My Help

Psalm 121

1I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

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

4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Sermon: My Help preached by Rev. Sandi 3/8/20

Years ago, Prescott United Methodist Church gave me an opportunity to explore my perceived call to the ministry.  The church was between associate pastors and didn’t expect to get one for another year, and the senior pastor saw fit to hire me on as a minister of pastoral care, and my job was to call on all the shut-ins and those who were going through a time of illness, grief, or other struggles.  I got to know a number of wonderful people, but one in particular stood out.  Her name was Mary.  As I got to know her, I knew why she was on the pastoral care list.  She and her family had one misfortune after another befall them in life.  The two of us became fast friends as I listened to the stories of her life—and I found myself visiting her often.  Somehow, she was one of those people I connected with on a deep level.  I learned that she lost all of her children either as babies to illness, or then later to suicide and car accidents.  Her siblings all died young.  Her husband had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she was navigating nursing home placement, and in doing so, was going through what little funds they had managed to save to see to his care.  She had to sell her house and move into a tiny apartment downtown.  Her vision was failing, and she had to give up her car.  I wondered how so much tragedy could befall one person, one family.  I wondered if there really were curses, curses that could befall objects like the Hope Diamond and curses you hear about that befall families like the Kennedy’s or the actors in the Poltergeist movies.  One day, out of sheer curiosity, I asked her if she were angry at God.  I half expected her to say that she was.  But what she said to me was this: “Angry at God?  Heck no!  I don’t know how I would have gotten through any of this or even face the future without God—without God’s help, which is my help!”  That moment, the lesson in that response, might have been worth more seminary instruction than I ever gleaned in the years that would come.

And the psalmist of old asks, “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?  And like my friend Mary would answer some three thousand years later, the psalmist answers his own question: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  Psalm 121 “speaks of a trust than can sustain the journeys of life and the journey that life is” (Interpretation, Psalms, James Luther Mays, 389).  Ask anyone about their favorite psalm, and usually we hear Psalm 23, but often Psalm 121 is a fast second.  It is comforting to know of God’s presence with us in times when we need God.  Psalm 121 is the psalmist’s expression of that trust, and it can be our confession of trust too.  That’s the simple take-home message for today.

Let’s dig deeply though into Psalm 12, because there is some good theological meat.  One of the things you have heard from me before is to pay attention to words that are frequently repeated in a section of scripture that you are reading.  The words “my help” and forms of the word “keep” are oft repeated.  Significant repetition denotes a theme.  In this psalm we know that God is our help and the one who keeps us, guards us, and protects us.  We learn that God will protect our souls everywhere, always from every danger—if we trust ourselves to God.  The Psalms as well as the New Testament indicate that God will be the shepherd and guardian of all the souls who trust themselves to God.  And isn’t that the point or purpose of life?  Aren’t we here on earth to develop strong souls, which strengthen and become refined through life’s struggles, along life’s roadways? 

First of all, you should know that Psalm 121 is what we call a Song of Ascent.  These psalms, and there are fifteen of them, are likely psalms sung by single pilgrims or a group of worshippers in the form of a litany as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend pilgrim festivals, typically three each year.  You can almost hear the call and response of the pilgrims, some singing, “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?” and then another group responding, singing, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  This was a song for the journey of pilgrim.  For us, it can be a song for the journey of life.

So, our psalmist is lifting his eyes to the hills.  Why might he be doing that?  We often make a lot of assumptions about what a particular text means.  We need to talk about the interpretive significance of those hills and why that psalmist lifts his eyes to them.   Scholars speak of several possibilities.  Let’s explore them, because all of the possibilities are relevant to us.  Now these were ancient and superstitious times.  Joan Stott, a wonderful writer of lectionary resources, in her prayers and meditations on the Timeless Psalms says that the hill-country in Israel was believed to be the homes of evil spirits and the pagan gods—shrines and booths to these pagan gods were erected throughout the hills.  The hills then may be the “high places” where the baals, the local fertility gods, were worshipped.  Pagan religion maintains that gods and spirits need to be appeased to ensure safe passage for the journey.  So, the question is, did the Israelites feel challenged by these symbols of pagan worship?  We know from various stories in the Old Testament that Israel, from time to time, would dabble in paganism and become contaminated with pagan practice.  The prophets were always calling them back from this.  You remember the story of the golden calf.  So perhaps what is going on in the psalms is that “the Psalmist named the challenges they faced: “I look up to the mountains – does my help come from there…?” “No!” was the immediate response: “My help comes from the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth…!” We only worship the One, True, and Holy God!” (Joan Stott, Prayers and Meditations on the Timeless Psalms, see link below).

