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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Long, Hard Road to God's Presence
Text:Psalms 121 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 125:1,2                                                                              

Ps 130:2,4

Reading – Psalm 121

Hy 71:1,2

Sermon – Psalm 121

Ps 121:1,2,3,4

Hy 66:1,2,3

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

Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ, we’re all traveling right now. For that’s our identity: Christians are pilgrims. That name reminds us of the people who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean way back when, and landed in North America. They were the “pilgrims.” We think of other pilgrims, too, those who make journeys for religious reasons, who might travel many miles to visit a shrine or temple. A pilgrim is a someone who’s got his heart set on another destination, and who is willing to undergo great hardship to get there.

The Old Testament people were pilgrims, too. God called them to make annual trips to Jerusalem, such as for Passover, and to worship there at the temple. Psalm 121 was a song for that kind of journey.

As you notice from its title, Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents.” These fifteen Psalms form a special collection within the Psalter. They were gathered together for Israel’s worship, probably used for the services at the temple.

And these songs were likely also sung by the people as they ascended, or traveled up to Jerusalem. Like families sometimes sing when they’re on a long road-trip, the Israelites sang as they traveled, sang with joy and longing. They were glad to be going up to the city of God, and wanted to get there soon! That’s the message of our text, from Psalm 121. And it’s also a powerful message for travelers like us:

Pilgrims, look up to God!

  1. while you’re on the road
  2. when you need help
  3. when you’re in danger
  4. in all your coming and going


1) Look up to God while you’re on the road: Each of the songs of ascents gives much to meditate on. But there’s something unique about Psalm 121. For this song seems to take the form of a dialogue—it’s a “call and response.” As the worshipers traveled in bunches along the road, one group would sing one line of the Psalm, and then another group would sing the next line. Back and forth it would go.

We see a hint of this dialogue in the first verse. For there the question gets asked, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help?” (v 1). You can imagine this being asked by one group of the travelers. “Where does my help come from?” It’s a question that invites the obvious answer. Of course these Israelites knew where their help was from! It’s as if they’re asking each other, “Who is really able to help us on our way? Shall we receive aid from mere men like kings and princes? Should we depend on earthly things for our true security and strength?” Of course not!

So the answer resounds in the next verse: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (v 2). That’s who will protect and save! As they lift up their eyes while on the road, they look to God. They confess with joy that only the LORD can grant help to his people. That’s where we need to look!

Notice how the worshipers say that they lift their eyes “to the hills” (v 1). That phrase gives a nice picture of the journey that these believers are on. They’re on their way up to Jerusalem, we said. They’re making their way along the roads and valleys of the countryside, coming from north and south, east and west.

And as they get closer to the big city, their excitement grows. Now they could see the familiar mountains of Judea! Now they can catch a glimpse of the temple’s shining gold! Among those hills and mountains was found the holy city and God’s house. These pilgrims knew that they were almost there.

We do that too, when we’re at the end of a long trip in the car. We crane our necks to see the destination, or even just to see the last exit off the highway. There’s the annoying question which rings out regularly from the back seat: “Are we there yet?”

The worshipers ask, “We’ve got on our eyes on the hills—how much longer will it be? How soon before we reach the goal?” They lift up their eyes to see the temple, the earthly dwelling-place of God in Jerusalem. Because that was the physical proof, the rock-solid evidence, that the LORD God was with them, living right among them! So they look up, with the prayer that this God will bless them on the rest of their way. It’s like what David sings in Psalm 3, “To the LORD I cry aloud, and He answers me from his holy hill” (v 4).

When you and I need help, we don’t look to the hills. For we know that God doesn’t live on earth. In past ages, He showed his presence at Mount Zion, at Jerusalem, but God has long since departed from that place.

Yet our God remains near, remains so close, and He remains the God who wants us to seek him. He gave his Son as the physical proof of his love, the rock-solid evidence, and through Christ He wants each of us to humbly enter before him.

So this Psalm’s basic idea of being on a journey to go and meet with God isn’t so out of date. For God still calls us travelers, on our way to a sure destination: not headed to the earthly Jerusalem, but on our way to the true presence of our God! It’s a journey right to the glories of the new heavens and earth.

And God says that we’ve got to keep going to get there. We’re walking through the valleys, we’re enduring the pains and sores, we’re bearing up under fatigue, carrying on every day—all the while with eyes fixed on him. “God will answer you from his holy hill!”

It’s a journey that takes time, a journey that requires patience. Sometimes we have an idea of the Christian life being one exciting moment after another. We reckon that if we’re not doing something interesting or worthy of being posted online, then we’re not really living. But real life isn’t like that. Being on this road will drain us, and frustrate and disappoint us, and make us tired. Staying faithful, maintaining joy in the Lord, isn’t easy or quickly done. Christian pilgrimage is a long obedience in the same direction.

