We continue our weekly Community Chapel “Summer Series” podcast message with a reflection on Psalm 121 by Dr. Beth Green, Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Tyndale. Her message is entitled “Psalm 121: A Song for Pilgrims”.
Along with her duties at Tyndale, Beth presents regularly at academic conferences and is an author including the recent Innovating Christian Education Research. She is also a licensed lay reader and member of the parish of St Luke’s Church, Burlington in the Anglican diocese of Niagara.
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Psalm 121 A Song for Pilgrims
I lift up my eyes to the hills;
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.
The Lord will not let your foot be moved
and the One who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, the One who keeps watch over Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord, the Lord, watches over you;
the Lord is your shade at your side,
so that the sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve you from all evil
and shall keep you safe.
The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.
Have you got a song or a playlist that you listen to when you are travelling, when you are setting off on a journey? In our family we always used to argue about the music we were going to play in the car when we set off on a long drive. My Dad would like to listen to the Beach Boys or Johnny Cash, my Mum preferred listening to audio books or talk radio and for my brother and I it would be whatever artist or band we were currently in to. Perhaps today earbuds and head phones sort this problem out, but there is something fun about listening and singing along together. When on a long hike, singing can set a rhythm and a pace and it can motivate you to keep going to the end. Perhaps you listen to music as you run or to pump you up as you exercise. Travel and corporate singing are two activities that are currently limited and I can’t help but wonder if it makes the journey harder.
Psalm 121 is a Song of Ascent, a pilgrim song and it may well have been sung by Levites at the Temple in Jerusalem and by pilgrims on their way to Temple. Using poetic repetition called “parallelism,” the psalm describes different ways in which Yahweh protects the people. This psalm has been part of the collection of liturgical poems, hymns, and chants for Jewish people for thousands of years. For many the pilgrimage to Jerusalem lay through the mountainous region of the Judean hills. This could be a dangerous and hostile place, with the risk of bandits.
Like many of us I enjoy hiking in the hills. I grew up in a town which was on the edge of the Cheshire plain, nestled in the foot hills of the Peak District in Derbyshire. The Mountains of the Lake District and the Welsh mountain range of Snowdonia were only a short drive away. I’ve always loved the hills and found them inspirational. I am not a climber but I’ve hiked, biked and camped in the hills. One of my favourite train journeys was to cross the Pennines between Stockport and Sheffield through deep tunnels bored through the rock, across heather and moorland and the gentle green peak forest. As an aside, nestled in the green hills of the Peak District is a little village called Eyam. During the bubonic plague of 1665, led by the local pastor the Rev. Mompesson, the villagers quarantined themselves to prevent the further spread of the disease. The Church was closed and services held in the open air. Merchants from surrounding villages sent supplies that they would leave on marked rocks; the villagers then made holes there which they would fill with vinegar to disinfect the money left as payment. Accounts differ but it is estimated that 80% of the villagers died but the deaths of thousands in the surrounding areas were prevented by these actions and it changed medical practice significantly. A hard and sacrificial pilgrimage through the hills indeed.
Now I know that you really know how to do mountains in Canada. Visiting Banff was a bucket list item for me and I will never forget the first time I saw the Rockies rising on the horizon. It took my breath away. I was driving from Lethbridge, so from the prairies. Friends of mine had advised me of a different route, not following the highway, so that I would be treated to the incredible views. It was sunny when I first saw them but the weather changed quickly as I drove in, a mist came down. Mountain climbers, mountain sheep and goats, are well aware of the dangers of unpredictable storms, an avalanche or a hidden cleft or valley. Are the hills a refuge or a place of menace?
Aware of both these possibilities the pilgrims sing. The Lord, the Lord, watches over you; * the Lord is your shade at your side, 6 so that the sun shall not strike you by day, * nor the moon by night. 7 The Lord shall preserve you from all evil * and shall keep you safe.
Psalm 121 is a bit of a conversation. As they sing the pilgrims pose questions like ‘where will my help come from?’ Someone answers: ‘it will come from the Lord’. There’s an implied question ‘who is the Lord?’ and the answer is sung back in response ‘The Lord is the maker of heaven and earth’ ‘the Lord will not let your foot slip’ and the Lord ‘who watches over you will not fall asleep’. As the company of pilgrims sings this to one another they are seeing past the hills, they are looking to the one who made them.
