Verses like Psalm 121:7 can make us squirm: “YHWH will keep you from all harm. He will watch over your life”
Does YHWH, in fact, keep bad things from happening to us? Does it really seem like he “keeps us from all harm”? If you have spent any time at all in the psalms, you know that bad things happened to the psalmists all the time; they are always crying out to God for deliverance. More importantly, perhaps, you know from your own life that bad things happen—whether you’ve done anything to “deserve it” or not.
How can this psalm promise that YHWH will keep you from all harm?
Well, first, this is not a promise that hard things will not happen to you. We live in a fallen world and sometimes life just stinks.
But there are other ways to think about “harm” with respect to God’s sovereignty. God does allow painful things to happen, but he can and does use them for our greater good and for his glory.
Josh Moody’s book on the Psalms of Ascent is helpful on this point:
“Think of the surgeon prepping himself to go into surgery. As he prepares, he knows in one sense that he is about to do his patient harm. He is going to cut open his body and delve in with surgical tools. The patient will bleed. If there were no anesthetic, the patient would be screaming in pain strapped to the operating table. That sounds evil. Yet that surgeon rightly believes that he is following the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.” Harm is not harm when it good does.”*
Sometimes the things that cause us pain are for our healing as broken people.
Sometimes the things that cause us pain are for our growth.
Sometimes the things that cause us pain are the result of our heavenly parent disciplining us, despite the hurt causes.
Psalm 121 does not offer a trite promise that if you just trust God, your life will go well (whatever that means). Don’t trust God for that. You will be sorely disappointed if you are expecting an easy path. Pilgrims on this road can expect hardship, suffering, and even persecution. Jesus made that pretty clear, and the apostle Paul said more of the same.
So, what is the comfort of this psalm?
Do you remember where this psalm started? “I lift up my eyes to the hills”—that place where ancient Near Eastern gods lived; the gods that people tried desperately to please so they would be blessed in return; the gods that people depended on for their lives and their livelihoods.
The psalmist asked, “From where does my help come?”
Which god can help me? Plenty of gods offer help—but it’s always temporary at best and harmful at worst.
Real and lasting help on our difficult journey can only be found in one God: YHWH, the one who made heaven and earth. He is the God of all gods, the Creator of everything. By grace through faith, he is our God. He is our help—day and night, this year and next, from now until forever.
The Reformed tradition beautifully captures this comfort—from life to death—in the first question & answer from its Heidelberg Catechism:
- Question: What is your only comfort in life and death?
- Answer: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Amen and amen.
* Josh Moody, Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2103), 36-37 (affiliate link).