“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV)
I memorized the 121st Psalm from the many funerals I have attended over the years, beginning in my youth. It's a favorite, second only to Psalm 23, in its comforting tone and reassuring vision. In times of trouble, we turn our attention to the horizon in hopes of finding the One who can save us.
Indeed, God is the One who comes to us in our struggles and offers his reassuring presence.
This Psalm was not originally written to address us in our time of sorrow or grief, even though it is certainly appropriate for such occasions. Instead, it is among a group of Psalms referred to as "Songs of Ascent."
Psalms 120-134 each begin with a phrase that is transliterated in Hebrew as Shir Hama'aloth—literally, "Song of Ascent." Worshipers sang these 15 Psalms as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the three festivals of the Jewish faith that pilgrims took to demonstrate their faithfulness to God. In addition to the worshipers singing these songs as they ascended toward Jerusalem, the priests joined in singing them as they strode the steps leading up to the Temple.
Imagine with me what it would have been like for hundreds of thousands of worshipers singing these words in unison and whose melody and harmony echoed throughout all of Jerusalem as people came from the north, south, east, and west to worship their God. It must have been overwhelming for those who were making their first pilgrimage and reassuring for those whose return marked multiple trips.
Upon further reflection, the 121st Psalm may be even more appropriately used at a funeral when we think of it as a "journey" song or a "pilgrimage" song, for what more significant journey does one take than the one to be with God in eternity? Our church's vision refers to lifelong transformation, and in fulfilling it, we hope to help people have the kind of faith that is so reassuring, that when it comes time to leave this life, they will have the joy that comes only through confidence in the One who calls them home.
I can imagine on the day of my death, that as I make my ascent to heaven, all those who have died that same day throughout the world will also make their way to the eternal Jerusalem, and together we will be singing the 121st Psalm in praise of our God. Oh what a beautiful image it is.