A Psalm for Covid-19

Psalm 121 – Help Is on the Horizon

The coronavirus pandemic marks the first time an entire generation, a privileged one at that, has been asked to undergo the trials of their ancestors – loneliness, danger, economic hardship, disease. How are we doing? Honestly, some of us are not doing very well. As the worldwide crisis goes on, it seems like a perilous journey that might never end. Psalm 121 was written to encourage worried travelers on a more literal, no less perilous journey: the rugged, weeks-long trek through ancient Israel toward Jerusalem.

This is a song for an anxious pilgrimage.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains— 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 watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore

Where does my help come from?

From most areas of Israel, Jerusalem would have been an upward toil. In verse 1, travelers look toward the mountains which lie ahead of them. At the outset, they realize there are undiscovered problems hidden in those hills.

And yet, the horizon also holds an answer. The beautiful temple of God, plated in gold, sat atop Mount Zion at the apex of the capital city. From certain vantage points the travelers might glimpse their destination in the intense sunlight, glowing in the distance. By raising their eyes toward their coming hardships, the pilgrims would also be reminded of the powerful presence of God, their help along the way.

Watchman on the walls

The Lord is portrayed as the watchman on the walls of our lives. He keeps us, guards us, watches over us in the most active and intimate way. He is as close as our shadow, and his protection extends to every time of day or night. We may sleep in hostile situations with confidence that He does not. It is His job and His character to keep us from harm. Without knowing what lies around the next bend, whether bandit or lion or refreshing mountain spring, we can trust that nothing comes to us except by His permission. In addition to the ten dangers we do encounter, this poem implies there have been hundreds more we passed safely by, thanks to the continual watchcare of God. And we do not face the problems of the journey alone.

Dangers still in the distance

The psalmist wrote his final stanza in the future tense. After describing the Lord’s present protection, he invites worried travelers to trust God for those dangers and years still in the distance. We cannot always see the boulders in the road, the robbers hiding nearby or the mountains of tomorrow, but we know they are there. This song assures us many potential threats have already been fenced out and our God is with us every step of the way. We tend to imagine the troubles ahead, but God is far greater than our problems, real or imagined.

As we face a changed world, not knowing where danger lies but knowing it’s out there somewhere, where does our help come from? When the eyes of fear glimpse illness or loss or poverty, let us also envision the presence of God guarding, guiding and comforting us all along our journey. Psalm 121 reminds us, we can either focus on our fears or upon God’s constant presence and abiding love.

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Deuteronomy 31:8


Questions:

  1. What dangers do you imagine lie in wait for you?
  1. Can you trust the Lord to protect you on the journey of life? Consider memorizing a verse from Psalm 121 to help you remember God watches over you.

Steadfast Love

I’ve been studying Psalm 103 with a group of close friends recently. It soothes my heart to read about God’s kindness and love. But it’s even more powerful when you see it in action, up close in real life. I’d like to share one of those experiences with you in the words of my friend, Judy.


When we first started this journey, the familiarity of the verses caught me off guard. I thought it was because of the songs I had sung in church that often contained the words of this passage. But when I opened my personal Bible, I was shocked to find that this psalm had walked with me through some very difficult times in the worst period of my life. How had I not remembered that?

As I read over my journaling and ran my fingers over the highlighted portions, my heart was overwhelmed with His compassion to me, His struggling daughter. My friends have asked me how I have joy after struggling through the long, drawn out separation, divorce and end of my marriage. I had fought so hard to keep that relationship alive that the end rocked my foundations. Psalm 103 was the answer to that question. During those dark, lonely, grief-stricken, paralyzing days, I spent so much time in the Scripture. Motivated by joining a Bible study, by new women friends who were strong in their faith, by my own desperation to find healing, I poured myself into the Word. Reading. Cross referencing. Listening to sermons. Praying. Memorizing. Begging God to heal these broken places of my life. And He did. My marriage ended, but my relationship with the true lover of my soul continued and thrived.

I don’t always remember exactly which verses helped. Healing is not a bullet point list that we can move along in a linear fashion, accomplishing each task to claim that we’ve completed the process. It’s more like a twisted, spiral, conic section of repetitive behaviors, thoughts, processes; moving forward, then backward, then completely turned around and right side up again. It’s a constant choosing to do the next thing. To believe truth. To insist upon writing those truths of God on my mind and heart.

Psalm 103 contained one of those truths. Three times I had returned to this psalm during that season. Three critical times. Wow. I thought to myself what was the number one thing I learned during that time from this psalm of David? This: God’s steadfast love was with me. Four times it is mentioned.

  1. “Who crowns you with steadfast love”
  2. “The Lord is…abounding in steadfast love”
  3. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love”
  4. “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him”

Steadfast love. In my personal life, human love has proved itself to be elusive and transitory. Yet, there it is in black and white in Psalm 103. Repeated four times. It doesn’t just say “love.” Every single time the adjective “steadfast”’ precedes it. Steadfast is defined as “firmly fixed in place, immovable, unwavering, loyal.” And my heart clung to that character of God as I walked the journey of separation, loss, betrayal.

