants us to be disciples and to be faithful to God’s will.  "The Lord" is a title of authority; he wants us to define our very lives around his teachings and direction. When asked (a trick question) about following God’s will, Jesus quoted from the Torah: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matt. 22:37-39, Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18b).  These two commandments, he said summed up the whole law and the prophets (that is, the expressions of God’s will within his covenant relationship with Israel).

That great commandment in Deuteronomy (a text addressed to Jews about the Torah, but which we Gentile Christians now also take to heart) continues with God demand for a life obedient to his teachings---that is, a life that encompasses our goings and comings.

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (6:6-9)

When we moved to our present home, I noticed a small mezuzah outside my daughter's bedroom. Mezuzahs are cases containing Bible verses, to be affixed to a doorpost, as explained at this site: They are literal responses to this passage from Deuteronomy: God’s words, affixed to the doorposts. Barker, in his article, writes, “Pious Jews today, as they leave or enter their house or a room in the house, touch the mezuzah, a small metal cylinder that is placed on the right hand door post and that contains a piece of parchment inscribed with Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and they recite Psalm 121:8.”

This passage in turn remind us about the task of being faithful to God, whether at home or out and about.

And... how to do be faithful to God? To return to Jesus’ quotations of Torah, we’re faithful to God when we love.

But Bible-defined love can be a very difficult thing: treating your enemies with kindness and benevolence, putting away your prideful feelings, refraining from revenge, working together with people without competing for praise and credit.  It’s easy to say you love people, if you’re talking in easy, meaningless pieties like “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  But really loving people is a challenge: to demand nothing in return; to love instead of retaliating; to build people up rather than tearing them down; to pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse. Really loving God can be difficult too: because if it’s difficult to love people whom we see, how can we love a God we do not see (1 John 4:20)?  Love requires much prayer as well as strength, advice from mature friends, and common sense. Love always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).

In other words, love requires an active “faith journey” with God wherein we’re open to his power to help us love, and to be more kind and gentle.  Love doesn’t mean cranking up our will power to something we despise, and then loving grudgingly.  If we’re feeling unloving (and unloveable), God is ready to help us--and probably already is helping us.  A great thing about God's commands for an obedience life, is that his commands are never separable from his power to help us, his readiness to show mercy, his forgiveness of all our sins and failings, his faithful care when we're at our best or worst, his ability to lead us as we face the major choices of life, and his unbreakable promise to share his divine life with us for eternity.

The Divine Keeping

As Barker writes, “God is Keeper, everywhere, now and forever. Such is the widest possible vista for God's constant help for the pilgrim of faith.” In concluding this study, I can’t really improve on Barker’s own words at the end of his article:

“In this beautiful psalm of trust the people of God are encouraged to trust Him in the pilgrimages of life. The problem arises when reality confronts poetic call. Does this psalm guarantee unconditional protection from all harm and danger to the pilgrim? Did believers never suffer from sunstroke or fall into the hands of bandits? It is apparent that while the psalm speaks of such blanket protection, the pilgrim must understand that everything that invades his or her life is under God's watchful care and providence. 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.

“The confidence expressed in Psalm 121 is rooted in the grandeur of the psalmist's vision of God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth; He is the Keeper of Israel. In spite of the perils of one's pilgrimage, the believer can exercise trust in the Lord. God is neither too great to care, nor are God's people too insignificant to be noticed. This quiet psalm reflects on God who quells the anxiety of the pilgrim's heart, who watches over him or her with a shepherd's gentleness and a guardian's vigilance, and who gives thoughtful benediction to one's daily routines.”

If you haven't heard John Rutter's setting of this psalm, it is lovely. Here is a choir of young people performing it:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Psalm 121:7: "The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life."

Verse 7 reads: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”

The last two verses of our psalm continue the earlier promises: God’s protection for the pilgrim. These verses also form a kind of benediction: God will keep every aspect of our lives, forever.

In this post, I want to take a brief look at a lot of biblical material, so that we get a sense of what the Bible says about evil, life, and death. These teachings, in turn, can help our confidence and hope in God.

I need that confidence the same as everyone else! When I was a young teenager, our extended family lost, in close succession, four loved ones among the older generation. Those proximate funerals impressed me about the unpredictability of life---and I’ve tried to live my whole life aware that we never know what’s ahead. Now, as a middle aged person (eligible for the “senior discount” at restaurants), I think about my wife and me being closer to old age than to youth. Our daughter is a young person and of course we worry about her well-being.

Whatever are the specifics of your life, we all need plenty of assurance about God’s goodness and God’s care through life and death. Writing about this helps my own struggling, imperfectly articulated faith.

Complementary Passages

As I’ve thought about Psalm 121 in these posts, I’ve found psalms that complement its words. One psalm that complements verse 7 is Psalm 37. Both psalmists affirm God’s care for those who seek him, as well as God’s ultimate defeat of evil and persons who do evil.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb....

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place,
they will not be there. 

But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.

The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them; 

but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that their day is coming.

The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;
their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked.
For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous....

For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his faithful ones.
The righteous shall be kept safe for ever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
The righteous shall inherit the land,
and live in it for ever....

The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and rescues them;
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

But Psalm 73 takes a slightly different view: that psalmist feels downcast and distressed because the wicked are prospering, with no apparent sign of God’s punishment! The psalmist even wonders if living a righteous life was worthwhile. But the writer at last affirms his faith:

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart, 

I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you [God]. 

Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand. [There is the "right hand" metaphor that we saw in Ps. 121:5]
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me with honor.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth
that I desire other than you. 

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever.

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works (Ps. 73:21-28).

(Notice that God is continually with this psalmist, even though he feels bitter and lacking in faith. God doesn’t give up when we struggle.)

Psalms like these affirm the eventual ruin of evil, even though we might not see (or be able to delight in) that ruin right away.

The Bible contains many stories of God's power over harmful forces. As I discussed concerning verse 4, the Exodus is a watershed event (no pun intended), as God demonstrates his ability to rescue his people.

In the New Testament, we find stories of Jesus' power over destructive forces. In Luke 8:22-25, Jesus calms a storm while he and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee. This sea is comparatively small body of water but lies in a geological area where storms brew quickly and puts boats and people in danger. (I love this story because I’ve approached Jesus in similar ways as the disciples. My life is a mess, Jesus! What the hell is wrong? Why aren’t you helping me fix things? Don’t you care? I also love Matthew 14:22-36, the story of Jesus’ walk across the sea. This was one of my first sermons: we may sink in the storms of life but Jesus reaches out as we flounder.)

Jesus also cast demons from people. We may be skeptical about such things today, but if so, just think about powers of evil, powers that hurt people.

