Best of Daily Reflections: Does the Lord Really Keep Us from All Harm?
The LORD keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever.
At first glance, Psalm 121:7 offers tremendous assurance. The Lord will keep us from all harm! Wow! That sounds wonderful. If I only live my life in relationship with God, then I will be kept from all harm. I won’t suffer hardship or pain. My life will be filled only with good things.
But wait! Is this really true? I have had my share of difficulties in life, and I know people whose suffering far exceeds my own. I think of Christians in places of the world where they regularly experience persecution, even martyrdom. Is God keeping them from all harm? It doesn’t seem so.
Other passages in the Psalms bear witness to the reality that God’s people can suffer harm. In Psalm 6, for example, we read, “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (6:6). The psalm writer laments because he has been the victim of those who “do evil” (6:7). Similarly, in Psalm 71:20 we read, “Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life.” The Hebrew word translated here as “bitter” is the same word found in Psalm 121:7, where it is translated as “harm.” So, in one psalm the Lord keeps us from all harm. In another psalm, the psalmist experiences harm and attributes this to the Lord himself. What are we to make of this apparent inconsistency?
Let me offer a couple of observations. First, the Psalms are poetic prayers. They express the deepest feelings and thoughts of the psalm writers in a wide variety of circumstances. The Psalms should not be read as systematic theology, with every phrase taken as prosaic, stand-alone truth. Thus, when the writer of Psalm 121 affirms, “The LORD will keep you from all harm,” he does not qualify it as if he were writing a treatise on the problem of evil. He does not even feel the need to take into consideration other perspectives found in the Psalms. Rather, he speaks hyperbolically to celebrate the overarching and faithful care of God. One psalm is not meant to give us the whole picture. Only when we take all the psalms together, in the context of Holy Scripture, do we begin to grasp the full truth of who God is and how he relates to us.
Second, there is a sense in which it is completely true that the Lord keeps us from all harm. It all depends on the sense of the word “keep.” The Hebrew verb used here can also mean “guard, watch, preserve.” Moreover, the tense of the verb in Psalm 121:7 is future, something missed in the translation I’m using today (NLT). Verse 8 shows that the tense of the verb is to be understood as applying to the present and future (“both now and forever”). Therefore, we rightly understand that at every moment, God is watching over us. God is with us, caring for us, even in times of hardship and suffering. In a sense, God is keeping us, even though we are experiencing difficulties. Furthermore, God will ultimately take away from us all suffering and sorrow. As Psalm 71:20 affirms, “Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life.” This restoration happens, however partially, in this life, and fully in the age to come.
Consequently, when we hear the good news that God keeps us from all harm, we can celebrate all the ways God does protect us right now. We are invited to rejoice in the fact that, no matter how difficult our lives might be today, God is with us now and forever. Our future is secure in God’s strong, gracious hands.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When you read Psalm 121:7-8, how do you respond? Do you think of times when God has protected you? Do you remember times when God’s care seemed to be absent? Is it possible to celebrate the good news of Psalm 121:7-8 even in the midst of hardships?
PRAYER: Gracious God, today I am reminded to praise you for your protection. Yes, it is true that sometimes you don’t “keep” me in the way I would prefer. Yet my life is in your hands. You protect in ways I will never know. And, though I might suffer difficulty in this life, I am eternally safe with you.
Help me, I pray, to live with the confidence that you are watching over me, guiding me, protecting me. May I know each day the truth that you are with me always. Amen.