EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE
A sermon on Psalm 121
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 8, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In any list of America’s greatest poets, the name of Walt Whitman usually is among the first to be included. Whitman’s extraordinary use of imagery and language—and subject matter—and his use of free-form meter broke a lot of the conventional boundaries in his day. His poems were revolutionary and he is considered to be one of the greats of the Romantic period of literature. I think that it would also be fair to say that his influence is still keenly felt whenever American poets (or songwriters for that matter) put pen to paper some one hundred twenty years after his death. And the general consensus is that no one has better articulated the essence of the American spirit in poetry than Walt Whitman…
One of Whitman’s best-known poems is “Song of the Open Road.” Like many of his poems, “Song of the Open Road” was one that he worked on and revised a number of times even after it was published….The poem is a summons to have fellow travelers to join him a journey of exploration—to take the road before them and see where it leads—to see new sights and experience new things—to venture out into the unknown together as they travel. “Song of the Open Road” is a really long poem that goes to five pages. In the interest of time, I’m not going to read the whole thing. (Whew!) But I do want to read a few excerpts that have some bearing on today’s text from the book of Psalms:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me.
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
You, road, I enter upon and look around,
I believe that you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages, and objects and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and excellence of things:
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Somewhere there is in the float of sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell…1
There is a superscription at the beginning of Psalm 121 that reads “A Song of Ascents.” No one is really sure exactly what that means. Most scholars have suggested that this title designates the psalm as one to be sung by pilgrims who are traveling to Jerusalem for one of the three annual festivals. It could very well be true. As you know, the city of Jerusalem is located on the top of a mountain. And so, these scholars believe that this song is one of those to be sung as they are “ascending” the mountain. It’s as good a guess as any, I suppose…But the truth is that no one knows for sure.
What is for sure is that this is a psalm of one who is travelling—of one who is on a journey. It is the song of one who desires a blessing from the Lord and rests in the assurance of God’s never-failing grace and mercy as he travels…
Psalm 121 divides into two sections. The first two verses of the psalm form the first unit. In this section, the psalmist is in a dialogue with himself. He begins by asking himself where his help is going to be coming from. He is travelling on the road, and yet, he knows that he does not have the resources within himself that are equal to his needs. He knows that he needs help. And so he asks the question of where he is going to get the guidance that he needs. And then he answers himself by saying that his help is coming from the Lord—the one who made heaven and earth.
There’s an interesting detail that might have caught your attention in verse one when it was read a few moments ago: “I lift my eyes to the hills…” What does that mean? Why would the psalmist look there? Why would the psalmist want to keep his eyes on the hills?…
It could be one of several reasons. Hills, particularly in desolate areas, were known to be places where thieves and robbers would have their hideouts and their base of operations. Back in those days, woe be to the one who is travelling alone and is caught on a deserted road. It was always dangerous—sometimes even when travelling in a caravan. Maybe that’s why he was watching the hills. Or maybe it was something else…
Perhaps the psalmist was looking to the hills as a place of refuge. When caught in a thunderstorm…or a sudden downpour leading to a flash flood…or a sandstorm—none of which were uncommon to the region—a cave in a hill might prove to be a welcome refuge from the elements. So maybe that’s why the psalmist looked to the hills for help in case the weather turned against him…Maybe…Or perhaps there is another reason…
1 www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48859/song-of-the-open-road (Accessed March 5, 2020)
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The Ancient Near East was a time and place when people tended to be very superstitious. For example, in those days, hills and mountains were often thought to be the homes of evil spirits and even of pagan gods. These evil spirits often had unspecified powers that were blamed for a variety of illnesses and misfortunes that caused suffering among the people. And we are told that Baal and Ashtoreth, two pagan Canaanite gods mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament and whose worship plagued the people of Israel for generations, were worshiped on mountains.2 As the psalmist looked up at the hills, perhaps he was fearful that he might become the victim of one of these evil spirits or false gods. Maybe he looked upon the hills as—not a source of safety—but as a threat to his well-being.
