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Psalm 121: Faith’s Line of Sight

30 Nov

faithEric/Wendy’s newsletter from Kigali, Rwanda: November 2015

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I don’t like where I am, but I can’t wait to get where I’m headed

Those words could come from the mouth of practically anyone — at some point in his or her life: a student taking final exams of the senior year, a woman in labor, or an athlete going through rehab on his knee after surgery to repair it.

I don’t like where I am, but I can’t wait to get where I’m headed.

You can even imagine these same words coming from biblical characters: Noah in a crowded floating boat that smelled of animals for a year and ten days, Daniel in a pit filled with angry lions, or Paul in a prison dungeon at Rome awaiting execution.

I don’t like where I am, but I can’t wait to get where I’m headed.

Some days are long and difficult, and some circumstances are outrageous and painful. On those days, it is better to be honest and admit how tough the challenge is. And sometimes the best thing you can do in those times is to raise your line of sight from today’s obscenity to tomorrow’s anticipation.

Those are the days to read the following words from Psalm 121:1-2 (ESV)
1  I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
2  My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121 is a traveling song. It is one of the “Songs of Ascents” found from Psalm 120 through 134. This may have been used as an antiphonal psalm that the pilgrims sang as they journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast. The leader of the company opened with verses 1-2, which are in the first person, and different people or groups answered him with verses 3-4 and so on, which are in the second person.

The theme is God’s protection over His people; the word “keeps” (watches over) is used six times. Safety is something about which the pilgrims would be especially concerned as they journeyed on the roads through the hill country.

Pilgrims going up toward Jerusalem — and anyone traveling toward the Holy City biblical…literature was “going up” to the hill and house of the Lord, no matter the sea-level altitude of his point of beginning — sang these songs to make their journey more lighthearted and to keep them focused on their reason for the trip.

A pilgrim could stumble and hurt himself, or someone might suffer sunstroke, or a chilly night of camping out might give somebody a bad cold. There was always the possibility of robbers swooping down.

Most people who travel to beautiful Tennessee area talk about a feature that some of us take for granted — the peaceful, rolling hills of the countryside. And those of us who have traveled to Colorado can attest the majesty, power, beauty, and serenity of its towering, snow-capped peaks.

As the men, women, and children moved along the road toward Jerusalem, they could look at the hills along the way negatively or positively:

  • They could see the hills as hiding places for bandits; looking to the hills would be a furtive, defensive, even frightened glance toward their fears.
  • On the other hand, they could let the hills remind them of God’s towering presence around them and see the hills along their way as places of refuge and signs of reassurance.

It’s not unusual to have some ask what they could do about their sense of sadness and depression. After talking about their situation and the treatment they are receiving from their physician, I have tried to help them understand that the root of depression is sometimes genetic and chemical, not a matter of choice or simply a “poor attitude” toward life. So I encouraged them to take the medication they had been given.

Medicine can be a gift from God — whether penicillin or anti-depressants — and the means by which He answers prayer. But I also encourage them to realize that no one could choose the direction of their gaze. And what does “the direction of their gaze” mean?

In his spiritual allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan paints a word picture of a character “who looked no way but downward.” The poor man was groveling on his knees in the dirt and filth, working constantly with a rake, trying to unearth some priceless treasure that would enrich his life. All the while, a bright diadem was in reach just above him.

Bunyan summarized the tragedy of his plight in these words: “There stood One over his head with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck rake; but the man never looked up as he continued gathering to himself the straw, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor!”

There are some people whose mental and spiritual health could be improved significantly by adjusting the direction of their gaze. Those who tend always to see the dark and dreary side of life would do well to adopt a healthier view of things.

Yes, there is such a thing as a sappy, naive, unrealistic optimism. But that opposite extreme is not the only alternative to hopelessness! There is a balance of realism about life and confidence in God that makes one a functional human being in a stressful world.

