Where Does Your Help Come From?
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The one-hundred and twenty-first psalm has been one of my favorites for years. I suspect it has been for you, as well. It’s one of the staples of the faith we learn early on then repeat often, especially in times of trouble: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.
Where does my help come from?”
The poetry rolls off the tongue, especially when you revert back to the Elizabethan English. But what does it mean? And how does it speak to us today? That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning: Where does your help come from? Let’s take it from the top:
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?”
The opening words of the psalm are interpreted in one of three ways. The first connotes comfort and security.
When I first heard this psalm in Sunday School I pictured mountains symbolizing the omnipotence of God – majestic, imposing, immovable. Mountains stand for strength and stability, dominance and power. To stand on top of a mountain is like standing on top of the world. To stand at the base of a mountain and look up at the summit is to, well, stand in awe and wonder. Mountains are so big and we, by comparison, are so small.
So, naturally, when I heard the words, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills,” I thought of God’s dominion over all creation. As far as I can remember, that’s what we were taught: To lift up your eyes to the hills is to be reassured that God is all-powerful and in control. In the words of a song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” That’s why, in the King James Version of the Bible, the opening words are translated,
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
Hear the difference? It’s not a question, but a statement of fact.
The second interpretation is more disturbing. It has to do with the practice of idolatry.
I first heard this expressed in a sermon in Wichita Falls, Texas. It gave me a new perspective. The preacher said that, at the time this psalm was written, the kingdom of Judah had given itself over to the worship of Ba-al, the false god of the Phoenicians and Syrians, the one the prophet Elijah challenged on Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 18:20-39) I checked it out. Sure enough, he was right. In the words of one commentator,
“The psalm refers to the practices associated with the prevalent idolatry (of the day) and hints at wooden or stone images in the thickets, votive offerings on trees, brick altars, stones for libations, tables for feasting, broth of abominable things, obscene practices, human sacrifices, and spiritualism.”
That put a new spin on things. From this perspective, the hills the psalmist was seeing must have looked less like Mount Zion and more like the hillside outside Los Angeles, where huge block letters spell out the name, “H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D.”
If so, what the psalmist is actually saying is, “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills … and I see all of the shrines and altars and symbols of idolatry … and I ask myself: Where does my help come from?”
The third interpretation gives us even more to think about, for it introduces the element of peril.
I first went to Israel in 1988. In addition to all the biblical sites we visited, we got to see these hills for ourselves. Believe me, they’re not the Alps or the Rockies or the Ozarks. They’re are barren and foreboding – anything but friendly. One morning I stood at the balcony of our hotel in Jerusalem and looked toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. What I saw was a barren wilderness – rocks and sand and scrub brush for as far as you could see Hardly a place for a Sunday afternoon stroll.
In biblical times, that made travel by foot not only difficult, but dangerous. There were few paths and lots of hiding places for wild animals and would-be robbers. Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan? (Luke 10:30-36) Getting from one place to another was risky business.
In this sense, we might imagine the psalmist leaving Jericho for Jerusalem and looking up at the long and treacherous climb ahead of him and wondering, “How in the world am I going to get home safely…Where does my help come from?”
Well, whichever interpretation you prefer, they all lead to the same question: Where does your help come from?
Let’s talk about money. If you haven’t heard, we’re in a recession. The leading economic indicators are at a standstill. It’s anybody’s guess how long it’ll last or how deep it’ll go. What we know is that stocks are down and fuel costs are up and we’re already feeling the pinch.
I have a friend who has a modest investment in the stock market – a mutual fund, or something like that. He told me last week that he’d lost twenty-one thousand dollars in the first quarter of this year. I suspect he’s not the only one.
I have two students in my World Religions Class who commute, one from Prescott; the other, from Stamps. Their tuition cost now pales by comparison to what it costs them to drive back and forth to school. How long do you think they’ll be able to keep this up? Your guess is as good as mine.
The three leading candidates in the Presidential race all tell us that, if elected, they’ll see to it that the government will do something to help. Don’t count on it. Just look at all the travel trailers and mobile homes parked at the Hope airport. That ought to give you a pretty good idea of what help you can expect from the federal government.
And that’s just on the economic front. Where does your help come from regarding your personal health and safety?
