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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:Pilgrim saints, trust Yahweh your God on the way!
Text:Psalms 121 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world
 
Preached:2015
Added:2015-12-02
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Hymn 44

Psalm 130 (after the law)

Psalm 23

Psalm 121

Psalm 124

Scripture reading:  Psalms 120-122

Text:  Psalm 121

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

This Psalm is loved by many people.  It is often used at special occasions like funerals.  Psalm 121 really connects with people – in its power to comfort and encourage, it’s a lot like Psalm 23.  For many believers, Psalm 121 is a favourite. 

It’s a Psalm that speaks to us as we face challenges on our journey of life.  It speaks of our need for help as we make our way through this world.  It speaks of potential dangers.  Things like feet slipping and losing their grip, or being struck down by nature, or facing evil and harm.  This Psalm is about believers moving through a real world and facing real concerns.  Even if you’re not facing weighty concerns right now, some day you quite likely will.  Then it’s to this Psalm that you can turn for comfort and encouragement. 

One of the most important keys to understanding this Psalm is the title.  It is “A Song of Ascents.”  It’s a song for ascending, for going up somewhere.  Going up where, you ask?  Going up to the temple in Jerusalem for the three appointed feasts.  The people of Israel would come from all over the land and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for feasts like Pentecost.  Wherever they came from, they spoke of going up to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is in the Judean hills.  In Jerusalem itself, the temple was on Mount Zion.  So you went up, you ascended to the feasts and these songs were written for those travelling to these feasts.  These are songs for pilgrims travelling on the way.

Psalm 121 is the second of these pilgrim songs.  There’s some logic in the way they’ve been organized in the Book of Psalms.  We read from the first three, with Psalm 121 in the middle.  Psalm 120 is the first “Song of Ascents.”  In this Psalm, the believer is lamenting the fact that he has distress from someone causing him trouble.  Not only that, but he’s sojourning in Meschech and dwelling in Kedar – these places are far away from the Promised Land; Meschech was near the Black Sea and Kedar is in the Arabian desert.  So with Psalm 120, we’re way out from Jerusalem.  But with Psalm 121, we’re on the way.  This psalm has the believer on his journey to the holy city.  Then with Psalm 122, the believer has arrived.  He sees Jerusalem and he is glad to be there, rejoicing.  For our purposes, we need to see that Psalm 121 is in the middle.  It’s the song about the journey, the song for the way.  In the sermon, we’ll hear the message of this song for us.  It’s this:  Pilgrim saints, trust Yahweh your God on the way!        

We’ll consider why.  It’s because he is:

  1. Always powerful
  2. Always watchful
  3. Always present
  4. Always faithful

The psalm begins with the believer lifting up his eyes to the hills.  We’re to imagine him at the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem.  He’s faced with an uphill walk.  It’s going to be physically hard – I think hills and I think of the burning sensation you get in your muscles when you’re climbing a steep hill and afterwards.  But there’s more than that.  Back in the days of the Old Testament, the hills were dangerous places.  The hills were where criminals hid out.  If you were travelling through the hills, you might encounter violent robbers.  Wild animals also made their homes in the hills.  You had to be concerned about lions and bears.  But as you travelled through the hills, there were also spiritual dangers and temptations.  Idol worship was often found on the tops of hills.  This happened even amongst the people of Israel.  For instance, in 1 Kings 14:23, we read about what happened during the reign of Rehoboam:  the people worshipped Asherah “on every high hill and under every green tree.”  As you face the dangers that come with travelling through the hills, the temptation would be there to call on idols to protect you.  The hills were therefore spiritually dangerous as well as physically dangerous and demanding.  The pilgrimage was filled with these challenges.

The pilgrim needs help to find his way through these challenges.  He asks, “From where does my help come?”  Who is going to give me the assistance and support I need for this hard and dangerous journey?

The answer to that question comes in verse 2, “My help comes from the LORD (Yahweh), who made heaven and earth.”  This is the confession of the believer.  Here the Holy Spirit wants to put these words in the hearts and on the lips of every single one of God’s people, saying this for themselves individually:  My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.”  Let’s unpack this.  Why is it a help to remind yourself of this truth about God?

First of all, note that LORD here is in all capital letters.  That means that this is God’s personal name Yahweh.  This speaks of God’s covenant relationship with believers.  Yahweh is the help of the psalmist because there’s a relationship of fellowship between them.  Yahweh is not neutral or indifferent with regard to the psalmist, no, he’s on his side.  Yahweh is his God.  Yahweh has the believer firmly in his loving hands.