But then, whatever the situation—whether it be bandits, storms that he will potentially encounter, or the threat posed by evil spirits or other gods—he calms himself down. How is he able to do that? It is because he is secure in the knowledge that it is the Lord—and the Lord only—who is God. It is God who will protect him from these evil influences. It is God who is ultimately in control. And it is God who will keep him safe while he travels. He has nothing to fear from what may be lurking amongst the hills…or the road ahead…
The second part of Psalm 121 begins in verse three. In this section, the Psalmist speaks with confidence of what the Lord will do for him as he travels. He is secure in the knowledge that God will not let him stumble nor his foot slip. He knows that God is ever-vigilant. God knows what is going on in the lives of those who put their trust in him. Nothing gets past God. Nothing catches God by surprise…
There’s one word in this section that appears over and over in these verses. That is the word “keep.” It occurs six times in these six verses. It says: “He who keeps you will not slumber.” (v.3) “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (v. 4) “The Lord is your keeper.” (v.5) “The Lord will keep you from all evil.” (v. 7) “[The Lord] will keep your life.” (v.7) “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in…” (v.8)
The Hebrew word in each instance is exactly the same. It is the word shâ-mar’. Shâ-mar’ is a word that means “to preserve”…or “to protect”…or “to pay attention to.” It is derived from a word that means “to build a hedge around.” So when the psalmist talks about the Lord “keeping you,” the literal meaning is that the Lord is building a hedge around your life to protect you…
In an ancient agricultural society like Israel, hedges were a familiar feature of the landscape. Hedges were built around gardens, and vineyards, and orchards in order to guard them from thieves or any animals that might want to help themselves to the produce. The hedges also served to protect the workers from being attacked by wild animals when it was harvest season. And hedges protected the
2 For example, see Numbers 22:41 and Jeremiah 32:35.
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garden from the ravages of weather. It acted as a windbreak to protect it. It also shielded it from the damage caused by excessive rain as well.
The meaning is obvious, isn’t it? The psalmist says that the Lord protects those who follow in his ways as a hedge protects a farmer’s field or orchard. Nothing catches the Lord off guard as he leads his children in the way they should go. They can travel their road with confidence that God is watching out for them through all the things that they will encounter in their lives.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to rest in the knowledge that God has built a hedge around their life and that no evil can harm them? Wouldn’t that be great?! But here’s a question I want you to consider: Is it really true? Is that really the way that life works? If what the psalmist says is true about hedges and God’s protection and all, then why do bad things happen to good people? Why is that some of those who do their best to try to live godly lives experience difficult circumstances? Why all the pain? Why all the disappointment?
Perhaps at least part of the answer lies in the second half of verse 5. There the psalmist writes, “The Lord is your shade at your right hand.”
The protective “shade” that God offered to the psalmist—and continues to offer to us—was not an insurance policy that would protect us from ever hurting. Not even close. The promises of Psalm 121 do not mean that we will never be disappointed. They do not make us immune to heartache…or to grief…or to suffering in our lives. Ephesians 2: 10 tells us that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Because when God is our shade, then we are assured of his presence even in the midst of the worst things that we encounter in our lives—that his abiding presence will enable any of us to cope with the adversity we face…and to ultimately triumph over it…We still will hurt and we still will suffer. Make no mistake about that. But we will also be able to endure and we will be able to grow as God continues to use what happens in our lives to make us more mature in him…
That’s the great promise of scripture. It is the promise that the difficulties that we face can be used by God ultimately to our benefit. It doesn’t always seem that way when we are going through them. And it doesn’t always mean that we can see how God is using them in our lives to promote our growth in the life of the Spirit. But the promise of God is that there is a redemptive purpose in the pain and grief that all suffer. Our suffering is NOT for nothing…
We close today with a short mediation on this passage from Sylvia Purdie, a Methodist minister in New Zealand who has written a short mediation of Psalm 121.This mediation is in the form of a back-and-forth dialogue between the words of the psalm…and her own responses to them. She has titled this meditation “The Bodyguard.” It goes like this:
I lift my eyes to the hills…
Really?! What am I hoping for?
Gandalf charging an army down the hill
With the rising sun at his heels
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To slay all my troubles?
The One who watches over you will not let you stumble…
So why is my toe stubbed
And my heart bruised?
The sun will not strike you by day…
But be sure to wear your sunblock
And watch out for melanoma.
The Lord keeps you from all harm…
Is this my fantasy?
A bodyguard God
A Helicopter Parent God
A Bubble-Wrap God?
Doesn’t sound like my God
Doesn’t sound like my life
Or Peter’s, or Paul’s—
“Always carry in the body the death of Jesus,
So that the life of Jesus may also be visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10)3
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Hymn #380 Just a Closer Walk with Thee