Psalm 120 — A Song of Ascents
In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
Psalm 121 — A Song of Ascents
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
This is the word of God in Psalm 120 and Psalm 121.
And these two psalms, Psalm 120 and 121, open up for us a new section in the Book of Psalms known as “The Songs of Ascents” — which goes from Psalm 120 to 134. Now the whole Book of Psalms itself is amazing — it’s the biggest book in the Bible; it’s right here in the middle of the Bible. The psalms are this glorious combination of ancient poems and songs and prayers that teach us and model for us what it means to be in a covenant relationship with God. And I don’t think I’m overstating this when I say it — I’ve thought a lot about it — But I’m convinced my spiritual life could not make it without the Psalms.
The Psalms are just so practical, and so full of power, that they help us in a way nothing else can. They just help us. They help me. And I think this Advent Season they will help us as a church, especially this section here known as the Songs of Ascents.
So, starting today and ending on Christmas Day, we are going to do a short sermon series on this section of Psalms. And I’ll say more about that in a little bit, but I want us to go ahead and get started this morning with Psalm 120 — because this is the word of God, and we have, this morning, been confronted with it. We have heard the word of God, and we know that God intends to speak to his church through his word. We believe that God has something to say to us here in these psalms, and we want to know what that is.
Well, there are at least three things that we learn in Psalm 120 and Psalm 121, and these three things are the three simple points of this sermon:
- Here Is Not Our Home
- The Hills Are Not Our Help
- God Cares About Our Everyday Lives
And we’re just going to walk through them just like that. Starting with the first one, and let me go ahead and warn you that this first point is the longest because we have to lay a lot of groundwork. So let’s get started:
1. Here Is Not Our Home
And that is basically the message of Psalm 120. That’s what this little psalm is getting at. If you have a Bible with you, you can see it right there in verse 1 of Psalm 120.
The psalmist is in this place of distress and need. He says he’s surrounded by liars and deceivers — and he knows, eventually, that they’re going to face God’s judgment. That’s what verse 4 is saying when he talks about the sharp arrows and burning coals. Arrows are coming for these deceivers. Burning coals will defeat these liars. But, that’s not happened yet. That’s not here. Instead, for now, the psalmist says “Woe to me.”
See that in verse 5: “Woe to me that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar.”
Now wait a second: where is that? What does that mean? What is Meshech? What is Kedar?
Well here’s where I think it would help for us to step back a little bit and get some more context. So two questions for us:
- What is happening specifically in Psalm 120?
- What is going on in this whole section of Psalms called the Songs of Ascents?
Tired of Meshech and Kedar
Well, for Psalm 120, there in verse 5, you might recognize the name “Meshech” — and that’s because (and this is cool) we actually saw that name a few weeks ago in Genesis chapter 10. Meshech was the name of one of Noah’s grandsons. In Genesis 10:2 we read that Meshech was one of the sons of Japheth, and it was the sons of Japheth, if you remember, in Genesis 10 who were called the “coastland peoples.” Basically, what that means is that they were people who went and lived the farthest away from Jerusalem.
In the biblical world, Jerusalem is the center of everything. And you’re considered to be way out there depending on where you are relative to Jerusalem. And so Meshech would have been way out there, probably way up north from Israel. That’s what is going on with Meshech.
And then with Kedar, this is is another name that shows up elsewhere in the Bible. Kedar was a son of Ishmael, who comes later in the Book of Genesis, and he would have settled way southeast of Israel — still a long ways from Jerusalem but it’s the opposite way of Meshech. So it would have been like this: Jerusalem is in the center, and then way up here is Meshech, and way down here is Kedar. And psalmist is saying “Woe to me” because that’s where he’s at. . . .
Which tells us that the psalmist is being metaphorical here. Meshech and Kedar are metaphors for somewhere a long ways away from Jerusalem. That’s what the psalmist is saying. We have metaphors like this in our language. We also have places that we say that are synonymous to a long ways away. That’s usually what we mean when we say Timbuktu. [Have you heard that? We might say: “From here to Timbuktu.”] Well, Timbuktu is a real place, but in English we’ve tended to use the word to just mean “way out there.” Well, that’s the same thing that’s happening here with Meshech and Kedar.