Take the man in Mark 5:1-20. Earlier in Mark, Jesus is met by evil forces as soon as he starts his ministry. In this Mark 5 story, Jesus is in a Gentile area, the country of Gerasenes east of the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus stepped from the boat, a demon possessed man came to him. The evil forces present in the man were considerable. A Roman legion consisted of several thousand men, and the man identified himself as “Legion” because he was so filled with demons. But the forces recognized Jesus and his power and bargained with him to transfer them into another living being: a nearby herd of swine, which subsequently panicked and carried those forces away and over a cliff. So Jesus, acting singly, has power over many evil forces.

Another story doesn’t have to do with evil forces, but with the necessities of human need. One of the interesting miracles of Jesus is the feeding of several thousand people from the meal of only one person. This miracle is significant because, other than Jesus’ resurrection, it is the only one we find in all four Gospels. Like God who fashioned the universe by the power of his word and spirit, so Jesus can also exercise power in the universe---expressly for the needs of the people who come to him.

"The Lord will keep you from all evil." In stories and passages like these, things like human need, hunger, depravation, and even evil and death do not have the last word. We may suffer in this life terribly. But Jesus does have power to help us. As with our psalmist, we may see and affirm ways that God’s power protects us within the specifics of our lives.

Looking back on my own life, I can perceive God’s power and guidance over the long haul. If I were waiting for quick and clear answers to prayers in times of trouble, I might have given up on faith years ago. But I can see how God has led me over the years so that things that happened two, five, ten, twenty years ago and more, now make more sense.

The Bible on Life and Death 

Our psalm affirms that God keeps our lives. Some translations render that word “soul,” but in the Bible, the meaning is the same.

The Hebrew word used in Psalm 121 for “life” is nephesh. The word is translated into the Greek word as psuche (also transliterated psyche), which means “soul” or “vitality” or “life.” Nephesh originally meant “throat,” which of course is connected to life because of air, food and water come through the throat. Interestingly, nephesh is also used in Genesis 1:30 to describe animal life (and animal soul?). Another Hebrew word, ruah (in Greek pneuma) means “spirit” but also “breath.” These and other words are used biblically to describe life. (1)

“God will keep your life.” The Bible affirms God as the source and protector of life. Not only that, but God is greater than life and death, which in turn is the beginning of our hope and confidence.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Ps. 36:9)

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. (Job 12:10)

If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust (Job 34:14-15).

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light (Ps. 36:9).

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished for ever from his presence (2 Samuel 14:14).

The Bible contrasts life and death in numerous passages.(2) The Old Testament refers to people being “gathered” after death (Gen. 25:8, 35:29, 49:33). After death, the spirit returns to God (Gen 2:7, Ecc. 12:7). There are references to returning to someone in death, as in 2 Sam. 12:23, 1 Sam. 28:19, and some references where the expression means common burial, as in Gen. 24:4.

But the Bible also refers to death in very final terms: as a broken pot (Eccles. 12:6), as spilled water (as we just saw: 2 Sam. 14:14), as a terrible fortress, with a gate that only opens one way (Ps. 9:13, 107:18). Death is a fire (Prov. 30:16) and a trap (Ps. 18:5), a stalker (Ps. 91:5-7).  You can't pay death to go away (Ps. 49:7-8). Death is a curse and an enemy (Gen. 2:23-24,1 Cor. 15:26). It has an insatiable appetite (Prov. 30:16, Hab. 2:5).

The idea of the “curse” does not set well psychologically when death strikes a child or a young person. What did that person do to deserve the curse of death? But that’s the awfulness of death: it comes to all of us regardless of anything we do. The curse is not personal, or sent by God to an individual as a personal punishment. It is the terrible aspect of life: physical life does not last, for any creature. In spite of its ubiquity, death is dreaded and dreadful, welcome only when someone has so much pain and suffering, with no chance of a better life, that death becomes a release.

Our days pass quickly (Ps. 90:6, Isa. 40:6). But God knows our days (Job 14:5, Ps. 139:16). Psalm 90 even affirms that we’re wise people if we "number our days";  knowing and accepting the inevitability of one's own death is to become a wise person. Compare this with Ecclesiastes 9:9, where the disappointment of material things in our lives is also a way of wisdom.

In the New Testament we also find the fearfulness of judgment after death: for instance, 2 Cor. 5:10, Heb. 9:27, Luke 16:22-25, Matt. 10:28. Death as an absolute end is difficult enough to “process,” but more fearful is the prospect of being held accountable in the next life for our lives today. (2)

But I need to immediately say that this is where the love of God for each of us comes in very strongly. God loves us and welcomes us; our suffering and death are no joke to him. God loves us because we are mortal, needy and imperfect and know our need for God.  God wants to comfort us and assure us when we're afraid about death (Heb. 2:14-15, 2 Tim. 1:10, Rom. 5:10).

God Rescues Us from Death

The Bible teaches about God’s “salvation.”  You hear that word (and the phrase "Jesus saves") so many times, the words lose their impact; they might even seem a little annoying.  Let me use a synonym for salvation: “rescue.” God wants to rescue us from the awfulness of death. God wants to comfort our fears and dread about death. Another synonym for the original Greek word for salvation is "healing."  God wants to heal us from our fears of death, and from death itself.

The Bible says that Jesus actually destroys death---not in the sense of the physical death of our bodies, but death in the sense of the nothingness of the grave, the dissolution of our souls, and the fearfulness of being punished in the afterlife.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that evil and death will eventually be destroyed completely, once God brings final victory.

One of my favorite analogies is a decisive battle in a war. Most wars have a turning point, although people may not realize it at the time. Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, the Battle of Gettysburg, the battles of Normandy and Midway in World War II: these were moments of victory, even though great suffering continued. You can think of Jesus’ death and resurrection that way. Death really is defeated, but we don’t yet see the ultimate results of that victory.

Even with the simplest faith, God welcomes us into God’s own life (we're "saved," rescued, healed) and join in God’s own life. Because God’s life is not mortal, that means we continue to live after death. Paul even calls our physical death a “gain.” He does not mean that we should hasten our physical deaths or wish our lives were over.  He means that at the point of our death, we enter into God’s immortal life forever (and, indeed, we’ve already been living within God’s immortal life (2 Cor. 5:6, Phil. 1:20-21, Rom. 8:38-39).

Thinking again of our psalm: All along, we’ve thought about how the psalmist's journey teaches us important thinks about the journeys of our lives. In this verse, the psalm assures us that God can keep us, though evil and death threaten us. It’s true that bad things may still happen. But we affirm God’s ultimate power, that life ultimately has meaning and purpose and the divine presence.

But like our psalmist, we need that reassurance, that in ways we can't yet perceive, God’s providence protects us from many more awful things that might befall us if God wasn’t watchful.

