are beautiful: majestic, imposing, seemingly immoveable.
Therefore it’s easy to assume we know what the psalmist means
when he cries, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.”
Actually, he doesn’t mean what we think
he means, since mountains were ambivalent for the Israelite people:
majestic and imposing to be sure, yet also a source of danger.
After all, outlaws and cutthroats hid in the mountains and swept
down out of the hills to harm travellers.
The mountains themselves were treacherous for travellers, riddled
as they were with gorges and precipices and wild animals.
We modern folk like to imagine mountains (indeed, all of nature)
as relief from burnout and source of refreshment.
Our Israelite foreparents knew better; they knew that while the
mountains seem attractive as a place of refreshment and help, they are
also the place of grave threat. In
Psalm 11 the psalmist is tempted to “flee like a bird to the
mountains”, tempted to “get away from it all”, as we like to say.
But the psalmist knows that not even the birds are safe in the
mountains: food is exceedingly scarce among rocks, and predators abound.
For this reason as soon as the psalmist looks at the distant
hills and asks, “From whence does my help come?” he answers, “My
help comes from the Lord, from Yahweh.”
Ultimately help doesn’t come from the mountains, from nature;
help, the profoundest help we need, comes from God, the maker of heaven
this lesson isn’t learned quickly.
In an increasingly secularized age help is sought from every
quarter except the Lord. Yet
the places we look to for help are like the mountains: attractive,
beckoning, with much about them that is genuinely good, yet also
threatening and ultimately not helpful in the profoundest sense.
Think of culture. Our
society looks to culture for help. There
are immense riches here. If
I were deprived of Mozart’s genius and Yitzakh Perlman’s violin and
Renee Fleming’s voice; if I were deprived of E.J.Pratt’s poetry and
Robertson Davies’ prose and the movie, Chariots
of Fire (which I have seen eleven times) I should be unquestionably
the poorer for it. Culture
possesses genuine riches; it lends us a genuine good.
Yet culture, as the mountains were to the Israelite people, is
double-edged, ambivalent. Culture
transmits values. What
values does it transmit? Certainly
whatever it is that Chariots of
Fire embodies; but also what the movie, Mortal
Thoughts, embodies. Mortal Thoughts cost me $12 as well as more than a little disquiet.
Mortal Thoughts is about a woman who cuts her best friend’s
husband’s throat with an Exacto knife – blood everywhere.
Sitting beside me in the movie theatre was a 10 year old boy,
eyes wide open, taking it all in. How
many such spectacles has he seen already, and how many more will he see,
each impression cumulatively skewing his innermost control-centre?
What was the youngster unconsciously taking in about what it
means to be a human being and how disputes are settled?
As blood-soaked violence sank into his unconscious mind he was
less and less likely ever to understand consciously that gratuitous
violence is addictive; it creates an appetite for ever more violent
transmits values. What’s
In any case culture, good or bad, can never penetrate as deeply
as the human heart needs to be penetrated; it can’t finally “keep”
us in the sense in which the Lord our God is our keeper.
Much the same can be said about the state, about government.
The state, civil government, is God-ordained to restrain
criminality, preserve order and ensure the common good.
It must never be belittled. History
relentlessly attests what life is like where the common good isn’t
ensured. Not surprisingly,
many people assume that the state, government, will “keep” them.
But no state, however just, can “keep” any human being in the
sense that the Lord our God is our keeper.
And in a fallen creation, of course, the state is always
ambivalent, always double-edged. That
which is meant for blessing (Romans 13) in fact curses millions
(Revelation 13, where the state is the beast from the abyss, the monster
that devours the people of God). It
would be difficult to convince masses in the world right now that the
state is their helper in any sense.
Then there are the rugged individualists, brimful of confidence,
who argue that the individual’s psychological resources are
sufficient. Make no mistake:
the individual’s psychological resources are wonderful.
I marvel at what people have in them: intuition,
coping-mechanisms, resilience, creativity.
But also hidden in everyone’s intrapsychic landscape are
psychological booby-traps. All
of us have dark recesses in our psyche which startle us when we least
expect it just because we never guessed (couldn’t guess) what lurks
The psalmist, then, is correct.
While he is tempted to flee to the mountains and seek help there,
he knows that the mountains are both beautiful and dangerous.
And in any case the mountains can’t provide the kind of help he
most profoundly needs. As
much has to be said of anything else we might think can profoundly help.
help comes from the Lord. What
kind of help? What do we
need help with? help for? We
aren’t so foolish (I trust) as to assume we are promised divine
assistance for our pet projects, or worse, for our ambition, or worse
still, for our naked avarice. God
isn’t the rocket fuel which powers whatever we think will let us
“get ahead”. Then what
is the nature of the help we both need and crave?
