How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent: Our Majestic God: The God-centeredness of Worship

Sermon by Derek Thomas on September 2, 1999

Psalms 121:1-8

Turn with me, if you would, to Psalm 121. We began last Wednesday evening to study these fifteen Psalms, beginning at Psalm 120 through to 134, all of them having this title “A Song of Degrees” or “A Song of Ascent,” depending on which translation you’re using. And we ventured an opinion last week that these were probably Psalms sung and recited by pilgrims…believers making their way to one of the great festivals in Jerusalem.

We noticed last Wednesday evening how the first of them, Psalm 120, begins in the doldrums. It’s a Psalm in many ways “singing the blues”:

                        “In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and He heard me.” 

Now we come to Psalm 121:

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills;

From whence cometh my help?

My help cometh from the Lord,

Which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved;

He that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Behold, He that keepeth Israel

Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

“The Lord is thy keeper;

The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

The sun shall not smite thee by day,

Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall protect thee from all evil;

He shall preserve thy soul.

The Lord shall guard thy going out and thy coming in

From this time forth and even forevermore.”

Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word that holy men wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Come just now, by Your Spirit, and illuminate these words to our minds, to our hearts, that we might be the men and women that You desire us to be, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, as I said, these Psalms were, I think, psalms sung and recited by pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem to one of the great festivals; and now we come, I think, within sight of Jerusalem—at least in sight of the hills that surround Jerusalem – Mount Zion. You know, of course, if you’ve been in Israel, when you land in Tel Aviv and you make your journey to Jerusalem, you’re going uphill all the way. And as you come to the hills that surround Jerusalem, drawing near as you do, here’s a Psalm that tells us something of the difficulty, something of the trials that you may fear as you make this journey.

William Romaine, one of the great friends of George Whitefield, a preacher of the gospel…God blessed his ministry in a remarkable way. It was said of William Romaine that he read this Psalm every day of his life, at least ever since he was converted. It’s a favorite Psalm of many Christians, and it’s a favorite Psalm of many Christians because, I think, it testifies so powerfully and beautifully to the keeping power of God: that God keeps His children; that God perseveres with His children even to the very end.


Now we need to ask a question right in the opening verse so that we understand what the Psalm is saying. We need to ask, “Is the first verse asking a question, or is it making a statement?”

I read to you from the King James (it’s the one I grabbed before I left the office this afternoon), “I will lift up mine to the hills; from whence cometh my help?” And I read it not as it’s written, but I read it as I think it ought to be written, namely as a question. David, wanting to make us understand that he lifts up his eyes to the hills because from the hills comes his help…is that what he’s saying? I don’t think so. I think what David is saying is this: he lifts up his eyes to the hills, and what did he find in the hills? At least, what does he suspect lies in the hills?

You remember all those cowboy films…you know, the days of black and white cowboy films…and when the cowboys came into that ravine and then into that valley, and there would be hills on either side and the music would suddenly get very somber, and then the camera would be looking upwards to the top of the hills, and then you remember a rock would suddenly trickle down and fall down, and the horses would startle, and you knew there were bandits in those hills! There were marauders and thieves in those hills!

And in the psalmist’s time, things were no different. Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem had its problems, and so the psalmist is reflecting the fact that he’s making his way to the worship of God, and making his way to the house of God, but that in that pilgrimage he makes he finds himself in trouble. He finds himself fearing; he finds himself facing hostility of unknown quantity. He’s asking the question, “Where does my help come from?”

Well, I wonder – and I was wondering this afternoon as I was looking over this Psalm in the office at the seminary – I was thinking about you, as I’d been thinking about myself that day. And I wonder if…as I testify before you in all honesty, there are things in my life just now that I fear. There are things in my life just now that are pressing round upon my heart. Yes, I have burdens, and I’m sure you have burdens, you good people of First Presbyterian Church. You have burdens, too. You have trials. You have things that you fear. You have doctor’s appointments, and engagements in the office, and all kinds of issues with your family and those whom you love; and there are fears and alarms, and you look into the hills, and you’re asking the same question the psalmist was asking: “Where does my help come from? Who is going to help me in this hour of trial, in this hour of need?”

That’s this Psalm: a believer crying out for help, looking around to the hills that fill his horizon, seeing nothing but threat and alarm. Where is his help going to come from? And the rest of this Psalm is in answer to that question. It gives (in verse 2) a general answer, and then (in verses 3-8) fleshes out that answer in beautiful and magnificent and faith-challenging ways.


In the first place, then, it gives us this general answer: God is my help; the Lord is my helper.

