“I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come?”
The oldest English translations of Psalm 121 (Geneva Bible 1599, King James 1611) render the first lines as a statement, as an affirmation of the certainty that our help comes from God. The modern translations of this Psalm, however, begin with an honest question—from where/ will my help/ come?
The tone is more than quizzical; it is almost desperate. The confident answer that God will help follows quickly, but you can guess where the Psalmist is coming from. If somebody is looking up and to the hills, somebody is in trouble. Somebody is wondering just where to turn. Your strength has run out, the ground feels like it’s moving under you—this is implied by the question.
Then right away in the second verse, the Psalmist answers his own question: your help comes from God. He says, “God will not let your foot be moved. . . God will keep you from all evil.” The Lord may be the source of the Psalmist’s strength, ultimately, but for some scary moments the question is gravely in doubt.
That’s where we have been for weeks and months now, reaching to a crescendo of natural disasters last week of fire and flood and contagion in this land. And I have been thinking about just how many, many people must be up against it right now. I wonder daily, to whom or to what do people turn under these sustained, dire circumstances? What are families saying to each other at the dinner table? What do people carry in the solitude of their hearts as they survey this scary mess and worry about a way out it? Whence cometh their help?
And now the same goes for the nation—I don’t know a scarier moment for a democratic country than when a sitting President declares publicly that there may be no transfer of power after the election, just a continuation, based on his surmise that the vote will be invalid—this won’t be an “honest” election, he says. What this ominous expression amounts to remains to be seen, but very likely we, the people, will be calling to the hills somewhere for deliverance from this anxious situation.
The human animal is a vulnerable creature—survival was a sometime thing for millennia—food, shelter had to be fought for and attacks from enemies who want your food and shelter had to be fought off—as it still is today in many parts of the world and in this country. So my thoughts turned to the Israelites’ early history when they dropped in to Canaan and faced enemies on all sides. In their frontier era, before there were kings, long before, the 12 tribes of Israel each had their own militia and each had their “warlord” to lead them. Their story is told in the Book of Judges which tells about eight of these warlords, who doubled as “judges” or community arbiters of cases in appeals for settlement of disputes.
But they really were wild men (and one wild woman, Jael) who, like the desperados of the American West, were kind of military adventurers with blood on their minds—the Book of Judges is close to bloodiest in the Bible. Their names may be vaguely familiar to you—Ehud, Gideon, Abimelech, Jephthah, and Jael, Jael, who drives a stake through the temple of Sisera, an enemy commander!
The most familiar, of course, will be Samson, the strong man who famously gave away the secret of his strength and was captured, bound and blinded then finally took his revenge after a long captivity when his hair grew back by pulling down the roof of their temple onto the heads of 3000 enemies and killed them.
You only heard a portion of the 3-chapter-long tale in which we learn that Samson is a vain man, given to violent excess, a sucker for sexual allure, and a fomenter of chaos unleashed by Yahweh upon the Philistines. I take the prerogative of a biblical preacher to draw a serious comparison of Samson, that just might have come to your mind, also, with our President, Donald Trump—a vain man, given to violent excess, a sucker for sexual allure, and a fomenter of chaos unleashed by Yahweh upon the Philistines.
The President has only invoked God once ever, and then very indirectly, by gingerly (awkwardly) holding up our Bible before a church across from the White House where the streets had just been swept of protesters by federal agents armed with tear gas and rubber bullets—so the divine calling does not apply, except perhaps in the President’s mind. The comparison between Samson and the President has its humorous parallels, which I won’t pursue, but I do find their appetite for mayhem to be a very consequential similarity.
As Prof. Greg Mobley wrote in his 2005 book, “There is something comic about Samson: he is the bull in the china shop, the rube, the hillbilly, who topples all the carefully arranged structures of Philistine urban society.” –and there you have the President.
But there is also something tragic about Samson, Prof. Mobley goes on—“Samson is human enough to be aware of human love, but he is too wild ever to experience it,” (referring to his serial attraction to attractive women.) “Samson is a mule, powerful but producing no offspring, employed temporarily to clear the field of Philistines,” a man whose search for love never gets fulfilled by the time he pulls down the whole edifice over his own head and everybody else’s in the bargain.
I would agree with Prof. Mobley that the story is tragic in Samson’s case, but in the President’s case, only pathetic. Because what’s missing in the President, and I am by no means the only one to point this out, is the spiritual underpinning which gives anyone a vocation, a God-given call to a higher purpose than one’s own self-aggrandizement—like the example of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career whom we mourn today.
Such spiritual underpinnings lend a person humility in the face of one’s own ambiguities and vulnerability. There is no presumption possible of self-righteous infallibility, not even in the over-wrought Samson. Samson would not say, “Only I can fix it.” Because Samson was dedicated from birth to God. It was forbidden by the angel to his mother for his hair to be cut—this was the traditional sign of being set apart for holy purposes.
Again as Mobley writes, “for all his ups and downs, criss-crossings of topographic and cultural borders, Samson [knows] he remains betwixt and between.” So, the “heroes” of the Bible—as some people, even religious ones, mistakenly take them—are not “heroes.” They approximate Christ’s story, of which Jesus is the type, whereby strength is internal and is God-given.
Another serious consideration in this secular country which is not biblically literate, is: in what hills are today’s population looking for their help—to what “heroes” do they turn? This is worrisome when you run down the inventory of cultural icons and the many “strong men” among them—Superman, Batman, Spiderman, who else? Go back to our movie westerns and the detective and police TV serials—figures who alone can fix it for us, and do.
The question to ask is, what strength does the hero impart to the reader or viewer, or does the victory which comes at the end belong only to the fantasy object of wish-fulfilment? If so, our only recourse is imitation—imitate the violence—or wait for the next movie hero. In Samson’s case, we are not being asked, and we are not remotely tempted, to imitate his violence. It would rather be for us to ask, how long with the Lord would it take me to grow that much hair—that is, that much strength—with which to endure and prevail through a captivity?
There are mortal consequences to follow from this coming election. It’s why the Psalms contain so many prayers for a good king. Nobody has a choice about a king, so it really matters if it is a good man or not, an able man or not, a strong person or not. Similarly, in a democratic country, we consider who is a good man or woman, an able man or woman, a man or woman called to a higher purpose, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg was.
I want for us to find the strengths that are hidden in us by the grace of God—ask yourselves today what gifts your family, your community, your church or temple gave you that has been growing in you unawares. Think of it, Monday is Yom Kippur when Jews examine themselves in the strong light of God’s requirement of mercy and justice. It is for us to seek the strength to fulfil that requirement ourselves, and to be measured by it. But, for that, we must truly affirm, with today’s Psalmist, that our help comes from God.
Next Sunday I will explore with you what kind of strength Christ imparts to us. And the next Sunday, I want us to appreciate just how God confers or transfers strength to us. In the meantime, may God’s strength be yours. Amen.