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The Lord is my Guardian

July 21, 2008, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Psalm 121:1-8) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Ascent

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Sermon on Ascent Psalm 121

This morning we want to look at the second Psalm, Psalm 121, in the collection of Songs of Ascents. As explained before by Rev. Siow Hwee, Songs of Ascents is a collection of 15 Psalms (120-134) used by pilgrims either in their journey to Jerusalem or in processionals during a festival observed by the Jews. In fact, every devout Jew at least once in his life time would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So, we may call Songs of Ascents as the “pilgrim songs”. By singing these songs, the pilgrims thank the Lord for protection in the past and pray for and thrust themselves to His help in the present and the future. Thus, the Songs of Ascents normally reflect a pattern of convictions and concerns that would be appropriate for a pilgrim piety. Psalm 121 is a typical pilgrim song that speaks of a trust in God that can sustain their everyday life as a journey. So, my sermon today is entitled: The LORD is my Guardian.
In its poetic form, Psalm 121 is clearly divided into two parts. The first part (vv.1-2) is a confession of trust in God. The second part (vv.3-8) is a response that invokes God as the One who protects. This clear division is due to the fact that there is a change of first personal pronoun from “I” in the first two verses to the second personal pronoun “You” in verses 3 to 8. In other words, this psalm is meant to be a dialogue taking place between two parties, one confessing his faith and the other confirming that faith by stressing God’s promise of protection. The actual circumstances under which this psalm was written is not known. In any case, when the time and the circumstances of composition are uncertain, this could often allow us for the broadest possible use of the psalm under all manner of circumstances. I will elaborate this in a short while. From the contents of the song, I would now like to highlight the first teaching of this psalm, that is: God is the One whom we can trust at every step of our journey.
(1) God is the One whom we can trust at every step of our journey
Psalm 121 opens with a question in verse 1 which receives its answer in verse 2. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth”. These two verses are a statement or confession of faith, in the form of a question and an answer. It counsels men to trust God in all situations of life. But what have the hills to do with the affirmation that help is the LORD? In fact, there is uncertainty about the meaning of looking to the hills. Some commentators think of the hills negatively. These are the hills over which a pilgrim’s way will lead him, and it may be the very thought of the perils of a journey through a mountain-range, with its steep and narrow paths together with the hiding-places of wild beast and robbers, which makes it hard for him to bid farewell. In other words, hills represent a region of possible danger. The pilgrim thus anxiously looks out for help. In other words, after the worried question in verse 1, the pilgrim himself answers the question with a confession of trust in verse 2. Others who stay behind then address him in verses 3 to 8 with God’s promise of protection. Other commentators see the majestic mountains as marvelous witnesses to the power of God who created the earth besides the heaven. The gesture of lifting up the eyes to the mountains is a movement of appeal and trust that the LORD is able to help him throughout his journey to Jerusalem. Another more likely interpretation takes the hills to be the hills around Jerusalem, the hilly location of Zion. In verses 1-2, as the pilgrim’s eyes are lifted up to see the distant hills around Jerusalem, he confesses his faith as he approaches the Temple. A priest then confirms his faith by stressing anew the LORD’s promises in verses 3-8. But there is also another possibility. By reaching Jerusalem and participating in the festive worship of the Temple, the pilgrim’s faith has been quickened in this sacred mountain place. After the festive season, as the pilgrim is about to set off for home, he lifts up his eyes to the hills around Jerusalem and pronounces his renewed faith in God in verse 1-2. His insightful faith is further endorsed by a solemn voice from the priest speaking with religious authority in verses 3-8.
So, we see that by interpreting the hills differently, commentators provide us with three types of settings whereby this Psalm 121 can be recited. It was composed as a litany performed by two parties: (1) At the start of a pilgrimage, a dialogue taking place between a departing pilgrim(s) and a neighbor(s) or some family members who stay behind. (2) In approaching the Temple or in a processional, a cultic dialogue between a pilgrim(s) and a priest. (3) In a farewell liturgy, with a priestly assurance to a returning worshipper(s). As I had mentioned before, the actual circumstances under which this psalm was written is not known. It is futile to try to determine the original, historical setting under which this psalm was written. All three settings suggested by commentators can be imagined. Hence, this psalm allows us the broadest possible use under all manner of circumstances in our life as a journey. Regardless of what the setting, this psalm does evoke the sense of a journey. It is an unqualified psalm of trust in the LORD’s help. It speaks of a trust that can sustain the journey of life and the journey that life is.