What comes before each of those four steadfast love phrases in this psalm?

  1. “Who redeems your life from the pit”
  2. “The Lord is slow to anger”
  3. “He does not deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our iniquities”
  4. “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more”

Whoa. Four hardest things in life – I’ve gotten myself into a terrible pit I can’t get out of. I’ve done something to incur the anger of God. My sins demand payment. Death. His answer for each one – steadfast love.

This week I received a call from my ex-husband asking if we could meet. We’ve had very little contact over the past year, and he has never before pursued a meeting with me. My mind has run amuck with all the possibilities – and not in a calm, reassuring, confident way. This morning as I meditated on this psalm, my question to God was how could I glorify Him in this meeting. And His answer – rest in the knowledge of My steadfast love. Take the bedrock of truths that I have built into my heart, mind, character and walk confidently toward whatever this meeting holds. No matter what the news is or how it affects my future, one thing is unwavering, firmly in place, immovable, loyal – the love of God.


Related Material:

Blue Dye by Denise Habicht
Dear Soul by Gracelaced (Ruth Chou Simons)

Everything Happens to Everyone

Duke Divinity Professor and public Christian, Kate Bowler, was only thirty-five years old and a new mother when doctors made the terrifying discovery that she had Stage IV colon cancer spreading through her abdomen. When she published an account of her faith and ongoing medical battles in The New York Times, she received responses telling her, among other things, that her cancer was caused by unconfessed sin or that acai berries would cure her. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved, is her attempt to answer those well-meaning critics, to answer that universal, human question when faced with tragedy: Why? Kate Bowler’s answer is that there is no why, there is no order or reason, and we had better put our energies toward enjoying the good we have today.

While I sympathize with her response, and I agree with her outlook on present blessings, I have another perspective, forged in a similar fire: everything happens to everyone, and it happens for a reason.

No, I don’t mean every tragedy and every blessing possible happens to each and every person on the planet. What I mean is that you cannot single out Christians and say they get more blessings (or curses) in their lives than the average Joe. Just look around you. Christians and non-Christians get cancer in the same proportion as everyone else (though outcomes may be slightly better). They lose children in the same proportion as everyone else. They get divorced in the same proportion as everyone else, and that’s a behavior-related problem! If they didn’t then someone would have noticed, and surely everyone on the planet would be calling themselves a true believer. Christians also get rich, attain their dreams and live long lives in approximately the same proportions as everyone else. You cannot look at a person or their beliefs and predict or explain what happens to them. Everything happens to everyone. 

In contrast to Dr. Bowler, however, I believe these statistically random events do happen for a reason. I can’t tell you that reason, not beyond a generic response such as, “for God’s glory.” And I suspect the individual reasons may be many and varied. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. We can examine any story in the Bible and find there are reasons for the tragedies therein. Joseph was sold into slavery and accused of a crime he did not commit so as to put him in the right place at the right time. Jonah was nearly drowned because of his disobedience (there’s a behavior-related problem for you). Mary and Martha grieved the death of their brother so the faith of many, including Mary and Martha, would be supernaturally strengthened. Paul and Barnabas had a bitter fight so that many more churches could be planted and discipled. Jesus died on the cross, an innocent man crucified like the lowest of criminals, so that all His brothers and sisters could live forever.

To all who struggle and hurt, who crave answers, who might even be willing to suffer if you knew it meant something, here is what Scripture says to you:

  1. God is in control. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things (Is. 45:6,7).
  2. God has His purposes. I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.’ (Is. 46:9-11) 
  3. For you who love the Lord, those purposes are good. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Because we can’t, at times, understand the last point, we tend to doubt the others. Some might even call it heresy, profaning God, to say that a young mother with cancer could, in any sense, be good. I don’t pretend to understand it, either, and I am not trying to give you the answer. I am just repeating God’s assertion that there IS an answer. If God could take the greatest disaster that ever occurred (the murder of His only Son) and turn it into the greatest good that ever happened (the eternal salvation of all who believe), then, surely, He can do that for our little tragedies, too.

Most of the time we must wait our turn for a personal audience before we can “know as we are known,” but occasionally, we do get glimpses of God’s glory shining through the darkness. In my own case, if I had to do it all again, to live through years of cancerous gloom in order to get to the place of faith and ministry where He has brought me today, I would do it willingly, gladly. I truly believe there is a similar happy ending to all the stories, even the ones where young mothers aren’t healed, but faith means believing that without seeing it.

We serve a God who does not discriminate in the gifts and catastrophes He allows upon the earth during our era of brokenness. But we also serve a God who controls the sparrow in the sky and the hairs on our head with love and with purpose. Everything happens to everyone – and it happens for a reason.


Related Material:

Why Me? – Dear Christian Counselor
When God’s Sovereignty Scares You – The Gospel Coalition
On God’s Sovereignty in Painful Times – John Piper
A Few Examples of Reasons We Suffer – Focus on the Family
Kate Bowler’s Original Article – New York Times