PS. 121:1: “I LIFT UP MY EYES TO THE HILLS; FROM WHERE WILL MY HELP COME?”

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore (NRSV)

These websites provide the Hebrew text: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/364288/jewish/Prayers-for-the-Final-Moments.htm
http://www.oldtestamentstudies.net/translations/psalm121.asp?item=16&variant=1

Verse 1: “I lift my eyes to the hills.”  

Traveling Uphill

Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents,” 120-134.  Tribes of Israelites went up to Jerusalem to worship (Deut. 16:16, Psalm 24:3, 122:4, Neh. 3:15, 1 Kings 12:28, etc.).  My colleague Clint McCann writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible, “While certainty is not possible, it is likely that this collection was originally used by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or as part of a festal celebration in Jerusalem.” He also writes that these psalms are all short enough to be memorized and several contain references to everyday life, implying that these psalms reflect the experiences of everyday people traveling or arriving at Jerusalem (1).

Jerusalem, the city which God designated as his dwelling place (Isaiah 8:18), is indeed a place to which one must ascend. The Mediterranean, which is sea level, lies thirty miles to the west, while the Dead Sea, only about 15 miles to the south, is nearly 1300 feet below sea level. Mount Zion itself is about 772 meters in elevation

So our psalm begins, “I lift my eyes to the hills.” The Hebrew word har could be also be translated “mountains.”  The psalmist travels upon the roads to Jerusalem, perhaps feeling all the discomfort that we experience when we walk uphill: extra effort, tired legs, the need to pause, catch breath, and take a drink.

The psalm does not actually mention Jerusalem, or the journey there. That’s one reason why the psalm seems to universal.  It does not require that we imagine Jerusalem or even associate the poem with its presumed original context.  This psalm is a poem has long been beloved by people relying upon God during literal journeys as well as life’s challenges and metaphorical pathways. For us, “the hills” can be any kind of destination, at some distance and with some amount of risk, as we look to the road ahead, disappearing into the horizon.

Journeying toward God

Our relationship with God is a kind of destination, too. Are we at the place we want to be spiritually?  Have we conformed in many ways to God’s will?  God might expect us to follow him closely (Matt. 5:47-48), but we know very well that we don’t meet that expectation. How wonderful, then, that we look to a God who not only calls us to conform to his will but also gives us grace, help, and assistance when–not if, but when–we fall short.  Following Jesus is also acknowledging our inability to follow him well and, in turn, experiencing his help.

In addition to confident prayers like Psalm 121, other psalms express honestly feelings of discouragement and emptiness about God, for instance, 42.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (vss. 1-2)

To me, Psalm 121 is the yang, the bright place, and Psalms 42 (along with 43) are the yin, the dark place, of having faith in God.  Instead of traveling to Jerusalem, the psalmist cannot go to the Temple, apparently because of sickness (42:10).  The writer has a different kind of struggle than the psalmist of 121, who is uncertain about the journey to the city. As I like to tell people, the psalms contain very human struggles–but the psalms are also God’s word to us!  Here in Psalm 42–in God’s own word–we have a song about a person who can‘t find God.

We feel that way in our lives on different occasions. We may feel estranged from God because of some moral and ethical lapse.  In those cases, it’s important to remember that God hears our prayers and accepts our sincere repentance.  We may still feel emotionally terrible, but our emotions do not determine the extent to which God loves us and wants to help us be healed and restored. “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything,” assures the apostle John (1 John 3:20).

We may feel distant from God because of some other emotional lack.  If your self-esteem is low, or if your trust has been hurt by someone, you may have difficulty accepting love from anyone, including God. That has always been a struggle for me, but especially in my younger days.

We may also feel betrayed by God!  You were let down by something your Christian acquaintances did, and your faith is hurt.  You might feel that you were a good, faithful person and yet your life fell apart: you suffered a divorce, an illness, an unfair job loss, or other circumstance.  It can be difficult to admit, but we may feel intense, though subconscious anger and even hatred toward God when bad things happen.

If we’re in a position of spiritual confusion or discouragement—or if things are going well for us–Psalm 121 can give us confidence as we face “the journey,” because its verses give us several affirmations of God’s unfailing care.

You might immediately think: How do I affirm God’s care when there are, indeed, difficult and even evil circumstances in my life?  How can I feel positive about God’s protection when I’m facing all kinds of problems and challenges?

Faith and Doubt Go Together  

I like these words by Lewis Smedes.  “Some people try to use faith as a wedge into the worry-free life. But faith does not put worry to sleep. Hope is the child of faith, and worry is the child of doubt. But doubt is the twin sister of faith. The French theologian Ellul had it just right: ‘The person who is plunged into doubt is not the unbeliever but the person who has no other hope but hope’ Unbelievers do not have to doubt. Believers doubt precisely because they live by faith and not by sight. And they hope precisely because they live by faith. So worry tags along with doubt as long as we live by faith and hope.”(2)

We know that even the most routine trip is not 100% safe.  I used to hear people say that a large percentage of automobile accidents occur within a few miles of one’s home. In one of my parishes, I heard a story of a friend’s father, who had been struck by lightning as he worked his own farm.  The day was only partly cloudy; the accident was just a freak occurrence.  Nothing dire happens to us during the vast majority of days—and of course we shouldn’t fill our days with dread about some unknown, upcoming disaster—but trouble, when it comes, often does catch us by surprise.

If we think about “the journey of life” metaphorically, we call to mind many risks and uncertainties. This job seemed to be God’s will and a perfect fit for me, one might say, but it has turned out to be very stressful. Is God preparing me for something better down the way, or am I just experiencing temporary difficulties? Since we cannot predict the future, we always look to the unknown with at least a little bit of respect for life’s unpredictability.

Is this wrong of us, to feel anxiety and uncertainty?  After all, the Bible contains several verses where Jesus or the angels console the frightened.  The angels tell the shepherds, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10).  Jesus tells the disciples “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10 and “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). in Luke 24:38-39, Jesus also says, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself …” Remember that the disciples had all forsaken Jesus; would you return to a friend who had abandoned you?  Yet it is to these pathetic friends—sinners like you and me–that Jesus bids to have no fear.  Paul also entreats us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

Yet, doubt and anxiety is part of our humanness. Even when we rely upon the scriptural promises, we recognize that we fall short of perfect faith.  As Smedes and Ellul reminded us above, doubt and concern are aspects of living by faith.  Plus, some anxiety has to do with personality traits rather than faith per se; some of us are psychologically and physiologically geared toward moderate or excessive anxiety.  Some things worry me terribly that don’t bother you at all, and vice versa.  Neither of us have had success at overcoming the things we worry about; thank goodness 2 Cor. 12:7-10 teaches us having struggles isn’t foreign to religious experience.

Having faith may even place us in positions where life becomes even more fearful! Oswald Chambers writes, “It is not easy to have faith in God, and it is not meant to be easy because we have to make character. God will shied us from no requirements of His sons and daughters any more than He shielded His own Son.  It is an easy business to sit in an armchair and say, ‘Oh yes, I believe God will do this and that’; that is credulity, not faith. But let me say, ‘I believe God will supply all my needs,’ and then let me ‘run dry,’ no money, no outlook, and see whether I will go through the trial of my faith, to sink back and put my trust in something else. It is the trial of our faith that is precious. If we go through the trial, there is so much wealth laid up in our heavenly banking account to draw upon when the next test comes.”(3)

Thinking again about Psalm 121:1, the psalm gives us an situation where the writer is, indeed, in the midst of a difficult and uncertain situation.  But the psalmist is able to affirm hope and faith in God’s concern, even though the situation is one of uncertainty and exertion.

Looking Up

I found a sweet book at a used book website: Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, written by J. R. Miller and published in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago—my grandparents were children in 1899—and the strength another person derived from these same verses as he read them in a different time.

Miller writes, “Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay I the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.”(4)

He continues, “We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen.”(5)  It’s not just unbelievers whom Miller describes, but also people of faith who neglect looking to God, for one reason or another.

“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. Negative people are a drag upon one’s morale. Unfortunately, negative people find kinship with one another and soon you have a group of negative people who make you depressed!  (Fellow Christians can be just as big a drag on your morale as anyone, if they’re negative people, and congregations can be “downer” kinds of places, too.)

But looking up in the theological sense means to focus our feelings, plans, and everyday lives upon God.   Remember that famous set of verses in Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). That doesn’t mean we should jump, foolishly and headlong, into a circumstance: insight is one of the precious ways we can discover God’s will (along with prayer, the advice of friends, serendipitous reassurances, and so on). But our insight also does not substitute for God’s all-knowing wisdom!  By trusting in and acknowledging God we affirm his overall guidance.

I never look forward to life’s trials, and their prospect worries me. And yet I’ve a long series of amazing evidences of God’s guidance in my life to which I can look. I can affirm that God has never failed to be with me in every situation and circumstance, even those I can’t understand.

One of the greatest things about “looking up” to God, is that God does not at all rely upon either our attentiveness or faithfulness before doing great things!  Isaiah 42:3 reads, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Sometimes the smallest flicker of faith is all we have, but God is still good and powerful.

