Chapter 2 — Know God Will Help You Climb (Psalm 121)
Our pilgrim has made his decision -- he will leave his home and embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God. He has said enough is enough. The way of the world is an anathema to him now. He will leave his village and launch into sojourn. He has decided to go up to God's city. He will be one of those crazy Israelites who leaves everything three times each year to worship God. He will lay down his own will and plans and follow God’s.
But as soon as he makes that decision the pilgrim has a question. It is the same question you might ask today. What will happen to me if I go on pilgrimage? What will happen to me if I am serious about the Christian life? What will happen to me if I decide to place God at the center of my life, giving Him His rightful position? If I choose the word of God to become the voice that I build my life and decisions and priorities upon, what will become of me? If I decide to make prayer a constant part of my daily life in Christ, what will become of me? If I begin loving the church as Christ loved it, what will become of me? If I embrace the mission of Christ, to make disciples, what will become of me? If I decide to align my lifestyle, sex life, habits, and pleasures to God and His Word, what will become of me? What will happen to me if I deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus?
These questions are sincere and honest questions. Anyone with an ounce of honesty would ask them. It can be a fearful thing to enter into the Christian life of faith. The pilgrim might’ve wondered about the outcome of his pilgrimage, and so do we. Will we be outcast, marginalized by friends and family? Will we become impoverished, unable to make ends meet? Will we become lonely? Will we be a laughingstock?
This psalm provides an answer to questions like these. The pilgrim needed to hear this song, and so do we. This psalm shows that if you embark on a pilgrimage with Christ, God will show up. You will experience His power and might and grace and strength in ways you could never have imagined. The way of Christ unlocks the power of Christ, and you will feel it pumping through your veins. Or you won’t, and the feeling won't be there, but it won’t matter, for the power will be there all the same, for God will faithfully work for you as you journey. The pilgrim must hear this answer from God.
The pilgrim must know God will help them climb. God will help you. If you enter that narrow gate and go on that arduous journey with Christ, you will experience the strength of Christ unleashed upon your mortal body. You will be dealing with God Himself.
This psalm is a song of great promise, but it is promising for the pilgrim. The one who stayed home would not experience these same delights from God. Their faith was a boring one. The blessings found in this song are reserved for the sojourner, the pilgrim, the exile. Only the person who has launched out into the disciple life of faith in Christ can taste God in this way. You might not even know what this life looks like yet, but remember that if you pursue it, God will help you. God will show up.
God Is the Greatest Help for You
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).
The pilgrim begins the song by looking around and up. He knew he needed aid of some kind. He is human, after all, and humans require help in life. We are so often at our wit's end; the pressures of life are enormous. Raising children, providing for a family, enduring school, battling aloneness, experiencing financial troubles, fighting addictions — it all mounts on us.
We deal with and live in a broken society, a hurting humanity. For all our technological advances, people are still depressed and hurting, dysfunctional and hostile towards one another. This world can be painful and unhelpful. The pilgrim — ancient and modern — looked for help. From where would it come?
But this search for help goes beyond the help everyday humans search for, but the help disciples need. If I live the pilgrim life, where do I get help for that kind of life? Laying down my life for Christ seems impossible. How can I make it? How can I endure? Again, this is the question. Am I left to my own efforts, my own strength?
In the psalm, the pilgrim lifts his eyes to the hills and asks, “From where does my help come?” But what are we to make of this upward glance, this look to the hills? Our pilgrim is, of course, about to begin his journey up and over and through those hills. So perhaps he wonders, “Where can I find help over that mountain range?”
But the hills were often more than a physical obstacle to ancient Israel; they were a place of stumbling. Israel constantly battled the temptation to enter into idolatry. When they gave in to their temptation, they would go to the hills and build their altars and engage in lewd acts of worship to the gods.
