The Message, March 5, 2023: "I Look to the Hills," Psalm 121

The Message, March 5, 2023: "I Look to the Hills," Psalm 121

Author: Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
March 07, 2023


“I Look to the Hills”
A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
Psalm 121

Introduction 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 generations ago.

Responsive Scripture Reading:

Leader: I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
             From where does my help come?
People: Help comes from the Lord,
             who made heaven and earth.
             He will not let our feet stumble.
             Indeed, the One who watches over Israel
             will never slumber nor sleep.
Leader: Who is our Protector?
People: God is our Protector;
             God is our shade at our right hand.
Leader: From what will God protect us?
People: The sun will not harm us by day,
             nor the moon by night.
             God will protect us from all evil;
             He 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 to eternity.

            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 the driver!)

            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 wife.

            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 from danger.

            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 Church