And so, the relevance and challenge for us some 3000 years later is this:  What shrines have we erected?  At which do we worship?  We may say, well we are a sophisticated people; gods are mythic; we don’t worship Isis or Thor or Zeus and erect shrines to them.  But our gods, lower case g, may be more sublimated in our society.  We worship or look for security in the economy, in the stock market, in our governments, in our gated communities, and in our relationships and our health.  And it’s not so much that we don’t get some measure of earthly security from them or that they are bad, but they are fragile, temporal and can evaporate in an instant if, say, a novel virus, comes and wipes these things quickly away.  And that very worry may be on your minds today.  So, on one level, this psalm may be saying to not look to pagan influences, to the things that comfort the rest of the world; rather, look to God, trust God alone for the ultimate protection of our souls.  “Secure within his own faith, the leader of the pilgrims added his own words that clarified just who God was, especially in comparison to the spirit-gods of that hill-country.  He wrote, ‘…. He will not let you stumble and fall; the one who watches over you will not sleep. Indeed, he who watches over Israel never tires and never sleeps. The Lord himself watches over you! The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.….’  The protective ‘shade’ which God offered and continues to offer us was not an insurance policy against disaster; rather, it is God’s abiding presence that enables any of us to live with trauma and disaster – as when “bad things” happen to people – and who triumph over adversity, because they trust in the guidance of their Watching and Sheltering God” (  This is what my friend Mary knew, intuited, and communicated to me all those years ago.

Now another interpretative possibility of lifting his eyes to the hills on the way into Jerusalem in our psalm today is that they were a dangerous region of mountainous terrain.  Robbers and bandits were known to hide in those hills. We think back to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which he tells to the expert in the law who is trying to justify himself as he asks, “Who is my neighbor.”  You  know the story: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers who stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.  Even today in the Middle East bandits hide in hills with their rifles, firing at their enemies.  So perhaps, the gesture of raising one’s eyes to the hills in this psalm is interpreted as an expression of anxiety.  The pilgrims on the journey to the Jerusalem festivals had to pass through some dangerous territory to get there.  And so that interpretation is also relevant to us today.  We will face dangers and calamities and tragedies as we pilgrims walk this journey we call life.  But through it all we need to know that God is with us, still providing us with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil falls upon us in this troubled life, God turns it out for our good (Interpretation, Psalms, Mays, 391).  This is the power of the resurrection (capital R) and the power of the myriad of smaller resurrections that occur for us throughout life, all through the power of God, working all things for our ultimate good, all the while strengthening our souls.  My friend Mary knew this well.  This is why she called God, “my help” and denied having any anger toward God, even though she continued to suffer.

A third interpretive possibility of the hills in Psalm 121 is that they were a place of inspiration for the pilgrims.  I’ll bet that if we read that psalm without a commentary that explored the various interpretive possibilities, that’s where our 21st Century minds would be most apt to go with only the text in front of us.  We think of the movie Sound of Music and its most memorable and soaring song, The hills are alive with the sound of music, sung by Julie Andrews, who played the young abbey novice. Later in the film the song was reprised by the Von Trapp family.  We think of the music of John Denver that celebrated the beauty of the Colorado Rockies. Consequently, I tend to think of hills as soaring places of inspiration—places we associate with pleasant things: recreation or the presence of God. I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? Those of us who have seen the Alps, the Rockies, the Himalayas know of the grand majesty and breath-taking awe of gazing upon them.  Perhaps the gesture of looking up is to imagine God in the sanctuary on Zion, God’s holy mount.  After all, we know that many of the Bible’s seminal events happened on mountains: The Transfiguration, the giving of the Ten Commandments, Noah’s Ark coming to rest on a mountain, Elijah’s encounter with God on a mountaintop, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and so on.  And so, for us, mountains may most likely be places of inspiration, places that draw our gaze upwards, away from earthly things and to God, to God who is our help and constant even as the things below in the valleys on earth, may seem to conspire against us.

And so, however we interpret the hills in our psalm today, be them shrines to false gods, places of danger, or places of inspiration, I hope you can see relevance for life—all three interpretations have merit and instruction.  Because the most important message of this psalm is: We too are pilgrims on a journey.  And along the road we must be patient in adversity and grateful in the midst of blessings, and trust God, who is always faithful, who is always there, and who is always working all things for our ultimate good.  Psalm 121 communicates a trust that we must have through all of life’s comings and goings.  A trust that is opposite from the worry that often consumes us…

The American poet Mary Oliver wrote a poem called “I Worried.”  I’d like to read it to you to finish, because it captures a bit about the feelings we have along our life’s pilgrimage, maybe even now with anxieties on a global scale:

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not, how shall I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it, and I am, well, hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worry had come to nothing.  And gave it up.  And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.

Friends, ancient Israel sang this psalm, among the other Songs of Ascent, when they were pilgrims along the journey to the high hill of Jerusalem for their annual Jewish festivals.  There were hills along the way—which might have represented pagan distractions and influences, or hostility and danger, or maybe even inspiration as they looked upward.  As they climbed the hill to the city, they sang, they expressed joy and confidence in God.  No matter what you interpret the hills we go through in life to be, the church has long seen this psalm as a testimony to God’s certain providence for our future.  It voices and teaches a trust we can put in God and in the larger movement of life itself.  I invite you to sing your own songs of ascent with joy and trust as we journey through this life together.  Let us come to know what my friend Mary once said to me: “Angry at God?  Heck no!  I don’t know how I would have gotten through any of this or even face the future without God—without God’s help, which is my help!”  May God, the maker of heaven and earth, all that is seen and unseen, be our help indeed.  Amen.