This piece originally appeared in the print edition of Westminster Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1
There’s a popular saying that caught my eye recently on social media: “Life is tough, but so are you.” When I saw this, I thought the first bit was refreshingly honest—life is tough, isn’t it? Sure, there are fun moments and happy moments, but there are also hard moments and sad moments. Life is tough. Just think about your daily routine, or the things you need to do each day. It’s hard work. But then add to that the common experiences of life that we face, like longing for companionship or marriage but never meeting that “someone,” the hidden pain of infertility, the worry over a particular child or a strained relationship with a parent, the boredom of an uninspiring job, financial straits, physical aches and pains of old age or a chronic illness, that issue in your marriage which you keep arguing over, the heaviness of depression or the panic of anxiety. Life is hard going. And then there are the unforeseen crises of life: the devastating news of some terrible illness, the break-down in a relationship, the shocking death of a loved one. . . The daily routine of life is hard work; the common experiences of life are hard going; and the unforeseen crises of life are heart-breaking. I think it’s refreshingly honest to admit: “Life is tough.”
The question is, what do we think of the second part of the quote: “Life is tough, but so are you.” If the first part is refreshingly honest, I think the second part is particularly telling. It reveals an underlying attitude in our secular culture: That you have the resources within yourself to deal with everything that life throws at you. I am reminded of that classic song by Billy Ocean: “When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going.” Or there’s the 1990s’ one-hit wonder, “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” Your children might be more familiar with “Get Back Up Again” from the movie Trolls.
Tweets and song lyrics like these reveal one of the great pillars of our secular culture: Aseity, i.e. “self-sufficiency.” The cultural attitude in the West today really has two structural pillars: autonomy and aseity. Autonomy says, “You are independent, self-determining, self-ruling. You are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.” But there’s this other pillar of aseity, which says, “You have everything within yourself to be who you want to be and do what you want to do and overcome whatever life throws at you.” Because when the going gets tough, the tough get going. When you get knocked down, you just get back up again. Life is tough—sure it is—but so are you. Right? Let’s read Psalm 121 and see what it has to say:
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. 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. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 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.
One thing this Psalm does for us is that it affirms the first part of the tweet, but denies the second part. This is a Psalm concerned with normal, everyday life: The reference to our foot in verse 3 speaks of a journey we’re on. Verse 8 speaks of goings and comings—that’s our life, our normal, everyday life. But the Psalm also affirms that this normal life is tough: our feet slip (v. 3), the elements can be against us (v. 5), and there is evil all around us (v. 7).
So this normal, under-the-sun-and-moon everyday life is difficult, dangerous, and tough. This Psalm affirms that. But the response of the Psalmist and the response of our culture are polar opposites. Our culture says: “Yes, life is tough, but so are you.” This Psalm says: “Yes, life is tough, but our help is in the Lord.” Our world tells us to be self-sufficient, self-dependent. This Psalm tells us to be God-sufficient, God-dependent. The Psalm tells us this in a number of ways. Interpretations of verse 1 vary. Some people think the hills here have an ominous tone to them. Hills were places of danger where thieves and robbers would lie in wait. Hills were also places of idolatry, where idols were worshipped at the high places. But I don’t think the hills carry that connotation here. The hills in Israel, and especially around Jerusalem, had a far more positive connotation. John Calvin thought that the hills symbolized might and strength. The logic here might suggest a contrast: Where does my help come from? Well, not even from something so great and mighty as the hills, but from the Lord, the Maker, not just of hills, but of the earth itself and heaven. That’s definitely a possible reading. But I don’t think that the hills are meant in a contrastive sense here. I think it’s better to view them in a complementary sense. Just take a look at the heading of this Psalm. Psalm 121 is part of a group of 15 “Songs of Ascent” (Pss 120–134). The songs of ascents refer to the regular pilgrimage of God’s people going up to Jerusalem for different festivals. These Psalms were sung as they ascended to Jerusalem. If you have ever been to Israel you know that Jerusalem is set on top of a range of mountains. When you fly into Tel Aviv on the coast, and travel to Jerusalem, the capital, you travel up a steady incline, up and up and up and up. Your eyes are lifted up towards the hills of Jerusalem.