God’s Power Over Death

Karl Barth writes, “It is really true that we need not fear death, but only God. But we cannot fear God without finding in Him the radical comfort which we cannot have in any other. If He, the Lord of death, our gracious God, the ineffable sun of all goodness, is present with us even in death, then obviously in the midst of death we are not only in death but already out of its clutches and victorious over it, not of ourselves but of God.”(3)

I'm trying to put this in a vivid kind of way. Without thinking about all the medical reasons that define life, think generally as life as a “power.” It’s not hard to think of life that way if you’ve ever stood beside the body of a loved one; the person lies there, looking similarly as before, but is frighteningly still and cold; nothing that was vital and important about that person seems to be present any longer with the physical body; whatever “life” is, has disappeared. I remember thinking this when I looked at my father’s body in the casket. The notion of the body as a “shell” immediately came to mind.

What if someone else’s life-power could be given to that lifeless body? I don’t mean to be ghoulish or science-fictional; I simply want us to imagine a different person’s life-force being given to your dead loved one. Your loved one would live for a while longer! Unfortunately, he or she could not live forever.

Now, imagine the life-power of Jesus coming to your loved one. All that was vital and important about the person would receive such a tremendous power so that the “real” person, whom we miss so badly after his/her physical death, was preserved and would never, ever pass away. The person and would live in joy and peace forever.

This is possible because Jesus was both divine and human. As a human being, he had all the qualities and attributes that we have, because he was truly a fellow human being, who really and truly died. But since he was also God, Jesus’ power is divine power. The infinite creator of the universe---who formed the complexities of the DNA molecule and the forces of the vast galaxies--can take the vital and important aspects of us and rescue them from the nothingness and despair of physical death, so that we may live with that same God forever.

That is why Paul could not make up his mind which was better: living his life and doing his work, or dying and being with Christ (Phil. 1:21-26) This life is all he knows--and he had important things to do and relationships to maintain. But because of Jesus, he had sufficient “hints” of the glories beyond physical life that he could look forward to those glories.

But how did he know those glories would be his? He knew, because those glories are 100% a gift, not something we ever, ever earn. The good and the bad we do make no difference; God gives the power for eternal life completely freely.

Furthermore, Paul says that the Spirit of God is a guarantee---God’s first installment in claiming us as his precious children.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment [or guarantee] (2 Corinthians 1:19-22).

I’m old enough to remember when soda came in glass bottles. When you purchased them, you basically paid for the bottles, too. But you could bring the empty bottles back to the grocery store and reimbursed for the cost of those bottles---about a nickel a bottle, if I remember correctly. Appropriately, we called that “redeeming” the bottles.

That’a decent analogy for what God does----and helps explain why our dread of death can be diminished. God “buys” us, so to speak----he wants us enough to “purchase” us. He did so by becoming human and dying, and then coming back from death as the risen Jesus. (See the next section for more about this.)

But we’re guaranteed that God will rescue us from death, the way we used to be guaranteed money back when we returned our “pop bottles.” If we have God’s Spirit, then that is our sign of guarantee!

That raises the question, how do we know we have God’s Spirit? I think that even the simplest and most struggling faith is a sign of God’s Spirit. We get too many messages from preachers that faith has to be very strong and very behavior-oriented. No, we don’t have to be great religious heroes, because the Bible affirms the power of imperfect, struggling faith---faith with questions and difficulties. Just a tiny little faith is a sign that God’s great love---and God’s great kindness and support---is already part of our lives.

Think about even your small, iffy faith as a sign that God has given you his life and will have you share in that life for eternity.

Jesus’ Experience of Death

Many of us tend to respect people who have experience in something. The cliché “ivory tower” describes people who are intellectually trained but sheltered from actual, difficult experience. I could read a book about how to fix a car but I need the actual experience of repair work; in fact, I’d rather call upon someone who has a lot of experience in that area.

Think of the death of Jesus as God’s own, personal experience of human death. There are sophisticated theological and philosophical explanations of the nature of God and of the incarnation of Christ. But let’s keep it simple here.

Jesus was God born as human flesh. God did not cease to be God when Jesus died--the universe was not “godless” for several hours while Jesus lay in the tomb--but when Jesus died, the death really was something that God experienced.

We can respect God in an analogous way that we would respect a person who has the wisdom of difficult experiences. God knows firsthand the awfulness of human death. God died young, in horrible physical pain---not to mention great emotional pain, as he was largely unloved as he died.

God experienced death in a way that opened the possibility of more life. The death of Jesus was not simply a lovely example of divine empathy for the worst human beings can do to each other. From that death opened up infinite Spirit-power that rescues us from the nothingness and misery of death.

We could be awed at the vastness of the universe and even at the meaningfulness of Jesus’ ethical teaching. But we can also approach God with our deepest fears with the full guarantee that he understands and has a solution…

Our Lives are Hidden in God’s Life

Here is a verse that “hit me like a ton of bricks,” as my mom used to say, when I first discovered it.

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed to him in glory (Col. 3:3-4)

We have “died” in the sense that God gives us God’s life that continues although our own lives will end. We’ve also “died” in the sense that we are no longer condemned by God through Christ.

But it was that image, “Our lives are hidden in Christ” that struck me so strongly.  No matter what kind of people we are, we are surrounded by and included in God’s life--the kind of life God has. This is slightly different from some other religions that teach that we are part of God because all reality is ultimately God. For instance, in New Age spirituality we find a teaching about the spiritual transcendence of our physical world, but we can have contact with and avail ourselves of spiritual energy tapped through crystals, meditation, and so on.

The idea has similarities with the Christian idea, but the Christian idea emphasizes (and you could say, personalizes) the life of God. So to say, “my life is included in God’s life” means that we are included in the life of a person, Christ.

And furthermore, being included ("hidden") in Christ’s life is wonderful, because the New Testament also teaches the tenderness of Christ toward struggling people, his identification with the economically poor and the poor in spirit, the attention he gives to the emotionally downcast, his willingness to intercede and intervene for people when they are weak and faltering.

To turn again to our psalm 121: the pilgrim is on a hard journey, where many number of dangers and evils might happen. From where does our help come? From the rescuing Lord who made heaven and earth.



1.  Paul Stroble, What About Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), p. 85.  My material is in turn based on the research of Dr. Joel B. Green of Asbury Theological Seminary, in several of his books and articles.

2. Walter Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), pp. 154-156, and also 156-160.

3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), p. 610.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Psalm 121:6, "The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night."

My continuing thoughts and notes on Psalm 121.....

In an earlier post, I said that Hebrew poetry uses a "parallelism" where the second statement builds upon the first or restates it in some way. Verse 6 of our psalm---"The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night---similarly echoes and broadens the meaning of verse 5---"The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade at your right hand."

God's "shadow" or "shade" that protects us. God protects us as a shepherd protects sheep; God protects us as we go about our work and life.  Think of my post on verse 3 and imagine sheep trudging along in a steep and difficult terrain, but the shepherd is watchful, looking for grass and water for the sheep, searching for a cool place for them to rest.  The psalmist of 121 seeks physical respite as well as spiritual confidence during the hazardous trip to Jerusalem.

