Sunday, September 30, 2007

I Lift Up My Eyes to the Mountains

I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where shall come my help?

(Psalm 121:1—Grail translation)

Mountain-dwellers recognize the paradox of their mountains. They offer both protection and danger. To some extent, they wall out the unwanted, but they also conceal predators. In winter, they hold the possibility of avalanche; in summer, the peril of flash floods. Still, their beauty both stirs and answers an unnamed longing in the human spirit. And something about their lofty indifference to the doings of the mortal two-legged flies that presume to “conquer” them draws human beings to risk life and limb to climb them or simply to seek shelter in their shadow.

The psalmist belonged to a people for whom the ambivalence of mountains was rooted both in paradox and in a tradition of conflict. Not only did human beings seek the strategic superiority of the heights over military opponents, but also the gods competed for the high places. The prophets make clear that people succumbed from time to time to the seduction of alien gods who were worshiped at hill shrines. In contradistinction, their God claimed the highest place. The God who had made covenant with them on Mount Sinai took up residence among them on Mount Zion, in the Temple built in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah announces God’s primacy over the competing gods of the surrounding nations:

In days to come,
The mountain of the LORD'S house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it.

(Isaiah 2:2 (NAB))
This is not a geographic claim but a theological one.

The New American Bible commentary suggests that in Psalm 121:1 the psalmist may be looking up to Mount Zion for God’s help or looking up to the surrounding mountains with anxiety about who or what might be lurking there. However, in verse 2, he answers his own question with the categorical assertion: “My help shall come from the Lord/who made heaven and earth”(Grail) The remainder of the psalm addresses to the psalmist a series of poetically beautiful and fortifying assurances about God’s help:

He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.
(Psalm 121:3-8[RSV].)

How will God keep us? How will our help come from the mountains?

The prophet Isaiah maintains that God will keep us by teaching us his ways so that we may walk in his paths: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). The paths of God will lead us safely through whatever hazards may surround us, especially, of course, the ultimate hazard created not by those who can slay the body but by the one who can “destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). This is the expectation that animates the psalmist in Psalm 23:4 to walk without fear even through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, the shadow of death will be lightened, says Isaiah, for the word that will go forth from Jerusalem will be the terms imposed on many people, that “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; /One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again (Isaiah 2:4 [NAB])

However, the prophet Joel opens the door to an even deeper answer to the question of how our help shall come from the mountains: “on that day, the mountains shall drip new wine” (Joel 3:18 [NAB]). The Hebrew word used to describe the wine may be translated either “new” (NAB, KJV) or “sweet” (RSV, NRSV). The image of “new wine” evokes two key New Testament passages. First, "new wine" brings to mind Jesus' saying that you don't pour new wine into old wineskins (cf. Matthew 9:17 and par.). Secondly, in the Last Supper account in Matthew 26:26-30 and Mark 14:22-25, Jesus says of the wine in the cup that it is his “blood of the covenant” and that he will not again drink of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in the kingdom. But for us who receive it, this is new wine, the best saved till last. Taken together, the passages from Joel and from the gospels evoke the image of Mt. Calvary, dripping with the blood of the Crucified, the new wine that fills the Eucharistic cup of the new covenant. It is the blood of the covenant “poured out for many” (Mark 14:24; Matthew 26:28 [NAB]). In Matthew, Jesus adds “for the forgiveness of sins”. The help that will come to us from the mountains is not merely instruction in walking safely in the paths of God but the blood of the Lamb that will wash away the damage that sin and evil have done us.

So when the psalmist asks, in Psalm 72:3 “May the mountains bring forth peace for the people and the hills, justice” (Grail), we may understand God’s answer to the prayer as a petition not simply as an edict of peace (Isaiah 2:4) but as the very life of the One who is our peace (Ephesians 2:14), poured out for all of us, that we may indeed be brought into the one new humanity of the risen Christ, all hostilities and divisions forgotten.

Jumping from one translation to another, as this artcle does, yields poor scholarship but, sometimes, rich reflection. That is my apologia for the procedure I have followed.

©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

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