Psalm 121 is part of a wonderful mini collection within the Psalter known as the Songs of Ascents. It is a collection of fifteen psalms from Psalm 120 to 134. These are the pilgrim psalms that were sung by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem.
Psalm 121, along with all others in this collection, is very helpful for us during this time of national and global crisis with the coronavirus. It envisions the people of God traveling through a dangerous, hostile, and arduous trek from their home up to Jerusalem when they would enter the gates with joy and worship the true and living God. The national call to social distancing and the restrictions on travel, and the very real dangers of this disease, have created considerable anxiety across the world. We are on an unknown journey with unforeseen challenges.
The opening verse of Psalm 121 is one of the most familiar verses in Scripture, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The hills and mountains of the ancient world had two connotations in the Old Testament—one of fear and anxiety; the other, inspiration and awe. Traveling was a source of fear and danger in the ancient world, especially traveling through hills and mountains. Robbers would hide in the midst of the ragged rocks on those very sacred, pilgrim paths to rob and harm people. It was a real fear. Remember the setting of the parable of the good Samaritan was the very trip from Jerusalem down to Jericho, which was so dangerous that the traveler was beaten, robbed, and left half dead.
But, in Scripture, hills and mountains are also signs of God’s beautiful creation, his awesome power, his steadfast solidity, and his glorious majesty. Let’s keep both of these views of mountains in mind for a few moments.
Today, there is great anxiety about where things are going in terms of this COVID-19 health crisis that has engulfed the world. The news coverage of the Coronavirus has been overwhelming. Other stories have been pushed off the headlines and this has dominated the news. One of the most dominant images is the famous COVID-19 curve that shows the rise of the disease, its spread, its spike in transmission infection rate, and eventually the end of the virus. We don’t know exactly where we are in the curve or when we will crest it and begin to get to the other side of it. You hear a lot of talk about “flattening the curve,” i.e. to make this mountain smaller. You see, looking at the ever-growing number of transmissions of COVID-19 across our land, they are going up and up each day. It looks like a very high mountain. We are hiking up this mountain together as a community—like pilgrims—but we don’t even know how high this mountain is. We wonder if we can get over it. We have anxiety about whether this invisible enemy might reach out from behind some craggy rock (or maybe from an unsuspecting cough or a solid surface that has not been deep cleaned) and cause us harm. When we see the curve go up and up we wonder if the pathogen might strike down someone we love, or even ourselves.
In the midst of fear and possible unseen danger, like the coronavirus, Psalm 121 delivers the decisive answer: My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth! What a great and bold declaration. I also love how this psalm gives us a beautiful verb to describe God’s action—what he does in this time of fear, anxiety, and danger. The verb in the Hebrew is shamar. It is used in verse 3, verse 4, verse, 5, twice in verse 7, and finally in verse 8 (six times in eight verses). Some translations use a range of words like “keep” and “watch” and “guard,” but it is the same word all six times. When the Bible says that God “keeps” you, it means that in his sovereignty he has the power to keep you from some danger, he can deliver you from or out of any particular danger which you may face. But “keep” can also mean that he keeps you through danger—he walks with you in the midst of danger. Remember that other familiar psalm . . . “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because you are with me.” He walks with us through the valley or “over the mountain.” I will fear no evil, for you are with me. God will sustain you through this time.
The church has faced this before, especially during the great plagues such as the black death. Martin Luther once wrote to a friend about the plague, which was raging in Europe in the sixteenth century and this is what he said—which I think is a good word for us:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it . . .” (we would say, I shall wash my hands, keep social distance, and not touch my eyes). Luther goes on . . . “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance to inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence . . .” (this is Luther’s version of social distancing and not going on Spring break to Florida beaches). Luther goes on . . . “If my neighbor needs me, I shall not avoid either place or person, but will go freely.” We are never exempted from service; we cannot just pass by on the other side if a neighbor is in need. Finally, Luther concludes . . . “If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me.” This reminds us that our lives are always in his hands. He is our keeper and if he chooses to take me, I am ready to go because, brothers and sisters, there is no COVID-19 in heaven. There is no coronavirus in the presence of God. That is the gospel.
I want to conclude by returning to the opening question, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?”
We want to return to those other mountains—the mountains that inspire hope and presence and power. I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? This is the central question in the midst of fear, of CDC reports, of someone coughing in your presence, of social distancing. The psalmist sees through the eyes of faith that there is something—no not something, he sees that there is someone greater than the hills and mountains. God’s presence is what transforms every mountain, whether the mountain of fear or the awe-inspiring mountains of his day or ours. You see, for our Jewish forefathers and foremothers, God met his people on mountains, didn’t he?
God met Abraham on Mt. Moriah and provided the sacrificial substitute for Isaac: Jehovah Jireh and the birth of substitutionary atonement in the midst of a great crisis. God met Moses on Mt. Sinai where there were flashes of lightening, and the earth trembled, and God gave Moses both the Law and promises.
God met Elijah on Mt. Carmel and revealed himself as the true and living God, not like the idols of the nations. There is no greater crisis than a nation that trusts in idols. Jesus met us on the Mount of Beatitudes and taught us the ways of the kingdom. Jesus met us on the Mount of Transfiguration and revealed at the very threshold of his passion and suffering, his coming glory. Finally, in the greatest act of all, Jesus climbed Mt. Calvary for us. There in the midst of suffering he revealed his greatest glory right there on Golgotha. If the cross teaches us anything it is that God sometimes does his greatest work under a cloak of failure.
We are facing the mountain of coronavirus. We don’t know how high it is or how long it will take to get to the other side of it. What we do know is that there is someone greater than the mountains—even this mountain we are facing now—because he walks with us. He can flatten any mountain. He can quell every fear. He can help us to live and act with wisdom. We can face hard things because we are not alone. He transforms every mountain; he is here. God requisitions all things for his purposes, even as we bear witness to his sufferings in the world. God will use even this pandemic to reveal his purposes, declare his glory, and draw people to himself.