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.
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.