Matthew 20, too, reminds us that God’s love and grace are freely given to us, and God gives us grace just as freely and generously when we come to God late in life, as he does for those who serve him for years.  Miller is right, we grow in the direction in which our eyes habitually turn, but our eyes are beholding not a God who waits for us to “shape up.”  We look to a God who has already taken all the steps necessary to rescue us from the things that plague us.  God is a God who deals with our sin through Jesus and thus forgets our sins, never counting them against us.

Robert Zund, “Road to Emmaus,” 1877

Another wonderful scripture is Luke 24, which illustrates how Jesus takes the initiative even when we’re not in a good spiritual “place”. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone.  Jesus appeared to them unrecognized and talked with them.  They did not even recognize after he talked with them a long time.  Finally he became recognizable to them when they shared bread.  In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” They thought there was no longer reason to look to Jesus.  And yet their hearts must’ve been sufficiently open that, when Jesus broke the bread, they suddenly knew the truth.

The psalmist of 121 has faith in God’s power. In all the subsequent verses, which we’ll study next, the writer shows us different but complementary ways that God loves us and comes to our assistance.

Notes:

1. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 1176.

2.  Lewis D. Smedes, Standing on the Promises: Keeping Hope Alive for a Tomorrow We Cannot Control (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 35.

3. Oswald Chambers, The Quotable Oswald Chambers, compiled and edited by David McCausland (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 2008), p. 94.

4.  J. R. Miller, D.D., Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm (New York: THomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899), p. 5.

5.  Miller, pp. 8-9.

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PS. 121:2: “MY HELP COMES FROM THE LORD, WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH.”

Verse 2 reads: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Confidence in the Creator

As I noted in the previous post, the author of Psalm 121 is on a journey.  He (we assume a “he”, but women would’ve made pilgrimages, too) was probably traveling to the high hills where Jerusalem is located, and the psalmist asks, From where with my help come?  From where will help come for the journeying person?

Verse 2 provides the answer. For the psalmist, the first step of confidence is to recognize that the God whom we call upon for help is the same God who made heaven and earth.

I grew up in a denomination in which creeds were never a part of worship.  Not until I joined our local United Methodist church in my late teenage years did I learn the Apostle’s Creed contains this line: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  The Nicene Creed contains the same affirmation. The phrase is such a simple one we may miss the fact that it came from Psalm 121.

When I was in college, I had a poster on my dorm room wall.  The poster depicted a small white church and a background of timber-covered hills.  The caption read, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.”  A friend pointed out that the caption needed the question mark of the original verse; otherwise, a person might think the hills (and generally, the natural world) provided help, rather than God.

That’s a fine distinction, especially considering the picture of a church.  Nevertheless, it’s a point worth remembering.  “The Star Spangled Banner” has several verses, and the first verse (the one we always sing) ends with a question mark: “…. does that star spangled banner yet wave….?” Technically, at that point in the song, we don’t if the battle is won and the flag is safe! We need Key’s other verses to have confidence in outcome. Similarly with Psalm 121.  Verse 1 provides the question which must be answered by the second verse: “My help comes form the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

*****

Marvels of the Universe

from universetoday.com

I love science and wrote a study book a few years ago about science and religion. Here are some interesting facts I found on the internet. Did you know that the furthest galaxy known to us is named IOK-1 and is about 12.9 billion light years away? Of course, a light year is the distance light travels in a year—5,878,630,000,000 miles–traveling at the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. (The Space Shuttle travels 5 miles per second). Our whole galaxy is “only” 150,000 light years across. Traveling at light speed, we need four years to get to the nearest star (besides our sun). So we must travel 13 billion years to arrive at that distant IOK-1 galaxy.

At the other end of the scale of size, a DNA molecule weighs 0.0000000000000001 grams and is about nine feet long.  A nine-foot molecule is found in every one of our cell’s nucleus. As many people know, the DNA molecule contains a double-stranded helical pattern of the chemicals adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine which in turn produce the proteins that authorize our body’s various functions. Our chromosomes contain 3 billion “base pairs” of DNA, and we have 46 chromosomes. So all the DNA in each of our bodies is about 2.0 x 10,000,000,000,000 meters, or nearly 70 round trips to the sun.

You could think of the smallest creatures on earth as the single-cell amoebas, or perhaps viruses (scientists disagree if viruses “lives” the same way as cells). The largest creature, in turn, is actually the largest creature that as ever existed: the blue whale.  They are nearly 100 feet long and weigh nearly 200 tons. What amazes me, however, is that blue whales survive on some of the earth’s tiniest creatures, a shrimp called krill. Blue whales eat 8000 pounds of these shrimp, and blue whales’ eating mechanism includes a filter by which they can expel ocean water while consuming the shrimp.

To me (and to many religious scientists whom I’ve read over the years) data such as this is not only fascinating in its own right but also witnesses to the greatness of God’s creation.

A temptation of the religious life is to place ourselves as the center of God’s whole concern: as if ever answered prayer and every serendipitous event was sent by God for our personal benefit. But another temptation is to think that our problems–so tiny within this world of seven billion people, and in this universe of such vast size–are things we should not bring to God as if God were too busy. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Creation and Redemption

The scriptural linkage of God’s creation and his redemption can be found in some of the later writings of the Old Testament.(1)  Here are good examples from the exilic chapters of Isaiah.

Was it not you who dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
Who made the depths of the sea a way
For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the Lord [in exile in Babylon] shall return,
And come to Zion with singing (Isa. 51:10-11a).

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless (Isa. 40:28-29)

In Psalm 19 we find a similar linkage: God’s creation and providence, and the will of God expressed in the divine law:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world…. 
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple….

More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb…

Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of this kind, too. God has established the wonders of creation.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great …
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken. 
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains… 

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills, 
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst. 
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches. 
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work….

The whole psalm through its conclusion depicted the glories of God’s works in creation, and causes the psalmist to rejoice in the Lord, and to hope in God.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being. 
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord. 
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

Route 66 through Arizona high country

These longer psalms depict in picturesque, poetic fashion that simple phrase: my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. We look to the road ahead, glimpse the countryside through which the road travels, and remember that the road, with its risks and effort, is but a small part of God’s great universe.

Jesus and Creation

Jesus himself links creation and salvation, as we read in this lovely passage, Colossians 1:15-20.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Just as the prophets and psalmists connect creation and redemption, the author of Colossians weaves together those themes in his letter. A commentator writes: “To say that this fullness of God [the active fullness of God in all things, as attested in the Old Testament] dwells in Christ… is most likely to mean that just as there is nothing in heaven or earth that is outside the divine presence and power, so also there is nothing outside the scrip of Christ’s presence and power, because Christ now sums up all that God is in interaction with the cosmos.”(2)

Some people like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” when they face a dilemma or challenge. But it’s not as if Jesus is leaving us all alone to deal with life’s troubles. When we fail, he is there–with this vast and tremendous power—to heal us and help us. When we face the worst challenges, he is accompanying us and carrying us. The scope, beauty, and detail of creation can remind us of his care.

Jesus and the Temple

Another way to link creation and redemption, is to remember that Psalm 121 is probably a song about traveling to the Jerusalem Temple—and then connecting the Temple to Jesus.

Within the long Old Testament narrative, the Temple (God’s special place of dwelling) is connected to the land promised to the Israelites by God, and that land in turn is connected to the goodness of all creation.(3)  We may not immediately think of the Temple and creation together, but they are different facets of God’s care for his people and, by extension, God’s care for all.

As you read the New Testament, you can make connections between Jesus and creation (as we just saw), and between Jesus and the Temple.  For instance, in John’s story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, Jesus calls attention to his own body as the Temple, that is, the place where God’s presence on earth is present in a special way.  Jesus was Jewish, of course, and was not rejecting his own people and their worship, but he was announcing God’s special “dwelling” in the world in the person of Jesus.

In addition to his own discussion of the Temple and its sacrifices in chapters 7-10, the author of Hebrews calls Jesus the Temple High Priest who fully understands our struggles and intercedes for us.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.

I know I’m repeating myself, but this passage (along with others) should eliminate any misunderstanding of Jesus as someone we shouldn’t “bother,” or who we’re supposed to “impress.” True, our own problems may be small compared to those faced by other people.  But any problem, any struggle and weakness, is something to take to the Lord. Jesus understands that sometimes we are strong and capable, and sometimes we are ignorant and weak.  But Jesus wants to help us and intercede for us because he understands the struggle of being human.

To return to our psalm: Verse 2 of Psalm 121 affirms that God is our creator and helper.  God did not create all things and then let the universe run unsupervised.  God creates all things, claims all things as his own, and cares for all things.  We’ve constant and continual, beneficial access to the God who is Master of DNA and IOK-1 and everything else.

Notes

1. One analysis of this theological development in Israel’s scriptures can be found in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II, The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 240-241.

2. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 299.

