Psalm 121: Look Up!

By Andi Hines

I look to the hills! Where will I find help?

Psalm 121:1

There have been times in my life when I have looked up to God for help or answers. Maybe you have, too? I have literally raised my face to the heavens and asked, or cried, or even in my broken boldness demanded those things only God can give. I know He’s hearing me wherever I may look for Him, but I still look up. Is my instinct to look up to the heavens based on many Scriptures that tell us God is “high and lifted up”? Or is it about something more significant?

My answers are found in Psalms 121. The background for this psalm is impressive. Psalm 121 is among the 15 psalms we recognize as the Psalms of Ascents. They have also been called the Pilgrim Songs because tradition tells us the Israelites sang these songs as they journeyed to Jerusalem to worship. It’s notable to mention here that when they traveled to Jerusalem to worship, no matter what direction they came from, they called it “going up” to worship. Scholars tell us the basis of some common practices of our faith come from old traditions. This ancient mindset of “going up” to worship God might help explain how the idea of “looking up” to God for help came about. 

Looking up for help is an old concept. An ancient community was more likely to survive when living on a hill. Elevation allowed a view of the valley below. People on a hill had numerous advantages because they could see any approaching threat and evaluate an enemy’s strengths or weaknesses, allowing them to more adequately prepare their defenses. It’s easy to see how others would become accustomed to looking up for help when those who lived above them had the advantage. 

A familiar example is the stronghold of Masada in Israel. Around A.D. 73, approximately 760 Jewish Sacarii rebels held off the Roman army for 70 days. The army was forced to build a rampart to reach the Jewish rebels on this lofty plateau, where the community had remained safe. However, as the Roman rampart neared the plateau, the rebels knew they would soon be overrun. Yet, refusing to be conquered by the Romans, the rebels drew lots and slew each other. This was their final act, denying the Romans a victory over them. 

The stronghold at Masada provided safety from almost all earthly threats. However, our God, who is higher than any plateau and greater than any threat we may face, is also nearer than any thought. In the Treasury of David, a remarkable commentary on the Psalms, C. H. Spurgeon talks about a feeling of knowing our God as being less about His location and more about knowing Him. He writes:

The book of Psalms instructs us in the use of wings as well as words: it sets us both mounting and singing. Often have I ceased my commenting upon the text, that I might rise with the Psalm, and gaze upon visions of God.

Gaze upon visions of God. 

Doesn’t that sweep your heart away to a new place, a place “higher,” one creating a deeper connectedness to God? It’s not a statement about where God lives but about how near He is already. Spurgeon seemed to sense a deepening image of God, an evolving nearness and understanding. When we dwell in Scripture, our image of God expands, as Spurgeon puts it, as we gaze upon “visions of God.” 

Isaiah wrote of a prophetic vision he was given by the Lord, one in which Isaiah identified God’s location. We read:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Isaiah 6:1

Throughout Scripture, we read of God being high above us. When I read the Psalms, though, I feel that God being high above is about more than His location; it’s a statement about His desire to help me know Him. 

The Psalms of Ascents, including Psalms 121, are also known as the Songs of Degrees. Some believe this term refers to a repeated word or concept within the psalm, which expands as the stanza’s progress. That repetition lifts our understanding as the psalm advances, or ascends, eventually giving the reader an impression of the higher truth, a deeper spiritual and emotional connection.

While the Scriptures overall instruct our faith and actions, the Book of Psalms specifically courts our emotional side, our heart. We go to the Psalms when we seek God’s presence because we know He hears our heart, and we know He will hear again. 

By spending time in the Psalms, we can deepen our relationship as our eyes and heart are drawn upward to God, causing us to realize ever-expanding visions of His glory.