The Lord Our Protector
Passage: Psalm 121:1–121:8
The Lord Our Protector
One of the Bible’s favorite ways to speak of the Christian life is with the image of a pilgrimage. God’s people are like pilgrims in this world. Scripture tells us that this world is not our home, and so by faith, we have set out together on the road to the heavenly city, the far green country of God’s promised land. This pilgrimage is undertaken by faith, though it began solely by grace. That’s the identity of every pilgrim – of every believer. This world is not our home because God himself has chosen us and rescued us by his grace. He has adopted us as his children, and that means we belong to another kingdom. All throughout the Bible – from Exodus to 1 Peter, from the Psalms to the book of Hebrews, and especially in the book of Revelation – all throughout the Bible, this image is key. Christians are on the road of faith, journeying through this world on our way to the heavenly city.
But if you’ve been on a road trip before, you know that any time you’re traveling, there is a certain sense of danger. Will I make it safely to my destination? What kind of trouble will I encounter? I remember once taking a road trip in the mountains of Peru. The mountains were very high – over 10,000 feet. The roads had no guardrails, and our bus driver was apparently trying to set the speed record for our trip. He was flying around those mountain curves, and I thought, “Well, this is my last road trip ever.” You may have some similar stories about trips you’ve taken, and that’s my point. We can all relate to the dangers of being on the road.
And that same sense of danger can also describe the Christian life. We’re on the road of faith, and yet with each step, we face a new danger. With each step, there is something else that could derail us. It might be the sinful struggles of our hearts, or it could be unexpected hardships of this world. All around us, there are mortal ills prevailing, as we sang earlier. One misstep, it seems, and we’re done for.
And so, one of the most important questions for us as Christians is this – Where can we find help as we walk the road of faith? Where can we look for protection from the dangers and pitfalls that lurk along the way? Our passage this morning answers precisely that question. Psalm 121 is part of the Songs of Ascent – you can see the title there in your Bibles. These psalms – from Psalm 120 to 134 – where sung as God’s people journeyed up to Jerusalem each year for worship. Since Jerusalem was elevated above the surrounding countryside, you had to climb up to the city, hence the Songs of Ascent. As God’s people journeyed to worship the Lord at this temple, they would sing these songs. And this psalm in particular – Psalm 121 – is fitting for such a journey. You might even say Psalm 121 is the Pilgrim’s Song. It’s a song for those who are on the road of faith.
And that gets to the psalm’s purpose. Here we find the answer to that question we asked a moment ago. The aim of this passage is to teach God’s people where to look when faced with life’s dangers. The psalmist shows us how the road of faith is to be traveled, and where our help is found. In fact, that idea of help is a good way to think about the text. In vv1-2, the psalmist directs his gaze to the Source of his Help, and then in remaining verses, the psalmist meditates on the Nature of this Help. Let’s follow that breakdown in our study of God’s Word.
The Source of our Help
The psalm begins in vv1-2 with the writer declaring that the Source of his Help is God Alone. You get a sense of the psalm’s tone right away in v1. The psalmist is on the road, and he looks up at the daunting mountains that mark his path, v1 – “I life up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” Now, since we live in an age with all sorts of conveniences, we might be prone to overlook the difficulty contained in v1. For an ancient traveller, mountains were a daunting prospect. Not only would hills be difficult to climb, but they also often hid many dangers. Bandits and thieves would lurk in the hills, and there would be ravines and cliffs waiting to swallow up your wayward step. When the psalmist says he looks up at the hills, he’s not merely enjoying the scenery. He’s facing up to the fact that this journey is beyond his strength! Where is the psalmist’s protection on such a road?
Notice the quick, clear answer the psalmist declares, v2 – “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That verse may be brief, but the psalmist packs a world of truth about God into those few words. Notice the name the psalmist uses here – he calls God ‘the LORD.’ Your Bible probably has it in all capital letters. That’s the covenant name of God. Remember when Moses stood before the burning bush and God said his name was ‘I am who I am’? That’s the name used here. The psalmist uses God’s covenant name.
And this covenant name speaks to God’s faithfulness. This is the name by which God was known to his chosen people. When an Israelite saw this name, he would immediately think of all the ways God had been faithful to call and keep his people. And that’s part of the point here in v2. The psalmist’s help is not simply from God, but from the LORD – the God of faithfulness who keeps his covenant.