It is obvious that by lifting up his eyes to the hills, the pilgrim identifies the LORD as the One who is able to help. It points to the Maker rather than to what is created. Not the hills themselves but the Creator of those hills. If there is anyone who can help at all, then it is God. These knowledge and belief thus remove every doubt and provide a firm ground for this pilgrim. So, we see that trust in God’s help is based on the idea of His creative power. Because all things are God’s handiwork, He has the power to help whatever may happen. So, trust in God is the unassailable basis that gives the pilgrim courage to undertake the journey. But how can one assure of the help of the Maker of heaven and earth? The second part of the psalm in verse 3-8 provides us the answer. First, in general term, verses 3-4 says that: He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yes, the roads of pilgrimage may not be smooth. Slipping or stumbling could be dangerous with rocks and stones strewn in the path. But God watches every step that His faithful children take: He will not let your foot slip. And at night, the weary travelers can fall asleep confidently knowing that God will keep watch through the night. Unlike the human sentries who may be overcome by weariness, it is unthinkable that God could at any time, even for a moment, be off guard: He who watches over you and the Nation of Israel will not slumber. Thus, the pilgrim is being assured that the activity of this Creator God extends beyond the creation of the world; He continues to act and He is ever present in the midst of His people. In fact, the LORD is the One who has been with His people throughout their history. So, this would come forcibly home to the pilgrim that The LORD is not simply the Nation’s God, but his also! It is a breathtaking assurance that the God who controls the whole universe is interested in and cares for him. Thus, the constant presence of God, ever watching, never sleeping, is the assurance that He is the One whom we can trust at every step of our journey.
Yes, brothers and sisters, how can we Christians ever doubt God’s nearness if we believe that He really did break through eternity into time and clothe Himself in the flesh of Jesus Christ? God has indeed entered all the way into our human experience. Once and for all, He came where we are and identified Himself with us, made our life His life: our sorrow His sorrow, our peril His peril, our suffering His suffering. Through the presence and power of His Holy Spirit, God remains within our experience. He is indeed a God close beside us on life’s journey. He stands nearby at all times, ready to reach out His arm and steady us lest we make the slightest slip.
(2) God is the One who guards us in the way that really matters
After a general statement in verses 3-4 that God will be ever watching over the pilgrim and his nation lest they stumble, the ways of God’s protection in detail are now spelled out in verses 5-7. We thus come to the second teaching of this Psalm: God is the One who guards us in the way that really matters.
The Psalm specifies two dangers which were more than figures of speech in their original setting: “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night”. These were, in fact, two perils that the pilgrims dreaded most. Sunstroke was a serious problem for those living in the biblical lands. Men can die of thirst by prolonged exposure to the sun’s scorching rays. The danger posed by the moon may be a reference to the bitter cold of the night, but there may be more to it than that. In the popular thought of the ancient world and in superstitions down to the present day, the moon is often regarded as the cause of particular diseases, especially mental disturbances. The word “lunatic”, from the Latin luna, “moon”, still reflects this notion. Such possible danger of getting sunstroke or “moonstroke” is to assure the pilgrim that God will protect him in the day time as well as through the night. This assurance is expressed in the verse that “the LORD is your shade at your right hand”. In other words, day and night God stands guard and is well able to keep him safe in His loving care. Reaching still further the promise then goes on to say that in every kind of danger God will keep him from evil and will guard his life. It is a declaration that God will watch over everything the individual does, not only for the duration of a specific journey. Life is so full of dangers, but God’s help is a match for them all.
But brothers and sisters, does this mean that we Christians are privileged persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t fall sick, don’t have emotional problems, and won’t encounter any adversities or failures? If these are what you believed, then the Psalm that we read this morning is wrong for God does not do what the Psalmist claims. And you will certainly end up disappointing with God. Christians therefore must read the promise of this Psalm correctly. The promise of God is not that we shall never stub our toes but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us. No literature is more realistic and honest in facing the harsh facts of life than the Bible. At no time is there the faintest suggestion that the lives of God’s people exempt from difficulties. What it promises is preservation from all the evil in them. So, God is the One who guards us in the way that really matters. Someone says it vividly that “all the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside. Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us”. That is the promise of this Psalm: “God guards you from every evil”. God guards us in the way that really matters—not against suffering, but against the evils that suffering brings, the evil of bitterness and cynicism and complaining and despair. God guards our soul, our inner self, which is the seat of human happiness and misery. As Paul also affirms us that: None of the things that happen to you, none of the troubles you encounter, have any power to get between you and God, dilute His grace in you or divert His will from you (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). Jesus Himself makes clear to us that He is the good shepherd who protects the sheep given to Him: “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