3. For instance, the Priestly Source, the hypothesized post-exilic document incorporated into the Old Testament canon, included not only priestly laws in the Torah concerning Israelite worship but also the Genesis 1 text.  “P” linked creation and Sabbath with God’s covenant to Israel and Israel’s worship in the land.

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PS. 121:3: “HE WILL NOT LET YOUR FOOT BE MOVED; HE WHO KEEPS YOU WILL NOT SLUMBER.”

Page from a 1669 King James Bible, with Psalm 121

Page from a 1669 King James Bible, with Psalm 121

We continue with verse 3—-and a pronoun change.

Psalm 121 can be considered in terms of structures. You could think of the psalm as a two part structure: verse 1 raises the question, and 2-8 provide the reply.  Since the pronoun of verses 1-2 is the first person “my” and the pronoun of verses 3-8 is the second person “you,” you could think of the first two verses as the pilgrim’s leave-taking words, while verses 3-8 are the assurances offered by a priest or family member.You could also think of the psalm as a three part song. Verses 1 and 2 form the introduction, verses 3 through 6 form a series of assurances for the pilgrim traveling toward the goal, and verses 7-8 conclude the psalm as a benediction that covers other aspects of the pilgrim’s life than just this particular journey.

Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism, wherein two or three statements belong together. Zechariah 9:9 is a well-known scripture for Palm Sunday:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
 
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
 
Lo, your king comes to you;
 
triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,
 
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 

It’s not that the king is riding two animals simultaneously. In Hebrew poetry, one line answers or elaborates the other.

We see this in Psalm 121. The four sets of two verses are related. Verse 2 answers the question posed by verse 1. Verses 3 and 4 affirm, in similar ways, God’s inability to “slumber” while his people are in need. Verses 5 and 6 affirm God’s protection and power of renewal when we’re weary and threatened. Verses 7 and 8 affirm the ability of God to “keep” our lives, now and forever.

Verse 3 thus continues, with a new “voice,” the assurance of God’s care begun with verse 2. As God is the God of creation and salvation, so God will protect us on our lives’ literal and metaphorical journeys. God:

keeps us steady in difficult situations (vs. 3)
does not sleep; his care is uninterrupted (vss. 3 and 4)
cares for all his people (vs. 4)
places us in a heritage (vs. 4)
is our keeper and shade (vs. 5)
protects and comforts us (vs. 6)
saves our lives from evil (vs. 7)
cares for us through all our activities (vs. 8)
cares now and forever (vs. 8)

Keeping  

Theologically, we can express God’s care as “providence,” which includes God’s guidance of the natural world and of our everyday lives. The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead.

Many times in our lives, we find ourselves in the midst of a problem, and with startling timing, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news. The Lord introduces experiences into the flow of our lives, sometimes guiding us, sometimes reassuring us that God is there. I could provide numerous personal examples besides these.

In verse 3, we read the first of six times in which the psalm affirm that God “keeps” us and is our tireless “keeper.” Verses 1 and 2 used “help” twice.” This is one optimistic psalm! You could say that the word “keep” and its versions tie together all the psalm’s affirmations about God’s care. God is our creator, but he is also our “keeper.”

We think of “keeping” as possessing. “Finders, keepers,“ we kids used to say if we came across something wonderful that someone had lost. I also think of “keep” as reliability, as in to “keep a promise” or to “keep something in mind.” Of course, the expression “to keep awake” just means to remain alert.

“Keeper” makes me think of the word “zookeeper,” someone who cares for animals. Years ago, my daughter considered becoming a zookeeper or a veterinarian. A friend arranged for us to visit with a zookeeper who showed us her daily routine. One of the interesting things to me was the way the zookeeper placed a syringe on the arm of a monkey every day, regardless of whether she was going to give the monkey a shot. That way, the monkey was accustomed to the sight and use of a syringe and wasn’t so anxious when it actually received a shot. The keeper, in charge of the animals, not only cared for animals physical needs but also emotional needs.

Verse 3 of the psalm (and also subsequent verses) use that word “keep” in a simultaneously active and passive sense. In the passive sense, God keeps us as valuable possessions. Actively, God also watches out for us, keeps us steady in difficult situations, and God does not fall asleep while watching out for us. “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

No Snooze Button 

In verses 3 and 4 of our psalm, the travel is assured three times that God is awake and watchful. The image of God “slumbering” is interesting. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah mocked the priests of Baal, “Perhaps he has gone to sleep or turned aside.” “Turned aside” means to urinate or defecate. What an insult to one’s deity, to say the god can’t hear prayers because he’s off somewhere doing numbers 1 and 2!

“Sleep” is also a metaphor for death. So in contrast to lifeless idols like Baal and other gods, the Lord God is living and awake. He has no “snooze button” to hit. He keeps the promises to be faithful and to stay awake to hear and watch over us.

Remember the story of Matthew 8:23-27. Jesus and the disciples cross the lake in their boat when a gale arose. The boat seemed in danger of sinking, but Jesus was asleep. The disciples woke him, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus chided them for their little faith, rebuked the storm and sea, “and there was a dead calm.” I suppose Jesus would chide my faith, too. But there are certainly times of one’s life when God seems asleep; too much trouble is happening, and no help seems forthcoming. We need reassurance to know that God does not, in fact, sleep.

Several of the psalms express concern for God’s absence or silence. It’s not that God does not hear, that God is not present, but that we don’t always feel that presence because we’re so stressed out. Or, quite conceivably, there are things way out of our control, like a terminal illness or a terrible disaster, which remind us of our frailty and mortality. (More on this when we get to verse 7.) Another verse that comes to mind is Exodus 2:23-25: the people are in trouble, but apparently they’ve been in trouble so long they no longer know to pray. The text says God heard their cries and remembered his covenant. I don’t think that means God forgot about the people, but for some reason, his response was delayed.

On the Treacherous Paths 

Have you ever walked on a hillside where the footing is precarious? Some of my friends have hiked the Grand Canyon, which I’ve not yet dared. Or have you driven along a mountain road where you wish the guardrail was a little more sturdy-seeming?  I always think of my own favorite mountainous road, Route 89A north of Prescott, AZ on the way to Jerome, where the view is spectacular, the mountainsides are steep, and the road is narrow and winding.

God is like a mountain traveler who knows where the hazardous places are. He knows when we are afraid, and he is not “put off” by our fear. He stoops to care for us, to guide us.

The Bible has other images of high places, such as Habakkuk 3:19:

God, the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

and makes me tread upon the heights. 

The older translation is “he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” A “hind” is female red deer. I remember seeing deer in the Judean mountains and also ibex on the side of hills, when I visited Israel several years ago. If God “makes my feet like the feet of a deer,” God is giving me “balance” and dexterity to navigate life’s hazards and difficulties.

For one of his cantatas, J.S. Bach wrote a song, “Wir eilen mit schwachen,” the first two lines of which translate, “We hasten with feeble, eager footsteps, O Jesus, O Master, to seek after your help!” The melody is bouncy and “eager,” but, as a choir director pointed out, the bass line plods, to connote the feebleness of our steps to God.

Sometimes pastors and congregation members depict the spiritual life as a more or less constant state of improvement, and then you feel scolded and “judged” if you lapse or slacken off.   Instead, I think there are many steps forward and backward with the spiritual life. You think you’re making process, but something happens that reminds you how weak and fearful you are. Or you “relapse” a bit in the normal course of a hectic life.  No matter what we do, God still guides and holds us.

The psalm says, “He will not let your foot be moved.” Other scriptures call attention to the fact that we do, indeed, stumble from the path: metaphorically our feet move from the safe place and we fall. Fortunately scriptures affirm God’s care even for those circumstances, for instance

Our steps are made firm by the Lord,

when he delights in our way; 

though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,

for the Lord holds us by the hand (Psalm 37:23-24).

I don’t think there is ever a point when we don’t need God to be like a mountain guide. The most conscientiously spiritual and worshiping people are always like Paul in Philippians: pressing on, but not there yet.

The Good Shepherd 

Anyone in biblical times would’ve had the image of shepherds in mind when they heard the word “keep.” While not at all an appealing occupation, shepherds nevertheless were excellent metaphors for watchfulness and care.

I found a book at our church library, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller. He tells of a time when, as a young shepherd, he lost nine ewes overnight to a cougar. “From then on I swept with a .303 rifle and flashlight by my bed. At the least sounds of the flock being disturbed I would leap from bed and, calling my faithful collie, dash out into the night, rifle in hand, ready to protect my sheep.”

He writes: “In the course of time I came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field. The presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night.

“There was one summer when sheep rustling was a common occurrence in our district. Night after night the dog and I were out under the stars, keeping watch over the flock by night, ready to defend them from the raids of any rustlers. The news of my diligence spread along the grapevine of our back country roads, and the rustlers quickly decided to leave us along and try their tactics elsewhere.” (pp. 43-44).

As we’ll see in subsequent verses, too, God’s watchfulness and care is analogous to those qualities in shepherds.