And look at your Bible – look at it closely. We don’t often observe what the Bible has before us. It’s the covenant name of God that is used here. In your Bibles it’s no doubt capitalized in the English. This is the covenant name of God, the name that we’re all now supposed to say: Yahweh. I don’t think the believers are ever going to take this on board, but that’s the name that all seminary professors are now using. It’s what you and I used to know as Jehovah. And there’s the problem. No one is absolutely sure how to pronounce this name. It’s the covenant name of God. God gave this name, you remember, in Exodus 3. You remember the promise that God gave to Moses. God was calling upon Moses to bring the people out of Egypt, and God gave him that beautiful promise: “I will be with you.” And just a few verses later on, Moses asks the question, ‘When I go and tell this people what You’re about to do and where You’re about to take us, what is Your name?’ Moses says. And you remember what God says by way of reply, often translated in our English Bibles as “I Am that I Am,” or perhaps “I Will Be what I Will Be.”

And “I will be” what? Not just as we often think that God exists, but that “I will be”—you remember the promise?—“I will be with you wherever you go.” And it’s as though God is giving us in theological shorthand a name that was meant to evoke in the consciousness of the people of God that very promise which is at the heart of the covenant: “I will be with you.” And how wonderful here, that it’s that name that reassures the psalmist when he looks up into the hills and he asks the question, “Where is my help going to come from? My help is going to come from the One who is always with me and never forsakes me.”

But notice also not just that general statement of the name of the Lord, notice what he goes on to say: “…which made heaven and earth.” That God who is the Lord and our Redeemer and Savior is the One who created all things; the God of divine creation is the source of my help. And we tend, don’t we, to get lost, I think, in this whole debate about the place of science and religion, and sometimes forget the pastoral significance intended in Scripture by the doctrine of creation: that here is the psalmist applying the doctrine of God as the sovereign creator to his need and to his problem.

What is it that calms my fears? What is it that encourages me along the way when I’m faced with hostility and difficulty? It is the fact that the sovereign creator of heaven and earth is with me. The One who made the earth, the One who made the planetary system, the One who made all the universe in all of its macrocosm and microcosm, in all of its unbounded complexity, the God who said “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” That God is with me. That God is the source of my help. Everything that is, God made that. And the Bible won’t let us obviate that fact. The Bible, you see, wants us to draw that sweetness from this truth that God is the creator of all things, even of those very hills in which I now fear a problem.

What is there tonight that you imagine is a problem to God? What issue in your life, as in my life, is cause of concern that cannot be put right and cannot be resolved by a sovereign creator Who made absolutely everything that is? Do you see what he’s saying? ‘How can I find help, and where can I find help? And I find it in this sovereign Lord.’

Do you remember the two stories in Mark’s Gospel, one in chapter 6 and one in chapter 8 (and there is one person here who ought to remember, because he heard me preach on this on Sunday evening in Vicksburg!), and these are the two stories of Jesus and the storm on the Sea of Galilee, one in which Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat, you remember, and He rebukes the wind and the waves. Then, the other in which Jesus walks on the surface of the water, and He went as though He was going to pass by the boat (reflecting of course some incidents in the Old Testament when God Himself passed by Moses and went as though He would pass by Elijah), and it was a signal of a divine presence. And here in this Gospel narrative it’s the Lord Jesus Christ defying the laws of physics, defying the laws of gravity, treading on the surface of the water because He was the creator of that water…because He was the creator of that Sea of Galilee.

And that’s the point that the psalmist is saying here, that you and I by faith in Jesus Christ are in communion and fellowship with One who made everything that is, and if that doesn’t bring a calm into your soul…if that doesn’t resolve every imaginable fear that there is, then your God is too small.

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence comes my help?

My safety cometh from the Lord, who heaven and earth hath made.”


Do you remember how the prophet Isaiah uses that very truth, that very doctrine, to comfort the people of God as they were preparing for Babylonian exile? At the end of chapter 40:

 “Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary. There is no searching of His understanding. He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might, He increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall; but they that wait upon the Lord shall mount up with wings as eagles, and they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.”

And Isaiah is doing precisely the same as the psalmist is doing here: applying the truth of the creatorship of Almighty God to the present predicament and fears in which I now find myself.

But the psalmist does more than make that general statement. He fleshes it out in a six-fold way that isn’t obvious in our English translations. In the Authorized Version, for example, in verses 3, 4, and 5, we have the verb to keep, and then for some reason in verse 7 on two occasions and again in verse 8 on one occasion, we have another verb: to preserve. But in the original it’s all the one verb. In the New American Standard Version which most of you have before you tonight, the verb is to keep. And it ought to be there six times: God keeps His people. God keeps His people.

       And in the first place, He’s telling us He keeps us safe from harm.

“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved. He that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”

The reason why, my friends, you can go to sleep at night, is because God never sleeps. The reason why you can shut your eyes and lose all consciousness of this world and put your troubles to sleep alongside of you is because God Himself never sleeps.

