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Traveling Mercies

I suppose prayer language is a bit like barbecue—each region has its own distinctive flavor. Some phrases seem to have made the circuit and are employed everywhere (guide, guard and direct, until the next appointed time, well-pleasing in Thy sight). Then there’s one I’ve only heard a handful of times that I really gravitate toward: traveling mercies.

It’s a compressed way of asking God to watch over people who are on the road. We all know that not everyone who travels makes it to their destination. When our loved ones travel, we feel a certain vulnerability for them (and ourselves) that leads us to ask the Almighty for His protection of them. What parent doesn’t know the anxiety of having their high school or college aged child out on the road or the sigh of relief the comes when they text to tell us that they have arrived safely at their destination?

Psalm 121 proclaims God’s traveling mercies. It’s part of the writings known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). These were the psalms pilgrims recited as they drew near (ascended) Jerusalem for one of the three annual feasts. Many traveled great distances and though the dangers of travel in the ancient world were lessened by traveling in a group, they were still very real.

The psalmist travels in trust. As he nears the elevated surroundings of the city (Psalm 125:2), he is reminded that protection for the journey comes from the One whose presence is specially manifested there. The Almighty neither slumbers nor sleeps so we are secure (v. 3-4). He watches us in our “coming and going” (v. 8). Traveling mercies indeed.

And yet we know that not every disciple arrives safely at their destination. People do slip, the sun wearies them, or the night upsets them. It is important that we understand this psalm to be saying “not that we shall never stub our toes, but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us” (Eugene Peterson). This is the bigger picture of traveling mercies.

Disciples are never promised exemption or immunity from the difficulties of life. To believe or act as though belonging to God means that we are entitled to a life free of pain or problems is poor theology that makes for even worse biography. This psalm assures us the maker of heaven and earth will always get us where He needs us to be.

“My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). The One who has the power to create all things is the One who watches over us. He can in the words of James Mays, “sustain the journeys of life and the journey life is.”

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