Psalm 121: High Places

I lift up my eyes to the mountains –

    where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

    the Maker of heaven and earth.

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Psalm 121

Inspired by Jack and Victor (a cultural reference that I appreciate may be lost on some) we took the bus from Buchanan Street to Tarbet. There we picked up the boat, sailed across the loch to the ‘bonnie, bonnie banks’ on the other side and began our ascent of Ben Lomond. It was a blisteringly hot day, the Trossachs felt more like Tuscany. When we reached the summit there was a real sense of achievement, having bagged our first ever ‘Munro’. Tablet and water had sustained us on the way up but on the summit we sat down with coffee and sandwiches and took in the stunning scenery. The Gaelic rock group Runrig sang ‘Mountains are holy places and beauty is free’. But there is another side. A few years previously we had set out to tackle the Quiraing on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach. It’s a fairly popular climb and not too difficult, but somewhere we took a wrong turn, headed right instead of left and found ourselves walking along a very narrow, exposed ridge. At that point the weather turned, the clouds descended, the wind picked up and the heavens absolutely opened. We retraced our steps and headed down the slope, but it was scary. Each year there are people who die climbing mountains or walking hills.

High places can be beautiful but they can be fearful. They can be inspiring but they can be threatening. We don’t know how the pilgrims felt as they journeyed up towards Jerusalem but there may well have been times when they looked up to the hills and were filled with wonder and other times when they looked up and were filled with worry.  ‘Where does my help come from?’ The question may be rhetorical, inspired by the grandeur of nature or it may arise from anxiety. Either way the pilgrim need not be gripped by fear or stupefied by beauty, those experiences lead the psalmist to confess ‘My help comes from YHWH, the Maker of heaven and earth’. Whether we are blown away by beauty or frozen by fear, the God of the Exodus is the one who we can depend upon, he is the Beauty behind beauty and the one who can deliver us from all our fears.

The following verses (vv. 3–8) may be the pilgrim talking to himself and reminding himself of God’s truth (as in Psalm 42:5), or perhaps they may have been spoken by others, fellow travellers or those waving him goodbye. We need to remind ourselves of who God is and why we can trust him, and we also can encourage others to do the same. Kidner writes that these verses are ‘an ever expanding circle of promise’. Ancient pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem or modern pilgrims on the road of life are promised that God will not let them fall (v. 3). His care and vigilance are constant. When Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel he mocked them asking whether Baal was napping (1 Kings 18:27) – unlike the pagan deities, the living God never sleeps. Pilgrims are promised that God keeps constant watch, 24/7, 365 days a year (and more in leap years), and all the ‘you’s in this Psalm are personal. They’re addressed to us as individuals.

The sun can be an enemy, causing not just exhaustion and fatigue, but heatstroke – leading to confusion, slurred speech, delirium, even death. The moon is mentioned not just as a counterbalance but also because a bright moon could make travellers more visible to bandits. But either by night or by day God’s protection is assured. That doesn’t mean the path is easy but it does mean God is with us. Something of that is captured in a song that we used to sing:

When the road is rough and steep / Fix your eyes upon Jesus / He alone has power to keep / Fix your eyes upon Him; Jesus is a gracious Friend / One on whom you can depend / He is faithful to the end / Fix your eyes upon Him.

The concluding verses of the Psalm are often heard at funerals. They have a much wider application than our dying, but it’s good to know that the God who watches over every daily path is the one who watches over our final ‘going out’ and who welcome us home into his kingdom.