One day, to Ezekiel, God described what a righteous man looks like: “He does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 18:6). The godly would not go to the mountains to eat the idolatrous meal. He would not lift his eyes up to the idols which stumbled Israel. And our pilgrim is likely thinking of these idols because he next sings that his help comes from the Lord, “who made heaven and earth,” a phrase often used in contrast to the idols who created nothing. It seems that our pilgrim has come to a place of recognition: “My help comes from God!” he says, “The idols and every other source cannot be my help. God helps me.”
So our pilgrim recognized his need for help in pilgrimage, but also the limitations of all other forms of aid. Pilgrimage hinges on the understanding that the strength for it comes from God. Too many have left the disciple life because they’ve thought the power resides within themselves. We must look up, not to the hills, but above them to God. We must not look within our own flesh, but for His Spirit within us. We must recognize the great help God Himself will give us.
“Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). A mystery now revealed, God lives, after rebirth, within His people. Upon conversion to Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us. He will help us on this road of the life of faith, our pilgrimage. We aren’t asked to travel alone. Our companion is God. Jesus spoke of “another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). And what does He help us with? The keeping of His commandments (John 14:15).
God is our great help in pilgrimage. He will often help us by sending others to us, but He is the ultimate source of assistance. You might look to a person for help -- a spouse or a friend or a group in your church -- but they cannot be the ultimate source of your help. You might look to an institution for help -- a family or a church or a government -- but they cannot be the ultimate source of your help. And you might look to yourself for help -- your education or energy or earning power -- but you cannot be your ultimate source of your help. People, institutions, the self -- they all wither or collapse when looked to as the ultimate source for help today. No, the pilgrim understands God is his supply.
David typified this during an episode in his early years. The darling of Israel because he’d slain Goliath, David had drawn the ire of his father-in-law, the jealous King Saul. During one brief chapter of his life, God used various people to shield David from Saul’s wrath, protecting him. First, David’s friend Jonathan, Saul’s son, interceded to his father Saul on David’s behalf. Second, David’s wife Michal covered for him, allowing him to escape Saul’s search party. Third, David’s spiritual leader, Samuel, hid him from Saul. Fourth, and last, the Spirit Himself descended upon Saul’s messengers. In an odd scene, these would-be assassins began to prophesy. Even Saul began to prophesy and pray, intervening for David directly. So a friend, a wife, a spiritual leader -- all of them -- stood by David’s side. They all helped the man. But, ultimately, as is seen at the end of the episode, God Himself interceded for David. God was the ultimate help of David’s life.
As our pilgrim sees all this, he learns his help comes from God. He has looked to the hills and wondered, but now, at this stage, he knows: “God is my help.”
Do you know this, O believer? Christ loves you, shed His blood for you, and has called you into something deeper. He wants to draw you out of the fleshiness and worldliness you are used to. He wants to put you on a firm foundation. He calls you onto the pilgrim’s path, the road of discipleship, the life of faith. But do you believe He is ready to help you on that journey? Stand convinced and convicted — your help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
God Tirelessly Works for You
“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:3-4).
The song turns sharply at this point. Not in content, but in authorship. No longer does our pilgrim cry out, but a new singer enters the song. The passage does not say with certainty who this new voice is, but it is possible this portion of the song was meant to be sung by the priests in Jerusalem. From their position, they would exhort the oncoming pilgrims. This priest is full of encouraging words, words which affirm the original thought of our pilgrim. "God will help you," he sings, "And here's how."
The entrance of this priest figure serves as a powerful reminder on our pilgrimage. As pilgrims, we need people like the priest in our lives, people who will tell us God is with us as we journey in Christ. As we pursue the life of the disciple, we are left to wonder, "What will happen to me if I take the Christian life seriously?" Voices like the priest's, voices which tell us God will keep us as we are faithful in Christ, are vital to our health. We must have these voices.
And we must be these voices. The church is a kingdom of priests, a holy priesthood in Christ (Revelation 1:6, 1 Peter 2:5). As priests, we must serve and love and minister to one another. One significant way to help one another is by affirming the disciple's road. We must tell one another that the path might be narrow, and few might go through the gate, but it is the best life possible.
