By Sara Wolbrecht
If there was a soundtrack of songs for Jesus-followers, included in the collection would most certainly be Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” Our God is a sending God which makes us a people on the move. Psalms 120 – 135 reflect this sentiment – the heading you find in your Bible atop each of these psalms is: “A Psalm of Ascent,” literally, “a song for the going up.” This expression appears to refer to “going up” to Jerusalem, used as songs of travel for those headed to one of the many annual festivals; these have been called pilgrimage psalms.
Songs for people on the move. In this collection we find the familiar Psalm 121. Somehow I have missed that this truly is a psalm for the traveler. And let’s be honest: the journeys we take are not just geographical ones. We often stand with our toes on the line staring down a new adventure, a daunting task, a life-change, an anticipated journey of another kind. Sometimes the journey is a joyous one; sometimes it is dreaded.
As parents, the road is always filled with surprises, isn’t it? Just when you hit your stride there’s a steep climb to make, a fork in the road, a stunning sun-break that leaves you blinded and awe-struck.
But without question: we will continue to find ourselves on new roads again.
As people on the move, let’s walk through Psalm 121 (NIV) and notice the structure of it’s simple eight verses.
Notice the first two verses are spoken by the traveler, the one with their toes on the line, staring down the road ahead:
Psalm 121:1-2 “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Then, there are friends, encouragers who are gathered at the moment of sending who speak comfort, truth, and support for the one who stares down the road ahead. These are Promises for the Journey:
Psalm 121:3-4 “[The Lord] will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
All to say – God doesn’t doze off! I so appreciate this reminder for there are times along the way when God seems absent, yes? Martin Luther speaks to this, that “we should remain steadfast in faith and await God’s help and protection. Because even though it appears that God is sleeping or snoring… this is certainly not so, despite the way we feel and think. God is surely awake and watching over us…Eventually we’ll learn that, if we can only hold fast.” – Martin Luthers Psalmen-Auslegung, volume 3:599. The friends speak on:
Psalm 121:5-6, “The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”
The encouragers speak of the Lord’s “watching over you” as shading you from danger. The first danger that protection is offered for is that of sun exposure. Sunstroke was a serious concern for those living in biblical lands. But God becomes the one who will shield you from all that might scorch you. Isaiah 49:2 uses the same imagery: “in the shadow of his hand he hides me.” Isaiah 49:2. So God protects us in the day.
Though we don’t worry about the moon these days, protection from moon exposure was also a big deal at that time. Moonlight was thought to cause mental illness; the moon would actually drive you crazy. The word “lunatic,” from the Latin luna, “moon” still reflects that idea.
Then the final two verses shift to a wider understanding of God’s promises – Promises for a Lifetime:
Psalm 121:7-8, “The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
God also watches our coming and going now (yes, on this current road our feet our walking) and forevermore. Always. God is in the details of our everyday lives. The coming and going, from here to there, with work, family, school, life, deadlines, food, sleep. God watches us every moment of our lives.
Looking for a modern-day “psalm” that parallels Psalm 121, I am reminded of a great ’80s song – another song to add to the Jesus-following soundtrack. Peter Gabriel’s tune, “Don’t Give Up.” Peter Gabriel wrote this song in 1986 he was emerging from a nervous breakdown in the previous year. His 15-year marriage was in jeopardy. This song celebrated his family and friends who had carried him through. The song is layered with other influences, like the news headlines of the time: high unemployment, a young mother who had killed herself. Many different roads traveled.
This particular version of the song is arranged and produced by Herbie Hancock, he’s also playing keys. John Legend is the voice that cries out to the hills. And then there is the voice of the friends, the family, the encouragers, the ones who are left behind as the difficult journey begins. And that voice in this particular arrangement is P!nk. Echoed here we see a parallel to Psalm 121 – words of encouragement for whatever road we find ourselves on today.
As you read this, as you watch this, the question to hold is: what is the road that is set before you now? At this particular time of your life – where do you find yourself? Is it a welcome journey? Challenging? Daunting? Probably a mix of many things.
Whatever the road, whatever parenting challenge we face, Psalm 121 reminds us that our God is the God of the journey. Present in our journey now. And so we reflect on and hear these words for the very real and urgent circumstances of today.
Let yourself walk today’s road with our God of the journey. He watches over you. And your encouragers are there to cheer you on.
Pastor Sara Wolbrecht is head of Care Ministry at a Lutheran church in the suburbs of San Francisco’s Bay Area, married to a musician, and mother to a 3yo daughter with another child due Easter Sunday 2014.
Thanks for your thoughts and words Sara. God is full of surprises as we journey through this life. What a blessing that He gives us His Divine Presence as well as friends to encourage and accompany us along the road.
Amen, Pam! You have seen many roads and tested first-hand God’s faithfulness in the journey. And it has been a blessing to witness this in your life.
Here’s to you, Sara, and that new baby coming! Thanks for Psalm 121 exposition — always a favorite of mine, often used at funerals, and quite beautifully lit with hope that will come and show forth the newness in the morning.