But you’ll notice also that the psalmist then just as quickly describes the LORD as the One who made heaven and earth. Creation is added to covenant, isn’t it? The Source of the psalmist’s strength is the Creator. Think about how fitting this is for what the psalmist faces. He’s looking up at those daunting hills, where danger lurks and pitfalls await. But then the psalmist reminds himself, “I serve the God who made those hills. And if my Lord made all that exists, then there is nothing too hard for him to do. There is nothing I might meet in those hills that will surprise my Protector. God will keep me because everywhere I walk belongs to him.”
Brothers and Sisters, I’d say that these two truths – Covenant and Creator – are foundational for our confidence as we walk the road of faith. Yes, there are dangers lurking all around, especially in uncertain times like we currently face. And yet, to whom do we belong? We belong to the God of the Covenant – the One who has bound himself in faithfulness to his people. He will keep his Word, which means he will keep us. And our Covenant Lord is also the Creator – the One who made everything we see and even the things we don’t see, like the miniscule world microbiology. If he made it, then he can protect us through it. If he made it, then he controls it. And that means whatever we meet in the hills, it comes from the hand of our sovereign God.
And so, I don’t mean to sound simplistic here, but I do mean to remind us of the simplicity of walking by faith. Where do we look for help? We look to our Covenant-Keeping, Creation-Controlling God. He is the source of our help. He alone is our sovereign shelter.
But you’ll notice that the psalm shifts in v3. This is striking to me. Notice how the psalmist shifts from the first person in vv1-2 to the second person in v3 and following. Do you see it? In vv1-2, the psalmist speaks of my help, but then in v3, he starts saying your help, your keeper. What is going on here?
I’d say the psalmist is preaching to himself. While he’s just declared that God is his help, he still needs to work that truth down into his heart. And so, the psalmist preaches to his own soul. He takes the truth of God’s character, and the psalmist breaks it down and applies it more specifically to his journey.
The Nature of our Help
This is a picture of faith in action. We remember the truth, but we’re not passive with it. No, we preach that truth down into our hearts, so that faith springs up. And that’s what happens here in vv3-8. Having declared the source of his help, the psalmist now reflects on the Nature of Help that God provides. What kind of protector does the Lord turn out to be? That’s what the psalmist is preaching here, and he highlights a few comforting truths.
First of all, the psalmist declares that the Lord is unceasingly watchful. Notice v3 – “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” As the psalmist walks along the mountain road, there will be any number of opportunities to fall along the way. And so, the psalmist reminds himself that the Lord will not let his foot be moved. Do you see the very specific, very attentive nature of the Lord’s help here? It’s not simply that God will guard our way. It’s that God watches over every step. It’s purposeful, brothers and sisters. The Lord watches over those who trust him, and he watches over them down to the smallest detail.
I take great comfort in this – the fact that God’s care is not confined to the big events of life, but instead extends down to the solitary steps we take. Listen, when you’re living through a crisis where your enemy is an unseen, microscopic foe, isn’t comforting to know that God is watchful over the smallest details, even the little steps of life? I would say so. This is what we call the doctrine of God’s providence, and it is worked out with meticulous depth. The Lord is watching over his people, even down to their steps.
And yet, what if something slips past the Lord? Yes, he’s meticulous and careful, but he has so many people to watch. What if something slips past him? Worse, what if he just gets tired and needs a break? Not so, says the psalmist. Listen again v3 and into v4, and notice the unceasing nature of God’s care – “he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Brothers and sisters, God doesn’t need any time off. He never grows tired, and nothing slips past him. He’s always watching, and he never falls asleep at his post. God’s protection is unceasingly consistent.
In fact, the psalmist here in vv3-4 wants us to understand that God’s watchful care applies both to his people as a whole and to you as an individual. Notice how vv3-4 are very similar – both affirm that God never sleeps or slumbers. But there is one difference. Do you see it? In v4, God keeps Israel, while in v3, God keeps you.
Brothers and sisters, there is again a wealth of comfort in that small difference. God will not let his people fail. The gates of hell will not prevail against his church. He will gather all the redeemed on the last day, and he will receive their corporate praise. The Lord is keeping his people.
And the psalmist, says, the Lord is keeping you. Notice the personal, specific nature of God’s care. For those who belong to God through faith in Christ, there is this two-fold promise that delivers profound comfort – God is watching over his church, and he’s watching over me as well. The Lord is unceasingly watchful.
Next, the psalmist declares that the Lord is powerfully present. Look at v5, and catch the nearness of the Lord. V5 – “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.” Where is the Lord in relationship to his people? He’s so near that his people walk in his shadow. He’s by their side, in other words. Or, as the psalmist says, he is the shade at their right hand.