We must loudly sing and proclaim to one another: "God is with you as you sojourn in Him!" Too many voices are telling us to follow our dreams, to love the self, and to look within. We need voices affirming us in a counter-cultural path, the life of losing our lives for Christ and His gospel. We need people who will sing the truth into the ears of our spirit.
Sing this priest does. The rest of the psalm comes from his mouth. In his first verse, he announces the ability of God to keep the pilgrim while he journeys, that God will not sleep while the pilgrim travels. God, unlike man, needs no rest. Our energy is finite, while His is infinite. While the pilgrim sleeps and hikes and rests and walks, God is there at all times, never slumbering, always keeping. God ever works for the pilgrim, and that is the message of this priest.
God works tirelessly for you as you live the pilgrim life. He, unlike you, needs no sleep. I once heard someone proudly proclaim, “I don’t know what sleep is. I just go.” Nonsense. Everyone knows what sleep is. We need it. We break without it. Our bodies demand it. But the Father has been working until now, and so has the Son (John 5:17). The God who keeps Israel never slumbers, He never sleeps. He keeps all those who embark on the life of faith, a counterintuitive experience with Jesus.
So God, in His infinite energy, works for His disciples, His faithful followers, the pilgrims. The God who keeps Israel, the psalm points out, keeps the pilgrim. And how had God kept Israel? The way He keeps Israel is the way He keeps His pilgrims.
First, God kept Israel as a people group. He brought them out of their slavery in Egypt. They cried out to Him, and He delivered them. God brought them through the wilderness, guiding them day and night. And God brought them into Canaan, the land of promise. God had kept them throughout the entire journey. Israel moved, but it was God opening the doors.
He brought Pharoah to his breaking point so that he'd grant Israel their freedom. He brought Israel through the Red Sea, and they stepped through it once God parted the waters. In the wilderness, He provided them with water and food and directed them by His fire and His cloud.
Eventually, He held back the waters of the Jordan and they entered into the Promised Land. Victories were theirs for the taking. The various groups of wicked people, set aside by God for judgment, stood no chance before Israel. God had kept His people. God had led them.
God keeps His pilgrim people in a similar way. He leads us, stands with us, and protects us. He wills to take us from our previous slaveries and into freedom. He has a life of joy and peace and gladness in store. As we move in Christ, as we obey and follow and take up our cross, He works in our lives. We take a step towards sanctification, and He takes ninety-nine more. He works tirelessly to take us to His terminus for our lives.
Second, God kept Israel as His covenantal people. Israel possessed the promises of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had put Abraham to sleep while He confirmed the one-sided promises to the man. Abraham slept while God promised. As Israel grew into a nation, they ebbed and flowed in their allegiance to God, but His devotion to them did not waver. His covenant stood. The exodus only solidified it. He purchased them by the blood. Israel was His. God would keep them, for He is in covenant with them.
God keeps His people on pilgrimage in a similar way. The modern believer has a new and better covenant, not solidified or memorialized in the blood of bulls and goats, but in the blood of the Son. Jesus took the cup and told His disciples it symbolized “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25).
This covenant is vital for the pilgrim to remember, for pilgrims are tempted to believe their progress is contingent upon their work and devotion. But God keeps His people. If in Christ, we are in a glorious covenant. This covenant secures for us the Spirit’s persistent work in our lives. He is groaning and interceding and working all things together to get us to the destination of the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-30). He works to grow us because we are under the blood.
Third, God kept Israel the man. Before Israel the people, there was a man named Israel. His original name was Jacob, but God changed him and his future, thus the new name. It is worth recalling God’s original work in Jacob. He was a born deceiver. As the younger twin brother of Esau, Jacob stole Esau’s blessing from their father, Isaac. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacob fled.