This is why as we travel, we need to keep looking up. Keep putting the LORD God before your eyes. We want to draw near to him in the prayer of faith. We want to follow his Son, our Saviour. We want to know his Word well, so that we can hear his voice. We look to the hills, and then beyond the hills. For that’s where we want to go, to where God is! That’s where our help will come from!


2) Look up to God when you need help: When you need help, who do you call? That depends on the kind of thing that I need help with. If I need help getting the old couch out of the house, I’ll call someone strong. If I need help with my tax return, I’ll call someone who knows accounting. For not just anyone can do these things. We turn to someone qualified to help, able to help because of their training or strength or experience.

The Psalm 121 worshipers do this too. For they confess in verse 2, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Don’t read over that confession too quickly. The God we trust in isn’t an average god or a limited God. Our God is not too small. He doesn’t have his hands tied when there’s a world crisis. For our God is the true God, He’s the King of all creation, He’s the one who made the heavens and the earth! That means He can do anything, and He can provide us with any necessary help.

This is what Jesus says in Matthew 6. God created all things—He made the birds, the lilies, the grass—and God takes care of all things. They’re never outside his faithful supervision. He provides for them, so they’re always well-fed, they’re always finely-dressed.

And in that truth, there’s an important lesson. For we also are God’s creatures. Much more than that, we’ve been saved through the blood of his Son, and we’re being re-made in his image, and we’re destined for glory. This is how precious we’ve become. So we know for certain: God will take care of us too!

That’s good to remember. For while we’re on this journey, you and I worry about a lot of things. Material things, for instance. Concerns about our job or our business might be at the forefront of our mind—what happens when there’s no more work coming in? What if you’re laid off? Or what about the bills we have to pay? These are real concerns.

But in these anxieties, God assures us that He’ll provide, like He promised. You’ll have enough. You won’t go hungry. The Father will provide for you and your loved ones with all things. How can He say that? Remember the confession, and the reality: God is the Maker of heaven and earth! He’s the Almighty God, and He has become your Father in Christ.

The LORD will help you, even if you’re in the midst of untold trouble. This is what the worshipers sing, “He will not allow your foot to be moved” (v 3). Keep in mind that from every direction, the road to Jerusalem was long and hard to travel—it wasn’t four lanes, smoothly paved, and fresh coffee available along the way. There were steep hills to climb, ravines to cross, hot and dusty plateaus to endure. To make it to Jerusalem took strength and determination.

And that’s a picture of the Christian life, isn’t it? We often face a hard road. There might well be illness and death, stresses and fears. And there might arise other dangers—anything can happen on this journey! The future can look like a scary place. There is so much that might knock us down, crush our desire to keep going.

Sometimes we feel like giving up the journey. As our Lord said, it’s not easy sticking to the straight road. It’s a narrow and difficult way (Matt 7:14). Yet we have God’s sure promise: if we go with him, He is faithful. If we seek him, He’ll grant help. Those will make it who depend on God! We’ll complete this journey only by his faithful care. On the rocky path He won’t let our foot slip, and He will not let us fail.


3) Look up to God when you’re in danger: Many good songs have a refrain. Psalm 121 does too, for in verse 3 we find this truth: “He keeps you.” Such a simple phrase: “God keeps you,” but the same thought occurs five times in this short psalm: God keeps you. God watches over you. God preserves you.

When your strength begins to waver, God keeps you. When the journey seems too hard, God keeps you. Even when you feel alone and apart from God—He keeps you. And his care is intimate and constant. We read that in verses 3-4, “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”

You and I need to sleep when we’re tired after a long day of work. Or we sleep when we’re feeling lazy on a Sunday afternoon. But sleep, nice at it is, is part of our human weakness. We need sleep, to recharge, to restore our bodies and minds. But God does not. He’s unsleeping: needing nothing, never tiring, always alert. He’ll always be there, watching, 24/7—even when we’re most vulnerable and weak. In his care for us, He doesn’t slumber.

He watches over you, verse 5 repeats, to protect. For “the LORD is your shade at your right hand.” What does this mean, the “shade” of God? Especially in hot summer months, a shadow is a place of refreshment. This is why we seek out the shade of trees and we set up our umbrellas at the beach. Well, these pilgrims also knew that after a while of being on the road, the sun became oppressive. So they’d pause in the shadow of a building or underneath some trees to get some relief. In the same way, it is God’s “shadow” that offers true relief. From all that can threaten us, God is our sure protection, a place of rest.

He shades us, therefore verse 6 says, “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Anyone who’s been sunburned knows about the harm that the sun can bring. There can be painful peeling!