Taking Eternity Into Account

But there is something far more important still than keeping a tether on your daily attitude toward life’s stresses and believing that God will help you deal with whatever curve balls you are thrown. Christian faith has a line of sight that takes eternity into account. If we are authentically rooted in our heavenly citizenship conferred through Jesus Christ, we can deal with anything that happens here.

Writing to ethnic Jews who were facing persecution for having embraced Jesus as their Messiah, a Spirit-guided teacher gave them this counsel: Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV)
1  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

3  Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
Jesus took eternity into account in dealing with the shame, opposition, and death forced upon him. The writer of this text encouraged his readers to fix the eyes of their faith on him in his heavenly glory for the sake of enduring the things that lay ahead for them.

Are you and I to expect no challenges? Is it unfair for us to be tested? Is it unreasonable that people of faith will have to resort to faith’s unique line of sight in order to cope with our most agonizing situations?

Eight centuries before the birth of Christ and extending over a period of 50 years, Isaiah prophesied to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. He lived during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem and prophesied of the deliverance Yahweh would bring to his people (Isa. 36-37).

He nevertheless predicted a period of exile in Babylon (Isa. 39:5-6) — an exile that would indeed come to the Southern Kingdom, Judah. With his prophetic foresight into what lay ahead for that nation, he urged those who would endure so terrible a fate to utilize faith’s line of sight and to look beyond their coming troubles to their Sovereign Lord.

Isaiah 40:27-31 (ESV)
27  Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28  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.
29  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;
31  but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

God’s Protection

The language of Psalm 121 parallels this beautiful text from Isaiah. It is an assurance of God’s faithfulness as the watchman over his people.

Psalm 121:1-8 (ESV)
1  I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does 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  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5  The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on 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 forth and forevermore.

“My Father’s Creation Is Before Me” (vv. 1-2)

If Jehovah created the heavens and the earth, then He is a God of power, wisdom, and glory, and we have nothing to fear. Satan and his demonic army may be at work opposing the saints, but this is still our Father’s world.

The apostate Jews worshiped other gods at the shrines (“high places”) in the hills, but the faithful people of God looked above the hills to the great God who created all things. When the travelers caught sight of Jerusalem, situated on the mountains, they knew that God dwelt there in His sanctuary and provided the help they needed.

Everything in the heavens and on the earth bears witness to the great Creator who is also our heavenly Father, so why should we fear?

“My Father’s Eyes Are upon Me” (vv. 3-4)

The word translated “moved” means “to slip and slide, to stagger, to be shaken.” How easy it would be to sprain an ankle or even fall and break a bone while walking on uneven rocky paths. The Lord is concerned about our feet and our walk. “Keep” means “to guard and protect” and is used six times in the psalm (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7 [two times] and 8).

It is first used in the Bible in Genesis 2:15 where the Lord put Adam in the garden “to keep it.” This means to guard and protect it and take good care of it. Even while we sleep, God watches over us because He does not go to sleep.

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry” (34:15, nkjv)

“My Father’s Presence Is Beside Me” (vv. 5-6)

Our Keeper is not only on the throne looking down on us, but He is at our side to shield us from all harm. This does not mean that obedient believers never find themselves in difficulty or danger, or that they will never feel physical and emotional pain.

The things that God permits to happen to us in His will may hurt us but they will not harm us.

In writing about the sun and the moon, the psalmist was saying several things. To begin with, in that part of the world, the burning sun is menacing (2 Kings 4:18-19; Jonah 4:8), but at night, the sudden drop in temperature is both uncomfortable and unhealthy, if you lack warm covering.

Day and night, our Father is with us to shelter us from that which could harm us. The Jewish people followed a lunar calendar (81:3), so the writer was also referring to days (the sun) and months (the moon). From day to day, from month to month, from season to season (Gen. 1:16-18), from year to year, our Father is with us in the many challenges and changes of life.

Whether by day or by night, in heat or cold, whatever the changes might be, the Father’s presence provides all that we need. We need not be afraid of sudden attacks that can come in the day or the night, for “the shadow of the Almighty” covers us (see Ps. 91).

