For a long time Psalm 121 has been one of my favorite psalms. I used to think the opening was lovely and inspiring “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills. Whence cometh my help? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” I still think it’s inspiring, but in a more “Yikes, let’s get real!” kind of way. Because the hills are seen as places of danger. Ambushers, avalanches and wild animals come down from the hills. So when the psalmist is looking up to the hills, it’s more like “I lift up mine eyes to the (dangerous) hills. Where is my help going to come from on this journey?” The psalmist, perhaps embarking on a pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem, is asking who will be with him in the unknown dangers that lurk in the hills and crags that line the path he’s walking along?
Rather than a monologue, this psalm seems to be a dialogue between an anxious traveler about to embark on a journey and a nameless reassurer. Verse 2 rather than “My help comes…,” might be better rendered simply “Help comes…”
The reassurer answers the psalmist’s anxious opening question: “Who is traveling with me?”
The George W. Bush Presidential Center is opening at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where I teach later this week. President Obama is making the journey here. So are all the living presidents and many dignitaries. There will be a total of around 45 protectees coming to campus. These are people who travel with protection. What about you and me? We’re not famous, probably, but when we travel, who do we take along?
A few weeks ago I took my Narrative Preaching Class at Perkins School of Theology to the Temerlin Advertising Institute across the campus of SMU at the Meadows School of the Arts. Professor Carrie La Ferle was kind enough to offer a lecture on the similarities between advertising and preaching. She said, “Some companies lie about their product. If you have to lie about your product, spend some research money and improve it. If you have a good product, you don’t need to lie about it.” Our Christian faith, informed by the treasures of the Old Testament, is a good product. We don’t have to lie. We don’t have to oversell it. When we do, that’s called the “prosperity gospel.” I don’t have to lie and give people a superficial, “God is my bubble wrap” version of Psalm 121.
The reassurer in the psalm answers the question for the anxious traveler: Who is traveling with me? The psalm promises that God is our keeper. The Hebrew word to keep (shamar) shows up 450 times in the Hebrew Bible. It has varying nuances of caring for flocks, guiding (as the angel of the Lord guided the Israelites through the wilderness in Ex 23:20) and guarding, as Proverbs 2:11 and 4:6 promise that wisdom will deliver the seeker from evil and temptation.
Who is traveling with you? The psalm doesn’t promise that no dangers will strike. It does pledge that God will cover us in the shadow of God’s wings for recovery and relief (verses 5,6)and that God walks on our right side where a counsel or protector would stand (Ps 121:5; Ps 16:8; 109:31)
Who is traveling with you? The psalm describes One who is not a sleeper. God will never say, as we approach, “Sorry, I’m on break right now.” or the dreaded, “This register is closed.”
A glib promise of protection on life’s path never flies, but especially not in this week of bombings, plant explosions and earthquakes. But the promise of a traveling companion who will keep your “life” (nephesh), who will keep your going out and coming in from this time on and forevermore- that is much more than a glib promise. That is the testimony of our faith. It means that, while danger and even death may strike, God won’t let it destroy our essential being or our relationship with God (our nephesh). It means that loved ones who have died are with God and that God is with the injured as they find their way again.
I’m not suggesting this as a sermon to the freshly bereaved. I’m suggesting it as a reminder to those of us who comfort them: some thoughts to hold in our hearts as we hold them in our arms.
As we do so, we embody the answer to theirs and the psalmist’s question “Who is traveling with me?”