David begins the 122nd Psalm with the words, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to….’”
That opening line gets me thinking: What place on earth might generate such an exclamation from me?
Two places come immediately to mind:
I would rejoice any time someone would say to me, “Let us go to Yosemite National Park.” I feel such a thrill inside of me every time I descend into that valley and catch my first sight again of those amazing peaks and waterfalls. The beauty of that valley makes my senses spring to life and makes my heart leap within me. I have such wonderful memories of hiking to the top of Half Dome (several times), of swimming at the top of Yosemite Falls, of watching deer and bears, of ice skating under stars in winter, and of playing cards under lantern light in the summer. Every time I go there I am flooded with memories from the past, and I am filled with the anticipation of making wonderful new memories.
And I would rejoice if you could say to me, “Let us go back to your parents’ home on Golden Gate Avenue in Oakland, California. When my mom was alive, every trip to our family home was filled with the joy of her love and the delight of her baking. She always welcomed me warmly, telling me that I was “the light of her life and the joy of her heart.” In her later years, she repeated her stories often, but I never minded hearing them again because they were always filled with love and joy and affirmation. Though the house has been sold and gutted and transformed from the home I grew up in, I still get a thrill driving past it because it remains filled with so many wonderful memories.
My reminiscing helps me to understand and appreciate this psalm more fully. David is not referring to Yosemite or my childhood home in this psalm, but the thrill of those places touches on what David has in mind when he sings, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
When we come to the Lord’s house to worship we get the opportunity to behold a beauty that is beyond the natural. We open our souls to something bigger and greater than ourselves. We are filled with anticipation of great things to come. Our senses spring to life, and our hearts leap within us. I think that is a bit of what David had in mind.
And when we come to the Lord’s house to worship, it’s like we are coming home to the One who will welcome us warmly and will assure us that we are the apple of His eye and the joy of His heart. Yes, we might hear some stories over again, but each of those stories is filled with His love for us. Worship connects us afresh with the true source of love in our lives. I think this is also a part of what David had in mind.
Interestingly, the psalm goes on to say, “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.” That may strike us, at first, as a strange comment, but Derek Prince points out, “Now that word translated ‘closely compacted together’ is formed from a root that means, ‘a fellow, a comrade, somebody very close to you.’ It’s one of the most affectionate words describing commitment between two persons that you can find in the Hebrew language. It’s still used that way in modern Hebrew…. The mortar that binds God’s people together in true unity is not doctrine, it’s not the time or the place of a meeting, but it’s that personal commitment, heart-to-heart, that makes each of us fellows, comrades, brothers together, brothers and sisters, members of the same home, members of the same family, committed one to another.”
Part of the life-transforming nature of worship is in how it binds us together with one another. F. Arlin Nave shares one example: “One time, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in a Soviet prison in Siberia, he was exhausted from the hard labor, weak from starvation and suffering from an untreated illness. He felt that he could not go on. He stopped working, knowing that the guards would beat him severely and maybe even kill him. Then, another prisoner, a follower of Christ, took his shovel and in the sand at the feet of Solzhenitsyn drew the sign of the cross and then quickly erased it. Solzhenitsyn says that the hope and courage of the gospel flooded his soul, and it enabled him to hold on. Was he saved by the sign of the cross? Yes! But was he not also saved that day by that caring fellow, a Christian person who cared enough to remind him of hope? Of course.”
Even in a Siberian prison, even with a call to worship that is as brief as a cross traced in the sand then erased almost immediately, life-saving hope can be passed along from one believer to another. No wonder David declares, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
I wish I had greater self-confidence. I wish that I felt certain that I could handle every challenge that comes my way. But the truth is that when struggles mount up against me, I have a tendency to get discouraged and afraid. I look at the problems and they seem huge and intimidating; I look at myself and I find that my weaknesses and incompetencies are glaring.
Where can I look for help?
Psalm 121 tells us, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—He will watch over your soul; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
Psalm 121 seems to have been written for people like me—people who want to know where to turn for help.
For me, I look up at the mountains of problems that overwhelm me, and I wonder: Where can my help come from? For those in ancient Israel at the time this psalm was first sung it was a bit different. They, too, faced immense troubles and fears: Would their crops grow? Would their sheep and goats thrive? Would their families be healthy? Would they be safe on their travels? But they imagined that their help could actually be found in the hills above them.
