Psalm 121 and The Sound Of Music
It’s been over 50 years since I first heard The Sound of Music song “The Lonely Goatherd,” and it still makes me smile. How else would I know what a table d’hôte is? I have a link to a flash mob of “Do Re Mi” performed at the Antwerp train station. It plays for four minutes, but I never play it unless I’m prepared to spend a minimum of twelve minutes watching it. I know I will want to play it at least three times. And I don’t think I’ve ever expressed the profound effect it had on me when, at their son’s wedding reception, the family sang out their family history to the tune of “Edelweiss.” I actually got a little emotional just typing what I have typed so far.
If only I could edit out one of the last scenes in the movie: From the Abbey, the Reverend Mother quotes Psalm 121:1 as a celebration/hope that the von Trapp family will escape safely into Switzerland:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
How do I dislike the Reverend Mother’s use of this line? Let me count the ways.
1. She quotes woefully out of context. She places the hills as the source of help. She asks the hills to guide the family into Switzerland, essentially rendering meaningless the words “from whence cometh.” Then she ignores that the Lord, who is the answer to “from whence cometh,” is spotlighted six times in the final seven verses.
2. She quotes from the King James Version, a document published in the English language. I’m not real positive that the English translation of the Bible was widely read in 1938 Austria.
3. The King James Version handles Psalm 121:1 poorly. The mistake is not one of translation, but of punctuation. Every version I could locate published since KJV presents Psalm 121:1b as a question:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?
I’ll be fair. The Sound of Music was written by entertainers, and not by Bible scholars. And though the writers had no Bible training, I will concede they made a serious attempt to present what the Reverend Mother might really have said.
But between the influence of the King James, the societal imprimatur of The Sound of Music1, and the way I had always heard this passage taught or preached, I simply assumed that God lived somewhere among the hills, and that He becomes the source of help for anyone who gazes in His direction.
And about 20 years later, it hit me: The hills, the “high places” is a technical term in scripture for the places where shrines to idols are built. You don’t look to the hills for God’s help. You look to the hills for help from an idol. It is an error of the worst kind to look toward the enshrinement of idols, and to seek help from God. It suddenly hit me that I must have been misunderstanding Psalm 121:1 all these years.
After the nation of Israel was divided, the nation of Judah had eight Kings who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. If you add David and Solomon, then altogether there were ten righteous Kings. For nine of these righteous Kings, God recorded they did what was right, but footnoted that they did not do away with the high places, synonymous with enshrinements to idols.
Removing the high places might have required the type of effort required today if a President were to decide to rid the country of cigarettes. God used the footnote freely, but He did not downgrade any King’s legacy by it. The Kingdom of Israel was established in 1050 BC. It took until 640 BC when an eight-year-old lad known as King Josiah was coronated. And by the end of his reign in 608 BC, he had removed all the high places from the land.
In my opinion, King Josiah is by far the most underrated character of all scripture (placing the Godhead on a separate scale altogether). If I were to rank all the characters of the Bible in order of how underrated they are, I would place King Josiah as #1, and hold #2 vacant just to emphasize the gap. King Josiah won’t even make an appearance until 2 Kings 21:24. And 2 Kings chapter 23 describes in vivid detail what King Josiah did to expel idols from the land. 2 Kings 23:5 reads: “He did away with the idolatrous priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts.”
King Josiah is the premier man for God from David to Daniel, and that assumes I’m willing to place David above Josiah on the basis that David was a man after God’s own heart. For even considering all David’s exploits, Josiah succeeded where David failed. God was so pleased with Josiah that when God looked at His Blackberry, and He was reminded that Judah was scheduled for an adverse confrontation with Nebuchadnezzar to take place in 605 BC, in order that Josiah not witness that invasion, God took Josiah’s life at age 40 in 608 BC.
When you read Psalm 121, comprehend it as:
When I lift my eyes toward the hills, I see a whole counter-culture of idolatrous people seeking help, but seeking it in vain. Help does not come from the idols who inhabit the high places. Does anyone want to know where my help comes from?
My help comes from the Lord, who created the heaven and the earth. My help comes from the Lord, who is incessantly watching over me. My help comes from the Lord, who directs my motions as reliably as He directs the motion of the bodies of the universe. My help comes from the Lord, who keeps me shielded from the evil one. My help comes from the Lord, who oversees every footstep.
1I get carried away sometimes. I also blame the cadence of Handel’s “For Unto Us” as being the reason we separate “Wonderful Counselor” into two titles for Jesus. Isaiah 9:6 tells us of four titles for the Child: 1) Wonderful Counselor; 2) Almighty God; 3) Everlasting Father; 4) Prince of Peace. Though Handel himself says no differently, the cadence of the song tends to deceive us.
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