bible blog 814

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:

US drones target people helping victims of first strikes-report alleges

Psalm 121

Assurance of God’s Protection

A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—    from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,    who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel    will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,    nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;    he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep    your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.

modern pilgrims

As it happens, the metric translation of this psalm in the Scottish Psalter 1635 is one of the glories of my Scottish tradition:

1I to the hills will lift mine eyes;

from whence doth come mine aid?

2My safety cometh from the Lord,

who heav’n and earth hath made.

Thy foot he’ll not let slide, nor will

he slumber that thee keeps;

behold! he that keeps Israel

he slumbers not, nor sleeps.

The Lord thee keeps, the Lord thy shade

on thy right hand doth stay;

the moon by night thee shall not smite

nor yet the sun by day.

The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall

preserve thee from all ill.

Henceforth thy going out and in

God keep for ever will.

moon rising behind mountains

I know of course that this is a pilgrim psalm written to be chanted by those making their way up to the Temple on Mount Zion for one of the great feasts; but several phrases in it make me locate it in Scotland: the hills to which I raise my eyes are the hills of Scotland which I love to climb and the sliding foot which God will steady is my own, as I descend a scree slope. Then again there is something wonderfully domestic about the going out and the coming in which is not, I think, present in the original, where it refers to entrance and exit from the holy city. As I sing it I imagine that it refers to my daily journeys from home and to home; and that perhaps “in heaven” God overlooks the coming and going of his family with as much care as an earthly mother. Is all this a sentimental mistake?

It is a distortion of the original, in which the main focus is pilgrimage to communal worship, the sort of thing that might be sung by faithful Moslems on Hajj. Yet with wonderful simplicity that author says that the pilgrim’s God is the God of all the earth. This link between the individual worshipper and the maker of the universe is specific: the universal God cares for the pilgrim’s safety. It is this locally- evident intimacy which the metric version communicates to me.

Yes, it’s difficult to use the word Israel today as my ancestors used it, because the injustices of modern Israel are so obvious, but I simply apply the name to the humanity God loves with a sleepless concern. Having  in the course of my hillwalking been caught unprepared by ferocious sunlight and once exposed to the cold light of the winter moon when delayed on a hill, I can identify with the psalm’s use of the heavenly bodies as threats rather than helps; and think of God’s presence as a protection from a universe which is careless of its  creatures.

the holy city, the new Jerusalem

I’m not naive and so do not expect that God will shelter me, or any of his children, from the accidents and perils of life on earth, but in spite of that realism, or rather, because of it, I find the words of assurance wonderfully consoling:

The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall

preserve thee from all ill.

Henceforth thy going out and in

God keep for ever will.

-as I make my own pilgrimage towards the holy city, against all reason I believe this is true.

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