MerciesAs I was growing up, almost every trip my family took together, whether to Grandmother's house or just "over the meadows and through the woods," had one thing in common. Before backing the car out of the driveway, my father would lead us in prayer for God's "traveling mercies" for our trip. In a car loaded with suitcases, snacks, siblings, and a high-strung Schnauzer, traveling mercies were much needed. Our driveway prayer established a confidence in God's protection of us along the way to our destination.
The author of Psalm 121 also asked for God's traveling mercies as he made his way to Jerusalem for participation in one of its annual worship festivals. The psalm is one of fifteen "songs of ascent" or "pilgrim songs" (Ps. 120–134), sung by Hebrew pilgrims as they ascended the steep hills to Jerusalem for worship. To sing this song was to establish a confidence in God's protection along the way: "the LORD will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore" (121:8).
The psalmist began by lifting up his eyes to the hills (v. 1), where he saw not only the destination before him in the distance but also the risks in between. Ancient travelers to Jerusalem had to contend with the raw elements, and the rocky terrain didn't make for an easy trek. Desert travelers faced wearying heat in the day and numbing chill at night. Thieves often hid in rock clefts or behind brush.
The psalmist saw the dangers ahead, but he also saw the Lord when he lifted his eyes to Jerusalem's hills. To look at the creation before him was to consider its Creator, and that established a confidence. He reminded himself that the Lord is the Maker of heaven and earth (v. 2) and therefore the Maker of the hills that he would trek. God was his source of help to ascend those daunting hills (vv. 1–2). God would help him traverse his way safely––without ever taking His eyes off him. Six times in his song the psalmist affirmed that God was "watching" (vv. 3–5, 7–8). God was tirelessly, constantly attentive to faithful pilgrims as they made their way to His place of worship in Jerusalem.
LIFE AS A JOURNEY OF FAITH
An often-employed analogy to describe our lives is that of a journey. We start at birth and journey on to death. The same analogy also aptly describes our life in Christ. A new birth is our beginning point, and we journey along as pilgrim-disciples on the way of faith to the end.
John Bunyan used this journey motif to write his classic allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, in which he told the faith story of a character named Christian who was traveling from the metaphorical City of Destruction to the Celestial City. At one point in the story Christian asked Shepherd (a pastor figure) if the way there was "safe or dangerous."
Through Christian, Bunyan asked what many Christians have echoed since: How safe can we expect the way to be? What are the implications of God's tireless ("He who watches over you will not slumber;" v. 3), constant ("both now and forevermore;" v. 8) attentiveness to us on the faith journey? Does His vigilant watchfulness mean we'll never know trouble? Will we never experience high-noon heat or midnight chill? What if our feet slip out from under us or we twist our ankles on unforeseen circumstances, forcing us to limp the rest of the way?
DANGERS ALONG THE WAY
Like Christian, all of us in our "coming and going" (v. 8) experience various kinds of breakdowns, turbulance, delays, and even wrecks. These experiences parallel those along life's journey: the breakdown of financial stability; the turbulence of someone violating our person or property; the delay of healing; the wrecks of some relationships. When these experiences intersect with the way of faith, it's easy to ask, Did God not see? Implied within that question is a deeper question still: Does God not care? The psalmist did not gloss over the dangers and risks to the traveler to Jerusalem (vv. 3, 5–6). The risks were there, known and unknown, but so was God––protecting, watching, preserving, all the way to the destination. God's tirelessly attentive care was the psalmist's assurance.
The psalmist affirmed that we are never at the mercy of fate, chance, or evil ("the LORD will keep you from all harm," v. 7). "Harm" is literally "evil." Though the presence of evil in our world is a reality none of us can escape, God's tireless attentiveness to us preserves us ultimately from its harmful effects. In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson explains the psalmist's phrase: "The promise of the psalm––and both Hebrews and Christians have always read it this way––is not that we shall never stub our toes, but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God's purposes in us."
God's providential care guarantees that our destination is ultimately never in doubt. That destination is, as Paul put it, "his heavenly kingdom" (2 Tim. 4:18). In spite of the things that can hurt, stress, or delay us, our destination is sure and therefore the way is safe. Jesus once said to the original trailblazers of the church, "In the world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). His words bear continual repeating, for they remind us of an eternal certainty in the midst of temporal uncertainty. This truth is like an immovable mountain on which Christians establish their footing for life's journey.
Thanks to the good example of my father, I will continue to ask my heavenly Father for His traveling mercies for my family. We value His safekeeping in the here and now. But we also value knowing that we are safe beyond the now. We are safe "forevermore" (Ps. 121: 8). Our destination is always sure.
Cole Huffman (ThM, 1995) serves as associate pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Franklin, Tennessee.