The psalmist is tired of living way out there. He is tired of himself and the people of God living a long ways away from Jerusalem. And that is what sets up what’s going on here in this section of Psalms.
Meet the Songs of Ascents
These psalms are called the Songs of Ascents — that’s “Ascent” as in “to ascend.” And they’re called that because they’re connected to God’s people ascending up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, as as Pastor Joe has said before, was higher in elevation than the places around it. So to go to Jerusalem means, literally, that you are ascending. You’re going up.
Many scholars think that these psalms were songs that Jewish people actually sang together as they traveled up to Jerusalem for worship. Jewish believers would routinely travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple or to observe different festivals, and the idea is that they sang these songs on the way there. So as they were traveling, ascending, up to Jerusalem, they’re not singing “100 bottles of beer on the wall” — that song wasn’t written yet — instead they’re singing these psalms together.
And that’s how many think this section of psalms got their name, The Songs of Ascents. And you can actually see a progression in the psalms themselves. The Songs of Ascents are 14 psalms that start in Psalm 120 a long ways away from Jerusalem, and then by the end at Psalm 134 we’re in Jerusalem worshiping God together.
And the plan for this sermon series is that we follow the psalms on this journey. And I think that when we do this, we’re going to see that there’s more going on here than first meets the eye.
And that’s because there are always two levels at work when we read the Psalms.
First there’s the Historical Level. There’s why the individual psalms were written and how they were used in their historical context. That’s the historical level.
But then there’s a second level we could call the Book Level. And the issue there is: What do these psalms actually mean in their biblical context? What do these psalms mean within the Book of Psalms itself?
And I think that is the most important question. It matters to us what the psalms are doing in the Bible. Meaning: this is not just some random collection of poems and songs, but they’ve been composed and arranged — under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — in a certain way to say something to us. There’s a message here. It’s not just about Jewish people traveling to Jerusalem. Something bigger is happening here, and I’m going go ahead and let the cat out of the bag . . .
I believe the goal of Psalms 120–134 is to give us a vision of the people of God being rescued from exile. These psalms are looking to the future, end-of-time reality when God rescues his people for good. That’s what the Songs of Ascents are about. They’re pointing to the day when God will bring his people to his place to live under his rule forever.
That’s why the psalmist says: “Woe to me that I sojourn in Meshech! That I dwell among the tents of Kedar!” He’s saying: I’m tired of living so far away from the place that God has promised bring me.
The psalmist knows he’s not there yet. He’s not where God will ultimately bring him. And here’s the thing: we’re not either.
See, in this sense, we are in the same boat as the psalmist. We too are in Meshech. We too are living in Kedar.
When it comes to the new creation reality of God’s kingdom, when it comes to the peace of God reigning over the entire earth, we know America is not that. No country in this world is that.
When we think about the world that Jesus is going to make new — what we call heaven — when we think about that world we are reminded that here is not our home. We’re not there yet. For now, we live in exile. That’s what the Apostle Peter calls Christians. We’re exiles. We’re for peace; we want the kingdom of God to come; we want his will to be done. — but for now we live in a land full of injustice and wrongdoing. And that’s not easy — it’s not supposed to be. Here is not our home.
2. The Hills Are Not Our Help
The message of Psalm 120 gives way to Psalm 121. If here is not our home, but we’re still here, and we’re surrounded by injustice and wrongdoing, what are we going to do?
That’s the question Psalm 121 starts with.
The psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (121:1). And that’s a legit question here.
We talked about this a few months back in Genesis 1 (some of you might remember), but the psalmist asking a real question. The psalmist is saying: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Is my help going to come from the hills?”
And he’s asking that question because, in his day, the nations and peoples who surrounded him looked to the hills for help. Back in these ancient times the hills were the places where pagans worshipers would go to look for help from their pagan gods. The hilltops were the places where shrines would be set up, and sacrifices would be made. All the other nations would go to the hills to try to get help from their gods, whether Baal or Asherah or Molech — people went to the hills for help and the psalmist in Psalm 121 is asking if he should go to those same hills.
