Psalm 121: Keeper
The second Song of Ascents is a psalm for the journey, a song of trust born from a question of vulnerability, it is a statement of confidence in the face of uncertainty. Long journeys raise lots of questions, some that can be answered, others that can only be experienced. With the mountains that surround Jerusalem in his view, the psalmist asked the one question that all our other questions flow from, “From where does my help come from?”
The view of the mountains might be the key to this entire song. The hills that surrounded Jerusalem could be filled with danger or safety, there was uncertainty in the journey but confidence in the destination. There might be trials, even struggles to get there, but when they arrived, there was no doubt they would go up to the house of the LORD. The question was not if the trip would be worth it, it would be. It was not if they would make it, they would get there. The question was not even if they would need help along the way, they most certainly would. The question was asked only for the answer to be given, “Where will our help come from?”
We have talked about this before, but while we often get caught up in the when, why, and how of life, the most important question is always who. The psalmist did not comfort himself or those traveling with him by promises of safety, certainty in the journey or his ability to follow the directions, their hope was not in themselves or each other, but rather in the One who would not just lead them or help them but could be trusted to keep them.
The answer begins simply, “My help comes from the LORD”, but then it is enlarged with a reminder of just who their help was coming from, “who made heaven and earth.” Is it not interesting that we can believe in God as Creator but then worry, fear, and even doubt if we will be sustained? That we can believe fully that God spoke and everything that did not exist prior to His speaking suddenly existed, but we can question if our needs will be met, our bills will get paid, our hearts will be cared for? The psalmist begins at a point that we often skip over, the Creator is fully capable of being our Sustainer. The rest of the psalm goes to an even more important point, God is not only able to Sustain us, He is willing.
Hearkening back to Psalm 73:2, the pilgrims sing, not with hope, but with confidence, not about themselves but about God, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” This is the heart of the song, God did not just create us, He is not just waiting for us at the end of the journey, He keeps us. What does that mean?
The Hebrew word we translate “keeps, keep and keeper” six times within this psalm is “samar” and it means “to hedge about (as with thorns) i.e., to guard, to protect, attend to”. God is not far off watching to see if we will make our way to Him, even though that is how the journey feels some days. He is not just near, ready to come in if we call for Him or face something that is beyond us. He surrounds us, guards, and protects us. As Peter wrote much later, we are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation”. God does not reach His hand out to help us on occasion, we are held in His hands.
The psalmist tells us more about the character of the One who keeps us than he does the details of being kept. Again, the Who is greater than the when, the what or the how. “He who keeps you will not slumber . . . he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” God is more than consistent, He is constant. Not only does He not change (Hebrews 13:8), there is no turning or variation in Him (James 1:17). What God does; He always does. He does not come and go, rise and fall, charge ahead and then slip back. He is not like us, does not need a break from time to time, does not lose interest, or struggle with consistency, faithfulness, or devotion. As the psalmist put it, “He will neither slumber nor sleep.”
Generally, when we talk about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, we talk about what the Holy Spirit is producing in us, but consider this, for God to produce something in us, it must first be of Him. This means that the fruit of the Spirit is the character of God. What is God’s character? What is God like? To use Paul’s list, God is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. I would take this even farther, since there is no variation in God, no turning, no changing, no diminishing or increasing, that means that God is always “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” We have no reason to fear that God will ever be anything other than He has always been. We have no reason to worry that He will ever do differently than what He has always done. If you have been created, you will be sustained. If you have been redeemed, you will be kept. If you have been loved, you will always be loved.
Journeys often have unexpected detours and unforeseen difficulties. There are detours and road closures, missed flights and changed departure times, weather issues that are out of our control and planning errors that we feel we should have seen coming. Travel, especially distant travel, is always filled with uncertain circumstances. To all this the psalmist writes, “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.” For shade to be cast someone must be present, standing between you and the sun. God is not near in a spiritual way, in a mystical way, in some metaphorical way, He is with us. In the Exodus story, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night was not a symbol of God’s presence, it was God’s literal, physical presence. God is with you on your journey, not watching over you, but with you.
If you have not figured it out yet, while this psalm was written by pilgrims making an actual journey to Jerusalem, it speaks to the journey of life for all of us. Life is filled with unexpected turns, with disappointing changes of schedule, with unmet expectations, unkeepable timelines and what, in the moment feels to be wrong directions. But we do not have a Rescuer, we have a Keeper. We do not have a Shepherd that finds us, but One that leads us. Not only are we not alone, but we are also not in charge, we are not leading we are following. We do not know the details, but we know the Way. And yet, we continue to ask questions that do not matter more than we concentrate on the truth that matters most. “Which way should we go? How long will this take? Have I made a wrong turn? Will I ever get home?” To all this the psalmist says, “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”
II Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” God planned our journey of life and then, in His Son, gave us everything that we will need for the journey. As my friend David Mengi recently said, “The fullness of God is packed in your life.” Our circumstances may be uncertain, but God’s character is sure! The mountains may hold danger and safety, but God holds us. Our feet might slip but they will not be moved. Evil may come but we will be kept. In the brightness of the sun, He will be our shade and in the dark of night He will be our light. Whether our fears are rational or irrational, the LORD does not just hold us in His hands, He is careful with our hearts. We can trust Him because He is trustworthy.
The psalm ends with a comforting promise for every traveler, “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” We are being carried. Sometimes He carries us because we have no strength to go ourselves, other times it is because we refuse to give up our own way, but all along, the One who keeps us, carries us. He carries us in our greatest days and darkest night. He carries us into our victories and our defeats. He carries us when we love the view and when we hate the path. Every mile of journey, we are being carried. He opens doors and closes them. He determines the starts and the stops. As one of my prayer partners prayed just today, when things are shaking it is usually God whose shaking them. Rather than looking for another route or even complaining about the one we are on, let us remember whose hands we are in. If I can encourage you, may we stop jumping to the worst conclusion when plans change and believing the most fearful of outcomes when trouble arises and instead remind ourselves of the heart of the One who holds us. The circumstances of the journey are often uncertain, but God’s character is always sure! You have a Keeper, which means you have been, you are, and you will always be kept.