‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
A new year opens before us with its fresh prospects and challenges. Our world is a more dangerous place than it was even a year ago. How can we enter 2016 fearlessly and with hope? The answer is simple; we must trust the Lord.
Faith. Trust. The one thing needful (Jn 6:28,29). Faith acknowledges God is God. It does what every creature ought to do before their Creator; take him at his word and believe (Hebs 11:1). It relies wholeheartedly on him. It is for such faith the ancient saints were commended (Hebs 11:2). In it and through it they persevered and God was not ashamed to be called their God (11:16). Faith creates conquerors, over comers (Hebs 11; 1 Jn 5:4). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebs 11:6).
However, in even the greatest saint, faith is often in short supply; it is generally less in size than a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds (Matt 17:20). The paucity of it in his disciples who day by day witnessed the miraculous in Christ and had themselves been empowered to perform miracles on more than one occasion drew an exasperated rebuke from their patient Lord (Matt 8:6; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20; Mk 16:14; Lk 12:28, 32). It is little wonder that the request of the disciples was, ‘Lord, increase our faith'(Lk 17:5).
Perhaps their request ought to be ours too. We profess to trust the Lord for our eternal salvation but seem to find it difficult to trust him for everyday life. It is discomfiting. More, it is an anomaly, an antimony. No wonder it elicits rebuke, loving rebuke, but rebuke none the less. Which of us does not need to ask, ‘Lord, increase my faith’? It is, however, a dangerous request for it may result in the Lord placing us in difficult situations where we learn to trust; faith is like a muscle, it grows as we exercise it.
The Lord wants us to trust him in every situation of life. Partly because, as noted, it is the only way to honour who he is as God and partly because he knows it is for us the way of peace and security.
In Psalm 121, the writer exhibits the kind of healthy faith we need to develop. I thought a brief reflection on it may be helpful; helpful to me at least, and I trust, to you.
faith that talks to oneself
Perhaps the first point to underline is that (embarrassingly, we may be inclined to think) the psalm reveals the psalmist talking to himself. He reasons with himself. He is on a journey (probably to a festival in Jerusalem) and as he travels he faces real hazards. He sees the mountains. These may be those surrounding Jerusalem he has yet to scale. It may be that these remind him his security lies in the Lord (Ps 125:2) or it may be these are the focus of his anxiety. Perhaps scaling them fills him with intimidation, even trepidation. In any case, he feels as we all feel when faced with difficult, potentially dangerous, situations (as travelling was in those days); anxiety at some level begins to edge in. Perhaps he looks at the mountains with their hidden menace and his heart begins to fret. Self speaks to him.
It’s vital to notice that when ‘self’, whether in thoughts or emotions, begins to assert itself the proper way to deal with it is to speak to it and control it. There is nothing wrong (or embarrassing) about speaking to yourself (even aloud at times), in fact, it is absolutely necessary. Here, in the psalm, the issue is uncertainty, even fear. The journey to Jerusalem was difficult and dangerous and his psyche was telling him this in no uncertain terms. He lifts his eyes to the mountains. Travelling up into them fills him with foreboding. He knows the dangers that lurk there. Thus he asks himself the question (or perhaps better, self asks him the question), ‘where does my help come from?’
How will I cope with this? This is scary? I’m not up to this? It’s all a bit too challenging, too demanding.
Notice how the psalmist handles this anxiety. Or rather, notice how he doesn’t handle it. He doesn’t allow the anxiety to keep whirling around his mind unchecked just increasing his stress and anxiety until it controls him. This is the mistake we so often make. No, he immediately addresses it. He speaks to himself (firmly?) about why he has no need to be anxious – his help comes from the Lord.
What is he doing? He is thinking in faith categories. He is combatting fear with faith.
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth
Notice his baseline faith-affirmation: ‘My help comes from the Lord.’
His trust is in the Lord. It is ‘the Lord’, the One with whom he is in a special relationship, that he trusts. The Lord had promised to be with his people. He had solemnly promised to be their Helper, their Shield, who would guard over them and protect them (Gen 15:1; Deut 31:6,8; 33:29; Josh 1:9; Psalm 121:4. Cf. 125:2). Everything the Lord had promised and done for his people in the past was contained and confessed in the expression ‘the Lord’. And he adds to it the further faith-affirmation – the Lord is ‘the Maker of Heaven and Earth’. He is no tribal deity, limited in power to a particular location. He made and owns all things. Everything and everywhere belongs to him and is ruled by him, including these dangerous mountain roads on which he must travel.
‘The Lord is my help‘ is ever the first and most fundamental answer to our needs and fears. It is the instinctive assertion of faith. Whatever may be built on top, it is the substratum, the bedrock, the solid ground upon which all else rests. Whatever the test, the dilemma, or the difficulty, anxiety is unnecessary. Why? ‘The Lord is my help‘. When fears arise this is both our confession and rebuke to our own trembling hearts. We may strengthen our confession by reminding ourselves just how great the Lord is (as the psalmist does… he is the Maker of heaven and earth) which will deepen and strengthen faith but the basic faith affirmation is the same for every believer… the Lord is my help.