“My Father’s Care Is Around Me” (vv. 7-8)

We need not fear life or death, today or tomorrow, time or eternity, for we are in the loving care of the Father.

“All evil” means anything that could harm us, but in His grace, He turns into good the things we think are evil.

Joseph had to endure the slander and hatred of his brothers, thirteen years of separation from his father, the false accusations of his employer’s wife, and years in prison, all because of his brothers’ sins. But in the end, Joseph was able to say, “[Y]ou meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20, nkjv).

He is alert — i.e., he “will neither slumber nor sleep” (v. 4). He is the great protector of his people — i.e., he is a “shade” to keep the sun and moon from harming them (v. 6). He is always there for those who turn to him — i.e., “the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (v. 8).

These promises can be understood correctly only from the perspective of eternity that has already been identified in this sermon. Shall we hear the promise that “the Lord will keep you from all harm” (v. 7a) as a promise of no sickness, no financial reversals, no problems? Hardly!

Verse 1 already acknowledges the real presence of difficulty and cries out to God for help. This writer knows the story of righteous persons such as Job and Moses — men who suffered though they were near to God.

Far from the promise of a challenge-free, discomfort-free, wound-free existence, the promise of this pilgrim song is that the Lord will not allow his people to be destroyed by their challenges, discomforts, and wounds.

Through whatever may happen in your life, God will provide the support, guidance, and restoration necessary to bring you safely to his Holy Mountain. Whatever you need to survive Earth for the sake of Heaven will not be withheld from you.

After enduring some terrible adversities, a Spirit-filled saint was asked by a friend how he could maintain not only his faith but his positive spirit through his ordeal. He said, “Suppose someone sent me on an important journey and warned me that I would come first to a dangerous crossing over a river and then to a forest filled with wild animals. I would feel a sense of satisfaction when I actually encountered those obstacles. They would prove to me that I was traveling the right road.

“The same is true in this Christian journey I am taking. The Lord told his followers that they could expect tribulations in this world. So when difficulties come, then, I find encouragement. They reassure me that I am walking the narrow path of God’s will.”

Conclusion

Robin Jones composed “A Parable of God’s Perspective[i] in which a fellow named Bert is allowed to look down from heaven into human experience. Aghast at some of the things he saw, he asked God, “How can you allow it? Look what evil is setting in motion down there!”

“There’s no one better than the devil for creating a tragedy like that!” God said.

“But God, that man is one of your people . . . oh, that poor man!”

“I gave the freedom to choose between good and evil,” God said, his face sad. “No matter what they choose, they all live there together. Sometimes, those who choose my way are impacted by those who don’t.” He slowly shook his head. “It’s always painful when that happens.”

“But those people right there have no choice,” Bert protested. “Evil is being crammed down their throats! That isn’t a choice!”

“Now, Bert,” God said patiently, “have I ever let pain go unavenged?”

“No . . . no, but . . .” Bert cringed from the sight, unable to bear any more.

“Watch!” God put his arm around Bert’s hunched shoulders and turned him again. “Look right over there, by the wall.”

“That one? He looks nearly dead. Is he praying?”

“Ah, Bert, you should hear his prayers!” Intense love flashed in God’s eyes like lightning. “Simple prayers from an aching heart. This is triumph over evil. Trusting me — that is the choice.” God smiled through sparkling tears of love. “Isn’t he magnificent?”

Together they stood in silence, and Bert began to see as God did.

“Now watch this, Bert.” God spoke softly, never letting his eyes leave the scene. He called for Michael and the archangel appeared.

“Go down and get him, Michael.” The tears of divine joy spilled over. “I’ll arrange the party.”

Don’t like where you are today? Just remember where you’re headed! Faith’s line of sight gives you clearer vision on everything.

[i] Quoted in Alice Gray, More Stories for the Heart (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 1997), pp. 270-271.

 

[i] Quoted in Alice Gray, More Stories for the Heart (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 1997), pp. 270-271.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2015 in Encouragement

 

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