Second, Yahweh is the one who has made heaven and earth.  He is the Creator of all things.  That speaks of his mighty power.  If your God is the one who created absolutely everything in the universe, isn’t your God powerful?  Isn’t he the one more powerful than any danger that you’re going to face in the hills?  Isn’t he then also the one who can give you strength for the journey so that you can arrive safely at your destination?  The Psalm is saying:  pilgrims, trust Yahweh your God for the journey, because he is always powerful! 

As Christians, we’re all on a pilgrimage as well.  No, we’re not on our way to an earthly Jerusalem and a physical temple.  Instead, we’re on the way to the heavenly Jerusalem, we’re on our way to the new creation.  In that new creation, heaven will come down to earth and the whole earth will become the temple of God.  That’s the destination of our journey.  The journey is hard, it’s demanding in many ways.  There are countless dangers, toils, and snares, as the hymn Amazing Grace puts it.  Like pilgrims of old, we’re tempted to find strength in idols.  This Psalm points us in the right direction:  your help is from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.  Trust in him – find strength from him for your journey.  You can trust him because he is Yahweh – your help.  He is your covenant God.  Through Jesus Christ, you have a relationship of fellowship with the all-powerful Creator of the universe.

Think of your Saviour Jesus for a moment.  Think of his pilgrimage on this earth.  He even made his way up to Jerusalem for the appointed feasts, following the pattern of generations of believers before him.  But there was one occasion when he faced a special temptation on the journey.  He was going up to Jerusalem to die.  He could have turned away, but he didn’t.  Instead, he prayed to Yahweh, the one who made heaven and earth.  Hebrews 5:7 says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death…”  Your Saviour called out to the One who made heaven and earth.   Hebrews goes on to say that he was heard.  Now how is that relevant for us?  There are two things we need to see. 

First of all, the confession in verse 2 of Psalm 121 is not merely encouragement.  The confession here is not optional, as if some believers can choose to say this while others might not feel so inclined and that would be okay.  No, listen:  God’s law demands that we find our only help in him alone.  That’s the First Commandment:  have no other gods but Yahweh.  Find all your help and strength in him alone.  Our Lord Jesus fulfilled this perfectly in his life.  He is the one who can take verse 2 on his lips and say, “I did this every waking moment of my life.”  I always trusted Yahweh as my help.  He did that for us.  It was in our place – his obedience is accounted to us before God.  Moreover, his death on the cross has also secured forgiveness for pilgrims who have sometimes wandered off the path.  When we’ve given into temptations to find help elsewhere, we are forgiven when we repent and turn to what Christ has done on the cross. 

Then verse 2 takes on new relevance for us as believers.  That’s the second thing we need to see.  We are united to Christ by faith and through the Holy Spirit.   Since he was faithfully dependent on God and made this good confession consistently, we desire to do the same.  We pray to do the same.  We strive to do the same.  Because we are in Christ, we Christian pilgrims have all the more reason to look upwards to the almighty Creator and trust him as we make our way through this world en route to the heavenly Jerusalem. 

When we get to verse 3, we find more reasons to trust our God on the way.  Notice how the Psalm switches from the first person to the second person.   In verses 1 and 2, it’s “I” and “my,” but after verse 3, we switch to “you” and “your.”  The psalmist is speaking directly to his fellow pilgrims now.  That reminds us of something important about the psalms.  We often think of the Psalms as being songs to God, most often praise, but sometimes also laments.  But many of the Psalms feature God’s people encouraging one another.  This is why in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the apostle Paul writes about “addressing one another” with Psalms.  The Psalms are intended for that purpose.  The Psalms are meant to be sung to God, but also for Christians to sing to one another.  And here in verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 121, the Psalmist is reminding his fellow travellers of something important about Yahweh their God. 

The Creator of heaven and earth has the feet of his children in his power.  As they travel over the hills, they encounter slippery and rocky terrain.  I used to be a missionary in British Columbia.  Back in those days, I once tried to climb a nearby mountain along with with our son Josiah, who was about 5 or 6 years old at the time.  We had to climb up this slope – there was all this loose rock on a very steep slope.  We just couldn’t manage it.  It was a bit dangerous going up and still more dangerous coming down.  You can find that type of terrain in Israel too.  In fact, I found this warning in a travel guide, “It is advisable to stick to the paths since independent-minded ramblers have been known almost to get themselves killed clambering down slippery scree slopes.”  The hills can be dangerous – you can lose your footing and go for a deadly tumble.  But the psalmist tells us that Yahweh will not let the feet of pilgrims slip and fall.  He’s watching over them.

Moreover, he’s always watchful.  “He who keeps you will not slumber.”  You have the LORD with you as your guardian.  He’s keeping an eye out for dangers.  If you were travelling through the hills and had to spend a night, you and your companions would take turns watching for trouble.  But there would always be the possibility that somebody would get drowsy and fall asleep.  But that’s not going to happen with Yahweh.  He is always watching out for you.  Verse 4 says that he’s the watcher over Israel as a corporate whole, and he’s also the watcher or guardian of individual believers.  He can be trusted to never doze off. 