Earlier, we thought together about God and creation. Sometimes creation bites you in the butt, so to speak. "Nature" provides us with sun and rain and the seasons, but we also experience terrible weather, rain which is indifferent to farmers, flooding, and the damaging effects of too much sun. A few months ago I posted a blog discussion about how and to what extent God is present in the natural forces (in that case, the Japanese tsunami of 2011).  Although the Bible attests to God's presence, natural disasters that upset and take many lives makes us wonder about God's care.

In Job 38-41, God scolds Job a bit, explaining that the natural world---and God's care of it---are greater than human beings can fathom.  God affirmed that God is, ultimately, in control of things. Like Job, we still might have tons of questions about God and providence, while still affirming that, in ways we don't understand, God is in the midst of things.

Travels through Arid Places

We probably think of this psalm too much in terms of our modern lives. Verse 6 would have been very understandable by persons traveling on foot or on an animal or in a wagon. Our own trips can be dangerous but not in the same way: we have enclosed, self-cooled and self-propelling vehicles, emergency systems, telephones, and all kinds of ways to handle travel-related crises.

Obviously Bible people didn't have instant sources of meals and water as we do. Their roadside facilities, so to speak, were quite different.  For instance, a well was a very big deal and a cherished gift to people.  Anytime you read in the Bible about a well being done, you're learning about a cherished gift to people. I was reading the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:14-19.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Real life! In our country---in our “first world” lives---we typically wouldn't have such a dilemma.

When you read John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, commentators note that, usually, women would have come to the well earlier in the day to draw water for themselves and their families. The woman with whom Jesus spoke, however, came later in the day, suggesting that she avoided other people in the village or otherwise was socially isolated, perhaps because of the difficult personal history which she soon conveyed to Jesus. Her isolation, though, made a physical problem for her, as she had to draw and carry water during a more uncomfortable time in the day.

In the part of Isaiah that deals with the returning exiles, God promises them, among other things, help in the hot sun.

 Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
   on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
   as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
   to apportion the desolate heritages;
  saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
   to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They shall feed along the ways,
   on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
   they shall not hunger or thirst,
   neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
   and by springs of water will guide them.
  And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
   and my highways shall be raised up.
  Lo, these shall come from far away,
   and lo, these from the north and from the west,
   and these from the land of Syene (Isaiah 49:8-12)

There's that word "keep" again!

Our psalmist of 121 needed a lot more reassurance about God's card than we do, because the psalmist faced dangers and uncertainties that we normally would never encounter as we travel.

An Outdoor Bible

Have you noticed that a lot of the Bible happens outdoors? Consider the travels of the patriarchs and their families; the people in the wilderness; the armies on the move, the ministries of Jesus. In one poignant Old Testament scene, Ezra commanded the people to repent of their sin, and the large multitude agreed—as soon as they could go inside from the heavy rain (Ezra 10:9-15). We know little about the place where Jesus lived (Mark 2:1, John 1:38-39); if he wasn’t visiting someone else’s home, he was outside somewhere, turning his observations of outdoor events into eternal teachings.

Once you notice the “outdoor” sections of the Bible, imagine the sounds in the background of the text: the sounds of wind blowing, the rustling of leaves, the crunch of stones as people walk, the lapping water of the waters, and the sounds of animals. We read the Bible for teachings that pertain to our spiritual and moral lives, but what about the outdoor world that lies so close behind the words of God? Read Psalm 8, 19, 14, and 136, all wonderful affirmations of God’s providential care of the natural world

Traveling to Jerusalem in the outdoors----on foot or on an animal---the psalmist experiences the sun and moon above, and associated risks.  

As Barker notes, sunstroke is a danger in Mediterranean areas.  In fact, he notes, the verb of verse 6 and mean "smite, strike, hit, beat, slay, kill."  Sun not only burns our skin but dehydrates us and causes us sickness. Arid regions have extremes of temperature. I used to live in Arizona, where in the lower elevations the daytime temperatures could become very high and the nighttime temperatures comparatively chilly. Somehow the expression “but it’s a dry heat” doesn’t help when you’re strolling among shops on a 110-degree day.

Limburg gives some biblical examples of victims of the sun.  In 2 Kings 4:18-37, Elisha helped a man who was "struck down by the sun." Also, Jonah was stricken by the sun (Jonah 4:8). In the apocrypha, Judith lost her husband to sunstroke (Judith 8:2-3).

As Barker notes, the form of verse 6 is "chaistically crafted to focus on the promise of protection"

By day,
       the sun
            will not harm you,
       or the moon,
by night.

Informally, we sometimes make a connection of the moon with mental problems! We still say, casually, "people are acting weird, it must be the full moon." The word “lunatic” comes from the word luna, or moon, reflecting an old idea that the moon was responsible for abnormal psychology. We also say that people are "moonstruck."

Barker writes: "While the Hebrew pilgrim may well have known from his understanding of God and the world that such a danger does not actually exist, it is easy to understand how popular lore and superstition would invade and dominate in spite of theological understandings to the contrary. The psalm realistically addresses the mid-set of the pilgrim in his perceptions of dangers and fears."

Barker adds in a footnote, "One wonders how many of God's people today still pause to pick of a four-leap clover or feel a twinge of anxiety when a black cat crosses the road ahead of them." But the Bible takes compassion upon a person's fears and superstitions---and affirms with confidence that the Lord keeps us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Psalm 121:5, "The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is the shade at your right hand."

My notes and thoughts about Psalm 121 continue....

Verse 5 reads, "The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is the shade at your right hand."

Trusting God

In verse 3, the psalmist promises that God keeps our steps as we journey. Now, the psalmist promises that God keeps us protected from the hazards of the journey.

Does God protect us physically, as verse 5 and 6 teach (especially 6)? Does God protect us from ALL evil, as verse 7 teaches?

You sometimes hear people say, "Every word of the Bible is true." That's true if you affirm that the Holy Spirit inspires the book. But the statement implies that every verse is true at face value. Take Psalm 37:4:

Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Of course that's not true in the sense that God provides everything we desire, even when we delight in him! But our hearts grow in the Lord as we seek him, and over time, the desires of our hearts come into line with God’s desires for us.

It's the same way with Psalm 121. If you take these verses at face value, you might conclude that no one would have any trouble or challenge. In some of the other psalms, the the psalmists have tons of trouble---dangerous trouble. Those psalmists wondered why God wasn't helping them as fast as they thought they needed. But in "hanging in" with their faith, they came out on the other side of trouble and praised God.

Psalm 121 is, in a way, a statement of simple faith. A simple faith is good; a child has simple faith, praised by Christ in Luke 18:15-17.

