In early 2008, I was driving on a dirt road in Arizona near the border with Mexico when I had a flat tire as I crossed a dry gully. There was no cellphone signal. In the distance I could see mountains in Mexico. My main concern was that I might be there for hours without seeing anyone friendly if I had difficulty changing the tire.
In Psalm 121, another song that pilgrims to Jerusalem’s temple sang as they travelled there to worship, the psalmist writes, “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” In Derek Kidner’s commentary on this psalm, he wonders whether the writer envisioned rescue arriving from those hills or if he saw them as “menacing,” perhaps the haunt of robbers who might attack. Both those possibilities occurred to me, the second more strongly, as I observed the hills to the south of me. The Israelite psalmist might also have alluded to high places where his countrymen mixed worship of God with that of other deities like Baal and Asherah. The hills, whatever his reference, emphatically were not his source of help. He wrote, and the pilgrims sang,
“My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).
He lifts his eyes, as he and other Israelites (and early Christians – see 1 Timothy 1:1-2) did when they prayed to God. He needed help, and nervous pilgrims traveling through wilderness areas might well have thought they needed help, too. They would have taken comfort in theme of this psalm – God keeps his people safe. The Lord is the worshiper’s keeper (verse 5), the shade that protects from the sun. The Lord is not a watchman who falls asleep and endangers those under his care:
“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:3-4).
God’s protection extends beyond physical protection of his people. We pray with confidence in his love, his reliability, and his power. We trust that he will help us overcome evil:
“The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:7-8).
Some Christians today risk encountering danger when they travel to worship, whether in an urban center with a high crime rate, or an isolate rural mountainous setting with treacherous roads, or in some parts of the world – neighbors who are hostile to Christianity. As they pray for safety and security, they and we should remember this psalm about the God who keeps his people secure as they go from place to place. This psalm, not a prayer, assumes prayer and the conditions that provoke us to pray with urgency.
As I opened the trunk to my car to pull out the spare tire and jack on that isolated dirt road in Arizona, one of the people to whom I was travelling to preach drove up. He jumped out of his vehicle and, much more proficiently that I would have, quickly removed the flat tire and replaced it. I thanked him, and thanked the Lord for providing this answer to my earlier prayer.
• Quotations of the Bible are from the English Standard Version
O God, you love your pilgrim people. We travel as strangers through our lives, spiritual migrants searching for our eternal home. We pray as we travel that you will guide us and keep us safe. Like the psalmist, we remember that you are our refuge and our trustworthy Savior. Thank you, Lord, for your love, and for providing ways of escape when we fear most. In Jesus’ name, amen.