In these words, there’s an implicit attack on the idols worshipped in the hills and elsewhere.  In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah had his famous confrontation with the prophets of Baal.  Where did that take place?  On a mountain top, on Mount Carmel.  That was supposed to be Baal’s domain.  The Baal prophets tried to get their idol to answer them and send fire down to their altar.  Do you remember how Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal?  “Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.”   Pagans have often believed that the gods go to sleep and need to somehow get woken up.  But not Yahweh.  He is always watchful over his people as a whole and as individuals, and therefore you can totally trust him as you’re on your journey.

Loved ones, this is our God and he has not changed.  Listen to the Psalmist in our text and how he encourages you today.  Your God is always watching over you.  His attention is not just to his people as a whole, but also to you as an individual.  He promises here that he won’t doze off and let something happen to you apart from his will.  Your whole life is in his hands.  These are good hands and loving hands.  You can know this for certain because of the relationship you have with Yahweh through his Son Jesus Christ.  Think along the lines of what Paul writes in Romans 8:32.  If God went to the length of sending his Son to die for you, what makes you think that he would now fail you and let go of you?   Remember too that all idols will ultimately fail you.  Idols are anything we substitute for God and what he can do for us.  Idols always end up being empty cisterns, unable to satisfy, unable to sustain life, unable to watch over us.  So flee idols and entrust yourself to Yahweh your God.  Brothers and sisters, trust that with him we’re in good hands as we travel on the way to our final destination.  He promises this to you. 

As we continue in this psalm, God’s watchfulness continues to be a theme right to the last verse.  Right now we’re looking at verses 5 and 6.  Here the psalmist again reminds the pilgrim that Yahweh is his guardian, but he adds another important element.  The Holy Spirit guides him to add that the pilgrim saint can and must trust in Yahweh because he’s always present.

He says in verse 5, “Yahweh is your shade at your right hand.”  The word “shade” speaks of God’s presence.  The word could also be translated as “shadow.”  Your shadow is always with you.  Everywhere you go, your shadow’s there too.  That’s the idea here.  You have God always present with you on your journey.  What’s more, he’s at your right hand.  The right hand in Scripture can refer to different things, but here it’s about power and strength.  Since most people are right-handed, the right hand is considered to be the hand of power.  God is the one always present to give you strength – that’s what verse 5 really means.  As the believer travels through the ups and downs on his way to Jerusalem, God is going to be there with him to keep him going and bring him to the destination.

Verse 6 speaks of what results from that.  If you’ve got Yahweh giving you strength, then nothing in nature can harm you.  After all, nature is in his control and he’s the Creator, as your God he loves you, and he’s always with you.  The psalmist specifically mentions the sun and the moon.  The sun obviously can be dangerous.  While we can’t live without it, we also can’t live with too much of it or we die.  We can die from heatstroke, from getting a very bad sunburn, or from skin cancer.  The sun can strike you and injure you or kill you.  But Yahweh is in control of the sun, he is your ever-present shade to protect you from the sun.  The danger of the moon here is a little less obvious.  Most interpreters understand that to refer to the ancient belief that the moon could strike you with mental problems.  You’ve heard of the word “lunatic” (the word is in Spanish too).  The Latin word for “moon” is in the English word “lunatic.”  People today still talk about how a full moon can make people act strangely.  So verse 6 seems to be speaking to that belief.  The point of verse 6 is that nothing in nature is greater than the ever-present Yahweh.  In fact, everything in nature submits to him.  Nature falls under his providence.  Everything in nature comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.  Nature cannot conspire against you when you have Yahweh present with you as the shade on your right hand.              

Again this is confirmed all the more for us as Christian pilgrims today.  Again we should direct our eyes to Christ.  We should think for a moment about his suffering on the cross.  Mankind had turned against him.  He was lifted up from the earth, showing that the earth and its inhabitants didn’t want him.  Heaven had turned against him too – God’s wrath against our sin was poured out on him.  God’s creation also turned against him – he was struck by the created order.  Thorns from plants God created were pressed into his scalp.  The sun God created initially beat down on his naked body.  He was exposed to the elements.  But then the darkness came as well, signifying how all of God’s creation was turned against him.  There was absolutely no comfort or solace on the cross.  He took that in our place.  Because of our sins, we deserve to have creation turned against us.  But because Christ has borne our curse, we can read Psalm 121 as God’s promise to us.  In the last day, creation will not be turned against us.  Our ever-present God will preserve us in the present and in the future.  Loved ones, we can be sure of that because of what Christ endured in our place.  He was struck, so that we would be kept safe and secure in God’s loving hands.

