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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A lot of people are asking the question that begins this psalm: From where does my help come? They’re probably not looking up at the mountains, but they might be looking to the government, or to doctors, or to scientists developing cures or vaccines, or to the safety of their homes.
But why would the psalmist speak about looking to the mountains? These psalms were sung on the way up to Jerusalem. Is there a threat within the mountains? Some kind of invader, or marauder, or maybe thieves or robbers along the way of the journey? Or is it the spiritual threat of the old, idolatrous high places? The people used to worship the gods of the nations alongside Yahweh there.
Whatever the danger, help against it may come from a mountain, but not the mountain itself. The people are going up to the mountain of Yahweh, Zion, Jerusalem. Not from some high place within the earth, but from the One who made the whole earth and all the heavens. Only the God who is the maker of all things can be worthy of complete and ultimate trust. If you have a god who is within the creation, rather than the Creator, than your help will fail. At some point, perhaps when you are most in need, the people or things in which you trust will let you down. From where does your help come? From the world? From people? From your financial security? From your immune system?
This is not to say that there is no help from people or technology within the world for the dangers we face. We should not do what the man in a story did, who prayed and prayed to God for help in the face of a flood. He went up on his roof as the water rose, and continued to pray. He refused the help of rescuers in boats, and rescuers in helicopters, because he said God would save him. And when the water rose and carried him away so that he died, he asked God why He didn’t save him. And God said, I sent all those rescuers to save you, but you refused!
Indeed, God sends help to us from within this world, from those whom He has placed in various positions to help us. But that’s the point: God sends them. So in temporal danger, we receive the help that God sends, however He chooses to send it. And we give thanks to Him for His mercy, as long as we live within this creation, where dangers to body and soul lurk. Human help is helpless, unless God is behind it all. “Unless Yahweh guards the city, the watchmen stay awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Sin and death have their tentacles everywhere, trying to trip you up, grabbing hold of you so that you fall. We believe that the Lord will watch over and protect His people; that He will never leave them or forsake them.
But aren’t there times when it seems as if the Lord had abandoned His people? Aren’t there times where, in spite of our looking to Yahweh for help, no help seems to come? Israel knew it well, and the psalmists are no strangers to the prayer that becomes a cry of lament in those moments. In times of war, or pestilence, or disease, or famine, when many are sick, or many die, it is not faithless to cry to God. Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal that perhaps their god is sleeping (1 Kings 18:27), but sometimes God’s people think that He is sleeping.
The sons of Korah, in Psalm 44, cry out to God and say, “Rouse Yourself! Why are You sleeping, O Lord? Wake up and do not reject forever!” It is a lament that God does not seem to be acting in the midst of danger. We trust God. Will God put us to shame? We confess in Psalm 121 that God does not get drowsy or fall asleep. In Greek, it says that He doesn’t go to sleep and wake up. But then why doesn’t He vindicate that promise before the eyes of all people? Why doesn’t He protect Christians from sickness and disease? Why doesn’t He appear to be acting? It’s the eternal, atheistic glee at having scored a seemingly indisputable point. If God were real, and good, and powerful, wouldn’t He do something about this?
It’s nothing new, of course. You might recall that there was once a dying man who had claimed to be from God; claimed to be a savior; claimed to have some privilege by virtue of being God’s son. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:35, 37, 39). “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him” (Matthew 27:40, 42-43). Why doesn’t God act for you, Jesus? Why are you dying? Why are you being crucified, if you are the Son of God? Rouse Yourself and wake up, God. Do not reject forever.
So it goes. Whether it is something through which you are going or with which you’re struggling, or if it’s human misery on a large scale, the atheists and skeptics say the same thing: where is God now? They mock people who take time to pray for relief from various diseases, because they want “real” help, not imaginary, fairy-tale cures that we all know enlightened people have long since discarded. They look to science, or money, or human caution and restraint, as if any of those things have ever been successful in removing suffering and death. Rouse Yourself and wake up, God. Do not reject forever.
A lament can only be true lamentation if it is prayed in faith that there actually is a God who can come to our help. And as Jeremiah did in Lamentations, we hold to the promise that He will not reject forever (3:31). Through Zechariah, God promises that He will answer them and have compassion on them, and will make it as though He had not rejected them in exile in this world (10:6). We lament because we don’t see yet what has been promised; even more, because we don’t see yet what has been accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God did not reject His Son; He raised Him from the dead. What looked like God’s silence and rejection and sleeping was only the moment before He completed His work.
Regardless of what it looks like, regardless of what the unbelieving world says, we will hold to the one who is the maker of heaven and earth. The psalmist travels with those on their way up to Jerusalem, and he travels with us on our way to the New Jerusalem, as one of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. To them and to us, he proclaims a God who does not sleep or slumber. Because Yahweh, our God, does not sleep, we pray in Psalm 4: “In peace, at once, I will lie down and sleep, because You alone make me lie down and dwell in safety” (4:8; MT 4:9). “I lay down and slept, and I woke again, because Yahweh sustained and upheld me” (3:6). Not only will we sleep in peace each night, we will sleep in peace when we sleep in death.
He is the one who keeps, who guards, who protects. The noun and the verb for to keep or guard is used six times in this short psalm. He who keeps you will not sleep. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber or sleep. Yahweh is your keeper. He will keep you from evil; He will keep your life. He will keep your going out and your coming in now and forever. Our help is from and with Yahweh. Our life is not kept as belonging to this world of sin and death. He keeps it. Yahweh bless you and keep you, Aaron blessed the people. Lie down in peace tonight, because Yahweh sustains you. Lie down in peace at the end of your life, because Yahweh keeps you. And you will wake again, as surely as God answered Jesus’ rejection and raised Him up in His steadfast love. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/11/20