Theme: Looking Up to God
In this week’s lessons, we are reminded in vivid and powerful ways how the Lord watches over his children.
Scripture: Psalm 121:1-8
The original King James translation of verse 1 suggested a wrong thought to many people, namely, that the psalmist was looking to the mountains for his help. This is not the idea at all. The first stanza can mean either of two things. First, for a pilgrim approaching Jerusalem the mountains around the city suggested Jerusalem itself, and Jerusalem was God’s city, the place God had chosen for his earthly dwelling. Therefore, to look “to the hills” really meant looking to God as one’s true help. The KJV translators no doubt intended this by their translation.
Second, the stanza can be a rejection of the hills for God himself. We need to remember that the mountains, with their high places, had been centers for Canaanite religion. Their gods were identified with the mountains, and they were worshiped there with cultic prostitution. These “high places” are mentioned seventy-eight times in the Old Testament, where we are told that the Jews did not destroy them when they occupied Canaan and that they often worshiped there themselves. If this is what the psalmist is thinking of, what he is telling us is that his gaze did not stop when he looked upward to the hills but that he looked beyond them to God who made the mountains.
In any case, this is the right idea. The God the psalmist worships and to whom he looks for help is the “Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2), a phrase reoccurring several times in this collection (see Psalms 124:8 and 134:3, the last of the Songs of Ascents). To fall short of this, that is, to worship the gods of the mountains, or any other gods, or even the mountains themselves, is idolatry, and it is as useless as it is wicked. What we need in life is not the gods of nature, but nature’s God. We need the Creator. Derek Kidner captures this idea when he writes of verse 2, “The thought of this verse leaps beyond the hills to the universe; beyond the universe to its Maker. Here is living help: primary, personal, wise, immeasurable.”1
Likewise, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The purposes of God; the divine attributes; the immutable promises; the covenant, ordered in all things and sure; the providence, predestination, and proved faithfulness of the Lord— these are the hills to which we must lift up our eyes, and from these our help must come.”2
If the first stanza asks where the help of the devout pilgrim comes from and answers that it is from the God who made heaven and earth, the next stanzas explore various ways in which that great Creator God helps his weak disciple. Stanzas two and three explore this by images, suggesting that God is like a watchman, who does not sleep, or again, like shade from the harmful effects of the sun or moon. The last stanza abandons imagery and says directly that God is our protector at all times and in all circumstances.
1. A vigilant watchman (vv. 2, 4). When a person asked the Greek general Alexander the Great how he could sleep soundly when he was surrounded by so much personal danger, he replied that Parmenio, his faithful guard, was watching. How much more soundly should we sleep when God, who never slumbers nor sleeps, is guarding us!
2. Shade at our right hand (vv. 5, 6). The third stanza uses the image of shade to advance the thought that God is our protector. There is genuine danger of sunstroke in such hot regions as the Near East, but there is no reason for thinking of the moon this way, in spite of the fact that the word “lunatic” (from the Latin word luna for “moon”) reflects the ancient belief that exposure to the moon’s rays can create disorder in the mind. What is the psalmist thinking of when he speaks of the moon’s harm? Is he accepting this old myth by what he says? Probably not, though he is using language that suggests it. What this really means, though in figurative language, is that nothing either of the day or night can harm us if God is keeping guard. God is our covering against every calamity. He is our shade against the visible perils of the day as well as the hidden perils of the night.
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 431.
2Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3b, Psalms 120-150 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 14.
What does it mean to “look to the hills”? What doesn’t this mean?
Identify the imagery in verses 2-4, and also in verses 5 and 6. What do you learn about God’s character?
Reflection: What else do we rely upon rather than the Lord? Have you been looking to any of these idols to help you in different situations or have you looked to God?
Application: Do you ever hear people speak of the creation as if it were God? Ask God to help you use that as a starting point in a discussion of the Creator.
Key Point: What we need in life is not the gods of nature, but nature’s God. We need the Creator.