There’s one last reason why pilgrim saints should trust Yahweh their God on the way.  Here we’re looking at verses 7 and 8.  The Word of God here encourages us with the fact that the LORD is always faithful. 

Verses 7 makes a claim that some may find hard to swallow, “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”  Even in ancient Israel, there would be those who would probably find this hard to accept.  There is a promise here and sometimes it seems that God just doesn’t keep this promise.  It promises that Yahweh will guard us from evil. 

Imagine a pilgrim in Israel.  He is faithfully going to Jerusalem to observe one of the appointed feasts.  His parents taught him Psalm 121 as a young child.  He’s known it his whole life.  As he travels through the hills, he sings this song of ascents to himself.  Psalm 121 is on his lips as he makes his way to the temple.  But then, suddenly, something terrible happens on the journey.  Imagine that he gets an awful pain in his chest.  He stops on the side of the path, doubled over in excruciating agony.  The pilgrim dies of a heart attack there on the way.  He was a father and left behind several young children.  The children had heard their dad singing Psalm 121, “The LORD will keep you from all evil, he will keep your life.”  And now dad is gone.  Did Yahweh do what he promised?  Are these just pious empty words?  You could change the scenario to all kinds of other terrible things – a natural disaster, murderous criminals, the question ends up being the same.  Does Yahweh really keep pilgrims from all evil?  Does he really keep their lives?  These are difficult questions and we understand when people struggle with them.

Brothers and sisters, to answer this, we need to look more carefully at what “evil” really is here.  There is “evil” from a human perspective.  There are all these terrible things that can happen which we bemoan:  sickness, injury, death, natural disasters, wicked people doing wicked things, and so on.  That’s really not in view here.  When Scripture speaks here of “evil,” it speaks from God’s perspective.  From God’s perspective, “evil” refers to ultimate harm, ultimate destruction, ultimate loss.  God promises to protect believers from these.  Listen, God’s Word never promises that we will be free of trials and challenges.  We’re never promised a life free of suffering and hardship.  God’s Word does not promise us that our pilgrimage will be carefree and easy-going all the way to our final destination.  God does not promise that we will never have to visit the hospital or the funeral home.  He does promise to always be faithful to his people.  He promises that when he takes us for his own, he will not let us go to eternal destruction.  God promises that the challenges we encounter on our pilgrimage are there for a good reason.  He has a good purpose behind them.  He doesn’t always tell us what that purpose is exactly, but he promises that it is good and he calls us to trust him on that.  He will keep your life – he will preserve you into eternity, and he will do that because of what his Son Jesus Christ has done for you.  Moreover, in everything that happens in the rhythm of this pilgrimage, going out and coming in, God promises to be there with you, faithfully guarding your ways.  Because he is faithful to his covenant, he will always ensure that your ways come out at his destination.  He is always faithful and therefore you can trust him.  You must trust him.

The pilgrimage we’re on is hard going at times, no doubt.  Our pilgrimage can be hard and messy.  That’s real life.  In his Word, God tells us that he recognizes that.  He’s sensitive to the reality we’re in.  In fact, he’s in it, he’s behind it, he’s intimately involved with every moment of it.  And here in this Psalm, he encourages us to trust him that he will be our help through it all.  Loved ones, trust what your God says here. Don’t listen to the doubts in your heart.  Don’t pay attention to the mockery of the world around us.  Simply hear your God telling you that he will faithfully guard and keep you as you continue on the way to the new heavens and new earth. Hear him and believe him.  Know for sure that you can take him at his Word because of who he is and what he’s done, especially through your Saviour Jesus.  One day, one glorious day, we will have the fullness of joy when we arrive at the heavenly Jerusalem, our final destination.  AMEN.                                

Prayer:

O Yahweh, maker of heaven and earth,

Our help comes from you.  We need your help as we make our way through this world.  There are so many challenges and difficulties on our pilgrimage.  Father, without you, we couldn’t make any progress.  We would be overcome with fear and immobilized.  We thank you for your promises in Psalm 121.  O God, we trust you as our strength.  We trust you as our guardian.  We trust you as our ever-present and always faithful God.  When we’re weak and filled with doubts, Father, please let your Spirit and Word lead us back to these promises.  We know that your promises have all the more power because of Jesus our Saviour.  Thank you for his faithful pilgrimage in our place.  Thank you for his sacrifice for us on the cross.  We thank you that because he is our Saviour, we can know all the more for certain that you can be trusted as we go our way.  Father, please continue to faithfully watch over us as we continue towards the New Jerusalem.  We pray that you would bring each one of us to that final destination where we’ll praise you forever.   




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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