Watchman 

There is another sense of verses 3 and 4, not contradictory with the image of shepherd. The first part of the verse implies a shepherd guiding sheep. But the second part of the verse, continuing into verse 4, also implies a watchman. I found two verses:

Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me (Ezekiel 3:17).

The prophet is like a watchman who, in this case, is alert to God’s word. Another image is this one:

For thus the Lord said to me:

“Go, post a lookout,
 let him announce what he sees. 
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
 riders on donkeys, riders on camels,

let him listen diligently,
 very diligently.” 

Then the watcher called out:

“Upon a watch-tower I stand, O Lord,
 continually by day,

and at my post I am stationed
 throughout the night …” (Isaiah 21:6-8)

The images of shepherd, the guide upon the mountainous path, and the watchman—all are excellent metaphors for God’s care and concern.

Angels Watching Over Me 

Some people like to think of God‘s angels watching over us. This is a very popular kind of spirituality; you can purchase angelic figures in many gift shops and religious book stores. We have several figurines around our house! They’re nice daily reminders.

We should remember that angels function in service to Christ, and not independently. The book of Hebrews (1:4-14, and also 2:5-9) offers a set of scriptures to argue that, wonderful as angels are, they are secondary to Jesus, because God’s eternity and power have now been shown through Jesus.

Seemingly, the congregation to which the Hebrews author wrote had elevated angels to a similar status as Jesus. After all, angels are divine and they do not die. But, the author notes, angels cannot “taste death’ as Jesus did. That is, angels cannot identify with our human weaknesses the way that Jesus can. Jesus, on the other hand, suffered many things on our behalf. that is why Jesus was able to defeat death and break Satan’s power (Heb. 2;14-15). Furthermore, Jesus’ sufferings helped him become our high priest who can intercede on our behalf—because he knows what suffering is. Lovely as angels are and their protection, we can confidently think of Jesus protecting us and keeping us.(1)

Notes:

1.  My original research on selected passages in Hebrews was published as “Hold Fast to the Faith,” Daily Bible Study series, June, July, August 2004.  Abingdon Press.

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PSALM 121:4: “HE WHO KEEPS ISRAEL WILL NEITHER SLUMBER NOR SLEEP.”

Verse 4 reads, “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” In the style of Hebrew poetic parallelism, verse 4 follows upon and builds upon meaning of verse 3.

The Most Important Verse? 

In the “about” section of this site, I acknowledged two articles (found online) by James Limburg and by David Barker. Limburg writes about the importance of this verse: “Verse 4 comes close to expressing the theme of the entire Psalm. Mendelssohn recognized its significance when he made it the thematic statement for his chorus in the Elijah, ‘He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.’”(1)

Barker notes verse 4 is significant, because not only is God the shepherd of God’s people, but God’s care is a historical tradition! “The Shepherd of the covenant people is the Shepherd of the covenant person.” So the history of God’s care includes and also is a model for the individual person.

A Precious Heritage We Didn’t Earn or Deserve

This post may be a little more “preachy” and technical than the others, because we Christians have a wonderful religious heritage given to us by God—the Hebrew and Jewish heritage—and most of us don’t appreciate it as we should. But if we do, we can take tremendous comfort and help.

In Romans 11, Paul cautions Gentile Christians that they should remember something important: they were “grafted” onto the “tree” of God’s people.  In other words, God has shown himself most intimately to the Jews in their history with God—-and prior to Jesus, Gentiles would’ve had no need to read what we now call the Old Testament, because Judaism was just another religion out there in the world.  But now, argues Paul, Jesus has made it possible for Gentiles to share in this rich history of God’s words and deeds.  We know this because God has given his Spirit to Gentiles, in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecy (Joel 2:28) .  But Paul urges Gentile Christians to be grateful for this gift and to be careful in their faithfulness.  Reading the Old Testament, we know that God held the Israelites accountable for their faithfulness—and if God judged his own beloved people harshly, God also holds us Gentile Christians accountable too.

I’d guess that most Christians rarely think of that. In our perception of Judaism and the Old Testament, we Christians are a bit like new members of an organization who, once we’ve been included in the fellowship, now think we own the place and consider the older members foolish and misguided.

Thus, we assume that our faith has nothing to do with Judaism.  There are, of course, obvious as well as subtle differences between the two religions. Nevertheless, we Christians base our religious beliefs and heritage upon Hebrew and Jewish history and theology.

One time, in a Sunday school class, the classmates tried to think of similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. All the folks could remember were differences: Jesus, of course, and also different holidays. Looking back, I sigh, because now I know that almost everything important in Christianity is a “reconfigured” Jewish idea. (A major exception is the cross, a Gentile way of killing people, but even the crucifixion is foreshadowed in Hebrew scripture: e.g., Ps. 22:16-18, Ps. 69:21, Isa. 52:13-53;12, Zech. 12:10, et al.). The oneness of God, creation, atonement, redemption, the Hebrew people, holiness, ethics, and so on: these are ideas foundational to both religions.

Why am I talking about all this?  Because our psalmist of 121 is a Jewish person on a journey, and that psalmist takes assurance in the history of God’s wonderful acts—no less than in God’s creation (verse 2).  We’re given a wonderful gift from God that we can share this unknown Jew’s assurance for our own journeys, needs, and struggles.

God’s Keeping of Israel

Barker elsewhere notes that the term “keep” is also used in Joshua 24:17, where the people declare, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected [kept] us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.” In this chapter, Joshua recounts the great works of God in leading the people through the wilderness and to the land of Canaan.

Barker writes that, as he journeyed to Jerusalem, the psalmist of 121 and the other pilgrims could think of Israelite ancestors and their hardships, and then they could put themselves in that place, so to speak.

Crossing of the Red Sea by Bernardino Luini
from bibleartwork.wordpress.com

God’s rescue and protection of the Israelites as they escaped Egypt and finally entered the Promised Land is a theme on which the whole Bible hangs.  God’s “keeping” of his people is a key to the entire scripture.  As the Bible scholar R. E. Nixon writes in the article cited below, a line of development from the call of Abraham through the Exodus, the giving of the Covenant at Sinai, the wilderness years, the conquest of the land, and eventually David’s capture of Jerusalem, all of which have to do with God’s creation of the people and God’s promise to them of the Land.

The escape from Egypt and the splitting of the sea do not form the climax of the biblical drama but leads us straightway to God’s creation of his people and his covenant with them (Ex. 19-24). The covenant, in turn, is so momentous that the scriptures even connect it to Creation itself. First, the covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. Also, the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (2)

In Deuteronomy, as Moses gives a long farewell message, he instructs the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24), and sets the tone for Israel’s future. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experienced earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (3)

My teacher Brevard Childs writes, “[I]t is characteristic of the New Testament to place the redemption of Egypt into a new context which radically alters its meaning and function for early Christianity…Jesus not only participates in the history of the nation, but, as the true redeemer of Israel, he ushers in the messianic age which the original exodus from Egypt only foreshadowed. Moreover, it is characteristic of the New Testament to shift the emphasis away from the first exodus to the ‘second’. This is to say, the Old Testament exodus tradition has been heard primarily through its eschatological appropriation in Ezekiel and II Isaiah.”(4) Thus, we think more strongly of God’s rescue (salvation) of us through Christ, the water of baptism, the meal of the Lord’s supper, and the covenant of Christ, rather than the Passover meal, the escape through the sea, and the Sinai covenant.

But if you want to appreciate how the Exodus and Moses stories function as typology and framework for the New Testament, Nixon gives examples: Zechariah’s “Benedictus,” Jesus’ very name (Joshua), the way his life parallels that of Moses (his endangered life as an infant, his parents’ exile to and return from Egypt), Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (compared to the Israelites’ forty years), the parallel between Moses and the mountain and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the parallel of the wilderness manna and Jesus’ bread of life, and others. A Bible explorer interested in digging into these texts can find numerous passages cited by Nixon in his article.

Stones from the synagogue at Capernaum. Photo by Beth Stroble

 

In Paul’s letters, Nixon finds Exodus typology in 1 Corinthians 5:7f, 1 Corinthians 10:1ff, and 2 Corinthians 3. Paul also uses the Exodus and Covenant in Romans 5-8, where in the words of scholar N. T. Wright, “Paul has retold the story of the exodus, the freedom story, demonstrating that the Egypt of sin and death has been decisively defeated through the death of the Messiah, and that the Spirit is now leading God’s redeemed people to their promised inheritance.”(5) Similarly, “The theme of ‘new exodus’ is a major topic in Second Temple Judaism. It is a central way by which Jews in Paul’s day expressed, symbolized, and narrated their hopes for the future—for the time when, as the prophets had foretold, that God would repeat, on their behalf, the great acts whereby their forebears were liberated from Egypt (e.g., Isa. 11;11; 35:3-10; 51:9-11; 52:4-6; Jer. 16:14, 15; 23:7-8; Ezek. 20:33, 38; Hos. 2:14-23).”(6) Wright then quotes Jeremiah 23:5-8 as particularly pertinent for Paul. (7).

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land (Jer. 23:5-8).

