Psalm 121: The Unbelievable Promise
How can the believer reconcile the suffering, trials, and persecution they are guaranteed with the astounding assurance in Psalm 121 that the Lord will keep them from all evil? Some might misinterpret this passage and claim a false gospel of health and wealth. Others may question God’s wisdom when they look at the tragedies befalling Christians throughout the world. Often we simply view this psalm as a platitude. We turn to it when we feel uneasy or anxious, but stop short of the solace it offers once our fears are momentarily assuaged. We are satisfied with momentary relief when we are promised comfort forevermore.
Psalm 121 is described as a “song of ascent,” indicating that it may have been sung by Hebrew pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem. Why does the psalmist lift his eyes to the hills? One explanation is that the traveler is raising his eyes towards the temple in an act of confidence. Another interpretation relies on the understanding of this passage as a literal journey, where the hills might represent danger. With either interpretation, the answer to the pilgrim’s question remains the same: the Lord who made heaven and earth is his help.
To know that the Lord who made and upholds all things is at your right hand can give a new perspective on the fears that so easily paralyze a person. Anxiety often boils down to a desire for control. The vicissitudes of life can shake our sense of security, so we attempt to manage the details of our lives to minimize uncertainties. However, the Lord promises all-encompassing stability and protection. He will not sleep or slumber so that we can say along with David in Psalm 3:5 “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” The kings of this earth would be foolish to allow their servants to sleep while they stood guard over their beds. But our King takes on the role of a servant time and again, watching over us while we rest. Nothing happens, not a hair falling or a foot slipping, without it being exactly the way God intended.
The psalm closes with a staggering promise that the Lord will preserve the believer from all evil and will sustain the daily goings and comings of their life now and forevermore. Here we return to the apparent incongruity this passage presents. Are we to really believe that no harm will ever befall the believer? If a believer’s life is cut short, does this mean that God has broken His promise? God’s people have endured much physical suffering individually and collectively. They have been enslaved, imprisoned, and wiped out in numbers. Could it be that the Lord was slumbering?
We can understand the concept of life offered in Psalm 121 as it is understood in the famous words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The Lord is not guaranteeing physical safety from all harm, He is promising that all who are His no longer need to fear death, for He has conquered death and granted eternal life to those who believe. Like the promise that the Lord’s Holy One will not see corruption in Psalm 16, this passage looks forward to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. We can lift our eyes to the hill of Calvary even in our darkest valleys, where we can rest assured our greatest threats– death and condemnation– were defeated on the cross.
When we can truly grasp that nothing in heaven or on earth can take away the life we have in Christ, we can release our grip from our own obsession with self-preservation and trust them to our Creator. This is how goodness and mercy can follow us even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. This is why those who lose their life will find it. This is what it means that though put to death not a hair on your head will perish. This is the reason, like Job, we can lift our eyes in worship, declare with Paul that to die is gain, and sing along with the Reformer, Martin Luther, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.” This is no false assurance, this is our eternal hope in Jesus Christ.
Megan K. Taylor earned her MA in Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Joel, live in Sanford, Fl where she works for Ligonier Ministries.