But what about danger from the moon? The point isn’t the physical harm from these heavenly lights, not even the UV rays that come from the sun. The point is that whether the sun is up, or the moon is up, whether it’s during the day or during the night, God will not allow anything to harm us apart from his good and perfect will. Whatever time it is, whatever is happening in the world, God will always be our shade. He doesn’t sleep, He doesn’t retire, He never changes in love.

But in thinking about God as our shade, let’s realize something important: you have to walk very close to someone for his shadow to fall on you! You have to be right next to someone to enjoy his shade. Beloved, if you’re far from God, then you won’t benefit from his presence. If you stray from his ways, God’s protecting shadow will not help you.

So we need to “dwell” in God’s shadow, and stay there! Seek out communion with the LORD every day, in prayer and meditation and worship. If we’re safely in God’s shadow, then we’ll find rest in our hardship and God will always shield us.

For there were other dangers on the road up to Jerusalem. Along that dusty path there was also the danger of robbers or bandits. Think of it: Passover happened at the same time every year, so the bad guys always knew exactly when the next lot of pilgrims was coming through. They would be ready and waiting with their swords and clubs.

In a way, that’s a lot like the temptations of Satan. He knows exactly when to strike, when to be busy. When we’re stressed. When we’re tired. When we’re cut off from other people. Then we might already be leaning toward giving into sin, or returning to ungodly habits. He sees when we’re growing impatient with our family, or ready to surrender to anger, or a spirit of discontentment.

Satan’s ready to pounce, so we need to redouble our dependence on God. And we can depend on him! This is underlined in verse 7, “The LORD shall preserve you from all evil.” Understand this in the right way. It doesn’t mean we won’t come to physical harm or temptation. Accidents happen. Illness strikes. Christians die. Christians fall into sin. But in all things, “He shall preserve you from evil… He shall preserve your soul” (v 7). Your very soul is under God’s protection!

That promise is all-encompassing. The material things you need, the spiritual strength you’re looking for, the emotional recharge—God will take care of it all. “For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matt 6:32).

When life is uncertain, it’s hard to let go. When much is unknown, it’s difficult to surrender into God’s care. But the LORD says very simply, “Trust me. I’ll watch over you. I’m your Father, remember—I’m your loving Father in Christ. So trust me.” We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. So much can happen to us, good and bad. But whatever we do, and wherever we go, we can look to God.


4) Look up to God in all your coming and going: Maybe you can see why this Psalm is so well-loved. There’s been more than a few times over the years when I’ve chosen to read Psalm 121 at a pastoral visit, and someone will say, “That was the text at the funeral of my husband.” Or “That was my parents’ wedding text.” We turn to this Psalm when visiting someone who’s sick in the hospital, or dying at home. This Psalm has often been used at times of great distress, and also times of great joy.

In its last verse, the Psalm speaks directly with God’s promise for all of life: “The LORD will preserve your going out and your coming in” (v 8). When the Bible wants to paint a picture of the entirety of life, it sometimes uses that phrase: “our coming and going.” This is the whole works, it’s the entire journey: “coming and going,” departures and arrivals, our grand entrance and our quiet exit.

Whatever happens in all your coming and going (and here’s the refrain once more), God will preserve you: protecting, forgiving, teaching, blessing. And God will do it, say the final words, “from this time forth, and even forevermore” (v 8). Forever!

This is the destination we talked about before. Our life isn’t just for working hard on our personal plans and goals. Maybe we have ambitions for ourselves, dreams for the future. Perhaps we want to get married, or finish school, or buy a house, or have children, or grow our business, or travel the world, or retire. Plans are fine, but  God can certainly change our plans, and quickly!

Good thing there’s another goal, the one set before us by God. He reminds us that we’re pilgrims, travelers on our way to eternity, longing to reach home with him. So our entire life needs that purpose. The physical things you have, your gifts, the relationships you enjoy—all of it should be directed to that goal of reaching the glorious presence of God.

To get there, we need to keep our eyes on him. We want to gaze on God. We want to find our treasure in the Lord. We thirst for him, even as parched souls “in a dry and weary land.” Is that the destination you seek?

Brothers and sisters, God gives us times of trouble so that we ask ourselves this very question. Are we traveling onwards toward him? Is the LORD one whom you find more glorious than anything? Is it to him that you lift your eyes? Next to Christ, this world and all its idols hold nothing lasting for us—nothing at all.

For those who trust in him and who seek him daily, God has prepared a city with lasting foundations. When we finally get there, we’ll no longer be pilgrims, but residents—residents of the new Zion, the city of the living God! So every day, remember to look up. Look up to your God in Christ. For that’s where your help is, “in all your going out and coming in,” both now and forevermore!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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