His first night on the run, as an exile, he slept in a place later called Bethel. As he slept, God worked, for He is tireless. God gave Jacob a dream of a staircase leading up into heaven, with the angels ascending and descending upon it. God then spoke blessings and promise upon Jacob. When he awoke, Jacob said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). God was working on his behalf while he slept. The priest of Psalm 121 seems to have this very image in mind.
God keeps His people on pilgrimage in a similar way. We have limited energy, resources, and character, but God does not. He is alive and working. What will happen to you if you take the Christian life seriously?
You will experience His work in your life. You’ll tithe, and God will provide for you. You’ll refrain from entangling yourself in unhelpful relationships, the unequal yoke, and God will bless you with healthy ones. You’ll rise early in the morning for prayer, and God will already be awake, ready to hear your cry. You’ll feebly share your faith, and God will use the seed you’ve sown for His glory. You’ll share an encouraging word, as best you can, and God will deliver it with power and perfect timing.
With Jacob, you’ll find yourself saying, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” He will tirelessly work for you.
God Perpetually Shades You
“The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” (Psalm 121:5-6).
Our priest continues his song of promise and blessing on our pilgrim. He says more about the keeping power of God. For this, we are glad, for the Christian life would be unbearable without this next portion: the shade of God. Here, the song tells us, God Himself is shade for the pilgrim, shielding them from the brunt of the heat on their journey.
The blessing of this promise isn’t hard to imagine. The pilgrim has left his home and might be thinking of the climb to Jerusalem. The journey might take a few days. The days would be hot and the nights fretful, so God promises shade for both. The Hebrew who stayed home, refusing to climb to Jerusalem, had nothing to do with this promise. This shade is for the pilgrim. God will do a beautiful thing for him.
First, consider the sun, for he sings, "the sun shall not strike you by day." Shade can never remove heat but can make the heat more bearable. We need this shading in our own pilgrimage today.
The heat of the Christian life, of that pilgrimage, is often intense. To live by God’s sexual ethic is contrary to culture. To order the family according to God’s word takes concentration and sacrifice. To grow in patience, self-control, gentleness, or love requires pain and trial. To forgive can feel impossible. Obedience to the Spirit can be stressful. But, in it all, God provides His shade. He takes these pressures and, by His Spirit, makes them bearable to us. When God's shade arrives, we find joy and gladness on the journey, for He has enabled our climb.
Next, consider the moon, for he sings, "nor the moon by night." It strikes the modern reader as strange to think of being shaded from the moon. Perhaps our singer means merely, “God will protect you at all times, day or night.” But more might lurk beneath this statement about the moon.
In ancient times people often thought of the moon as affecting the mind, as our word “lunacy” attests. Perhaps the singer means something more like this: “God will keep you from the exhaustion of the journey, but also the mental perils attached to pilgrimage.” And the pilgrim life is one filled with mental peril.
After listing his physical suffering for the Corinthian church, Paul mentioned, “besides all this, my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28, NIV). He was a man with a burden. His care for God's people was massive, and it led to pressure upon his inner man. Like Paul, we need God’s shade for the journey, but also the mind.
In all places and at all times God watches over the pilgrim. Note that God Himself is the shade. He sends not an emissary but offers the shade Himself. The Christian must find their joy and fulfillment in God, for He is the shade. We cannot find ultimate shade in blessings He gives, but in who He is.
Confidence in God’s ability to shade the pilgrim is vital to pilgrimage. To know He will make the journey bearable and, dare I write it, sweet, will often get us out the door of obedience and into the path of pilgrimage. Knowing He will shade you makes the way possible. All this shade is all grace, not payment for a good pilgrimage, because God stands ready to offer this shade to all who would embark on the journey. No matter what you’ve done previously, humble yourself, repent, receive the grace of God to forgive and cleanse, and head out on this new life in Christ.
He is ready. He will meet you in the times you set aside for Word and prayer. He will shade you as you share your faith. He will shelter you as you express generosity. He will shade you as you submit your lifestyle to Him. What will happen to you if you set out upon the Christian life? God will cover you.
God Always and at All Times Blesses You
“The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:7-8).