As “Second Temple Jews” looked with hope toward the fulfillment of God’s promises, so Paul—the Second Temple Jew who now preached Christ—-saw the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, and the liberation of God’s people accomplished in the “land” of Christ’s salvation.

We also find Exodus typology later in the New Testament. In the letter of Hebrews, the author admonishes his hearers to be faithful to God in ways that the ancient Israelites (especially those who lost the chance to enter Canaan) failed to do. Exodus imagery even permeates the book of Revelation! You may not realize that Revelation cites or alludes to more Old Testament passages than nearly any other New Testament writing. For instance, Nixon cites these passages: Rev 2:14 and Num. 31:16; 25:1; 2:17 and Ex. 16; 3:5 and Ex. 32:32; 4:1 and Ex. 19:19f; 8:5 and Ex. 19:16; 8:7-9:21 and the plagues in Ex. 7-11; a possible allusion in 8:11 to Ex. 15:23, and in 12:16 to Num. 16:32; plus, the reference to the song of Moses in Rev. 15:3. Altogether, Nixon writes, “The first triumphant Exodus has prefigured the second and we are to look ahead to its fulfillment in God’s victory at the end of time” (8).

Thus, in important ways, Christians share a similar position as the Israelites. In Paul’s imagery, sin and death are our “Egyptian slavery” from which we’ve been rescued. The Israelites were rescued by God, not because of their superior faith and deservedness but solely through God’s love and grace. But even though rescued, they had to look to a future redemption in the process of being fulfilled. Like the Israelites, we are called to respond with confidence to God’s grace, since we too are prone to failure and forgetfulness. We risk God’s sternness, too, when we persist in faithlessness (9)—although God gives us many, many opportunities for his love, forgiveness, restoration, renewal, and so on.

But Christians also depend upon God’s salvation of the Israelites for … well, everything concerning our faith. Jesus and the other New Testament figures aren’t just extra people tacked onto the Hebrew scriptures, but the people God created and, hundreds of years earlier, rescued under Moses’ leadership. We Gentiles are part of this heritage through God’s kindness and mercy (Rom 9:25, 11:17-22),

The Psalmist Walks in a Tradition 

I may be inserting a lot of scripture and theology into that simple verse—”He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” But “God’s keeping of Israel” is one way to describe the entire Bible, and so our psalm implicitly alludes to many, many acts and events in that one verse. As Barker writes, we can imagine the Psalm 121 author feeling very much a part of this history of God’s centuries of keeping. As we journey through life, you and I can, too.

*****

(Elsewhere, I’ve posted some notes on the theme of the Exodus in the Bible:
http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2011/04/92-exodus-and-our-faith_05.html
I’ve also sketched some ways that the Bible’s themes and stories interrelate: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html and also at http://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2011/01/ Consider “digging” into the Bible sometime in the future, and see some of the ways God’s keeping interrelate and interconnect.)

Notes

1. R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” originally published by the Tyndale Press: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf Pages 5-6 in the source.

2. Brevard S. Childs, in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 112, notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

3. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 9-10; Child’s Biblical Theology, 82-83.

4. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 233.

5. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 585.

6. Wright, 510.

7. Wright, 511.

8. Nixon, p. 29.

9. Childs, The Book of Exodus, pp. 238-239.

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PSALM 121:5: “THE LORD IS YOUR KEEPER; THE LORD IS THE SHADE AT YOUR RIGHT HAND.”

My notes and thoughts about Psalm 121 continue….

Verse 5 reads, “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is the shade at your right hand.”

Trusting God 

In verse 3, the psalmist promises that God keeps our steps as we journey. Now, the psalmist promises that God keeps us protected from the hazards of the journey.

Does God protect us physically, as verse 5 and 6 teach (especially 6)? Does God protect us from ALL evil, as verse 7 teaches?

You sometimes hear people say, “Every word of the Bible is true.” That’s true if you affirm that the Holy Spirit inspires the book. But the statement implies that every verse is true at face value. Take Psalm 37:4:

Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.


God is delightful! says the psalmist. As we take delight in the Lord, he gives us our heart’s desires…..But does that mean that God provides everything we desire, even when we delight in him? As we seek the Lord, and over time, our hearts grow in the Lord, and the desires of our hearts come into line with God’s desires for us.

It’s the same way with Psalm 121. If you take these verses at face value, you might conclude that no one would have any trouble or challenge. In some of the other psalms, the the psalmists have tons of trouble—dangerous trouble. Those psalmists wondered why God wasn’t helping them as fast as they thought they needed. But in “hanging in” with their faith, they came out on the other side of trouble and praised God.

Psalm 121 is, in a way, a statement of simple faith. A simple faith is good; a child has simple faith, praised by Christ in Luke 18:15-17.

As we grow in God, we may see a confluence of our dreams and desires, our hopes, God’s providence, and God’s direction. But many things we may not understand.  Some things in our lives may always seem painful and inexplicable. All the while, we’re growing in our knowledge of and relationship with God. Later, as we look back upon our lives, we may see how certain difficulties and disappointments became sources of blessing (even though the pain and regret may remain).
 I saw a saying on Twitter: “If you life seems to be falling apart, it may just be falling into place.”

We do have to interpret the Bible, though. If I “claimed” a particular verse as if it were God’s specific promise to me personally, I might be disappointed. For instance, I might assume God will never allow me to be harmed or to fall, based on this psalm.  But then I might be hurt in some day—which is part of being human, after all. Would my faith in God survive if I’ve based my faith upon that expectation of safety?

I’m guessing that a lot of people have struggled in their faith because they felt let down by God in some way.  I certainly have, at different times in my life.  Our psalm affirms an overall trust in God. Whatever might be our specific circumstances, God has “the big picture” and continues to help us.

God Still Keeps Us 

Earlier, I discussed a few meanings of the word “keeper.” Verse 5 gives us the third instance of the term “keep” or “keeper.” Of course, “keeper” can also point to a specific animal: sheep.

Shepherds are a biblical metaphor for God (Psalm 23, Ezekiel 24, John 10:1-18), which means that sheep are an unflattering metaphor for us.

Sheep are needy, foolish-seeming animals. They look at you, with those horizontal pupils. They stick their tongues out as they “bah” at you. They lack the placidness of cows and the intelligence of horses. As recounted in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, Roosevelt during his western ranching days called sheep “bleating idiots” and wrote, “No man can associate with sheep and retain his self-respect.”

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, W. Phillip Keller writes, “The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways… Our mass mind (or mod instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.” A farmer once told me that sheep easily become lonely; you can’t have only one sheep and raise it. Sheep are also prone to stray and to follow “rogue” sheep; Keller tells of a healthy ewe that, with great regret, he had to slaughter because she repeatedly escaped through wire fences and taught other sheep to do so.(1)

Hardships befall sheep. Sheep wander off, they come under attack, they suffer because they’ve inadequate fields on which to graze, and they fall prey to disease. They do stupid things and lead others to do so, too. Shepherds do a great deal to help and protect the sheep but cannot do everything.

If we ever wondered about God’s care for us, we should think of shepherds. They do not turn their back on sheep just because sheep do stupid things and are prone to mess up their own lives. Shepherds are devoted to the sheep’s care. So much more is God devoted to our care—-dumb and wandering though we are.

from pixmac.com

Shade

“The Lord is your shade at your right hand.” This verse–translated in this way—reminds me of being outdoors in summertime.  Shade is protecting and cooling. Even on the hottest days, when the air is still and heavy, the shade of a tree or an awning provides relief when you’re walking among businesses or working in your yard.  I love taking barefooted walks and recall times when I appreciated the protection of a shady sidewalk or grass after I’d run on tiptoe across a hot street.

The Hebrew word tsel can also be translated “shadow.”(2)  A notable example is Psalm 91.  Here is the whole psalm:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
   who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
   my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
   and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
   and under his wings you will find refuge;
   his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
   or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
   or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
   ten thousand at your right hand,
   but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
   and see the punishment of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
   the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
   no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
   the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
   I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
   I will be with them in trouble,
   I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
   and show them my salvation.

Psalm 91, which affirms many of the same things as Psalm 121, uses many images and metaphors to describe God’s protection and care. God is our machseh, a word translated as “dwelling place” or “refuge” depending on the translation (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:27, Psalm 46:1), connoting protection and relief.  (Here is a lovely piece that begins with the ninety-first psalm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwQU3JNNPIY)

God is also a tsel in Isaiah 25:4-5:

For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, 

the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;

the song of the ruthless was stilled. 

God’s hand is a “shadow” in Isaiah 49:2, and as we’ve seen already, God is said to have sheltering “wings,” as in in Psalm 17:8 and also Psalm 36:8:

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 

“Shadow” can have negative meanings, too, as in the transitory question of our lives (Ps. 102:11, 144:4, Eccl. 6:12, etc.) and similarly as the presence of darkness, as in Psa. 9:2 and Psalm 23’s “valley of the shadow.”(2)  But here in Psalm 121, we certainly have the meaning of shadow/shade as something protective.

