A song of ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD watches over you—
the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
A sojourn into the Psalms.
The Songs of Ascents were apparently used by pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem for the Feasts. This Psalm is marked as one of them. Possibly this was a kind of question and answer, a two part song where the leader asks:
‘Where does my help come from?’
I’ve come across a few interpretations of verse 1. There is the idea that by looking to the hills, marvellous creations of God, the writer is reminded of the creator himself – the Maker of heaven and earth. I certainly have had that experience when gazing at the beauty of mountains. There is also the idea that the writer looks longingly towards the mountains of Zion.
On the negative side of things, the writer may be gazing fearfully at the hills, where robbers may be lying in wait, and therefore seeking help and protection.
One idea I find particularly interesting is that which suggests that the hills were where the gods of the surrounding polytheistic cultures were worshipped. The ‘high places’, so often mentioned in the history of Israel and Judah’s Kings. Other cultures sought help at these ‘high places’, but for the psalmist, it is entirely different. He looks to the hills and is reminded that his help is from Someone Different. He does not find his God in the hills, for his God – YHWH – is the maker of heaven and earth. We can see this in Jeremiah 3:23 – ‘Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills and the mountains is a deception; surely the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.’
In verses 3 and 4 we are told that the LORD – YHWH – neither slumbers nor sleeps. The gods of the other cultures were very ‘human’ in their portrayal, in that they were seen to argue amongst themselves, could be vindictive, and also go to sleep. And argument among these gods could have an effect on humans – for example in the weather and the seasons. But we are told here that YHWH does not go to sleep. In his famous contest with the prophets of Baal, Elijah taunted them by saying: “Shout louder! … Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)
It is also interesting to note that the sun and moon also have a history of being worshipped – but here it is made clear that YHWH has created everything. (In the glorious liturgy of Genesis 1, the sun and moon aren’t even named in the Hebrew – merely the greater and lesser ‘lights’ – again emphasising their createdness – that they are not gods in themselves. I hope to look at Genesis 1 in more detail at a later date).
This Psalm is very much concerned with the who. Who is the one who helps us? Who shelters? Who protects? Who is the one who watches over you? No one but YHWH – Maker of heaven and earth.
So often we turn our eyes towards things we desire, things we wish could help us. We like to spread the odds. We reach out for help and protection in places which fall short. We stumble about, our hands grabbing onto things, knowing but not really knowing – the One who can really help us. He is the One who can shade us from the scorching sun. He is the one who can hold us up when we are too weak to stand. He is the place of hope and help.
I ask myself again: where does my help come from?
Do I look elsewhere when all I need is to look to my God?