One of the things that I love about skiing is the incredible views. As I get off the lift, I look around and see God’s creation. It is majestic. It’s awe-inspiring.
As incredible as they are, the mountains aren’t safe. They can hide what’s right around the next corner. Last weekend I was skiing an unfamiliar slope. Since I’m not a great skier, that always creates a bit of anxiety. I don’t want to get in over my head. While I had skied this run once before and enjoyed it, I still didn’t really know what was coming up. Then the clouds blew in and I couldn’t see more than 25 feet ahead of me. I didn’t know where the steep section or the turn to the left was. I had no idea how many people were ahead of me or behind me. All that to say, I was not a happy camper.
Whether I’m hiking or skiing, when I’m out in the mountains I become more aware of how small I am. I realize how little control I actually have. There, I am forced—albeit reluctantly—to acknowledge my finitude and weakness. I have to embrace my limits.
Psalm 121, which opens with the familiar line “I lift up my eyes to the mountains,” is part of this Sunday’s Lenten readings. It is part of a collection of psalms called the “Songs of Ascent” that came to be associated with Israelite pilgrimages and festivals, particularly the Feast of Tabernacles.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—Psalm 121 (NIV)
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
Scholars don’t agree on what exactly the reference to the mountains is about. Some believe that the speaker was looking at Mount Zion where God’s temple was located as they approached Jerusalem. Others suggest that it relates to the idea that altars were often built on high places. A third group believes that the speaker was looking at the hills around Jerusalem as they were leaving the temple. The mountains hid many dangers for travelers. Basically, no one agrees.
While some may find that a bit unsettling, that uncertainty is actually part of the beauty of poetry. The psalms were written to be used over and over. The time and place could change, but they still hold meaning. The very ambiguity of the reference to the mountains makes this psalm appropriate for a wide variety of occasions and uses!
While the original setting of the psalm may not be clear, that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand it. Here, we have to focus on what we know instead of what we don’t know. And one thing that we can know about this psalm is that there is a strong focus on God’s protection. You can pick up on that with the five references to God watching over you in just a quick reading. Each of these references translates the Hebrew verb šāmār (shamar). In the Hebrew its even a bit stronger. The English version translates verse 7 as
The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life
But the Hebrew uses šāmār in both halves of the line.
The LORD šāmārs you from all harm and šāmārs over your life.
This psalm, then, is an amazing reminder that no matter what the mountains represent for each of us—the majesty of God’s creation, the place of worship, threats, human limitations—our Father is bigger than each of them. He has made the heavens and the earth, even the mountains. He does not sleep. This God is the one who protects us.
How does this psalm tie into Lent as a season of repentance? I’m not an expert on the church calendar, so I’m sure that others can probably give you a better answer. But I can tell you how it has spoken to me as I’m seeking God in this season.
Like skiing, the practices of Lent humble me. They show me my limitations. They draw me back to my own brokenness and need for God. In this place, then, God is using Psalm 121 to speak comfort and reassurance. It is giving me a clearer view of who I am and who God is. It takes away the need to push or compete or pretend to be more than I am. In embracing my limited humanity and His boundless love, I am finding peace—even though the clouds have settled in and obscured my view.
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Image by Jennifer Brown Jones