“I Look to the Hills”
A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
to Scripture Reading:
Psalm 121 was composed thousands of
years ago, and yet, even with centuries of scholarship and interpretation there
is not general consensus regarding these eight short but meaningful verses.
It is included among those psalms
designated as ‘Songs of Ascent,’ therefore, it has generally been considered a
song that pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem.
However, others speculate that the
song was more general in nature. It was sung by anyone who was traveling, or those
who were fearful of the dangers that one would encounter in life.
There are those that suggest that it
was a song of worship. The opening two verses were the introduction, and the
remaining verses were offered responsively. Some have suggested that this was a
psalm that was offered as pilgrims arrived at the gate of Jerusalem with the
blessing of verses three through eight offered by one of the Temple priests.
Even the nature of the “hills” is
not agreed upon.
Are the hills referring to those
around Jerusalem that lead to Zion, God’s holy mountain?
Or are the hills a place of danger
where bandits and wild beasts lurk?
Despite the conjecture surrounding
these two opening lines, there is universal agreement about the theme of the
psalm. This Song of Ascent is all about the care and protection of God.
Please take out the insert in your
worship bulletin. Let us offer this psalm responsively as it may have been done
Leader: I lift up my
eyes to the mountains.
does my help come?
People: Help comes from
made heaven and earth.
will not let our feet stumble.
Indeed, the One who watches over Israel
never slumber nor sleep.
Leader: Who is our
People: God is our
our shade at our right hand.
Leader: From what will
God protect us?
People: The sun will
not harm us by day,
the moon by night.
will protect us from all evil;
will watch over our life.
Leader: For how long
will God protect us?
People: The Lord will
watch over our going out and our
coming in from now
A couple of weeks ago, on
Transfiguration Sunday, we discussed the glory and grandeur of mountaintop
experiences. I talked about visiting the Rocky Mountains as well as mountain
peaks here in New England. I also spoke about the awesome and amazing experience
of ascending mountains in Israel. It was a powerful experience contemplating
the possibility that I was walking in the same places where Jesus walked.
Last Sunday, we discussed the
temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. I referred to a place called “The
Devastation,” a barren and rocky area south of Jerusalem. The photo on the
cover of the bulletin this morning is an aerial photo of the mountains and
hills in Judea. It is not as desolate as the Devastation, but neither does it look
like a scenic park where you would like to take your children or grandchildren
for a picnic.
This is the country and the terrain
through which pilgrims would have had to travel to make their way to Jerusalem
for the various festivals that required their attendance. It is the very same
terrain that those who were not pilgrims would travel when they brought their
goods to market or simply moved about the countryside.
When I visited there, we traveled on
paved roads and highways, and even still it was nerve-wracking at times. The
road from Jericho to Jerusalem was treacherous! It was winding and narrow, and
at times the road travelled along a knife-edge ridge with a drop off on either
side. There were moments when the back end of the bus that we were riding in
would hand out over the edge of a cliff! (I always rode up front right behind
I project my mind back and imagine
travelers making their way on foot, barefoot or in sandals, pulling a cart or
leading a mule. I can see why they would be singing songs of protection,
whether they are a pilgrim, a tradesperson, or a young man and his pregnant
Let us consider what this psalm
would have meant to them.
But, before we start, let me ask: Do
we need to have consensus regarding the nature of the song? Does it matter if
it is a pilgrim’s song, or a traveling song, or a worship song? Why can it not
be all three at the same time? Regardless of what the psalm was composed to be,
it sought the one thing that truly mattered … the care and providence of God.
Whether sung as a song of faith or a song of comfort, the theme is the same:
God is our Keeper. God is our Shield, our Protector.
The traveler or the worshiper looks
to the hills, they lift their eyes. In the ancient language of the Hebrews, to
‘lift one’s eyes’ was a posture of worship. Lifting one’s eyes was a movement
of appeal, as well as trust that God would answer and God would help. We lift
our eyes in appeal to God, and know that God, who made the hills, who made
heaven and earth, will be our help.
God will not let our foot slip. God
will not let us stumble.
Knowing the danger of the terrain
through which the people travel, this is a very real promise. A turned or
broken ankle could be a significant injury. Walking along those steep and rocky
paths, an injury of that sort could cost one their life. But God will not let
our feet slip. Neither will God let us stumble. God will support us. God will
catch us before we fall.
God watches over us by day.
Traveling through the semi-desert of
Judea, this is a very real concern. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are dangers
that every traveler faced. Even modern travelers.
The day that we visited Masada, I
forgot to bring my hat. It became apparent quite quickly that I had made a
significant error. I could feel the heat beating upon me. I looked for shady
spots, but there were not any on that rocky mountaintop. Thankfully we did not
stay out there in the sun that long before we made our way back down. However,
I was out there long enough to get quite a sunburn.
God provides shade and protects us
God protects us at night. In the
ancient world, many believed in a phenomenon known as moonstroke. There was the
belief that mental illness was caused by the moon. That is actually the
etymology of the word ‘lunatic,’ the moon caused insanity.
Just as God protects us by day, God
also protects us by night. In fact, God protects all the time, in every season.
You may recall the story of Elijah
battling the priests of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. Well, it turns out that Ba’al
was only a part-time god. Ba’al would actually go underground to sleep during
the heat of summer. But not the God of Israel. Yahweh did not go on vacation.
Yahweh did not take summers off. Yahweh was always with the people, always
awake, always caring, always protecting.
The words of Psalm 121 may remind us
of the familiar verses of Psalm 23. Certainly, the theme is the same. God is
our Shepherd. The same God that watches over the sheep of the field, who leads
them to still waters, who protects them from attack and welcomes them home is
the God that created the rocks and the hills. It is the same God that watches
over the traveler and keeps their feet from stumbling and will offer them shade
by day and protection by night. God is our protection from the very dawn of
Creation through the Last Days. God will watch over us now and forever more.
All of the centuries later, these
eight verses still offer us comfort. These verses remind us that we can place
our trust in God. Our fears may be different than those of the ancient
travelers, but God will attend to them. God will help.
Let me ask you … what are your
fears? What anxieties do you carry? What burdens do you bear?
Our fears and anxieties change over
time. They change as we age, they change with our experiences. But the words of
the psalm addressed our physical needs as well as our emotional.
What are your fears?
Your health? Your financial
security? Your retirement? The health of your children? Climate change? Racial
injustice? Gun violence? The safety of our LGBTQ+ neighbors? Partisan politics?
There is no shortage of fears and concerns in our lives and in our world. It is
very easy to become overwhelmed.
But we do not need to fear. Our
faith assures us that God is with us.
Therefore, we lift our eyes. From
where will our help come? Our help will come from our God who was powerful
enough to create the heavens and the earth. Our help will come from our God who
is intimate enough to keep our foot from slipping, and close enough to provide
us shade by day. Our help will come from our God who is steadfast and faithful
enough to be with us every moment of every day, now and forever more. Amen.
Congregational ChurchUCC, SACO MAINE12 BEACH STREET | SACO, ME 04072207-283-3771