I included in the first post an image of Robert Zund’s painting, “Road to Emmaus.” The painting is well known and perhaps too sentimental, but I enjoy it because of the protective and green trees!  I can draw a connection between the comfort of Jesus’ words and presence to the downcast pilgrims, and the shady coolness of the trees along the path. 

The Right Hand 

“God is the shadow (or shade) at your right hand.” With apologies to left-handed people, “the right hand” symbolizes strength and favor. As our Psalm 121 author David Barker notes: you could paraphrase this verse to: whatever you’re doing right now, God is close by.

We find the image elsewhere in the psalms,: 18:35 and 98:1. Perhaps the most famous verse using this metaphor is Psalm 110:1:

The Lord says to my lord,

“Sit at my right hand

until I make your enemies your footstool.” 

Psalm 110:1 is frequently used in the New Testament as a messianic text pointing to Christ.  The Apostles’ Creed also alludes to verse 1 when it says Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father.” In the psalm, the king sits in an honored place of trust beside God. Since most people favor their right hand and use it the most, the right hand also is the symbol of God’s power and protection. (If you’re a southpaw, read all of the short Psalm 110 and notice that the king switches places in verse 5. The power of God is at the king’s right hand, and so the king is at God’s left.) In both cases, God and the king are seen in close relationship and identical purposes.

“The right hand” also appears in the previous Psalm, where God “stands at the right hand of the needy” to save them (109:31).  This juxtaposition deepens the meaning of Psalm 110, for God’s Messiah is not only powerful over worldly authorities but also intercedes (often against those authorities!) for the sinful, poor, and needy.

None of us are kings or queens, but “the right hand” still symbolizes individual power and work (no matter which hand is our strongest). In the midst of our daily efforts, God provides protection, power, and defense as we go about our lives.

Here again, we think of the image of the strong and vigilant shepherd who protects the sheep. Psalm 23 again:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. 
 

You can work or play in the hot sun, but but it’s so much better to work and rest in the shade. Maybe that’s a good way to think about God’s shade—God’s protection.

An old postcard

God helps us rest. Our pastor preached a good sermon this past Sunday on the spiritual discipline of solitude. Among his points, he noted that Jesus spent alone time with God as he balanced his public ministry and private teaching. Our pastor then connected Jesus’ prayer times with Jesus’ own words:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28).

If we are weary and burdened, we can set aside time to spent with Jesus (in whatever form that may take: Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, worship, the sacraments, time spent in nature, and some combination of these).

This Matthew 11 verse bothered me when I first read it, years ago. Jesus’ teachings in, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount constitute a very high standard, after all: how, then, can Jesus’ “yoke” be “easy”? His yoke (that is, our discipleship and our obedience to him) seemed hard.

Well…. in some ways, it is!  But we’re not supposed to be out there trudging along and doing things on our own. We can approach Jesus for help, without fear that he’ll disapprove of our weakness and failure (Heb. 4:14-16). We can call upon divine help for our worries and burdens, knowing that our prayers are heard with gentleness.

We might think of this verse in Matthew in conjunction with Psalm 121:5.  Even if we have trouble, God offers a “place” of refuge and protection.  Paradoxically, we can feel safe in God even if other aspects of our lives are difficult.

Notes:

1. Philip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 22, 37-38.

2. James C. Moyer, “Shadow,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), p. 208.

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PSALM 121:6: “THE SUN SHALL NOT STRIKE YOU BY DAY, NOR THE MOON BY NIGHT.”

My continuing thoughts and notes on Psalm 121….. In an earlier post, I said that Hebrew poetry uses a “parallelism” where the second statement builds upon the first or restates it in some way. Verse 6 of our psalm—“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night—similarly echoes and broadens the meaning of verse 5—“The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade at your right hand.”

God’s “shadow” or “shade” that protects us. God protects us as a shepherd protects sheep; God protects us as we go about our work and life.  Think of my post on verse 3 and imagine sheep trudging along in a steep and difficult terrain, but the shepherd is watchful, looking for grass and water for the sheep, searching for a cool place for them to rest.  The psalmist of 121 seeks physical respite as well as spiritual confidence during the hazardous trip to Jerusalem.

Earlier, we thought together about God and creation. Sometimes creation bites you in the butt, so to speak. “Nature” provides us with sun and rain and the seasons, but we also experience terrible weather, rain which is indifferent to farmers, flooding, and the damaging effects of too much sun. A few months ago I posted a blog discussion about how and to what extent God is present in the natural forces (in that case, the Japanese tsunami of 2011).  Although the Bible attests to God’s presence, natural disasters that upset and take many lives makes us wonder about God’s care.

In Job 38-41, God scolds Job a bit, explaining that the natural world—and God’s care of it—are greater than human beings can fathom.  God affirmed that God is, ultimately, in control of things. Like Job, we still might have tons of questions about God and providence, while still affirming that, in ways we don’t understand, God is in the midst of things.

Travels through Arid Places 

We probably think of this psalm too much in terms of our modern lives. Verse 6 would have been very understandable by persons traveling on foot or on an animal or in a wagon. Our own trips can be dangerous but not in the same way: we have enclosed, self-cooled and self-propelling vehicles, emergency systems, telephones, and all kinds of ways to handle travel-related crises.

Obviously Bible people didn’t have instant sources of meals and water as we do. Their roadside facilities, so to speak, were quite different.  For instance, a well was a very big deal and a cherished gift to people.  Anytime you read in the Bible about a well being done, you’re learning about a cherished gift to people. I was reading the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:14-19.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 

Real life! In our country—in our “first world” lives—we typically wouldn’t have such a dilemma.

When you read John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, commentators note that, usually, women would have come to the well earlier in the day to draw water for themselves and their families. The woman with whom Jesus spoke, however, came later in the day, suggesting that she avoided other people in the village or otherwise was socially isolated, perhaps because of the difficult personal history which she soon conveyed to Jesus. Her isolation, though, made a physical problem for her, as she had to draw and carry water during a more uncomfortable time in the day.

In the part of Isaiah that deals with the returning exiles, God promises them, among other things, help in the hot sun.

 Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
   on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
   as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
   to apportion the desolate heritages;
  saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
   to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They shall feed along the ways,
   on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
   they shall not hunger or thirst,
   neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
   and by springs of water will guide them.
  And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
   and my highways shall be raised up.
  Lo, these shall come from far away,
   and lo, these from the north and from the west,
   and these from the land of Syene (Isaiah 49:8-12)

There’s that word “keep” again!

Our psalmist of 121 needed a lot more reassurance about God’s care than we do, because the psalmist faced dangers and uncertainties that we normally would never encounter as we travel.

An Outdoor Bible

Have you noticed that a lot of the Bible happens outdoors? Consider the travels of the patriarchs and their families; the people in the wilderness; the armies on the move, the ministries of Jesus. In one poignant Old Testament scene, Ezra commanded the people to repent of their sin, and the large multitude agreed—as soon as they could go inside from the heavy rain (Ezra 10:9-15). We know little about the place where Jesus lived (Mark 2:1, John 1:38-39); if he wasn’t visiting someone else’s home, he was outside somewhere, turning his observations of outdoor events into eternal teachings.

Once you notice the “outdoor” sections of the Bible, imagine the sounds in the background of the text: the sounds of wind blowing, the rustling of leaves, the crunch of stones as people walk, the lapping water of the waters, and the sounds of animals. We read the Bible for teachings that pertain to our spiritual and moral lives, but what about the outdoor world that lies so close behind the words of God? Read Psalm 8, 19, 14, and 136, all wonderful affirmations of God’s providential care of the natural world.

Traveling to Jerusalem in the outdoors—-on foot or on an animal—the psalmist experiences the sun and moon above, and associated risks.

As Barker notes, sunstroke is a danger in Mediterranean areas.  In fact, he notes, the verb of verse 6 can mean “smite, strike, hit, beat, slay, kill.”  Sun not only burns our skin but dehydrates us and causes us sickness. Arid regions have extremes of temperature. We used to live in Arizona, where in the lower elevations the daytime temperatures could become very high and the nighttime temperatures comparatively chilly. Somehow the expression “but it’s a dry heat” doesn’t help when you’re strolling among shops on a 110-degree day.

Limburg gives some biblical examples of victims of the sun.  In 2 Kings 4:18-37, Elisha helped a man who was “struck down by the sun.” Also, Jonah was stricken by the sun (Jonah 4:8). In the apocrypha, Judith lost her husband to sunstroke (Judith 8:2-3).

As Barker notes, the form of verse 6 is “chaistically crafted to focus on the promise of protection”

By day,
the sun
will not harm you,
or the moon,
by night.

You might think the sun is more dangerous than the moon, although the moon can still hurt one’s eyes if viewed for a long time. The psalmist perhaps had a more superstitious idea of the moon’s powers.  Informally, we sometimes make a connection of the moon with mental problems!. We still say, casually, “people are acting weird, it must be the full moon.” The word “lunatic” comes from the word luna, or moon, reflecting an old idea that the moon was responsible for abnormal psychology. We also say that people are “moonstruck.”