See, he’s thinking: When everybody around me needs help, they look to these hills. Everybody around me goes to these hills for help. Am I going to get the help I need from these hills? That’s his question.
Then in Psalm 121, verse 2, he answers his own question. He says: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” My help does not come from the hills; my help comes from the One who made the hills.
He Declares and Denounces
This is a religious confession. The psalmist here is making a profession of faith, and there are two sides to it — kind of like two sides of the same coin. First, there is what he declares. Then second, there is what he denounces.
He declares, first, that his help comes from the Lord. That is straightforward. He is saying that he worships and looks to the one, true, sovereign God, the creator of the heavens and earth. He declares that. My help comes from the Lord!
And at the same time that he declares the Lord to be his his help (to be his God), he is denouncing every other would-be god, and every other would-be help. And this is one of those category things for us to keep in mind.
When you live in Meshech and Kedar, when you’re in exile, we need to know who we are looking to, who we are trusting in, AND —
we need to know who/what/where we are NOT looking to — who/what/where are we NOT trusting in. And it’s not the hills. We don’t look where everybody else looks. The hills are not our help.
And that’s important because we’re a long ways out here. We are a long ways from the place that God will one day bring us, and there are all kinds of things clamoring for our allegiance. And part of what it means to trust in God is to know what we’re saying No to. And I don’t mean just the big things. I’m not talking about where you sign your name, or where you fill in the bubble, or the broad positions we might take — I’m talking about the little moments of your day when you encounter circumstances and possible reactions that are incompatible with you worshiping God. The question is:
Are we looking to God for help? Are we trusting in God? OR — Are we looking to ourselves? Is it the Self that we really trust in?
See, it’s questions like this that are answered in moment-by-moment-ness of life. Now there are things we can say and should say, but then there is how we live, how we think, how we feel. And God cares about that.
And that brings us to our last point.
3. God Cares About Our Everyday Lives
And hey, look, for these first two points we’ve been plowing. We’ve been slogging. But for this last point, I want to slow down and get a little more personal. And that’s because so much of this last point is intertwined with the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with many of you. Over the last couple years, over coffee or lunch, as I’ve heard more about what God is up to in our lives, the thing I feel like I’ve said the most, what I feel like God has been teaching me the most, is that how we get where we’re going matters as much as where we’re going.
That’s been a theme for me, and that’s partly because it’s so applicable. In most of our circumstances, in a lot of the hard things in our lives, it has something to do with uncertainty. A lot of what makes things difficult for us is that we don’t know what the outcome will be. We don’t know how this situation will go. We don’t know if God is going to answer our prayers. And that leads us to fear, it leads us to be anxious. It makes things difficult.
And the temptation in situations like that is to just want to get out of the situation. We want the solution. We want the results. We want the destination — just give us the answer, God, please! But the truth that we’ve shared, the truth that recently God has been singing over my soul, is that he doesn’t just care about where you end up, but he cares about the path you take along the way.
And this is a simple truth. We totally get this. If this were not true, we’d all be in heaven right now. If God just cared about the destination of things, all his people would be in heaven. But he cares about more. God will get his glory not just in the results, but also in the process. Which means God cares about our everyday lives. He cares about your details. That’s true.
And what this means for us on the personal level is that wherever you find yourself today — in whatever situation you find yourself in — you are not trying to get somewhere else for God to care about you. He cares about you where you are. He reveals his glory not just in getting you where he’s taking you, but in the little steps along the way. And I mean little steps. So much so that . . .
He will not let your foot be moved.
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper.
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
He cares so much about your everyday life that he knows everywhere you go. Our details matter to him. And leads us to ask: What does this mean for us? If God cares about our everyday lives, if he cares about the details, what kind of difference does that make on our details?
I have two things here in closing.
Because God cares about our everyday lives . . .
