I raise my eyes to the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. — Psalm 121:1-2 (HCSB)
“I can see the mountains very dimly!”
My little brother’s excitement woke the whole family after what had been a very difficult night. It became the turning point of our trip to California.
My father had accepted a visiting professorship at the University of California and decided to buy a trailer. The plan was to take a leisurely trip from the flat lands of northwestern Ohio and then explore California on weekends.
So far, it had seemed like a bad plan. We had spent the first two nights with two different grandmothers. Unfortunately, the person who was supposed to get the trailer ready for the trip didn’t do a good job. Our first taste of anything hilly, the Ozarks of Missouri, nearly led to a disastrous crash as the trailer brake failed and pushed the car down a steep slope.
Commercial campgrounds in Kansas and Nebraska had proved unpleasant, and we were looking forward to Colorado, where it was legal to camp overnight in roadside parks. We picked one near Bennett as our destination, but our map was obsolete. It took a while to realize that the state had abandoned the highway we wanted. All we could do was find where the roadside park used to be and hope we could successfully set up camp.
By the time we found a bare spot in the weeds and fixed something for supper, it was dark. That’s when the first freight train went past. Dad vowed that he’d turn around and go back home and tell UC that he wasn’t coming.
Mountains in Psalm 121
Somehow, the sight of the mountains in the distance refreshed all of us and encouraged us to go on. That’s not the effect that the sight of distant mountains had on the psalmist.
Jerusalem, where the major Jewish festivals took place, sits high above most of the rest of Palestine. A ridge of mountains occupies the area between the coastal plain and the Jordan valley. The hills of Galilee are mostly less than 600 feet above sea level, although some peaks are higher than 1600 feet. The mountains to the south are progressively taller. Jerusalem, not the highest place in Judea, is about 2600 feet. Meanwhile, the Jordan River flows south to the lowest place on earth, almost 1300 feet below sea level.
Trade routes connected the various parts of Palestine, but they hardly counted as a road system. Pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem traveled the distance on foot. They faced not only a steep climb and rugged terrain, but the danger of wild beasts and bandits.
As pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem, they passed many other high places where pagans had built shrines to Canaanite gods. Those gods required child sacrifice. As disgusting as the practice of burning babies to a crops sounds today, it was a constant temptation in Israel. Eventually even some of the kings of Judah embraced those pagan gods and their abominations.
So when the psalmist looked at the mountains, he didn’t see scenery or fun times. He saw a variety of dangers and wondered where he’d find help. The Lord who had appeared to Moses and initiated a covenant with the Israelites would help him.
The psalm enumerates many ways that anyone who sang it could expect God’s protection: from stumbling, from dangers along the road, from the sun, and from the moon.
Psalm 121 and human experience
In everyday experience, people stumble and fall all the time. People suffer dangers along modern roads all the time. People get skin cancer and heat stroke from the sun. We no longer ascribe mental illness to the moon, but we still use the word “lunatic.” And there is plenty of mental illness.
How, then, is this psalm true?
Not to make light of anyone’s suffering, but whatever happens to a believer could have been much worse. As Psalm 37:23-24 puts it, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord and he delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong, because the Lord is the one who holds his hand” (NASB, emphasis added).
Also, we must remember that the real world is the world of spirit. We live in that world but cannot apprehend it with sense knowledge. Danger there comes from Satan. He can hurt us only as much as we ourselves allow him to.
According to 1 Corinthians 10:13, God will not allow Satan to tempt us beyond our ability to resist. He will always provide a way for us to escape from Satan’s devices, whether we notice and take advantage of it or not.
Whoever wrote Psalm 121 probably knew Psalm 37, for David wrote that one. Implicitly, he knew the same truth Paul wrote. That’s why he expressed such absolute confidence that the Lord is our protector.
Distant mountains. Some rights reserved by Ben Mason
Mount of Temptation, Jericho. Some rights reserved by Michele Benericetti
Ouch! Some rights reserved by Adam Engelhart