Now, think about what that gaze-lifting signified for an Old Testament Israelite. As they walked up to Mount Zion, what did they look up toward? They looked up toward God’s home—his temple on top of the hills in Jerusalem. The psalmist is saying, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? From the God who lives up there, in the hills, in his temple.” The hills of Jerusalem have a positive sense again a few Psalms later:
As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore. (Ps 125:2)
The hills here carry that positive, complementary connotation. Our help is in the hills, in the God who lives in the hills. But in order to make sure we don’t domesticate God to the hills of Jerusalem only, as if he’s just a local deity, Psalm 121 adds that the God of the hills of Jerusalem is “the Maker of heaven and earth.” The phrase “heaven and earth” is what’s called a merism—two parts that speak of the whole. “Heaven and earth” denotes “everything.” This is the reason why God can help us with anything: Because he made everything. The reason why the gods of all other religions cannot help people is first and foremost because they have never created anything in their life, never mind the heavens and the earth. The gods of the nations are created not Creator, they are made not Maker. They cannot help people because they were made by people. But the great claim of this Psalm is that the God of Israel, the Christian God—whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is able to help people for this one basic, fundamental reason: He made everything. God is our helper because he is our Creator. Whatever happens in our lives, whatever life throws at us, whenever life gets tough, our help is in the Lord who made everything. When life gets tough, it’s easy to look inward to ourselves, or outward to others. It’s easier to turn to Google before we turn to God when we experience difficulty. But this Psalm says to us today, “Don’t look inward to yourself or outward to someone else, look out and up to God.” Look to God the Creator, because that is where real help is found. Life is tough, but the LORD is our helper. When the going gets tough, the Creator gets going.
And that’s what we see happening in the next section (vv. 3–8). Now, it’s important to note that these verses are not a prayer for protection. None of this Psalm is directed to God. Did you notice that? Psalm 121 is not a prayer for protection but a promise of protection. The promise is made sure by the Lord who is our keeper, our guard, our protector. That’s the key word flowing through these verses. “Keep” or “keeper” occur six times, in verses 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8. Life is tough, but the Lord is our keeper. And we can see that the Lord is our keeper in four ways:
The Lord is Our Personal Keeper
In this section (vv. 3–8) the Psalm shifts from the first person to the second person. Some think this is a case of antiphonal singing: verses 1–2 sung by one group of pilgrims, verses 3–8 sung by another. Others suggest that verses 1–2 were sung by the king, and verses 3–8 were sung by the priests or by the people to the king. I think this second interpretation is likely, and I’ll come back to it, but for now just note that the Psalm is deeply personal. The repetition of the words “your” or “you” emphasizes that God is our personal keeper. The words occur 10 times in just 8 verses. This is a deeply personal Psalm. It reminds me of that great kids’ song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The first line is like verse 2 that speaks of God as the “Maker of heaven and earth.” And then the other lines are like verses 3–8, “He’s got you and me, brother, in his hands. He’s got you and me, sister, in his hands.” The Creator of the universe has got you and me in his hands. That’s how personal this Psalm is, which should be a great comfort to us. Life is tough, but the Lord is our personal keeper.
