Psalm 121, today’s psalm, evokes images of heroes from childhood days. I always loved action films. In my years there were the cowboy films: the hero and his trusty lieutenant would be trapped in a ring of waggons or in a log cabin, defending a group of women and children against the attackers who wore black hats. There would usually be some feisty woman who would ignore his instructions to stay hidden and would prove to be a shot as good as Annie Oakley as she picked off the surrounding villains with her late father’s rifle. The ammunition would be running low and the hero would have a flesh wound in his arm, dressed by the feisty woman who has torn strips of cloth from her petticoat, and all would seem lost when there would be the sound of a bugle in the distance and the cavalry would come riding in.
Getting older, war heroes took the place of the cowboys. Fiction was easier than fact; you could not have a relief force arriving in the nick of time when the history book told you that no such thing happened. There were extraordinary stories of unexpected help arriving, though. The tale of hundreds of thousands of men taken off the beaches at Dunkirk by the fleet of hundreds of boats would melt the heart of even the greatest sceptic.
Stories of last minute interventions by heroes were not common in adult life. Living in Northern Ireland the tales were ones of cold blooded slaughter and plain thuggery, not much by way of heroism. Perhaps it was the longing for heroes that made the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films appealing; the wizard Gandalf riding the great white horse Shadowfax at the head of a huge cavalry charge to destroy a besieging army: the heroic band standing at the gates of the Dark Lord’s capital, saved at the very last moment from being killed by the enemy army.
Down through the ages, people have looked for heroes, someone to ride in to help them when all other hope has gone. Even in Bible times, there was the hope that the cavalry would come riding in from somewhere
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?”, says the Psalmist. Like the man in the cowboy film looking to the far horizon in the hope of glimpsing a cloud of dust that shows the cavalry are on their way, the Psalmist looks to the surrounding hills in the hope of rescue.
Jewish readers at the time would have said, ‘Hey, hold on a minute, what are you saying?’ There would have been many pagan religions at the time where the worship of nature would have been common, they would have believed that spirits resided in the Earth; they would have lifted their eyes to the hills because they hoped their gods would apperar to assist them. The Psalmist lifts his eyes to the hills as a sign that this is not the place to look for help; he is rebuking those who held on to the old pagan religions. He is saying to them, “The view may be great, but you won’t find help there”.
“From where is my help to come?” he asks, and he knows the answer. “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth”. There is a contrast being drawn. The Jewish people have had a long history of living amongst people who held to very different beliefs. Remember all the stories from the days of Moses and the days of Elijah of them being lured away by the attractions of strange gods? The Psalmist is saying that the God in whom he believes is not a god who dwells in hills, or even in mountains; he is a God who is infinitely greater, the maker of heaven and earth.
The Psalmist is saying he believes in a universal God, a God who is the God of all things. In a world where people believed in household gods or gods of partaicular places or gods of particular tribes, when faith was in spirits who were minders of their own particular patches, the God to whom the Psalmist turns is very different. He is not a god who might come along and help out on the odd occasion, being maker of all, he rules over all.
Yet he is not only a universal God, a God over all things in heaven and earth, a God who is amazing and utterly different from the gods of the neighbouring peoples; the Psalmist says he is also a personal God, a God who is close to individual people and who cares about them – perhaps not like he cavalry riding to the rescue, but always present. “He will not suffer your foot to stumble; he who watches over you will not sleep”.
It is an image that would appeal to a small boy – if you are a small boy, the idea of the hero sitting and keeping watch at night, while you sleep contentedly in the knowledge that you are in complete safety. “The Lord himself watches over you; the Lord is your shade at your right hand, So that the sun shall not strike you by day, neither the moon by night”.
The stories of heroes are always fun, but they are rarely true, and people know from history and from their own experience that things are not so simple that they can read Psalm 121 as a description of a rescuing hero. Good and faithful people have suffered down through the centuries and there has been no last minute arrival to save them. No-one has suffered more than God’s own people, the Jews. Since the days of Job in the Old Testament, people have asked why life is unfair; why the good suffer and the evil prosper.
There are no answers to the difficult questions, if there were, then the questions would go away, but what Psalm 121 does is to point to a way of coping with the questions.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills”, says the Psalmist, and he is looking up in the expectation of receiving help. He knows that the help will not come from the hills, but, in looking up, he is showing his expectation that God is going to respond to his prayers. Sometimes people are so weighed down that it is very hard to look up, but what the psalm is saying is that when they do, God is there. “The Lord shall keep you from all evil; it is he who shall keep your soul”, it says. Not a guarantee of an easy or a smooth life, but an assurance that their soul is in the Lord’s hand.
Looking up, they see the first light of a new dawn, God is always there. “The Lord shall keep watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore”.