2020 was a grim year for many. No family has been unaffected. So, many people are glad that 2020 lies behind us. ‘Good riddance! 2021 must be better!’ And then came the new strain of the virus and the current lockdown! Things will get worse before they get better, we’re being told. How will we cope? As Christians we have the tremendous privilege of not facing life on our own. The psalm we read earlier encourages us to look to the Lord at the start of this year, and to keep our eyes on Him throughout it all.
Psalm 121 is the second of 15 consecutive psalms which bear the title ‘A Song of Ascents’. We’re not 100% sure, but it seems most likely that these psalms were pilgrim songs, sung by worshippers heading for the temple at Jerusalem to worship the Lord. The Jews had three great festivals of their faith each year, the most important of which was Passover. The ideal for a faithful Jew was to celebrate these feasts in the temple. Parties of pilgrims would set out from their homes; and on the long, slow journey they would sing these songs as they went up to Jerusalem. I suppose part of the purpose was simply to pass the time. More importantly, the psalms helped people prepare their hearts for worship in the temple. Well, how might this psalm help us prepare for the year ahead?
1. A distant prospect
Faithful Jews in Israel would often attend all three festivals each year; but many lived too far away for this to be practical. Israel’s history had been marred by much unfaithfulness to the Lord. God had no option but to bring judgement on His people, shattering the kingdom by the hand of Assyria, then Babylon. Jews had gone into captivity, scattered throughout the world. It was, therefore, the lifetime’s ambition of many Jews to celebrate just one Passover in their spiritual home. It still is for some: ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ is the final toast as the modern Passover ends. A Jew might spend his whole life planning, preparing and saving to join a band of pilgrims on their arduous journey, singing the Songs of Ascents as they went up to Jerusalem.
The psalm opens with the metrical version’s famous words, ‘I to the hills will lift mine eyes…’ but the question is, which hills? The first Song of Ascents, psalm 120:5, is a distress call from foreign lands. The psalmist can’t have lived in both places at the same time – they’re a long way apart. But he imagines himself in these distant places among the scattered people of God. So the hills to which the psalmist lifts his eyes are foreign hills. The psalmist is in despair; he’s hemmed in by hills. He’s stuck there; he’s helpless. ‘What can I do? Who will come to my aid here?’ Or in the words of the psalm’s opening verse: ‘Where does my help come from?’ Then, there comes to him the gift of faith, the ability to look beyond the hills to their Creator. He realises in verse 2 that his help comes from the Lord!
We could think of parallels with the Prodigal Son: far away in a distant country, wealth squandered, without friends, without food. Destitute, he would have eaten what he was feeding to the pigs, ‘but no one gave him anything.’ Helpless, hopeless, and then he remembered his father! He came to his senses and set off for home, back to the father who loved him.
In one sense we must all go to that distant land, the far country. We all have to be hemmed in by our sinfulness and guilt – as the psalmist was hemmed in by those distant hills – for only then will we look beyond them, and beyond ourselves, for salvation. Only then will we look to the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth; to the Lord, the heavenly Father who loves us – no matter how low we’ve sunk, no matter how far we’ve strayed. That’s how God frequently brings people to their senses that the gracious gift of faith may be born in our hearts. The hills of the psalm may be the menacing hills of the far country, the place of separation from God to which sin has driven us. This may be the distant prospect; a grim setting that becomes a place of blessing as we come to a living faith in the only Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. A closer view
There is, however, a second possibility. The next psalm, 122:2, pictures the pilgrims standing in the gates of Jerusalem. So perhaps the hills to which the psalmist looks are the hills of Jerusalem. He now has a closer view of the hills on which the city and temple are built. What a tremendous sight that must have been for the weary pilgrim! Hundreds of miles lie behind him – hard, dusty, dangerous miles! The sun has beaten down during the day; he’s faced bitterly cold nights; and been in danger from wild animals and armed robbers. Many a pilgrim hasn’t survived the journey and lies buried by the wayside. You’d begun to think you’d never make it yourself – and then, there it is! Jerusalem, the city built on a hill, and crowned at its peak with the temple where God had promised that His glory would dwell. You’ve arrived!
But there’s danger here; a subtle, but very real, danger! So, the psalmist reminds himself that he shouldn’t allow his eyes to rest on the hills – that’s not the real goal. He says to himself: ‘It’s not the city and its temple that have brought me this far – they weren’t my motive for coming – it was to meet with the Lord himself! The city and the temple are nothing without him!’
Look again at verses 1-2. He looks beyond the hills, beyond the city and temple built by human hands, to the Lord. The sad fact, however, is that then, and now, many a pilgrim has failed to look beyond the hills. They don’t press on to know the reality, the Lord himself. They allow their eyes to be taken up with the outward form of religion, the man-made things, and, thus, miss its inner heart.
Let’s think of some modern examples. There are those whose commitment is to a building, not to Christ. So, when the building is closed, and the congregation moves to another one, they stop going to church. Their eyes are fixed on the outward form. Or perhaps there’s a change in the form of worship from what they’d previously known: singing hymns as well as psalms, for example; singing led by instruments of one type or another, rather than unaccompanied. They’re unhappy, disgruntled. They want things to be the way they used to be. Their eyes are fixed on the outward form and they fall behind when God leads His people forward.
Sometimes people get no further than thinking, ‘If I go to church when I feel like it, and give my offering, then God owes me salvation.’ But their eyes are resting on the outward form of religion; they’re missing the reality – a relationship with the living God. They’re trusting in themselves; they haven’t received the help that ‘comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. Saving faith enables us to look beyond the material things, the outward form of religion, to glimpse the wonder of our gracious God, and His gift of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
That leads us to our final heading…
3. A clear vision
The psalmist looked beyond the hills and saw the Lord; and he leaves us with three pictures of God’s care for His people – each, perhaps, influenced by his experience on the road as a pilgrim. In verses 3-4 He is the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps. On the road, when the pilgrims slept, they would post sentries to watch for danger. How vulnerable they were when they lay sleeping! History affords many examples of whole armies routed as they slept at night. How would a small pilgrim band fare? What if the sentry dozed off? Well, God’s eyes are open at all times. The one who watches over his people doesn’t get caught napping. And He hadn’t taken His eyes off the ball last year when Covid struck, or the other issues that brought us pain in 2020!
In verses 5-6 it’s all-day protection that’s in mind; and the Lord’s protection is as refreshing as it is complete: a shade from the sun that beats down by day, and protection in the cold night of the desert. His protection avails against the known and the unknown: the dangers of the day, and the unseen perils of the night. God is with us 24/7.
And the protection is lifelong, verses 7-8 tell us. Not only does it cover the period of pilgrimage – your coming and going; but also the dawn and sunset of life – coming into life and departing from it. That is the gracious, caring God that faith reveals.
But where do we stand as this New Year begins? Do we know this God and rejoice in His care? Or do we simply know about Him without having entered into relationship with Him? Are our eyes still fixed on the city and the temple – the outward form of religion but not its living, beating heart? We can be here in the building physically, or watching faithfully week by week online, but still distant from the God who loves us. Some might still be in the far country: aware of our sin and need – hemmed in by it and unable to set ourselves free. Are we helpless and hopeless? No! We can do nothing; but our gracious God loves and cares for us, and is reaching out in His mercy to us.
Let’s all look to the Lord at the start of the year and keep looking to Him as the year progresses. He’s the only source of help that never fails! ‘I am with you always,’ says the Lord Jesus, ‘to the very end of the age.’