As we grow in God, we may see a confluence of our dreams and desires, our hopes, God’s providence, and God’s direction. But many things we may not understand.  Some things in our lives may always seem painful and inexplicable. All the while, we’re growing in our knowledge of and relationship with God. Later, as we look back upon our lives, we may see how certain difficulties and disappointments became sources of blessing (even though the pain and regret may remain).
 I saw a saying on Twitter: "If you life seems to be falling apart, it may just be falling into place."

We do have to interpret the Bible, though. If I "claimed" a particular verse as if it were God's specific promise to me personally, I might be disappointed. For instance, I might assume God will never allow me to be harmed or to fall, based on this psalm.  But then I might be hurt in some day---which is part of being human, after all. Would my faith in God survive if I've based my faith upon that expectation of safety?

I'm guessing that a lot of people have struggled in their faith because they felt let down by God in some way.  I certainly have, at different times in my life.  Our psalm affirms an overall trust in God. Whatever might be our specific circumstances, God has "the big picture" and continues to help us.

God Still Keeps Us 

Earlier, I discussed a few meanings of the word "keeper." Verse 5 gives us the third instance of the term “keep” or “keeper.” Of course, “keeper” can also point to a specific animal: sheep.

Shepherds are a biblical metaphor for God (Psalm 23, Ezekiel 24, John 10:1-18), which means that sheep are an unflattering metaphor for us.

Sheep are needy, foolish-seeming animals. They look at you, with those horizontal pupils. They stick their tongues out as they "bah" at you. They lack the placidness of cows and the intelligence of horses. As recounted in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, Roosevelt during his western ranching days called sheep “bleating idiots” and wrote, “No man can associate with sheep and retain his self-respect.”

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, W. Phillip Keller writes, “The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways… Our mass mind (or mod instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.” A farmer once told me that sheep easily become lonely; you can’t have only one sheep and raise it. Sheep are also prone to stray and to follow “rogue” sheep; Keller tells of a healthy ewe that, with great regret, he had to slaughter because she repeatedly escaped through wire fences and taught other sheep to do so.(1)

Hardships befall sheep. Sheep wander off, they come under attack, they suffer because they’ve inadequate fields on which to graze, and they fall prey to disease. They do stupid things and lead others to do so, too. Shepherds do a great deal to help and protect the sheep but cannot do everything.

If we ever wondered about God’s care for us, we should think of shepherds. They do not turn their back on sheep just because sheep do stupid things and are prone to mess up their own lives. Shepherds are devoted to the sheep’s care. So much more is God devoted to our care----dumb and wandering though we are.


“The Lord is your shade at your right hand.” This verse--translated in this way---reminds me of being outdoors in summertime.  Shade is protecting and cooling. Even on the hottest days, when the air is still and heavy, the shade of a tree or an awning provides relief when you're walking among businesses or working in your yard.  I love taking barefooted walks and recall times when I appreciated the protection of a shady sidewalk after I'd run on tiptoe across a hot street.

The Hebrew word tsel can also be translated "shadow."(2)  A notable example is Psalm 91.  Here is the whole psalm:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
   who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
   my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
   and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
   and under his wings you will find refuge;
   his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
   or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
   or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
   ten thousand at your right hand,
   but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
   and see the punishment of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
   the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
   no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
   the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
   I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
   I will be with them in trouble,
   I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
   and show them my salvation.

Psalm 91, which affirms many of the same things as Psalm 121, uses many images and metaphors to describe God's protection and care. God is our machseh, a word translated as “dwelling place” or "refuge" depending on the translation (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:27, Psalm 46:1), connoting protection and relief.  (Here is a lovely piece that begins with the ninety-first psalm:

God is also a tsel in Isaiah 25:4-5:

For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, 

the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;

the song of the ruthless was stilled.

God's hand is a "shadow" in Isaiah 49:2, and as we've seen already, God is said to have sheltering "wings," as in in Psalm 17:8 and also Psalm 36:8:

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

"Shadow" can have negative meanings, too, as in the transitory question of our lives (Ps. 102:11, 144:4, Eccl. 6:12, etc.) and similarly as the presence of darkness, as in Psa. 9:2 and Psalm 23's "valley of the shadow."(2)  But here in Psalm 121, we certainly have the meaning of shadow/shade as something protective.

The Right Hand

"God is the shadow (or shade) at your right hand." With apologies to left-handed people, "the right hand" symbolizes strength and favor. As our Psalm 121 author David Barker notes: you could paraphrase this verse to: whatever you're doing right now, God is close by.

We find the image elsewhere in the psalms,: 18:35 and 98:1. Perhaps the most famous verse using this metaphor is Psalm 110:1:

The Lord says to my lord,

“Sit at my right hand

until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Psalm 110:1 is frequently used in the New Testament as a messianic text pointing to Christ.  The Apostles’ Creed also alludes to verse 1 when it says Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father.” In the psalm, the king sits in an honored place of trust beside God. Since most people favor their right hand and use it the most, the right hand also is the symbol of God's power and protection. (If you’re a southpaw, read all of the short Psalm 110 and notice that the king switches places in verse 5. The power of God is at the king’s right hand, and so the king is at God’s left.) In both cases, God and the king are seen in close relationship and identical purposes.

“The right hand” also appears in the previous Psalm, where God “stands at the right hand of the needy” to save them (109:31).  This juxtaposition deepens the meaning of Psalm 110, for God’s Messiah is not only powerful over worldly authorities but also intercedes (often against those authorities!) for the sinful, poor, and needy.

None of us are kings or queens, but “the right hand” still symbolizes individual power and work (no matter which hand is our strongest). In the midst of our daily efforts, God provides protection, power, and defense as we go about our lives.

Here again, we think of the image of the strong and vigilant shepherd who protects the sheep. Psalm 23 again:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. 

You can work or play in the hot sun, but but it's so much better to work and rest in the shade. Maybe that's a good way to think about God's shade---God's protection.

Resting in Christ

God helps us rest. Our pastor preached a good sermon this past Sunday on the spiritual discipline of solitude. Among his points, he noted that Jesus spent alone time with God as he balanced his public ministry and private teaching. Our pastor then connected Jesus' prayer times with Jesus' own words: 

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28). 

If we are weary and burdened, we can set aside time to spent with Jesus (in whatever form that may take: Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, worship, the sacraments, time spent in nature, and some combination of these).

This Matthew 11 verse bothered me when I first read it, years ago. Jesus' teachings in, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount constitute a very high standard, after all: how, then, can Jesus' "yoke" be "easy"? His yoke (that is, our discipleship and our obedience to him) seemed hard. 

Well.... in some ways, it is!  But we're not supposed to be out there trudging along and doing things on our own. We can approach Jesus for help, without fear that he'll disapprove of our weakness and failure (Heb. 4:14-16). We can call upon divine help for our worries and burdens, knowing that our prayers are heard with gentleness.

We might think of this verse in Matthew in conjunction with Psalm 121:5.  Even if we have trouble, God offers a "place" of refuge and protection.  Paradoxically, we can feel safe in God even if other aspects of our lives are difficult.