Our question concerning the nature of the help we need is
answered by the psalmist’s repeated use of “keep” and
“keeper”. We need to
be “kept”; i.e.,
preserved, safeguarded. At
bottom we know we need one thing above all else: we need the identity
which God has given us in Christ to be safeguarded, preserved, in the
midst of everything which threatens it in life, as well as whatever may
threaten it in death. We
know we can’t avoid sickness, setback and suffering.
We know that no one is spared these.
What we want, deepest down, is this: what I am in Christ, the
real “me”, even the “me” which is so profound that God alone
sees and knows it -- that this “me” will be safeguarded now so as to
be kept forever. Paul tells
the believers in Colosse that who they really are, their ultimate
identity, is hid with Christ in God.
What we most profoundly need is this: that what is hid with
Christ in God will also be kept with Christ in God, safeguarded,
preserved, until that day when nothing will be able to assail it,
crumble it, evaporate it.
I have long been intrigued by the answers different people give
to the question, “Who tells you who you are?”
I think that this question is so very significant inasmuch as the
answer to it will determine who we are.
Do my parents tell me who I am?
To some extent, but if they alone do then I have never grown up.
Does my academic achievement or my professional standing or my
reputation tell me who I am? These
can only give me the most artificial identity.
Do I tell myself who I am? This
yields a most confusing identity, since the “I” which tells the
“I” which is told is like trying to set a watch to a factory whistle
while trying to set the whistle to the watch.
Who tells any of us who we are?
Who tells me who I am? Who
makes me who I am? And after
whoever, whatever, makes me
who I am, who or what is going to “keep” me in the psalmist’s
sense of “keep”?
One who keeps me is the One who has kept
. He “made”
, that people ordained to live for the praise of his glory and the
enlightening of the nations. Having
fashioned such a people he has kept them.
When they were threatened with dissolution in
; when they were discouraged in the wilderness; when prophets were
dismayed at the faithlessness of the people, still the holy One of
Israel kept them.
The psalmist argues that since God has so manifestly, obviously
, the people, God can be trusted to keep every person who is
individually a member of
. Because the God who kept
has promised to keep the church, so that not even the powers of death
can prevail against it, he will surely keep us who are individually
members of it.
From the formation of
to the birth of Jesus 1300 years elapsed.
was kept. The day came when
was gathered up into the person of
’s greater Son. Was he
kept? Seemingly not.
Yet as he was raised from the dead and was made to live forever
more he is kept -- his people with him, and you and me with his
people. He who keeps
neither slumbers nor sleeps. There
will be no forgetful lapse or careless lapse on God’s part during
which something from within me or something from without me might
deprive me of my identity before God and my security in him.
what has God promised to safeguard us, “keep” us? – against the
sun and the moon, says the psalmist.
The sun shall not smite us by day nor the moon by night.
We laugh, even snicker, at this.
Who gets sunstroked today? And
even if travellers in hot countries might get sunstroked from time to
time, who ever got moonstroked?
We laugh too soon. You
see, for our Hebrew foreparents the sun symbolized perils on life’s
journey which overwhelmed them. To
be “sunstroked”, metaphorically, was to be “done in” by
developments which were part and parcel of the journey itself.
Don’t we speak today of being “burnt out”?
We too speak metaphorically.
When we come upon someone who is manifestly “burnt out” we
don’t rush her to the hospital for a skin graft.
We mean that ordinary, day-to-day developments have become too
much for her. Employment is
an everyday aspect of life’s journey.
Having a job, having to work, isn’t extraordinary.
Yet work can leave people burnt out.
Parenting is part of life’s journey; there’s nothing unusual
about it. Yet in some
circumstances parenting would leave anyone beside himself.
(If ever you are tempted to think otherwise, come with me for a
day in family court.) Having
aged parents isn’t unusual. Still,
the stress of dealing with elderly parents can unravel us.
All of these developments are normal, everyday aspects of the
journey of life. Yet they
can bring us down.
It is plain that when the psalmist insists that we are going to
be “kept” he doesn’t mean that we are going to be cushioned.
Any Christian who expects to be cushioned should look more
closely at the master himself. Was
he cushioned? against anything? He
was cushioned against nothing, yet ultimately kept amidst everything,
for no development has left him devoid of his identity before his
Father. What caused him to
sweat so profusely in
that the sweat poured off his face like blood from a forehead gash; what
caused him to cry out, “Even my Father has abandoned me.” --
none of it ultimately dissolved him.
On the contrary all of it was the occasion in which his Father
“kept” him, safeguarded him, preserved him, even as he felt it not.