The Lord is Our Persistent Keeper
Psalm 73 speaks of God setting the wicked in slippery places so that they are swept away and utterly destroyed. The promise in this Psalm is that this will never be the case for the Christian (v. 3) because the Lord is our persistent keeper. He does not slumber or sleep. There is perhaps a progression in the verbs here. Perhaps slumbering is like dropping off for a wee nap after a heavy meal, and sleep is like the deep sleep at the end of the day. Or this might be more repetition. In either case, God’s protective care of us never stops. It covers day and night. God never nods off. He never has a micro sleep. The reference to Israel (v. 4) indicates God is not just Creator but also Redeemer. God redeemed his Son Israel out of Egypt. But the reference to corporate Israel does not take away from the personal nature of God’s protection of us. He is the keeper of Israel as well as the Israelite. He keeps the whole Church and each Christian in it. Indeed, the nation Israel finds its fulfillment in his own son, Jesus Christ. So we should not draw too sharp a distinction here between the corporate and the individual. Both are personal. The Lord is our persistent keeper, as a church and as a Christian, just as he was for Christ. And this is why as a Church and as Christians we can enjoy our sleep— just like Jesus did in the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee. He knew his Father was not sleeping or slumbering over him, and so he slept well. Our sleep can also be sweet because God does not slumber or sleep over us. Alexander the Great, the King of Ancient Greece, was once asked why he slept so well while on military campaign. In those days, for a King to sleep in his tent in the midst of a war was a great risk. He replied, “Because Parmenion does not sleep.” Parmenion was Alexander the Great’s personal bodyguard. Because he never slept on duty, Alexander could sleep. And it’s the same for us. Our sleep can be sweet because God, our personal bodyguard, does not sleep. Our anxiety about life in general can be lessened, knowing that God does not sleep on duty. Life is tough, but the Lord is our personal and persistent keeper.
The Lord is Our Present Keeper
The reference to sun and moon in verse 6 are intriguing. Obviously, the sun and moon aren’t known for dropping out of the sky like some meteorite and striking people on the head. So we must read this symbolically, like we do with the references to the hills and the foot. The sun is a picture of danger, given what it could do to someone fully exposed to it in the Ancient Near Eastern climate. Perhaps the reference to the moon was simply added to complete the parallelism indicating danger at night as well as day. Or it could refer to “moon stroke,” imagined danger from a person’s unstable mental state. Perhaps those who suffer from anxiety or panic attacks or paranoia can identify with this. But whatever it means, we get the idea. The Psalmist’s point is nothing can strike us. Whether during the day or at night, nothing can deal a deadly blow. And why? Because God is present with us. God himself is our shade. Not an angel, or a messenger. But God himself. If you’ve ever tried to chase someone else’s shadow and stand in it, you know the only way is to get close to the person. And when you are close to them and the sun is shining bright in the sky, you’re protected because they are standing between you and the sun. That’s what God does for us. He comes and stands between us and the sun. He comes and stands by our side, so that we can hide in his shadow. He becomes our shade from the sun’s dangerous rays. But the only way that he can do that is if he comes and stands right beside us. Which means that for this verse to be true, we must live and function in God’s own shadow. He must be close to us, like a friend is close. If in verse 2 he is our creator, and if in verse 4 he is our redeemer, here in verse 5 he is our companion. So, we have three interesting roles for God in this Psalm: Creator, Redeemer, Companion. We might say that Psalm 121 presents us with the Holy Trinity incognito, since God the Father creates, God the Son redeems, and God the Spirit comes along side. And it’s this latter aspect of God’s companionship, as our ever-present keeper, which is highlighted here. Life is tough, but the Lord is our personal, persistent, and present keeper.