Barker writes: “While the Hebrew pilgrim may well have known from his understanding of God and the world that such a danger does not actually exist, it is easy to understand how popular lore and superstition would invade and dominate in spite of theological understandings to the contrary. The psalm realistically addresses the mind-set of the pilgrim in his perceptions of dangers and fears.”

Barker adds in a footnote, “One wonders how many of God’s people today still pause to pick of a four-leap clover or feel a twinge of anxiety when a black cat crosses the road ahead of them.” But the Bible takes compassion upon a person’s fears and superstitions—and affirms with confidence that the Lord keeps us.

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PSALM 121:7: “THE LORD WILL KEEP YOU FROM ALL EVIL; HE WILL KEEP YOUR LIFE.”

Verse 7 reads: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”

The last two verses of our psalm continue earlier promises about God’s protection for the pilgrim. These verses also form (with verse 8) a kind of benediction: God will keep every aspect of our lives, forever.

In this post, I want to take a brief look at a lot of biblical material, so that we get a sense of what the Bible says about evil, life, and death. These teachings, in turn, can help our confidence and hope in God.

I need that confidence the same as everyone else! When I was a young teenager, our extended family lost, in close succession, four loved ones among the older generation. Those proximate funerals impressed me about the unpredictability of life—and I’ve tried to live my whole life aware that we never know what’s ahead. Now, as a middle aged person (eligible for the “senior discount” at restaurants), I think about my wife and me being closer to old age than to youth. Our daughter is a young person and of course we worry about her well-being.

Whatever are the specifics of your life, we all need plenty of assurance about God’s goodness and God’s care through life and death. Writing about this helps my own struggling, imperfectly articulated faith.

Complementary Passages 

As I’ve thought about Psalm 121 in these posts, I’ve found psalms that complement its words. One psalm that complements verse 7 is Psalm 37. Both psalmists affirm God’s care for those who seek him, as well as God’s ultimate defeat of evil and persons who do evil.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
   
do not be envious of wrongdoers, 
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   
and wither like the green herb….

Commit your way to the Lord;
   
trust in him, and he will act. 
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   
and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 

Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
   
though you look diligently for their place, 
they will not be there. 
 
But the meek shall inherit the land,
   
and delight in abundant prosperity. 

The wicked plot against the righteous,
   
and gnash their teeth at them; 
 
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
   
for he sees that their day is coming.

The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
   
to bring down the poor and needy,
   
to kill those who walk uprightly; 
their sword shall enter their own heart,
   
and their bows shall be broken. 

Better is a little that the righteous person has
   
than the abundance of many wicked. 
For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
   
but the Lord upholds the righteous….

For the Lord loves justice;
   
he will not forsake his faithful ones. 
The righteous shall be kept safe for ever,
   
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. 
The righteous shall inherit the land,
   
and live in it for ever…. 

The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
   
he is their refuge in the time of trouble. 
The Lord helps them and rescues them;
   
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
   
because they take refuge in him. 

But Psalm 73 takes a slightly different view: that psalmist feels downcast and distressed because the wicked are prospering, with no apparent sign of God’s punishment! The psalmist even wonders if living a righteous life was worthwhile. But the writer at last affirms his faith:

When my soul was embittered,
   
when I was pricked in heart, 

I was stupid and ignorant;
   
I was like a brute beast towards you [God].
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand. [There is the “right hand” metaphor that we saw in Ps. 121:5]
You guide me with your counsel,
   
and afterwards you will receive me with honor. 
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   
And there is nothing on earth 
that I desire other than you. 

My flesh and my heart may fail,
   
but God is the strength of my heart 
and my portion for ever. 

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
   
you put an end to those who are false to you. 
But for me it is good to be near God;
   
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
   
to tell of all your works (Ps. 73:21-28).

(Notice that God is continually with this psalmist, even though he feels bitter and lacking in faith. God doesn’t give up when we struggle.)

Psalms like these affirm the eventual ruin of evil, even though we might not see (or be able to delight in) that ruin right away.

The Bible contains many stories of God’s power over harmful forces. As I discussed concerning verse 4, the Exodus is a watershed event (no pun intended), as God demonstrates his ability to rescue his people.

In the New Testament, we find stories of Jesus’ power over destructive forces. In Luke 8:22-25, Jesus calms a storm while he and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee. This sea is comparatively small body of water but lies in a geological area where storms brew quickly and puts boats and people in danger. (I love this story because I’ve approached Jesus in similar ways as the disciples. My life is a mess, Jesus! What the hell is wrong? Why aren’t you helping me fix things? Don’t you care? I also love Matthew 14:22-36, the story of Jesus’ walk across the sea. This was one of my first sermons: we may sink in the storms of life but Jesus reaches out as we flounder.)

Jesus also cast demons from people. We may be skeptical about such things today, but if so, just think about powers of evil, powers that hurt people.

Take the man in Mark 5:1-20. Earlier in Mark, Jesus is met by evil forces as soon as he starts his ministry. In this Mark 5 story, Jesus is in a Gentile area, the country of Gerasenes east of the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus stepped from the boat, a demon possessed man came to him. The evil forces present in the man were considerable. A Roman legion consisted of several thousand men, and the man identified himself as “Legion” because he was so filled with demons. But the forces recognized Jesus and his power and bargained with him to transfer them into another living being: a nearby herd of swine, which subsequently panicked and carried those forces away and over a cliff. So Jesus, acting singly, has power over many evil forces.

Another story doesn’t have to do with evil forces, but with the necessities of human need. One of the interesting miracles of Jesus is the feeding of several thousand people from the meal of only one person. This miracle is significant because, other than Jesus’ resurrection, it is the only one we find in all four Gospels. Like God who fashioned the universe by the power of his word and spirit, so Jesus can also exercise power in the universe—expressly for the needs of the people who come to him.

“The Lord will keep you from all evil.” In stories and passages like these, things like human need, hunger, depravation, and even evil and death do not have the last word. We may suffer in this life terribly. But Jesus does have power to help us. As with our psalmist, we may see and affirm ways that God’s power protects us within the specifics of our lives.

Looking back on my own life, I can perceive God’s power and guidance over the long haul. If I were waiting for quick and clear answers to prayers in times of trouble, I might have given up on faith years ago. But I can see how God has led me over the years so that things that happened two, five, ten, twenty years ago and more, now make more sense.

The Bible on Life and Death 

Our psalm affirms that God keeps our lives. Some translations render that word “soul,” but in the Bible, the meaning is the same.

The Hebrew word used in Psalm 121 for “life” is nephesh. The word is translated into the Greek word as psuche (also transliterated psyche), which means “soul” or “vitality” or “life.” Nephesh originally meant “throat,” which of course is connected to life because of air, food and water come through the throat. Interestingly, nephesh is also used in Genesis 1:30 to describe animal life (and animal soul?). Another Hebrew word, ruah (in Greek pneuma) means “spirit” but also “breath.” These and other words are used biblically to describe life. (1)

“God will keep your life.” The Bible affirms God as the source and protector of life. Not only that, but God is greater than life and death, which in turn is the beginning of our hope and confidence.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Ps. 36:9)

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. (Job 12:10)

If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust (Job 34:14-15).

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light (Ps. 36:9).

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished for ever from his presence (2 Samuel 14:14).

The Bible contrasts life and death in numerous passages.(2) The Old Testament refers to people being “gathered” after death (Gen. 25:8, 35:29, 49:33). After death, the spirit returns to God (Gen 2:7, Ecc. 12:7). There are references to returning to someone in death, as in 2 Sam. 12:23, 1 Sam. 28:19, and some references where the expression means common burial, as in Gen. 24:4.

But the Bible also refers to death in very final terms: as a broken pot (Eccles. 12:6), as spilled water (as we just saw: 2 Sam. 14:14), as a terrible fortress, with a gate that only opens one way (Ps. 9:13, 107:18). Death is a fire (Prov. 30:16) and a trap (Ps. 18:5), a stalker (Ps. 91:5-7).  You can’t pay death to go away (Ps. 49:7-8). Death is a curse and an enemy (Gen. 2:23-24,1 Cor. 15:26). It has an insatiable appetite (Prov. 30:16, Hab. 2:5).

The idea of the “curse” does not set well psychologically when death strikes a child or a young person. What did that person do to deserve the curse of death? But that’s the awfulness of death: it comes to all of us regardless of anything we do. The curse is not personal, or sent by God to an individual as a personal punishment. It is the terrible aspect of life: physical life does not last, for any creature. In spite of its ubiquity, death is dreaded and dreadful, welcome only when someone has so much pain and suffering, with no chance of a better life, that death becomes a release.

Our days pass quickly (Ps. 90:6, Isa. 40:6). But God knows our days (Job 14:5, Ps. 139:16). Psalm 90 even affirms that we’re wise people if we “number our days”;  knowing and accepting the inevitability of one’s own death is to become a wise person. Compare this with Ecclesiastes 9:9, where the disappointment of material things in our lives is also a way of wisdom.