There is a touching story in the life of St. Giles, patron saint of Edinburgh. Traveling through the land preaching the Gospel, he had as his constant companion a deer which he greatly loved. When they came to a village, he would point to the deer in his sermons and quote the Psalmist, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God”. One day, as Giles and his deer friend were passing through a forest, they heard dogs barking. Frightened, the deer started to run, with his master in hot pursuit. Suddenly, Giles saw a hunter fitting an arrow to his bow, ready to shoot the fleeting animal. Instinctively, Giles stretched out his arm in the direction of his pet. He was just in the line of the arrow’s flight. It pierced his hand and struck the deer in the side, but Giles’ hand had so broken the arrow’s force that it wounded the animal only superficially.
This story is in fact a figure of God in our human experience. As our unseen protector, our guard, He may not always shield our flesh against the arrow of misfortune. But He always breaks the force of misfortune and prevents the arrow from penetrating our vital organs and wounded us mortally. God guards us in the way that really matters. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”. Jesus had the right to say it because on the Cross of Calvary He was the hand of God coming between us and every power of evil. He took in His flesh the full force of the arrow’s flight, so that though it strikes us, it need not wound us more than superficially.
(3) God is the One who sees us through to the end of the journey
Yes, brothers and sisters, God is the One who watches over us at every step of our journey. And He guards us, protects us in the way that really matters. God is in fact our traveling companion. This is the third teaching we can be assured from the Psalm: God is the One who sees us through to the end of the journey. For in verse 8, the Psalm concludes that “the LORD will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore”. The “going out and coming in” means the beginning and finishing of any undertaking (cf. Deut. 28:6). It thus refers to all of one’s activities, the “comings and goings” that make up our day-by-day lives. It certainly includes not only going out to work but also coming in to rest in the evening.
In short, God’s caring watch over us covers the totality of our earthly activities. Furthermore, it covers also the whole category of time: now and forevermore. Thus, God watches us wherever we go and whatever we do, not only today and tomorrow, but for all time to come. God is truly our traveling companion and we can experience the intimacy of His protection. But there is a further dimension to it. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, we should know that death is a sleeping and an awakening: a coming in and a going out. So, we should not be afraid of death, the last great crisis that everyone has to face, for we can be assured that God is with us and will see us through. There is nothing or any sphere left untouched to which the caring hand of God does not extend. God indeed watches over us our coming and going, from now on to eternity!
There is this story about Abraham Lincoln. One day while visiting a military hospital, he stopped at the bedside of a dying soldier. The young man did not recognize his President. “Is there anything I can do for you?” asked Lincoln. “Yes,” replied the soldier, “I should be grateful if you would write to my mother.” So, as the dying soldier painfully dictated his letter, Lincoln wrote it down. Then the soldier said, “Now will you sign it so that my mother will know that you were so kind.” Lincoln signed his name, and when the soldier saw the signature, an expression of awe came into his face. “I didn’t know that I was bothering the President,” he said. Lincoln spoke tenderly, “Is there anything else I can do?” The dying soldier hesitated a moment, then said, “Would it be asking too much, sir? It won’t be long now. It would be easier to die if you would stay and see me through.” So, Lincoln sat by the bed. Eleven o’clock came, twelve, one, two, three; and then, just as the first faint streaks of dawn were appearing in the sky, the spirit of the young soldier took its silent flight. The president gently closed the sightless eyes, folded the hands on the soldier’s chest and with bowed head went out of the ward. He had kept his word. He had stayed at the boy’s side. He had seen him through.
Once more, the story is a figure of God in man’s experience, the kind of God whom we know and trust: a Divine Guard on our lives’ journey who stays close beside us and never sleeps; who protects us against every danger and guards us in the way that really matters. This God has given us His word that He will see us through to the end of the journey. He will be with us when night falls and we go into the darkness; He will be there to meet us when morning breaks and the shadows flee away. “The LORD will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore”. Yes, brothers and sisters, life is a journey which will certainly come to an end in one day. What will your final destination be? For Christians, life is going to God. In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on. We may fear the same dangers, get the same distresses, be affected by the same illnesses like everyone does. But the difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God. Therefore, no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the LORD will protect us from every evil. He will guard our very life for He knows each one of us. Most importantly He will see us through to the end of the journey and receive us into His eternal Kingdom. May we hear the message of this Psalm 121 deep in our hearts, with the promises of God ringing in our ears, and are encouraged thereby to bear the heat and burden of the day and to sleep with contentment; and that most of all, our faith in God will once again be strengthen.

Psalm 121 (Listen)

A Song of Ascents.

121:1   I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    From where does my help come?
  My help comes from the LORD,
    who made heaven and earth.
  He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
  Behold, he who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.
  The LORD is your keeper;
    the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
  The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.
  The LORD will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
  The LORD will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore.