The man behind the counter told us that his daughter worked at a hospital. “She has to carry extra gloves with her at all times. The supplies are now kept in a locked room.” Apparently earlier that day the hospital’s security had stopped a man heading out the door with a cart full of hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. The same day there was a New York Times story about a man hoarding thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer with the goal of selling them at vastly inflated prices (he later donated the lot). These kinds of stories are scary because they reveal the truth of our vulnerability.
Two weeks ago our congregation’s worship featured Psalm 121. We’re focusing on Psalms during this year’s Lenten season. Psalm 121 is a traveler’s song. It’s a song for pilgrims. In many Bibles it’s called a “Song of Ascents,” which means it was written to be sung as one trekked up to Jerusalem to take part in corporate celebrations.
We aren’t taking part in many corporate celebrations these days, but we do still have something in common with the ancient folks who repeated this psalm. Pilgrims are vulnerable people. They cross new territory. Their traditional networks of support aren’t very relevant. Sometimes a pilgrim doesn’t know the way and has to rely on the word of others.
Psalm 121 begins with this line: “I lift my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” I used to think that the poet was imagining that help came from the hills. I happen to like hills. Yet this reading doesn’t seem to make sense of the poet’s question: “From where will my help come?” This isn’t the best reading. For travelers in the ancient world the hills were often the residence of the threat. Robbers and brigands hid out in the hills. They would swoop down on vulnerable travelers.
The poetic turn in the first strophe of Psalm 121 occurs when the writer reckons that, though the world through which pilgrims travel is a source of threats, the one who made that world is the source of help: “My help comes from the LORD (YHWH), who made heaven and earth.” There are threats in this world, but the source of help is deeper, bigger, prior. The poem goes on to settle on one description of God with particular relevance for vulnerable travelers: “The LORD is your keeper the LORD is your shade at your right hand.”
There is something, though, that pulls me further into the psalm. Notice verse 7: “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” It’s not true. Not true, at least as a logical proposition. People did suffer evil as they traveled. God’s “keeping” did not interrupt death as a natural end. The mortality rate for human creatures runs at a constant 100%. But this is not a modern discovery; the poet knew it too.
So what does a psalm like this offer vulnerable pilgrims? Well, a pilgrim’s song is intended to be sung. A poem for traveling is intended to be repeated—chanted along the way or pronounced over those starting off on a journey. Psalm 121 is a liturgical piece of writing. It’s intended to shape the minds and souls of those who voiced it. A psalm like this is intended to shape the channels of our souls. It is intended to press grooves of truth and goodness into our minds.
Some words are worth repeating—words like those of Psalm 121. Shaped by these words we can respond with wisdom and grace in our vulnerable moments: “The LORD is your keeper . . . .” Words like these nurture courage and generosity.