This psalm has been a song of comfort to many pilgrims throughout the ages. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer uses this psalm as part of morning prayer every month to encourage and inspire those of us who regularly follow this cycle of prayer. Lots of other liturgies, services and hymns draw on it too. Its theme of God as creator and protector is central. I’ve turned to it many times when I have felt lonely, or anxious or threatened. I expect many of you have as well.
The psalm encourages us to look to the right place for our strength and courage, yes it is a song of comfort but it it is more than that. It is also a song to challenge pilgrims.
I remember one of the first times I really noticed this psalm properly. On that occasion I wasn’t reading it to look for comfort. I was looking up the verses because my Grandmother had written the first few lines inside of a book of daily prayers that she gave to me to mark my baptism. I come from a denominational tradition which practices adult baptism and so I remember my baptism and I remember the book and the verses she wrote. I still have it. It was a day of celebration, there was a great sense of expectation for me about publicly declaring my faith in front of my family, my church congregation and my friends - some of whom thought it was the weirdest thing ever to let someone dunk you in a pool of water. Wise woman that she was and further ahead on the journey I like to think that my Grandmother was setting me a challenge to remember who God is, that this is the Creator, never sleeping, a guardian of all that is precious. The Baptist minister Spurgeon called this psalm a ‘soldiers song as well as a traveler’s hymn.’
If God never falls asleep then not only is that a source of protection and reassurance but it is also a measure of accountability. God sees, God judges and God saves and restores.
When Jewish pilgrims sang this song it is likely that they were remembering times in their own history as a nation when God had watched their comings and goings. Some of these entries and exits had been abrupt, violent, devastating - where was God when they were slaves in Egypt or exiled in Babylon? There is an unspoken question in this pilgrim song: where are you God because our feet do slip, bad things do happen, we can’t always travel safely, sing boldly, worship freely. It is possible for our feet to slip so far that that we do terrible things and justify them in the name of our faith. In Canada we are hearing the stories of those Indigenous and Métis people who were abused and killed in residential schools run by the church. Christians in Rwanda, South Africa, just to name two other countries in the world that have also suffered persecution, racism, genocide and war, our sisters and brothers here have much to tell us about how telling the story, naming the hurt, keeping watch is part of the process of reconciliation. I believe that walking a path to reconciliation requires that the maker of heaven and earth keep watch.
The maker of heaven and earth did more than keep watch though, Jesus joined us in the story, Jesus deliberately turned his face towards Jerusalem, walked to the Temple even though it was suffering and death that was waiting there. Crucified outside of the city we are told that at the moment when Jesus died the curtain of the Temple, on Temple mount, rent in two. This is an image of reconciliation, the great distance between God and humanity bridged by Jesus.
Imagine, for a moment, singing this psalm at the end of the pilgrimage rather than the beginning. Singing it not in the middle of the Judean wilderness but on Temple Mount in Jerusalem when you have arrived for the festival. Imagine singing it as an exile who has returned from Babylon to Jerusalem with Nehemiah to rebuild the city and the Temple. It takes obedience and courage to return to a land that has been settled in your absence by people who don’t worship Yahweh, who worship their gods and set up their temples in the high places and hills. It takes repentance to go back, knowing that you haven’t always been faithful to God, that you have fallen asleep on God and have not always guarded what is precious.
This pilgrim song is all about lifting our gaze, looking beyond the hills to the one who made them. The pilgrims remind each other what confidence and courage we can have in the creator, that we can come back. There is an end to the story, a restoration, a celebration and a feast because God’s faithfulness is inseparable from God’s justice. This is what Jesus’s death and resurrection proves to us. As pilgrims we can sing with confidence that the Lord watches over both, as Michael Wilcox puts it, the great movements of history and the common things of our lives.
We need Jesus to do this, to lift our gaze. Without Jesus it is impossible for me to look up and resolve the evil hurtful things of my own life, those that have happened to me and those that I have inflicted on others. Just as it is impossible for a nation or for the church to gather up and resolve the injustices it has suffered or inflicted without lifting its gaze. Without the God beyond the mountains, the one who never falls asleep - goodness and evil would go unnoticed, unnamed. For there to be comfort and hope there also needs to be justice. The stories need to be told, the questions asked and we need a God song like this to sing to each other.
1-2 I look up to the mountains;
does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God,
who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.
He won’t let you stumble,
your Guardian God won’t fall asleep.
Not on your life! Israel’s
Guardian will never doze or sleep.
God’s your Guardian,
right at your side to protect you—
Shielding you from sunstroke,
sheltering you from moon stroke.
God guards you from every evil,
he guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return,
he guards you now, he guards you always.
— End of transcript —