Eugene Peterson explains, “During the time this psalm was written and sung, Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided; persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil. There were nostrums, protections, spells and enchantments against all the perils of the road. Do you fear the sun’s heat? Go to the sun priest and pay for protection against the sun god. Are you fearful of the malign influence of moonlight? Go to the moon priestess and buy an amulet. Are you haunted by the demons that can use any pebble under your foot to trip you? Go to the shrine and learn the magic formula to ward off the mischief. From whence shall my help come? From Baal? From Asherah? From the sun priest? From the moon priestess?…. A look to the hills for help ends in disappointment. For all their majesty and beauty, for all their quiet strength and firmness, they are, finally, just hills. And for all their promises of safety against the perils of the road, for all the allurements of their priests and priestesses, they are, all, finally, lies. As Jeremiah put it: ‘Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains’ (Jeremiah 3:23).” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 36-37)
This psalm told the people of long ago to look beyond the hills—beyond the counterfeit help they offered—to the One who made the heavens and the earth. And this psalm tells me to look beyond my apparent mountain of troubles to the One who actually made the towering mountain ranges.
Amidst all of our troubles, this psalm invites us turn our eyes toward God, for this psalm describes God as
– The Source of our help (verse 1)
– The Maker of heaven and earth (verse 2)
– One who will not let our foot slip (verse 3)
– One who watches over us without slumbering or sleeping (verses 3-4)
– The One who shades you (verse 5)
– The One who keeps you from all harm (verse 7)
– The One who watches over your coming and going both now and forever (verse 8)
The promise of this psalm is that troubles of this world may come against us but, with God’s help, they will not bring us down. Eugene Peterson argues, “All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside. Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us. that is the promise of the psalm…. ‘The Lord will keep you from all evil.’ None of the things that happen to you, none of the troubles you encounter, have any power to get between you and God, dilute his grace in you, divert his will from you.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 38-39)
Anyone paying attention to the news this week knows that the world is in a mess! More mass shooting murders across our nation, fueled by prejudice and bigotry. Deepening threats of war with Iran. The world’s hottest year on record, stirring up growing anxiety over the dangers of climate change.
What are we to do with our angst over the fears and the troubles that surround us?
For centuries, the Jewish people have identified Psalms 120-134 as the Songs of Ascent, the psalms to be sung by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem. The first of these (Psalm 120) sounds like it was written in response to present-day news coverage. The psalmist speaks of personal distress, of lying lips and deceitful tongues, and of being surrounded by those who hate peace and are for war. The psalmist declares “Woe to me” for living amidst such turbulence.
As gloomy as this psalm may be, it is actually the fitting start for a pilgrimage journey, for the journey toward God begins with the recognition that my world is a mess and with the longing for something better.
In his book about the Songs of Ascent (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction), Eugene Peterson writes, “People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel like they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world-as-it-is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.
“A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.
“Psalm 120 is the song of such a person, sick with the lies and crippled with the hate, a person doubled up in pain over what is going on in the world. But it is not a mere outcry, it is pain that penetrates through despair and stimulates a new beginning—a journey to God which becomes a life of peace.” (p. 22)
This first Song of Ascent expresses the reality of our spiritual lives: The movement toward God begins with a level of disgust over one’s present situation and taking a step in a new direction.
James Colaianni shares, “A number of years ago a man picked up the morning paper, and, to his horror, read his own obituary. The newspaper had reported the death of the wrong man. The caption read: ‘Dynamite King Dies.’ The story identified him as a ‘merchant of death.’ He was the inventor of dynamite and he had amassed a great fortune from the manufacture of weapons of destruction. Moved by this disturbing experience, he radically changed his commitment to life. A healing power greater than the destructive force of dynamite came over him. Thereafter, he devoted his full energy and money to works of peace and human betterment. Today he is best remembered as the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize—Alfred Nobel.”
Charles Krieg writes, “There is a legend that says that once upon a time the angel Gabriel called all the angels together. Each one was asked to visit earth and bring back to heaven the one gift that he thought would be most pleasing to God. One angel saw a martyr dying for the faith—he brought back a drop of his blood. Another brought back a small coin that an old destitute widow had given to the poor. Another returned with a Bible that had been used by an eminent preacher. Still another brought back dust from the shoes of a missionary laboring in a remote wasteland for many years. One angel, however, saw a man sitting by a fountain in a town square. The man was looking at a child playing nearby. The man was a hardened sinner, but looking at the little child playing he remembered his own boyhood innocence. As he looked into the fountain he saw the reflection of his hardened face, he realized what he had done with his life. Now recalling his many sins he was sorry for them. Tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. At that point the angel took one of these tears and brought it back to heaven. And, according to the legend, it was this gift that God chose above all the others as the one most dear to Him, the one that pleased Him most of all.”
The movement toward God begins with a level of disgust over one’s present situation and taking a step in a new direction.