Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Psalm 121: The Lord my keeper

Living and active. In the end, despite my own struggles, my own doubts, God does still speak through his word. Two months ago I wrote to two friends who were facing important exams with what I hope were encouraging words from Psalm 121. I've been feeling quite low recently, and I had little desire to drag myself to church tonight to go to a mid-week gathering that had been running through this summer to be encouraged by the Psalms. But I did trudge along, and as I heard Psalm 121 being preached, the very same psalm that I hope lifted the spirits of my friends lifted me. This was preaching to the affections. But more than that, I appreciated sitting around with fellow Christians wrestling with the way God's word should change us, with the help of his Spirit. And then, to be able to speak to our Father himself as we bowed our heads together.

I thought it was worth digging out that old email I wrote to my friends, and posting an edited version here, modified too to incorporate some of tonight's insights and further reflections:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD watches over you—
the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Who am I? I am fickle. I am malleable. I am unreliable. And I am limited. I don't possess infinite strength or infinite wisdom. "I" may be a particular person, but regardless of who "I" am, I know this to be universally true, in one respect or the other, of all "I"s. No wonder we need to look beyond ourselves.

The psalmist looks at the hills, is that where his help comes from? After all, when he was writing this, that was where many shrines to various gods and goddesses were built. And so it is today: we look to various places to seek help: the intelligent people that we know. The romantic relationship that we think will save us. Even other Christians whom perhaps, we elevate beyond their position.

The psalmist, however is aware where help ultimately comes from. The first sentence of the Bible establishes whose world we live in, and the psalmist recalls this. It is not the sun or moon who is God, but the LORD, the One who made the sun and moon, who ordered the seas, ordained the beasts of the fields and the creatures of the deep. And that is where the rest of the psalm focuses on: we are told what God is like. Our perspective needs to shift. He is our keeper, our guardian, the repetition of the word "keep" in the ESV emphasising this point.

We trust in a God who is trustworthy and sovereign (v.3), one who is not subject to the same physical tiredness that we experience (v.4). Even the simple act of sleep reminds us of our vulnerability. Even the financial markets have to close at some point. We get exhausted. We could post bodyguards outside our homes, doctors by our bed, but ultimately, when we sleep, the illusion of control over our lives slip. But God doesn't go "Oops" or dozes off. Even when it doesn't seem like it, we know God looks after his children, no matter what circumstance (v.5-8).

This psalm is a realistic look at life. It does not promise that we will not suffer heartache, anxiety, distress or hurt - physical or mental. Rather, it assumes that faith will always run into these troubles. Instead, it encourages us to know that God is watching over us (did you notice the repetition?). God is no longer an impersonal boss but a loving parent.

"To suppose that [the Christian life is a quiet escape or a fantasy trip] is to turn the nut the wrong way. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God...We believe that life is created and shaped by God and that the life of faith is a daily exploration of the constant and countless ways in which God's grace and love are experienced." (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson).

And so we can sing
Guide me, O my great Redeemer
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but you are mighty,
hold me with your powerful hand:
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me now and evermore!
Feed me now and evermore.

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