1. Philip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 22, 37-38.

2. James C. Moyer, "Shadow," The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), p. 208.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Psalm 121:4, "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep."

My notes and thoughts about an ol' favorite psalm, 121.....

Verse 4 reads, "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." In the style of Hebrew poetic parallelism, verse 4 follows upon and builds upon meaning of verse 3.

The Most Important Verse?

At the beginning of my first post on this psalm, I acknowledged two articles by James Limburg and by David Barker. Limburg writes about the importance of this verse: “Verse 4 comes close to expressing the theme of the entire Psalm. Mendelssohn recognized its significance when he made it the thematic statement for his chorus in the Elijah, ‘He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.’”(1)

Barker notes verse 4 is significant, because not only is God the shepherd of God's people, but God's care is a historical tradition! "The Shepherd of the covenant people is the Shepherd of the covenant person." So the history of God's care includes and also is a model for the individual person.

A Precious Heritage We Didn't Earn or Deserve

This post may be a little more “preachy” and technical than the others, because we Christians have a wonderful religious heritage given to us by God---the Hebrew and Jewish heritage---and most of us don’t appreciate it as we should. But if we do, we can take tremendous comfort and help.

In Romans 11, Paul cautions Gentile Christians that they should remember something important: they were “grafted” onto the “tree” of God’s people.  In other words, God has shown himself most intimately to the Jews in their history with God----and prior to Jesus, Gentiles would’ve had no need to read what we now call the Old Testament, because Judaism was just another religion out there in the world.  But now, argues Paul, Jesus has made it possible for Gentiles to share in this rich history of God’s words and deeds.  We know this because God has given his Spirit to Gentiles, in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecy (Joel 2:28) .  But Paul urges Gentile Christians to be grateful for this gift and to be careful in their faithfulness.  Reading the Old Testament, we know that God held the Israelites accountable for their faithfulness---and if God judged his own beloved people harshly, God also holds us Gentile Christians accountable too.

I’d guess that most Christians rarely think of that. In our perception of Judaism and the Old Testament, we Christians are a bit like new members of an organization who, once we’ve been included in the fellowship, now think we own the place and consider the older members foolish and misguided.

Thus, we assume that our faith has nothing to do with Judaism.  There are, of course, obvious as well as subtle differences between the two religions. Nevertheless, we Christians base our religious beliefs and heritage upon Hebrew and Jewish history and theology.

One time, in a Sunday school class, the classmates tried to think of similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. All the folks could remember were differences: Jesus, of course, and also different holidays. Looking back, I sigh, because now I know that almost everything important in Christianity is a “reconfigured” Jewish idea. (A major exception is the cross, a Gentile way of killing people, but even the crucifixion is foreshadowed in Hebrew scripture: e.g., Ps. 22:16-18, Ps. 69:21, Isa. 52:13-53;12, Zech. 12:10, et al.). The oneness of God, creation, atonement, redemption, the Hebrew people, holiness, ethics, and so on: these are ideas foundational to both religions.

Why am I talking about all this?  Because our psalmist of 121 is a Jewish person on a journey, and that psalmist takes assurance in the history of God’s wonderful acts---no less than in God’s creation (verse 2).   We’re given a wonderful gift from God that we can share this unknown Jew’s assurance for our own journeys, needs, and struggles.

God's Keeping of Israel

Barker elsewhere notes that the term "keep" is also used in Joshua 24:17, where the people declare, "it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected [kept] us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed." In this chapter, Joshua recounts the great works of God in leading the people through the wilderness and to the land of Canaan.

Barker writes that, as he journeyed to Jerusalem, the psalmist of 121 and the other pilgrims could think of Israelite ancestors and their hardships, and then they could put themselves in that place, so to speak.

God’s rescue and protection of the Israelites as they escaped Egypt and finally entered the Promised Land is a theme on which the whole Bible hangs.  God’s “keeping” of his people is a key to the entire scripture.  As the Bible scholar R. E. Nixon writes in the article cited below, a line of development from the call of Abraham through the Exodus, the giving of the Covenant at Sinai, the wilderness years, the conquest of the land, and eventually David's capture of Jerusalem, all of which have to do with God's creation of the people and God's promise to them of the Land.

The escape from Egypt and the splitting of the sea do not form the climax of the biblical drama but leads us straightway to God's creation of his people and his covenant with them (Ex. 19-24). The covenant, in turn, is so momentous that the scriptures even connect it to Creation itself. First, the covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. Also, the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (2)

In Deuteronomy, as Moses gives a long farewell message, he instructs the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24), and sets the tone for Israel's future. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experienced earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (3)

My teacher Brevard Childs writes, "[I]t is characteristic of the New Testament to place the redemption of Egypt into a new context which radically alters its meaning and function for early Christianity...Jesus not only participates in the history of the nation, but, as the true redeemer of Israel, he ushers in the messianic age which the original exodus from Egypt only foreshadowed. Moreover, it is characteristic of the New Testament to shift the emphasis away from the first exodus to the 'second'. This is to say, the Old Testament exodus tradition has been heard primarily through its eschatological appropriation in Ezekiel and II Isaiah."(4) Thus, we think more strongly of God's rescue (salvation) of us through Christ, the water of baptism, the meal of the Lord's supper, and the covenant of Christ, rather than the Passover meal, the escape through the sea, and the Sinai covenant.

But if you want to appreciate how the Exodus and Moses stories function as typology and framework for the New Testament, Nixon gives examples: Zechariah's "Benedictus," Jesus' very name (Joshua), the way his life parallels that of Moses (his endangered life as an infant, his parents' exile to and return from Egypt), Jesus' forty days in the wilderness (compared to the Israelites' forty years), the parallel between Moses and the mountain and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the parallel of the wilderness manna and Jesus' bread of life, and others. A Bible explorer interested in digging into these texts can find numerous passages cited by Nixon in his article.

In Paul's letters, Nixon finds Exodus typology in 1 Corinthians 5:7f, 1 Corinthians 10:1ff, and 2 Corinthians 3. Paul also uses the Exodus and Covenant in Romans 5-8, where in the words of scholar N. T. Wright, "Paul has retold the story of the exodus, the freedom story, demonstrating that the Egypt of sin and death has been decisively defeated through the death of the Messiah, and that the Spirit is now leading God's redeemed people to their promised inheritance."(5) Similarly, "The theme of 'new exodus' is a major topic in Second Temple Judaism. It is a central way by which Jews in Paul's day expressed, symbolized, and narrated their hopes for the future---for the time when, as the prophets had foretold, that God would repeat, on their behalf, the great acts whereby their forebears were liberated from Egypt (e.g., Isa. 11;11; 35:3-10; 51:9-11; 52:4-6; Jer. 16:14, 15; 23:7-8; Ezek. 20:33, 38; Hos. 2:14-23)."(6) Wright then quotes Jeremiah 23:5-8 as particularly pertinent for Paul. (7).