It Means We Are Aware of Our Brokenness
It goes like this: if we know that God cares about the details, if we know he cares about all the little things, then we’re going to be reminded often of how messed up we are. Again, if God just cared about our worldview, then we just need to get that in order and move on. But if he cares about your soul when you rub the sleep out of your eyes in the morning, and he cares about what is on your mind as you lay your head down on the pillow at night, if we know that he cares about that level of reality, then we know he sees us in our worst moments.
And that means we need to bow our heads and recognize that as bad as we might think it is in here, or as bad as someone else might think it is, God sees it exactly right — and it’s probably worse than any of us thinks. Think about this: We are so severely flawed that the only chance we have of doing anything of any lasting good is if a God who can raise the dead works through us. We are broken people in need of moment-by-moment grace. And that’s way it’s supposed to be. So we want to acknowledge that.
But then second, because God cares about our everyday lives,
It Means He Loves Us in the Little, Tiny Ways We Typically Don’t Expect
Romans 5:8 tells us that God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died on the cross for us. The cross of Christ, when Jesus died in our place, is the boldest, clearest, most vivid expression of the glory of God in his love for us. Absolutely. And it’s not the only way God shows us his love. There are all kinds of little ways, flowing from the cross, in our details, where God shows us he loves us.
I’ll give you an example. This is a silly story, but God did this for me. So I’m going to tell you.
A couple years ago I wrote this article that was posted online and for whatever reason it just went bonkers on social media. A bunch of people were reading it and sharing it and loving it and hating it, and it just got out there. A lot of people read it. And a little later on this pastor down in Florida contacts me on Twitter and said he wanted to read my entire article to his church during a church service. Which is unique, right? This is interesting. And what made it even more interesting is that the church that this brother pastors is a giant mega-church. I don’t mean just a mega church. This is a mega-mega-church. This church’s building is on the same level as US Bank Stadium. Serious. The church has like 3–4 concession stands in it, and the pastor there wants to read my entire article to these thousands of people. Which is interesting to me, and it’s trying to play with my head a little bit, but I’m trying not to make a big deal about it. Just act like it’s not happening. Which worked for a while.
And the pastor went ahead and read the article one Sunday and it was over. But then a little later, I figure I’d get on their website and check out the video of the church service. Just to see.
So I find a quiet place at my house, and I play the video on my phone, and there’s a lot of singing and stuff, and eventually it gets to this part of the service, and the pastor has my article in his hand, and he’s up on the jumbo-tron, and he’s about to read my article. And I ain’t going to lie, my heart was beating fast. And he introduces the article like this. He says: “Hey church, I’ve got this article from another pastor I want to read to you. It’s from a pastor in Minnesota [my heart’s beating].” He says: “He’s the pastor of City Church and his name is Tommy Parnell.”
And when I heard him say that, I’m sitting there by myself, I just start laughing. I mean this whole thing is hilarious to me, so I’m just laughing and then my laughter becomes tears, and then I’m crying by myself. And I’m crying because in that moment it hits me that God loves me so much.
He loves me so much that even in the little, stupid moments of my life he shows up and gives me exactly what I need. He keeps me like that. He cares about my path. He cares about our details. And yeah, it means we understand more about how broken we are. But it also means we understand more about how loved we are. And the more we understand our brokenness and God’s love, the more we will get a taste of his glory. And we’ll think: Who is a God like him?
God is the only One who sets for us a table like this — this table full of grace.
At this table Jesus gives us the bread and wine for us to remember his broken body and shed blood. We eat it, in one sense, looking back — we look back and remember that Jesus died for us in our place. And then we eat it looking forward — we look forward and proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. But also, we eat it looking at now. We take the bread and cup not just for what Jesus did in the past or what he’s going to do in the future, but we take it for what he’s doing in this moment. And in this moment, God the Father, because of our union with Jesus, as we eat the bread, and as we drink the cup, God tells us he loves us in the details. I want you to feel that.
The servers can come get ready. We do this meal for the covenant members of Cities Church, but if you’re here and you trust in Jesus, we invite you to eat and drink with us. . . .