The Lord is Our Perpetual Keeper
In verses 6–8, the totality of the Lord’s care continues to keep us from all evil. The “all” encapsulates two merisms: “day and night” which means the whole day, and “going out” and “coming in”, which means everyday wanderings, all our comings and goings, from womb to tomb. In other words, God’s care of us is total. But it is also perpetual. God’s keeping does not end with this life in this world. It continues into the next. When we get to heaven, God’s protecting care over us is not over. You could say, it’s only just beginning. The Lord is our total keeper, “from this time forth and forevermore.” In other words, the Lord is our perpetual keeper. Life is tough, but the Lord is our personal, persistent, present, and perpetual keeper. So these are four ways we see the Lord as our keeper in Psalm 121. Our culture says to us, “Life is tough, but so are you.” This Psalm says to us, “Life is tough, but the Lord is your helper, and the Lord is your keeper’.” So, what exactly does it mean for God to be our keeper? What does the Lord keeping our goings and comings actually look like? What does it mean for him to keep us from all evil, and to keep our life? What does it mean that the sun and moon will not strike us? What does it mean that our foot will not slip? Is this some kind of health, wealth and prosperity gospel, as if the Christian life is the trouble-free life? Well, no. We walk along the same paths in life as unbelievers do. We live out our lives under the same sun and moon. Life is tough whoever and wherever you are, and being a Christian doesn’t make it less tough. The answer to what the Lord’s keeping means lies in the final words of the Psalm: “from this time forth and for evermore.” Let me unpack those words by telling you about a Vietnamese pastor and translator called Hien. In the 1970s Hien was captured by the Vietcong and imprisoned and tortured. His captors beat him continually. They forced him to clean the latrines and brainwashed him with communist material. After some time, he cracked. He stopped praying and became an atheist. But one day, on latrine duty, he saw a piece of paper that had been used as toilet paper. At the top of the page he noticed a single word, “Romans”. He rubbed off the human excrement, folded it up, and put it into his pocket. That night, in the darkness of his cell, he switched on his torch and read these words:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:28–39)
He began to cry and said, “Lord, you would not let me out of your reach for even one day.” The next day Hien asked if he could do latrine duty again, and, over subsequent weeks he recovered the whole Book of Romans. His faith was restored, and he later escaped and became a pastor to Vietnamese Christians here in America. This is the kind of keeping Psalm 121 is talking about—it’s about spiritual preservation. We’ve heard about the perseverance of the saints. Well, Psalm 121 is about the preservation of the saints. It’s about the preservation of God’s people in relationship with him, both now and for eternity, come hell or highwater. Psalm 121 is to Old Testament saints what Romans 8 is to New Testament saints. It is the reassurance that nothing in this life or the next can separate us from the God who has redeemed us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Those are the key words—“in Christ Jesus”—because the help and protection promised in Psalm 121 first finds its fulfillment in Christ. Every benefit we receive in this life, including protection, comes to us through Christ. Only when we are united to Christ do we receive the benefit, and these benefits are only ours because they were first Christ’s.
Earlier I said that one way to read the shift from the first person in verses 1–2 to the second person in verses 3–8 is to see the first part as sung by the king and the second as sung by the people or priests to the king. If this is the case, and I think it probably is in the first instance, then the Psalm was first meant for the king and then, through him, for the people. In other words, Psalm 121 is for Christ and then for the Christian, because Christ sang and experienced Psalm 121 first. The Lord was his help. The Lord did not let his foot slip. The Lord watched over him. The sun did not strike him by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord kept him from all evil. The Lord kept his life—he raised him from the dead. The Lord kept his going out from heaven and his coming back in. Christ experienced Psalm 121 as the faithful Israelite and as Israel’s faithful king. Verses 1–2 may well be his statement of faith, with his people then speaking the promise of protection over him. And because he was kept, he can now keep us. He is after all the Good Shepherd who said, “My sheep are in my hands, and none shall pluck them from me.” (John 10:27–29) And that is where our trust should lie: Not in ourselves but in the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Life is tough, but. . .we are not. When life gets tough—and it will get tough at times—we do not get tough. Hien, the Vietnamese pastor, demonstrates this. When he got knocked down, he did not get back up again. When life got tough, Hien did not get going—God did. God did not slumber nor sleep over him, because God never slumbered or slept over his Son Jesus Christ, even in his death. And that’s why God will not slumber or sleep over us, if we are united to his Son. When we get knocked down, we do not get back up again. When life gets tough, we do not get going—God does. When life gets tough, “our help is in the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” The Lord our keeper gets going as our personal, persistent, present, and perpetual keeper—and all because he was first a helper and keeper of his Son Jesus Christ. If we are united by faith to his Son, then we can sing with Augustus Toplady: “are safe in the arms of sovereign love.” It’s just as the Vietnamese pastor Hien said after he read Romans 8 in his cell that night, “Lord, you would not let me out of your reach for even one day.” This is what it means for God to be our helper and keeper in Psalm 121: Nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”