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Psalm 121

I lift 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 hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.

I don’t remember the first time I watched it, but it was years after it first came out. I’m talking about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – a film starring Harrison Ford, first released in 1989. I was probably in high school when I watched it, so it was the late 90’s for sure. In the third and final act of the film, Indy and his companions come to a temple carved into a cliff wall where the Holy Grail (the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper) is believed to be hidden.

I remember being amazed at the scene location. I was also amazed to learn the location was not a Hollywood set, but a real place in Petra. I learned that the place is actually called “The Treasury” (Al-Khazneh, in Arabic) – a 19th century name given to it by the Bedouins of the area because they believed it contained hidden treasure (in fact, if you look closely you can see bullet marks on the rock near the top, around a carved urn, from people who tried to break it open hoping treasure would pour out). In fact, this site is most likely a mausoleum for a Nabatean King from the 1st century AD. 

From that first moment watching Indiana Jones and from the time I learned it was a real location, I knew it was a bucket-list destination. I remember reading a 1998 National Geographic magazine article about it, filled with beautiful full-colour pictures. In university someone asked me, “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” My answer, without hesitation, was, “Petra, Jordan.”

In 2018 I went. And I was not disappointed! The scale, the beauty and detail, the regal-ness of it all; the history and the lore that had developed around it. I was captivated. I remember just standing in front of the towering façade simply being amazed. A bucket list item checked off, but without any of the disappointment you might fear happens when a dream comes true.

Part of why that day was amazing is because Petra has so much more to offer than The Treasury. The wadi’s and caves of ancient Petra house hundreds of other mausoleums and burial sites that have been excavated and which archaeologists have studied. The ancient city boasts a Greek-style amphitheater, palace ruins, Colonnaded street which was likely the center of commerce and social life, a pool and garden complex. Archaeologists estimate the history of human use and settlement in this region goes back 8000 years or more.

At one point in the tour our guide said, “I want only those who can handle a 1000m hike straight up...” A group of 15 of us put up our hands. In the heat of the late morning, we started climbing jabal al-madbah (Arabic for “Mountain of the Altar) to what is called the “High Place of Sacrifice.” Standing atop the mountain peak we stood in the ruins of a ancient site for sacrifice and worship. Our tour guide, George, gathered us around, looked us all in the eyes, and whispered, “I lift my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?” (Scroll to the end to see two pictures of the above)

Psalm 121 is a song of ascents, meaning it is part of the liturgy of the shalosh regalim (the pilgrimage feasts) in Judaism. Three times a year, men (and sometimes families) would travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple in commemoration of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles) (cf. Ex. 23:14-19). Scholars debate how often people would actually participate in these pilgrimage festivals. Well, it may not have been every festival every year it does seem clear that, at least for significant occasions in the life of the believing Jew, they would travel to Jerusalem for a festival. Jerusalem itself is located atop a mountain; sometimes called Mount Zion in the Bible. And so as people ascended the mountain, they would recite some of the songs of ascent (Psalms 120 – 134). Further as you travel towards Jerusalem you go through mountainous regions. The Jericho Road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan, was a regular journey up from Jericho through a mountainous range to Jerusalem. The mountains held hiding places for robbers and others with ill intent. 

What's more, throughout the Ancient Near East, like at Petra, we know that these high places were the locations of worshipping the gods of the nations. As the Israelites are coming into the land for the first time, the Lord commands them to destroy the high places of the nations (cf. Num. 33:52 & Deut. 12:2). Throughout the Books of Kings the record of the Israelite kings who did not destroy the high places, or who set up altars again in the high places, or who put priests back in service in the high places, is recorded as a mark of God's judgement against them (cf. 1 Kings 3:3; 12:31; 13:33; 14:23; 15:14; 22:43; 2 Kings repeats the phrase “The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there.” Plus many other references to high places not being removed…) That the pagan gods lived in these places seems to be behind the words of Jeremiah in 3:23, which he calls an idolatry and a deception.

Whether the dangers of the journey, the dangers of robbers, or the dangers of idolatry, the psalmist, as he ascends towards the temple of the Lord, asks where does my help come from? It is a question we must all ask in the face of fear, in the face of a journey to the unknown. It is a question we must ask as we walk the road of faith. Where does my help come from? Do I look to the things of this world? Do I look to the draw of status and power? Do I look at to the comfort of wealth? Does my heart turn to the lesser glories, to the gods of this world?

From this comes the declaration: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Help will not come from Baal, Asherah, Shapsuh (the Canaanite sun goddess, cf. vs. 6a), or Yarikh (the Canaanite moon goddess, cf. vs. 6b). In the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Elijah taunts regarding Baal, “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27) But the God “who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” 

The God of the Bible is the maker of the things worshipped as gods in the Ancient Near East and he watches your step, he catches your foot; he is our shade, close at hand. Not only is God our creator, but as the Apostles Creed says, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven, an earth.” Creator and Father. These are the two realities of who God is that are held together in Psalm 121.

This truth is beautifully summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 26, “I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.” (emphasis added)

And yet it is so easy to live with fear. It is so easy to look to the high places of our day and cry out for their help. It is so easy to face the dark night of the soul or the cancer diagnosis and to wonder, where is God in the midst of it? As Akin and the others say, “In moments of crisis, we need to experience our theology.”[1] The twin truths of God as Creator and Father hold us in the palm of his hand, such that no matter what we face, we may know that our help is in the name of the Lord.

And that is a truth even more beautiful than the treasury at Petra. That is the rock on which we can build our lives of faith.

 Lord Jesus, the eyes of my heart wander from you so easily. Help me to tear down the high places in my life to focus my eyes only on you. O God, whatever today or tomorrow may hold, may I know that I am held in the palm of your fatherly hand. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

[1] Akin, Hunt, Merida, Exalting Jesus in Psalms 101-150, 191.


High Place of Sacrifice Jebel al-Madbah Petra Jordan1432