God’s protection is not distant from us. The Lord doesn’t have our lives on a radar screen, and when danger comes, he has to call in protection from some far off base. No, the Lord is on the road with his people. The shade we walk under is the shade of his presence. He’s near us, at our right hand.
But what if we don’t feel like the Lord is near? What if it doesn’t seem like he is at our right hand? What do I do then? You do what the psalmist does here. You preach the truth to yourself. You go to the Scriptures, you fix your gaze on the character of God, and then you preach your soul into the truth. It might sound neurotic, but you talk to yourself – “Listen, soul, I know you don’t feel the presence of the Lord, but the Scriptures do not lie. God is near, so near that he is the shade at my right hand. I am walking now in the shadow of the Lord’s care.”
Do you preach to yourself like that? This is a practice that I am trying to cultivate more in my life. I want to stop listening to myself so much, and start preaching to myself more. How about you? Even when you don’t feel the Lord’s presence, follow the psalmist’s example. Remind yourself, on the basis of God’s Word, that the Lord is near.
And then notice how powerfully protective the Lord’s shade is for his people, v6 – “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Since God is the Creator who never sleeps, this world poses no threat. Whether it be the scorching sun of the day or the hidden dangers of the night, the Lord is near. He is powerfully present, watching over those who bear his name.
And that brings the psalmist to his conclusion. In vv7-8, we see the last piece on the nature of God’s help – the Lord is unfailingly good. V7, I would say, is the most challenging verse of the psalm. Listen again – “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” Now, what does the psalmist mean – the Lord will keep you from all evil? Is he saying that the believer will be free from hardship for the entirety of his life? Is he saying that the road of faith is always smooth with no potholes or roadblocks? No – that’s not what the psalmist is saying. The entire course of Scripture, you might say, is preparing God’s people for the fact that trials will come – hardships are certain. Even here in the Psalms, we see it over and over – God’s people are often hard pressed on every side.
What does the psalmist mean – the LORD will keep you from all evil? He’s speaking in the ultimate, or we might say, eternal sense. Those who belong to God by faith will not be ultimately destroyed. Their souls will not be eternally crushed and lost. God will keep his people to the end. He will deliver them safely into the heavenly city. Yes, there will be trials along the way, but those trials, like the apostle says in 1 Peter 1, only serve to purify our faith, revealing its genuineness, which is more precious than gold.
We might say it this way, brothers and sisters. God does not promise to keep us from all trials, but he does promise to keep us through every trial. And listen, that’s a promise that will sustain your faith. When you know that all of life is ordered according to the good providence of a wise heavenly Father, then you can stand firm in his care. You can endure the hardship, knowing that God himself is leading you into his kingdom.
In fact, that picture of God leading his people is where the psalm ends. Notice again v8 – “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this forth and forevermore.” Now, on the one hand, v8 is saying something very similar to v3. God watches over each aspect of our lives – both our going out and our coming in. His care is unceasingly consistent.
But there is another sense to v8, and this is where I’d like us to conclude. That phrase going out and coming in in often used in the OT to describe those who lead God’s people. Joshua, for example in Numbers 27, is appointed to replace Moses, to lead the people going out and coming in. But here’s the wonderful point. Why was Joshua appointed to lead God’s people? So that they would not be like sheep without a shepherd. Joshua would shepherd the people through all their going out and coming in.
When the psalmist speaks here in v8 of the LORD keeping us through the going out and coming in, do you know what he has in view? He’s thinking of what Psalm 23 so memorably declares – that the Lord is my shepherd. This is our great confidence in the Christian life – it’s that God himself has come to shepherd us along the road of faith. God himself has come to lead us into the far green country of his kingdom. That’s the kind of care he provides, brothers and sisters – not a distant security guard, but a compassionate Shepherd who is near, at our right hand even.
And of course, nowhere do we see this aspect of God’s care more clearly than in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s incredible really. Through the eyes of faith, Psalm 121 calls us to look away from those daunting hills and to see the one who ascended Calvary’s hill in our place. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of the sheep. He is the One who brings all the Lord’s protection down to us in flesh and blood.
I don’t know what the days ahead will hold. But I do know that our Lord – Jesus Christ – is unceasingly watchful. He is powerfully present. And he is unfailingly good. May our hearts be hopeful in him, and may our lips be quick to tell the world where our hope and help is found. Amen.