The rest of the psalm is simply an application of this affirmation to specific fears.
Sometimes it is helpful if we have vague general fears to identify the specific components and to apply ‘the Lord is my help’ to each one. This is what the psalmist does. He identifies three specific anxiety triggers and in each case reminds himself the Lord ‘watches over him’. In fact, five times he reminds his heart the Lord is ‘watching over’; he is guarded. When anxiety is pressing in we may need to remind ourselves many times that we are kept by the Lord. This is part of the fight of faith, the fight to conquer anxious unbelief and be strong in the Lord.
anxiety about the road
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep. (v3)
The mountain tracks were dangerous. They were no doubt precipitous. He would often walk on scree. Rocks, roots, and ruts were ever present dangers. If his concentration slipped he could have a serious accident. There was no mountain rescue team. He was on his own and injured, a nasty situation. It was an altogether understandable concern. He was not being neurotic. The danger was real. Faith does not pretend that dangers do not exist rather it asserts that in all such dangers the Lord is in control (Matt 6:25-34). The psalmist’s confidence is not in his own prowess and concentration but in the Lord. The Lord will not let his feet slip. He may get tired and lose concentration but the Lord will not. He does not sleep. He tirelessly guards his people. The Lord guards and watches over him. Every detail of our life is under his careful watch.
The danger of a foot slip was so common it became an image for any kind of trouble where the godly felt vulnerable and ready to go down (Ps 38:16; 66:9). In every case the resource for faith is the Lord. As panic is rising the heart of the believer looks firmly and resolutely to the Lord. In him, whatever the danger, he finds support, encouragement, even joy.
When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
When anxiety was great within me,
your consolation brought me joy. (Ps 94:18)
anxiety about the elements
The journey to Jerusalem was dangerous not least because of the weather. This is the second articulated fear of the writer.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Sun and moon were dangers in themselves but they also serve as a symbol for all weather that may be faced on the journey. We must remember these were days before, cagoules, lightweight tents, sunblock, hillwalking boots and GPS. Weather was a good reason to think again before travelling. For most too travelling would be by Shanks’ pony; searing sun, sudden storms and flash floods, and bitterly cold nights were only some of the difficulties to be faced. Fluttering anxiety was all too understandable.
The psalmist faces his fear. He does not repress it (pretend to himself it does not exist) which is dangerous (it means lying to one’s self) but suppresses it. That is, he answers fear by faith. His response to rising fear is as before – the Lord watches over me. His resource is the Lord and he is completely adequate. If he needs shade then the Lord is his shade. The Lord who had been to Israel as it journeyed a pillar of cloud by day (protecting from the sun) and a pillar of fire by night (lightening up her way) is the same Lord who watches over him. All who hide in him are safe.
anxiety about people
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
‘Harm’ or ‘evil’ seems to normally refer to danger from people (Ps 140:1,2; 14:4; 10:7-10). Brigands and bandits lay in wait for easy pickings (remember the parable of the Good Samaritan). How does the pilgrim handle this fear. His confidence lies completely in the Lord. He will keep him from all harm and ‘watch over’ his life. Indeed ‘all harm’ widens the scope of his trust to the widest aperture. The Lord will protect and watch over him not only in this journey but on all journeys, including the journey of life itself.
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
As the psalmist has acknowledged and faced his faith by asserting again and again his confidence in the Lord to keep him his faith has grown so that he can affirm the Lord will be his Shield in every situation every day of his life (and beyond). His faith muscle has strengthened by use. His trust is in his Lord who will never leave him or forsake him (Deut 32:1,2).
This is the kind of faith for which the ancients were commended (Hebs 11:2). It was no abstract theoretical faith about the future that had no bearing on the present but a faith in the invisible God and his promises that brought him into the whole of their lives.
But what if God does not rescue? What if the pilgrim does slip and break a leg? What if he does get swept away in a storm? What if bandits do attack him?
Firstly we should note the psalmist makes no room for these possibilities. His confidence is firmly in the Lord and he refuses doubting questions that undermine this. Yet it is true the Lord does not always keep his people safe in the way they expect, however, he always keeps them safe. In Hebs 11 some of the witnesses to faith had miraculous preservation but some did not (Hebs 11:32-38). Some died horrible deaths. Did the Lord fail them? Did he forsake them? No, he didn’t. He remained their helper and protector. This is the apparently paradoxical truth that Jesus highlights when he says:
But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life. Luke 21:12-19
They may be put to death but not a hair of their head would perish, a colloquialism for their entirely safety (cf. Lk 12:7). In the most extreme of circumstances the Lord is with us, helping us, keeping us, watching over us, guarding us (Isa 43:2).
Faith says with the men about to be thrown into the fiery furnace: we believe that the Lord will deliver us but if not… Faith says with Job, though he slay me yet will I trust him (Job 13:15). And in this type of faith fears are stilled and the peace Christ gives is realised and rules in our heart. Dependence dispels dread. It develops determination and daring.
May we enter this new year with such dependence, such trust. May we say daily in the words of another psalm,
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?