We aren’t cushioned; we are kept.
Our identity before God, our security in God; this is safeguarded
regardless of day-to-day developments, however ordinary, that appear to
overwhelm us on life’s journey. The
sun shall not smite us by day.
Moonstroke is something else.
The ancient world believed that the moon gave off noxious powers,
among which were diseases of all kinds.
Disease is rooted in micro-organisms which we can’t see.
Micro-organisms are tiny, yet insidious and dangerous.
Whereas to be “sunstroked” is to fall victim to what
overwhelms us frontally, visibly, on our journey, to be
“moonstroked” is to be submarined insidiously by what we don’t
see, can’t foresee, and
against which therefore we aren’t forearmed.
When I was studying in
I preached one Sunday to an Anglican congregation, one of whose families
invited the Shepherds home for lunch.
Our host and hostess were both physicians.
They were telling us of a clergyman who was transparent to the
gospel, who had had inestimable influence upon them, and who had meant
the world to them. At the
height of his powers this clergyman had come down with encephalitis, was
severely brain-damaged, and now babbled and slobbered and stumbled.
So overcome was my physician-host in recounting his sad tale that
he stopped speaking. Feeling
awkward at the silence I admitted my medical ignorance and asked him how
his friend had come to have encephalitis.
My host turned to me and said slowly and sadly, “How does
anyone get it?” He meant,
“Isn’t it tragic that we can be contending triumphantly with
developments in front of us (sunstroke won’t get us) when unbeknown to
us something microscopic yet insidious can submarine us and reduce us,
apparently, to a pitiable creature who babbles and slobbers and
stumbles.” If my host had
lived 3000 years ago he would have said, “My clergyman-friend appears
Speaking of encephalitis, I was moved more than I can tell at
reading the book, Awakenings,
by Dr. Oliver Sacks. (I’ve corresponded several times with Oliver
Sacks, neurologist, since as a pastor I have to minister to
neurologically damaged people.) Dr.
Sacks spent much of his working life with patients whose Parkinsonian
symptoms were rooted in encephalitis.
Where others saw human wreckage so neurologically wrecked as to
be subhuman, Oliver Sacks saw creatures of God whom God “kept”
despite the hideous ravages of their disease.
In other words, even the people who gave greatest evidence of
being moonstroked ultimately weren’t.
God won’t cushion me against encephalitis.
(He who didn’t cushion his Son against anything isn’t going
to cushion me.) But he will keep me -- ultimately -- against sunstroke and moonstroke alike.
Who I am in Jesus Christ; that “me” which God alone sees; who
I really am even though I can only glimpse it from time to time; this
is what God will safeguard, keep, regardless of what may seem to have
overwhelmed me frontally or submarined me insidiously.
the nature of God’s safeguarding is to preserve us against sunstroke
and moonstroke alike, what is the scope of God’s keeping?
The psalmist says that God can be trusted to keep our “going
out and our coming in.” “Going
out and coming in” is a rich Hebrew expression with three distinct
In the first place “going out and coming in” is a Hebrew way
of expressing totality or entirety; a Hebrew way of saying everything.
To say that God will keep our going out and our coming in is to
say that nothing which befalls us will ever undo God’s keeping.
Nothing will ever handcuff God so as to leave him unable to keep
us. He who wasn’t
handcuffed by the death of his Son isn’t going to be handcuffed now.
In the second place “going out and coming in” refers to the
important ventures and efforts and undertakings of life.
To have these “kept” is to have our kingdom efforts rendered
fruitful. In Psalm 126 the
psalmist writes, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for
sowing, shall come in with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves
with him.” To know that
God will keep our going out and our coming in is to know that our
worthwhile undertakings in life – into which we have poured ourselves
– aren’t going to be fruitless finally.
We may have seen little fruit to date for the energy we have
poured out and the sacrifices we have made and the prayers we have
pleaded; nonetheless, it all isn’t finally going to dribble away.
It’s going to be crowned.
In the third place “going out and coming in” refers to the
early years and the sunset years of life, infancy and old age, when we
are helpless. At the beginning of life and at the end we are kept.
The child who dies in infancy, even the still-born child (not to
mention the aborted child) is kept inviolate before God, by God.
The most senile person in the nursing home whose senility has
left her unrecognizable; this person too is kept inviolate before God as
Today my heart rejoices that the God who neither slumbers nor
sleeps will keep my going out and my coming in.
From whence does my help come?
Not from the hills, from nature, however majestic nature might
be. My help – yours too
– comes from the One who kept
’s greater Son, and will keep any one of us unto the day of our
Lord’s glorious appearing.