In the New Testament we also find the fearfulness of judgment after death: for instance, 2 Cor. 5:10, Heb. 9:27, Luke 16:22-25, Matt. 10:28. Death as an absolute end is difficult enough to “process,” but more fearful is the prospect of being held accountable in the next life for our lives today. (2)

But I need to immediately say that this is where the love of God for each of us comes in very strongly. God loves us and welcomes us; our suffering and death are no joke to him. God loves us because we are mortal, needy and imperfect and know our need for God.  God wants to comfort us and assure us when we’re afraid about death (Heb. 2:14-15, 2 Tim. 1:10, Rom. 5:10).

God Rescues Us from Death 

The Bible teaches about God’s “salvation.”  You hear that word (and the phrase “Jesus

saves”) so many times, the words lose their impact; they might even seem a little annoying.  Let me use a synonym for salvation: “rescue.” God wants to rescue us from the awfulness of death. God wants to comfort our fears and dread about death. Another synonym for the original Greek word for salvation is “healing.”  God wants to heal us from our fears of death, and from death itself.

Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion.”
http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/grunewald/crucifixion/

The Bible says that Jesus actually destroys death—not in the sense of the physical death of our bodies, but death in the sense of the nothingness of the grave, the dissolution of our souls, and the fearfulness of being punished in the afterlife.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that evil and death will eventually be destroyed completely, once God brings final victory.

One of my favorite analogies is a decisive battle in a war. Most wars have a turning point, although people may not realize it at the time. Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, the Battle of Gettysburg, the battles of Normandy and Midway in World War II: these were moments of victory, even though great suffering continued. You can think of Jesus’ death and resurrection that way. Death really is defeated, but we don’t yet see the ultimate results of that victory.

Even with the simplest faith, God welcomes us into God’s own life (we’re “saved,” rescued, healed) and join in God’s own life. Because God’s life is not mortal, that means we continue to live after death. Paul even calls our physical death a “gain.” He does not mean that we should hasten our physical deaths or wish our lives were over.  He means that at the point of our death, we enter into God’s immortal life forever (and, indeed, we’ve already been living within God’s immortal life (2 Cor. 5:6, Phil. 1:20-21, Rom. 8:38-39).

Thinking again of our psalm: All along, we’ve thought about how the psalmist’s journey teaches us important thinks about the journeys of our lives. In this verse, the psalm assures us that God can keep us, though evil and death threaten us. It’s true that bad things may still happen. But we affirm God’s ultimate power, that life ultimately has meaning and purpose and the divine presence.

But like our psalmist, we need that reassurance, that in ways we can’t yet perceive, God’s providence protects us from many more awful things that might befall us if God wasn’t watchful.

God’s Power Over Death 

Karl Barth writes, “It is really true that we need not fear death, but only God. But we cannot fear God without finding in Him the radical comfort which we cannot have in any other. If He, the Lord of death, our gracious God, the ineffable sun of all goodness, is present with us even in death, then obviously in the midst of death we are not only in death but already out of its clutches and victorious over it, not of ourselves but of God.”(3)

I’m trying to put this in a vivid kind of way. Without thinking about all the medical reasons that define life, think generally as life as a “power.” It’s not hard to think of life that way if you’ve ever stood beside the body of a loved one; the person lies there, looking similarly as before, but is frighteningly still and cold; nothing that was vital and important about that person seems to be present any longer with the physical body; whatever “life” is, has disappeared. I remember thinking this when I looked at my father’s body in the casket. The notion of the body as a “shell” immediately came to mind.

What if someone else’s life-power could be given to that lifeless body? I don’t mean to be ghoulish or science-fictional; I simply want us to imagine a different person’s life-force being given to your dead loved one. Your loved one would live for a while longer! Unfortunately, he or she could not live forever.

Now, imagine the life-power of Jesus coming to your loved one. All that was vital and important about the person would receive such a tremendous power so that the “real” person, whom we miss so badly after his/her physical death, was preserved and would never, ever pass away. The person and would live in joy and peace forever.

This is possible because Jesus was both divine and human. As a human being, he had all the qualities and attributes that we have, because he was truly a fellow human being, who really and truly died. But since he was also God, Jesus’ power is divine power. The infinite creator of the universe—who formed the complexities of the DNA molecule and the forces of the vast galaxies–can take the vital and important aspects of us and rescue them from the nothingness and despair of physical death, so that we may live with that same God forever.

That is why Paul could not make up his mind which was better: living his life and doing his work, or dying and being with Christ (Phil. 1:21-26) This life is all he knows–and he had important things to do and relationships to maintain. But because of Jesus, he had sufficient “hints” of the glories beyond physical life that he could look forward to those glories.

But how did he know those glories would be his? He knew, because those glories are 100% a gift, not something we ever, ever earn. The good and the bad we do make no difference; God gives the power for eternal life completely freely.

Furthermore, Paul says that the Spirit of God is a guarantee—God’s first installment in claiming us as his precious children.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment [or guarantee] (2 Corinthians 1:19-22).

I’m old enough to remember when soda came in glass bottles. When you purchased them, you basically paid for the bottles, too. But you could bring the empty bottles back to the grocery store and reimbursed for the cost of those bottles—about a nickel a bottle, if I remember correctly. Appropriately, we called that “redeeming” the bottles.

That’a decent analogy for what God does—-and helps explain why our dread of death can be diminished. God “buys” us, so to speak—-he wants us enough to “purchase” us. He did so by becoming human and dying, and then coming back from death as the risen Jesus. (See the next section for more about this.)

But we’re guaranteed that God will rescue us from death, the way we used to be guaranteed money back when we returned our “pop bottles.” If we have God’s Spirit, then that is our sign of guarantee!

That raises the question, how do we know we have God’s Spirit? I think that even the simplest and most struggling faith is a sign of God’s Spirit. We get too many messages from preachers that faith has to be very strong and very behavior-oriented. No, we don’t have to be great religious heroes, because the Bible affirms the power of imperfect, struggling faith—faith with questions and difficulties. Just a tiny little faith is a sign that God’s great love—and God’s great kindness and support—is already part of our lives.

Think about even your small, iffy faith as a sign that God has given you his life and will have you share in that life for eternity.

Jesus’ Experience of Death

Many of us tend to respect people who have experience in something. The cliché “ivory tower” describes people who are intellectually trained but sheltered from actual, difficult experience. I could read a book about how to fix a car but I need the actual experience of repair work; in fact, I’d rather call upon someone who has a lot of experience in that area.

Think of the death of Jesus as God’s own, personal experience of human death. There are sophisticated theological and philosophical explanations of the nature of God and of the incarnation of Christ. But let’s keep it simple here.

Jesus was God born as human flesh. God did not cease to be God when Jesus died–the universe was not “godless” for several hours while Jesus lay in the tomb–but when Jesus died, the death really was something that God experienced.

We can respect God in an analogous way that we would respect a person who has the wisdom of difficult experiences. God knows firsthand the awfulness of human death. God died young, in horrible physical pain—not to mention great emotional pain, as he was largely unloved as he died.

God experienced death in a way that opened the possibility of more life. The death of Jesus was not simply a lovely example of divine empathy for the worst human beings can do to each other. From that death opened up infinite Spirit-power that rescues us from the nothingness and misery of death.

We could be awed at the vastness of the universe and even at the meaningfulness of Jesus’ ethical teaching. But we can also approach God with our deepest fears with the full guarantee that he understands and has a solution…

Our Lives are Hidden in God’s Life 

Here is a verse that “hit me like a ton of bricks,” as my mom used to say, when I first discovered it.

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed to him in glory (Col. 3:3-4)

We have “died” in the sense that God gives us God’s life that continues although our own lives will end. We’ve also “died” in the sense that we are no longer condemned by God through Christ.

But it was that image, “Our lives are hidden in Christ” that struck me so strongly.  No matter what kind of people we are, we are surrounded by and included in God’s life–the kind of life God has. This is slightly different from some other religions that teach that we are part of God because all reality is ultimately God. For instance, in New Age spirituality we find a teaching about the spiritual transcendence of our physical world, but we can have contact with and avail ourselves of spiritual energy tapped through crystals, meditation, and so on.

The idea has similarities with the Christian idea, but the Christian idea emphasizes (and you could say, personalizes) the life of God. So to say, “my life is included in God’s life” means that we are included in the life of a person, Christ.

And furthermore, being included (“hidden”) in Christ’s life is wonderful, because the New Testament also teaches the tenderness of Christ toward struggling people, his identification with the economically poor and the poor in spirit, the attention he gives to the emotionally downcast, his willingness to intercede and intervene for people when they are weak and faltering.

To turn again to our psalm 121: the pilgrim is on a hard journey, where many number of dangers and evils might happen. From where does our help come? From the rescuing Lord who made heaven and earth.

*****

Notes:

1.  Paul Stroble, What About Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), p. 85.  My material is in turn based on the research of Dr. Joel B. Green of Asbury Theological Seminary, in several of his books and articles.

2. Walter Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), pp. 154-156, and also 156-160. Several of the scriptures cited on this post are cited and discussed in this helpful article.

3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), p. 610.

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