The priest-singer ends this second Song of Ascent by telling our pilgrim that God will always and at all times bless them as they take the pilgrimage. God would keep them from evil. God would keep their life. God would keep their going out and their coming in. Forever, God would keep them.
These promises might sound effusive and extravagant to us. Reading them, we wonder if they aren't just psalmic flattery or over the top euphoric promises based on mere sentiment. We wonder if this is real and true. Could these promises be? Would God keep the pilgrim from all evil? Has the singer merely gotten carried away with himself in a bit of religious fervor? Promises such as these seem like a fairy tale, at least at first glance.
We know, of course, that the Christian is never promised a life without suffering. Our hero, Jesus Christ, bore intense suffering, and the church He commissioned suffered as well. We honor our Christian forebearers for that suffering.
The pain of childbirth produces the joy of new life. In a similar way, we understand it takes pain to experience many of the blessings of the church. We do not expect to evangelize or disciple-make without a bit of hurt. Persecution has been promised for the godly life (2 Timothy 3:12). Trials have been held out as a path towards growth and character (James 1:2). Indeed, our psalmist could not possibly promise a life without pain.
In a sense, our singer must be promising God’s faithful help in seeing the pilgrim through the perils of pilgrimage. The sun and moon and miles and roads would not overcome him. Robbers would not take him. Injuries would not stop him. If he set his heart upon Jerusalem, God would get him to Jerusalem. So the singer gives the pilgrim hope. This hope would help the pilgrim on his path — a knowledge God was walking with him.
We are to embrace the same truth today. God will deliver us through our pilgrimage. In fact, He does promise us a life without pain or suffering, but after our pilgrimage is over with. In His glorious presence, the pain and sickness and hurt will evaporate. We won’t even observe evil at that point, let alone touch it. But for now, we are confident: He will see us through the ills of life as we journey on His narrow path. We stand with Paul who, sensing Rome was about to kill him, wrote, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). He didn’t mean he wouldn’t die, but that he would be brought through death, into God’s kingdom and presence.
We are reminded of the promise of the Spirit. He works towards us and for us. He groans for us and intercedes for us. He knows how to use all the stuff of life for the purpose of conforming His pilgrims into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28-30). He shapes and molds us, even using the hardships of life as His chisel.
But our singer goes on: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” The pilgrim had to leave home, enter Jerusalem, and return. The journey would provide him great moments of spiritual inspiration, but also moments of spiritual sadness. Departing from home, making that initial climb to Jerusalem, would have been exhilarating, especially during those first few journeys.
Entering Jerusalem, seeing its glory and splendor, would have tickled the senses. Standing with the congregation, seeing the priests, hearing the music, watching the smoke ascend, beholding the glory of God descend would have been glorious moments of spiritual happiness.
Departing Jerusalem, on the other hand, was a different experience. At home, there were chores and tasks and animals and fields and families which required care. Daily stuff awaited the pilgrim. He may have lost his sense of spiritual power, but God didn’t. The singer tells our pilgrim: God keeps your going out and your coming in. God is in every season. He loves the feasts, but He loves the work week too.
This entire song teaches us this truth: God is with us as we journey. Jesus told His disciples to go make more disciples, and that He would be with them always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). As they went, He went with them, by His Spirit. And His presence is of the “always” variety.
We must remember the daily willingness of God to walk with us. He is not bored. He is not only in the higher moments of the Christian life, for to Him they might not even be the pinnacles we think them to be. He sees fine work happening in the valleys, the heartaches, the pains of life. He loves to stand with you in your workplace, your friendships, and your family. The Christian life is so daily — and God loves it.
So what will happen to you if you take this pilgrimage seriously? God will become your helper and keeper. You'll experience the Living God living through you. He walks and works with you and for you. O pilgrim, go out on the narrow path! It will not devour you. The pains will not consume you. The life of discipleship is the best life there is — no life is better! Let God become your help and shade and keeper. Keep going on His path and drink in His grace as you do.