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land (Jer. 23:5-8).

As "Second Temple Jews" looked with hope toward the fulfillment of God's promises, so Paul---the Second Temple Jew who now preached Christ----saw the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, and the liberation of God's people accomplished in the "land" of Christ's salvation.

We also find Exodus typology later in the New Testament. In the letter of Hebrews, the author admonishes his hearers to be faithful to God in ways that the ancient Israelites (especially those who lost the chance to enter Canaan) failed to do. Exodus imagery even permeates the book of Revelation! You may not realize that Revelation cites or alludes to more Old Testament passages than nearly any other New Testament writing. For instance, Nixon cites these passages: Rev 2:14 and Num. 31:16; 25:1; 2:17 and Ex. 16; 3:5 and Ex. 32:32; 4:1 and Ex. 19:19f; 8:5 and Ex. 19:16; 8:7-9:21 and the plagues in Ex. 7-11; a possible allusion in 8:11 to Ex. 15:23, and in 12:16 to Num. 16:32; plus, the reference to the song of Moses in Rev. 15:3. Altogether, Nixon writes, "The first triumphant Exodus has prefigured the second and we are to look ahead to its fulfillment in God's victory at the end of time" (8).

Thus, in important ways, Christians share a similar position as the Israelites. In Paul's imagery, sin and death are our "Egyptian slavery" from which we've been rescued. The Israelites were rescued by God, not because of their superior faith and deservedness but solely through God's love and grace. But even though rescued, they had to look to a future redemption in the process of being fulfilled. Like the Israelites, we are called to respond with confidence to God's grace, since we too are prone to failure and forgetfulness. We risk God's sternness, too, when we persist in faithlessness (9)---although God gives us many, many opportunities for his love, forgiveness, restoration, renewal, and so on.

But Christians also depend upon God's salvation of the Israelites for ... well, everything concerning our faith. Jesus and the other New Testament figures aren't just extra people tacked onto the Hebrew scriptures, but the people God created and, hundreds of years earlier, rescued under Moses' leadership. We Gentiles are part of this heritage through God's kindness and mercy (Rom 9:25, 11:17-22),

The Psalmist Walks in a Tradition

I may be inserting a lot of scripture and theology into that simple verse---”He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” But “God’s keeping of Israel” is one way to describe the entire Bible, and so our psalm implicitly alludes to many, many acts and events in that one verse. As Barker writes, we can imagine the Psalm 121 author feeling very much a part of this history of God’s centuries of keeping. As we journey through life, you and I can, too.


(Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve posted some notes on the theme of the Exodus in the Bible:
I’ve also sketched some ways that the Bible’s themes and stories interrelate: and also at Consider “digging” into the Bible sometime in the future, and see some of the ways God’s keeping interrelate and interconnect.)


1. R. E. Nixon, "The Exodus in the New Testament," originally published by the Tyndale Press: Pages 5-6 in the source.

2. Brevard S. Childs, in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 112, notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

3. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 9-10; Child’s Biblical Theology, 82-83.

4. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 233.

5. N. T. Wright, "The Letter to the Romans," The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 585.

6. Wright, 510.

7. Wright, 511.

8. Nixon, p. 29.

9. Childs, The Book of Exodus, pp. 238-239.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Psalm 121:3: "He will not let your foot be moved"

My notes and thoughts about Psalm 121....

Verse 3 reads,"He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber."

The Psalm's Structure, and a Pronoun Change

Psalm 121 can be considered in terms of structures. You could think of the psalm as a two part structure: verse 1 raises the question, and 2-8 provide the reply.  Since the pronoun of verses 1-2 is the first person "my" and the pronoun of verses 3-8 is the second person "you," you could think of the first two verses as the pilgrim's leave-taking words, while verses 3-8 are the assurances offered by a priest or family member.

You could also think of the psalm as a three part song. Verses 1 and 2 form the introduction, verses 3 through 6 form a series of assurances for the pilgrim traveling toward the goal, and verses 7-8 conclude the psalm as a benediction that covers other aspects of the pilgrim’s life than just this particular journey.

Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism, wherein two or three statements belong together. Zechariah 9:9 is a well-known scripture for Palm Sunday:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It's not that the king is riding two animals simultaneously. In Hebrew poetry, one line answers or elaborates the other.

We see this in Psalm 121. The four sets of two verses are related. Verse 2 answers the question posed by verse 1. Verses 3 and 4 affirm, in similar ways, God's inability to "slumber" while his people are in need. Verses 5 and 6 affirm God's protection and power of renewal when we're weary and threatened. Verses 7 and 8 affirm the ability of God to "keep" our lives, now and forever.

Verse 3 thus continues, with a new “voice,” the assurance of God’s care begun with verse 2. As God is the God of creation and salvation, so God will protect us on our lives’ literal and metaphorical journeys. God:

keeps us steady in difficult situations (vs. 3)
does not sleep; his care is uninterrupted (vss. 3 and 4)
cares for all his people (vs. 4)
places us in a heritage (vs. 4)
is our keeper and shade (vs. 5)
protects and comforts us (vs. 6)
saves our lives from evil (vs. 7)
cares for us through all our activities (vs. 8)
cares now and forever (vs. 8)


Theologically, we can express God's care as "providence," which includes God's guidance of the natural world and of our everyday lives. The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead.

Many times in our lives, we find ourselves in the midst of a problem, and with startling timing, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news. The Lord introduces experiences into the flow of our lives, sometimes guiding us, sometimes reassuring us that God is there. I could provide numerous personal examples besides these.

In verse 3, we read the first of six times in which the psalm affirm that God "keeps" us and is our tireless "keeper." Verses 1 and 2 used "help" twice." This is one optimistic psalm! You could say that the word "keep" and its versions tie together all the psalm's affirmations about God's care. God is our creator, but he is also our "keeper."

We think of "keeping" as possessing. “Finders, keepers,“ we kids used to say if we came across something wonderful that someone had lost. I also think of “keep” as reliability, as in to "keep a promise" or to "keep something in mind." Of course, the expression “to keep awake” just means to remain alert.

“Keeper” makes me think of the word “zookeeper,” someone who cares for animals. Years ago, my daughter considered becoming a zookeeper or a veterinarian. A friend arranged for us to visit with a zookeeper who showed us her daily routine. One of the interesting things to me was the way the zookeeper placed a syringe on the arm of a monkey every day, regardless of whether she was going to give the monkey a shot. That way, the monkey was accustomed to the sight and use of a syringe and wasn’t so anxious when it actually received a shot. The keeper, in charge of the animals, not only cared for animals physical needs but also emotional needs.