Last month a member of a neighboring church experienced a bad headache and some slight dizziness. Nothing out of the ordinary, but still, her husband thought she ought to have it checked out. Sure enough, she had a brain tumor. The operation to remove it was successful, but the pathology report indicated that she has one of the deadlier forms of cancer. Her chances of survival are slim.
We’ve all seen the devastation of a tornado. Last month, one hit Little Rock. Before that, it was Adkins. God only knows where the next one will strike. What are you going to do to protect your loved ones and your property?
Remember the advertising slogans from the sermon last week? Well, nothing against the value of a good insurance policy, but how many of you really believe, “You’re in good hands with Allstate”? If a drunk driver crosses the median into your lane of traffic, the best Allstate or State Farm – or any other insurance company – can do is to help pick up the pieces. A good insurance policy is important to have when disaster strikes, but it won’t keep disaster from striking.
And what about all the potentially harmful bacteria floating around? Here’s a report from just one study I read:
“The oceans are teeming with ten to a hundred times more types of bacteria than previously believed, many of them unknown … US, Dutch and Spanish scientists said they found more than 20,000 different types of microbe in a single liter of water.” (planetark.com)
I don’t have to tell you, if your doctor can’t identify the specific germ that’s invaded your body, he’s not likely to know how to treat it. Modern medicine can only do so much.
But, for the moment, let’s say you’re able to stay safe and healthy. Where does your help come from when things go awry? For example:
• When a relationship begins to sputter and fail?
• When your teenage son or daughter starts running with the wrong crowd?
• When your work becomes a greater drudgery than you can stand?
• When a loved one dies?
• When you suffer a crisis of faith and find it hard to pray?
• When you wonder to yourself: Does God really care one way or the other?
Issues like these are all too common. The question is: When things go awry and your world seems to be coming apart at the seams, where does your help come from?
The psalmist answers with a clear and certain voice: “My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.”
Listen, if you don’t hear anything else in the sermon this morning, hear this: If your help comes from anything or anyone else other than the Lord God Almighty, you’re apt to be disappointed.
Family, friends, business associates – even your pastor – are likely to let you down when you need them most. Only God is ultimately steadfast and dependable. We hear over and over in the scripture:
• “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress— I will never be greatly shaken.” (Psalms 62:2)
• “Yahweh is their strength. He is a stronghold of salvation to his anointed.” (Psalms 28:8)
• “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalms 46:1)
• “Our help is in the name of Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalms 124:8)
This is why the psalmist is able to say,
“He will not allow your foot to be moved.
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
Yahweh is your keeper.
Yahweh is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
Yahweh will keep you from all evil.
He will keep your soul.
Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth, and forevermore.” (Psalms 121:3-8)
Nobody knows this better than Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy, as most of you know, is the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He has a long-standing reputation for being a man of impeccable integrity and strong character. Little did he know how his faith would be tested.
The Colts were nearing the end of the 2005 season. They were 13-0 and had just come home from beating Jacksonville. The phone rang at 1:45 a.m. The nurse on the other end of the line informed him that he his son, Jamie, had taken his own life. Dungy says, “The next several days were all a fog.” (Quiet Strength, p. 248)
They flew to Tampa, where Jamie was enrolled in college and began making plans for his funeral. Dungy says, “Lauren and I weren’t sure how we’d get through this, but we recognized that we were going to have to cling to God’s strength and love if we were going to have a chance.” (248)
After Jamie’s Homecoming Celebration, as they called it, Dungy faced a difficult decision: Should he go back to Indianapolis and try to finish the season, or should he take time to grieve? He took off work for a week then went back. He said, “(The Colts) didn’t need me, but I needed them.” (257) We all grieve in our own way.
He went on to say, “God doesn’t promise that once we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior we’ll be protected from harm and pain and stress. But He does promise that He’ll be there to lean on during those times. I thought it critical that, during this time of my own staggering loss, everyone watching our team see me live out those lessons rather than quit when times were tough.” (257)
He says, “Over the years, many of my players faced tragedies … I had always said that trusting in the Lord was the answer. Now, facing my own tragedy, I knew I needed to accept the truth that God’s love and power were sufficient.” (261)
I’ve never met Tony Dungy, but, from reading his book, I’ve come to appreciate the strength of his character and the depth of his faith. And I feel confident that, if he were here today, he’d answer the question before us without a moment’s hesitation: “You want to know where my help comes from? I’ll tell you: My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
May the same be said of you and me, now and always. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.