Do you remember how Elijah the prophet taunted the prophets of Baal? You remember on Mount Carmel where they sacrificed, and they were calling upon Baal to come down. You remember how Elijah taunted them and said, “Maybe your god is asleep.” But our God never sleeps. His ear is ever open to the cry of His children. He won’t allow you to trip up along the way. He won’t allow you to get lost. Having saved His son Israel, He’s not going to lose him on the journey home. That’s what the psalmist is saying. It will never happen. We are kept, Peter says, by the power of God ready to be revealed in the last times. We are kept through the power of God. He keeps us safe from every harm and every danger.

And He keeps us safe in the harm, and in the danger. And it may be that you will be allowed to fall and cut your knee along the way, as Job was allowed to fall and cut his knee. But you remember in Job that the devil could only touch  Job because God had given him permission to do so. God was in control. God’s sovereignty was absolute throughout.

       He keeps us safe from harm, and He keeps us sheltered, the Psalm says.

                        “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.”

“How do you like living in Mississippi?” people say to me all the time. I say, “It’s fine, apart from this heat! Apart from this sun that never seems to go away!” And you’ve been…many of you have been often enough to Britain, and know that the sun only peeks out every now and then in that country. We rejoice when the sun comes out in Britain!

Do you see what the psalmist is saying here? There was danger of sunstroke, and at night there was danger from the moon—what kind of danger from the moon, you think? Well, just think of the word lunacy, and there’s a similar derivation in Greek as in English. It was widely believed that the moon could drive you mad.

Whatever your fears, whether in the physical realm or in the imaginary realm…whether in the physical realm or the mental realm, God will shelter you. God will keep you. He will keep you—and you remember that beautiful image that’s used again and again in the Psalms: “God will stretch out His wings to provide shelter for you.” And it’s an imagery that finds itself reflected again and again in the Psalms, God sheltering His people.

And then, keeping His people secure forever.

In verses 7 and 8, three times now he uses this verb to keep, and now we’ve moved and progressed from small steps in verses 3 and 4 (where we trip over) to verses 7 and 8, to the entirety of our lives…the whole of life, our going out and our coming in…every aspect of our life, He keeps us. No opposition, do you see, can finally crush the people of God.

Do you remember in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where Bunyan very graphically describes a road to hell that goes even from the gates of the Eternal City? The psalmist is saying that the true child of God will make it through those gates, and will make it into that Eternal City. Through every exigency of life, through every imaginable difficulty, through every strife, through every turmoil, through every heartache, through every pain,

“If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but freely delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things? I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels not principalities, not things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

This is “Romans 8 of the Old Testament”, isn’t it? The keeping, preserving power of Almighty God, keeping you and me through thick and thin, through all kinds of horrible events and sudden unimaginably difficult providences.

“A sovereign Protector I have,

Unseen yet ever at hand;

Unchangeably faithful to save,

Almighty to rule and command.

“He smiles and my comforts abound.

His grace as the dew shall descend,

And the walls of salvation surround

The soul He delights to defend.”

In verse 3 of this Psalm, he tells us how detailed His care is.

A little trip and you cut your knee, and God cares and God protects. In verse 5, He tells us how personal His care is, spreading His arms to shelter us from the storm. And in verses 7 and 8, He tells us how complete and total His care is. He keeps us through every issue and every exigency and every circumstance.

 Adoniram Judson, the great missionary of the nineteenth century to Burma, once said that the future is as bright as the promises of God, and that’s what this Psalm is saying.

Toward the close of the nineteenth century, there was a vessel, a boat carrying a number of passengers sailing from Liverpool in England to New York. And somewhere in mid-Atlantic, the ship encountered a squall of wind that knocked the ship sideways. It was in the dead of night, and many of the passengers apparently arose and got dressed, fearing the worst. And amongst them was a little girl eight years of age, the Captain’s daughter. And she asked upon waking and getting out of bed, “What’s the matter?” And it was explained to her about this squall of wind that had knocked the boat sideways and caused some alarm. And she asked the question, “Is my father on deck?” and they reassured her, “Yes, indeed, your father is on deck.” So she got back into bed and fell asleep again.

My friends, our Father is on deck. Our heavenly Father, who loves us with an everlasting love, a love that we have been led by grace to know, and He will never, ever, let us go.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word, and we thank You for its many encouragements and promises. And we pray especially tonight for one another, and for those especially whose hearts are heavy and burdened. Help us to know that peace that passes all understanding as we put our faith and trust and confidence in You and in Your love, and in the way that You keep us and will not let us go. Hear us, O Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now would you please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.


Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you now and forevermore. Amen.

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