If you have a Bible that includes titles and headings, you will likely notice that Psalm 121 is referred to as “A Song of Ascents” (or “A Song of Degrees” depending on your translation). Some fifteen psalms bear this title. Some include the composer’s name; others are anonymous. In any case, the “Songs of Ascents” are traditionally connected with the time period of Israel’s Babylonian exile. They are identified as some of the most fervent, heartfelt cries of God’s people, sung either in the expectation of or celebration of release from captivity. God’s people filled their choruses with the longing they so desperately yearned to see and enjoy and experience, namely, the restoration of Jehovah’s presence and peace.
Psalm 121 is, perhaps, the most famous chorus in the “Songs of Ascents.” The unidentified psalmist begins in almost confessional form, and then turns the chorus into a declarative stanza with which the whole choir extols the protection of the “Maker of heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121:2) The present situation is a deep, dark, distressing one for our songwriter. He is surrounded by an ominous panorama with no hope in sight. Nothing but hills. The menacing ridge that encompasses him is representative of the formidable valley in which he finds himself alone and estranged from God. We might even be so bold to describe his circumstance as the “valley of the shadow of death.” (Ps. 23:4) As such, he begins to question where his help would come from. (Ps. 121:1) “Where is my help going to come from now?” “How are you going to help me here?” “How are the reinforcements going to get to us?”
But right on the heels of that despairing refrain comes the psalmist’s resounding confession. “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121:2) He is not alone in this valley. There is a Helper who comes to his aid. And this Helper is none other than the Maker of heaven and earth himself. God himself meets and exceeds the needs of the psalmist — he comes to his aid and offers the help he so desperately craved. The psalmist’s desperation (Ps. 121:1) is perfectly met by the Lord’s provision. (Ps. 121:2) And the help he provides is nothing less than his almighty protection. And such is the help the Lord continues to provide to us, even now, in the middle of our trouble and calamity, making Psalm 121, perhaps, the most appropriate refrain for our present circumstance.
Protection That Doesn’t Sleep
The God who watches over you never needs a rest. He never needs a nap because the world is so worrisome. He never needs a break from dealing with the incessant cares of his children. He never closes his eyes or stops his ears to our cries for help and mercy. (Ps. 121:1–2) “God is never exhausted,” Albert Barnes comments, “is never weary, is never inattentive. He never closes his eyes on the condition of his people, on the wants of the world.”(1) Such unslumbering protection is unlike any other god.
I am reminded of the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal at the foot of Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 18:20–40) If you remember, Elijah challenges 450 prophets of Baal to see whose deity could be first to consume an offering of a bull in flames. (1 Kings 18:20–24) The prophets of Baal go first — but when they cried to Baal nothing happened. Dead silence. “There was no sound; no one answered.” (1 Kings 18:25–26) Elijah, the sportsman that he is, starts trash-talking, goading them to shout louder. “Maybe he’s thinking it over,” he mocks; “maybe he has wandered away; or maybe he’s on the road. Perhaps he’s sleeping and will wake up!” But the prayers to Baal were useless. “No one answered, no one paid attention.” (1 Kings 18:27–29) Elijah, then, proceeds to trounce them by praying to a God who was alive and attentive and aware. He prays to a God who wasn’t sleeping. (1 Kings 18:30–40) Because, you see, only the “Protector of Israel” never has to sleep. He is always awake, alive, and alert to where we are and what we are going through. “His power is unwearied,” Alexander Maclaren writes, “and needs no recuperation; His watchfulness is never at fault.”(2)
This unslumbering protection, though, is unlike you and me, too. Our bodies are made for sleep, such that we cannot live without it. Part of what makes us human is the necessity of sleep. In fact, sleep deprivation can cause all manner of physical and mental illnesses — and can eventually kill you. No matter how hard you try, you cannot resist your body’s signals that it is time to rest (not for long, anyway). And built into the simple biology of “needing sleep” is, I think, some pretty profound theology. By which, I mean, that notwithstanding what is happening all around you — notwithstanding your glowing newsfeed that tries to keep you up at night — notwithstanding the endless to-dos and projects that keep mounting, you are free to go to sleep. Because there is One who “does not slumber or sleep” (Ps. 121:4), and he’s got his eyes on the world.
In his book, Reset, author David Murray puts it this way: “By sleeping, we are relinquishing control and reminding ourselves — at least for a few hours — that God actually doesn’t need us. When we close our eyes each night, we are saying, ‘I don’t run the world, or the church, or even my own little life.’”(3)
The scarily beautiful sermon that sleep preaches to us is the good news of our unproductivity and inability while we’re sleeping. You and I don’t have to stay up all night worrying about how the world is going to turn out the next day. We don’t have to stress about how the next morning’s headlines are going to read. We don’t have to be anxious about tomorrow and what it might hold. Tomorrow is God’s domain. Tomorrow (and today) is protected by the unslumbering I AM.
Protection That Isn’t Distracted
Furthermore, though, this Lord of unslumbering protection is never distracted. He never takes his eyes off us, yes, even while we sojourn through the “valley of the shadow of death” — even there his gaze is fixed on us. Even there he is with us. (Ps. 139:7–12) Notice the emphasis the psalmist lays on the individual and personal care that God displays for those he protects: He steadies their footing. (Ps. 121:3) He shelters them from the noonday heat and midnight chill. (Ps. 121:5–6) He safeguards them from “all harm.” (Ps. 121:7) He secures their every step. (Ps. 121:8) Indeed, your undistracted Protector is attentive to your immediate needs. He is neither too big or too busy to notice you. And I think that is, perhaps, one of the sweetest, most endearing truths about our Lord.
He is not just a God who rules over the big things, he is God in and over the little things, too. Notwithstanding the significance or inconsequence of your cares, worries, fears, or circumstances, he hears it all, knows it all, cares for it all. When we are invited to cast all our cares on his shoulders, he means all of them — every single one of them. (1 Pet. 5:7) “The wings of Jehovah,” Charles Spurgeon affirms, “amply guard his own from evils great and small, temporary and eternal.”(4) The God of heaven is your undistracted Protector, even in all the normal, everyday worries and weights and trials you endure. He is not only the Lord your Maker, he is your Abba Father. (Rom 8:15) “He is the God of small spaces,” author and speaker Chad Bird declares, “the tiny shards of a shattered heart are just the right size for him to fit inside.”(5) He is the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Lord who watches over the whole universe while he watches over you.
Chad Bird goes on to say: “The Lord who seems so distant actually sits beside us in our prisons, lies with us on our hospital beds, and kneels with us in the dirt beside the graves of our children . . . trials and temptations, burdens and losses, are where God is most active to bring his grace into our lives. Counting your blessings includes counting your crosses, for Christ is hidden in suffering to lead us toward the blessings he desires for us . . . We need the Savior who crawls into the pit with us, takes us broken and bleeding in his arms, and bears us home to his Father’s house. In the loss of all things, we find the God of all grace, who gives us all things in his Son.”(6)
This is the staggering protection by which we are safeguarded and helped through loss, grief, sorrow, and sadness. Though God is holding the entire universe in motion, even still he is holding and protecting you. (Ps. 8:1, 3–4) He is your undistracted Protector and your affectionate Father who is intimately aware of both the distant erupting stars and the instant his children are distressed. The One who “keeps” the stars in their courses is the One who “keeps” you “both now and forever.” (Ps. 121:8)