Verse 3 of the psalm (and also subsequent verses) use that word "keep" in a simultaneously active and passive sense. In the passive sense, God keeps us as valuable possessions. Actively, God also watches out for us, keeps us steady in difficult situations, and God does not fall asleep while watching out for us. "He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

No Snooze Button

In verses 3 and 4 of our psalm, the travel is assured three times that God is awake and watchful. The image of God “slumbering” is interesting. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah mocked the priests of Baal, “Perhaps he has gone to sleep or turned aside.” “Turned aside” means to urinate or defecate. What an insult to one's deity, to say the god can't hear prayers because he's off somewhere doing numbers 1 and 2!

"Sleep" is also a metaphor for death. So in contrast to lifeless idols like Baal and other gods, the Lord God is living and awake. He has no "snooze button" to hit. He keeps the promises to be faithful and to stay awake to hear and watch over us.

Remember the story of Matthew 8:23-27. Jesus and the disciples cross the lake in their boat when a gale arose. The boat seemed in danger of sinking, but Jesus was asleep. The disciples woke him, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" Jesus chided them for their little faith, rebuked the storm and sea, "and there was a dead calm." I suppose Jesus would chide my faith, too. But there are certainly times of one's life when God seems asleep; too much trouble is happening, and no help seems forthcoming. We need reassurance to know that God does not, in fact, sleep.

Several of the psalms express concern for God's absence or silence. It's not that God does not hear, that God is not present, but that we don't always feel that presence because we're so stressed out. Or, quite conceivably, there are things way out of our control, like a terminal illness or a terrible disaster, which remind us of our frailty and mortality. (More on this when we get to verse 7.) Another verse that comes to mind is Exodus 2:23-25: the people are in trouble, but apparently they've been in trouble so long they no longer know to pray. The text says God heard their cries and remembered his covenant. I don't think that means God forgot about the people, but for some reason, his response was delayed.

On the Treacherous Paths

Have you ever walked on a hillside where the footing is precarious? Some of my friends have hiked the Grand Canyon, which I’ve not yet dared. Or have you driven along a mountain road where you wish the guardrail was a little more sturdy-seeming?  I always think of my own favorite mountainous road, Route 89A north of Prescott, AZ on the way to Jerome, where the view is spectacular, the mountainsides are steep, and the road is narrow and winding.

God is like a mountain traveler who knows where the hazardous places are. He knows when we are afraid, and he is not “put off” by our fear. He stoops to care for us, to guide us.

The Bible has other images of high places, such as Habakkuk 3:19:

God, the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

and makes me tread upon the heights.

The older translation is “he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” A “hind” is female red deer. I remember seeing deer in the Judean mountains and also ibex on the side of hills, when I visited Israel several years ago. If God “makes my feet like the feet of a deer,” God is giving me “balance” and dexterity to navigate life’s hazards and difficulties.

For one of his cantatas, J.S. Bach wrote a song, “Wir eilen mit schwachen,” the first two lines of which translate, “We hasten with feeble, eager footsteps, O Jesus, O Master, to seek after your help!” The melody is bouncy and “eager,” but, as a choir director pointed out, the bass line plods, to connote the feebleness of our steps to God.

Sometimes pastors and congregation members depict the spiritual life as a more or less constant state of improvement, and then you feel scolded and "judged" if you lapse or slacken off.   Instead, I think there are many steps forward and backward with the spiritual life. You think you're making process, but something happens that reminds you how weak and fearful you are. Or you "relapse" a bit in the normal course of a hectic life.  No matter what we do, God still guides and holds us.

The psalm says, "He will not let your foot be moved." Other scriptures call attention to the fact that we do, indeed, stumble from the path: metaphorically our feet move from the safe place and we fall. Fortunately scriptures affirm God's care even for those circumstances, for instance

Our steps are made firm by the Lord,

when he delights in our way; 

though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,

for the Lord holds us by the hand (Psalm 37:23-24). 

I don't think there is ever a point when we don't need God to be like a mountain guide. The most conscientiously spiritual and worshiping people are always like Paul in Philippians: pressing on, but not there yet.

The Good Shepherd

Anyone in biblical times would’ve had the image of shepherds in mind when they heard the word “keep.” While not at all an appealing occupation, shepherds nevertheless were excellent metaphors for watchfulness and care.

I found a book at our church library, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller. He tells of a time when, as a young shepherd, he lost nine ewes overnight to a cougar. “From then on I swept with a .303 rifle and flashlight by my bed. At the least sounds of the flock being disturbed I would leap from bed and, calling my faithful collie, dash out into the night, rifle in hand, ready to protect my sheep."

He writes: “In the course of time I came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field. The presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night.

“There was one summer when sheep rustling was a common occurrence in our district. Night after night the dog and I were out under the stars, keeping watch over the flock by night, ready to defend them from the raids of any rustlers. The news of my diligence spread along the grapevine of our back country roads, and the rustlers quickly decided to leave us along and try their tactics elsewhere.” (pp. 43-44).

As we'll see in subsequent verses, too, God's watchfulness and care is analogous to those qualities in shepherds.


There is another sense of verses 3 and 4, not contradictory with the image of shepherd. The first part of the verse implies a shepherd guiding sheep. But the second part of the verse, continuing into verse 4, also implies a watchman. I found two verses:

Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me (Ezekiel 3:17).

The prophet is like a watchman who, in this case, is alert to God's word. Another image is this one:

For thus the Lord said to me:

"Go, post a lookout,
 let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
 riders on donkeys, riders on camels,

let him listen diligently,
 very diligently." 

Then the watcher called out:

"Upon a watch-tower I stand, O Lord,
 continually by day,

and at my post I am stationed
 throughout the night ..." (Isaiah 21:6-8)

The images of shepherd, the guide upon the mountainous path, and the watchman---all are excellent metaphors for God’s care and concern.

Angels Watching Over Me

Some people like to think of God‘s angels watching over us. This is a very popular kind of spirituality; you can purchase angelic figures in many gift shops and religious book stores. We have several figurines around our house! They’re nice daily reminders.

We should remember that angels function in service to Christ, and not independently. The book of Hebrews (1:4-14, and also 2:5-9) offers a set of scriptures to argue that, wonderful as angels are, they are secondary to Jesus, because God’s eternity and power have now been shown through Jesus.

Seemingly, the congregation to which the Hebrews author wrote had elevated angels to a similar status as Jesus. After all, angels are divine and they do not die. But, the author notes, angels cannot "taste death' as Jesus did. That is, angels cannot identify with our human weaknesses the way that Jesus can. Jesus, on the other hand, suffered many things on our behalf. that is why Jesus was able to defeat death and break Satan's power (Heb. 2;14-15). Furthermore, Jesus' sufferings helped him become our high priest who can intercede on our behalf---because he knows what suffering is. Lovely as angels are and their protection, we can confidently think of Jesus protecting us and keeping us.(1)


1.  My original research on selected passages in Hebrews was published as "Hold Fast to the Faith," Daily Bible Study series, June, July, August 2004.  Abingdon Press.