When I was in high school, my dad went on sabbatical and obtained a visiting professorship in California. He decided to buy a trailer and camp across the country with the family to get there from northwestern Ohio. It turned out to be a great idea, but the trip got off to a terrible start.
The absolute worst night came in eastern Colorado, where the official state map had shown a camping place. The state highway to get there turned out to have been abandoned. By the time we found the weedy site of the former camping place, it was too late in the day to look for anywhere else. No sooner did we set up the trailer than the first freight train roared by.
My brother got up way earlier the next morning than anyone else. He shouted the rest of us awake, excited that he could see the mountains very dimly.
The sight of the mountains was a great help. We set out that morning much more cheerfully than we had in days. Even though the mountains did not look much closer until afternoon, they continued to inspire.
Hills in a beloved psalm
I have always loved Psalm 121:1-2: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (ESV) It has always seemed made for an expression of awe at the beauty of the mountains.
I think God created beauty, at least in part, to invite people out of ordinary life and its humdrum routine. It doesn’t have to be mountains, canyons, oceans, even the splendor of the night sky or anything else that’s huge and grand.
Flowers, birds, butterflies, even spider webs can serve the same purpose. All we have to do is notice. Notice, for example, that beauty comes as an interruption to our ordinary routines. We can do our jobs, run our errands, talk to people, use all our modern gadgets without natural beauty. And all too often do.
So when we notice beauty at all, it is an invitation to recognize that the world does not exist for the sake of our routines. It contains a lot that we could never create for ourselves. In fact, nature contains much we could never even imagine until we experience it for the first time.
God invites us to pay attention to nature as a prelude to paying attention to him. If the heavens declare the glory of God, so does a tiny wildflower. Nature proclaims that God can make and comprehend and care about things both infinitely larger that we are and infinitely smaller.
We are part of that creation. He cares about us as much as he cares about the moon, the mountains, or the mocking bird. He can take care of us, if only we turn to him.
The beauty of nature has long turned people to consider God and give him praise and honor. As it turns out, though, that’s not quite what the psalmist had in mind.
Hills to the psalmist
I was shocked and appalled when the Living Bible came out and I read its rendering of that same passage: Shall I look to the mountain gods for help? No! My help is from Jehovah, who made the mountains! And the heavens, too!
Gone is all thought of grandeur and beauty. Later reflection and study, though, leads to the conclusion that the psalmist probably didn’t think of beauty when he thought of mountains.
Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms of Ascents, that is, songs that faithful pilgrims sang as they journeyed from their homes to Jerusalem for a festival. And at the top of many hills, the high places mentioned so often in the Old Testament, pagan shrines invited worshipers.
Pagan religion was a stumbling block to the Israelites from the days of Moses until the destruction of the temple—brought about because Israelite society eventually turned from the living God to idols. Worshiping the idols involved both uninhibited sex and the sacrifice of babies.
Pious believers regarded these shrines with disgust. They knew that God had forbidden the worship of idols, and so the shrines were a menace to society. Unfortunately, pious believers were always a small minority. Most people were quite willing to worship God, but they worshiped idols, too. For them, the shrines were a constant temptation.
Let us not think that the ancient high places represent something quaint, remote, and of no relevance to us. We do, after all, travel long distances to get to some destinations. And even on short trips, we are likely to pass “adult” stores that offer entertainment for those who have surpassed an arbitrary age.
That kind of establishment is only one of numerous businesses that can be regarded as either a menace or a temptation. To paraphrase the Living Bible’s rendering of Psalm 121:1, should we look to places like that for help?
No. Our help comes from God. Anything else—everything else—is an inferior imitation that will get us in trouble if we fall into its trap.
So whether we have a chance to look at hills for any reason or if we live hours from the nearest one, let’s take full advantage of whatever invitation God gives to acknowledge, worship, and depend on him alone.