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Psalm 121

Liturgical Note: Consider having an individual read verses 1-2, followed by the choir or congregation reading verses 3-8.

Psalm 121 is the second of a set of 15 psalms known as the Psalms (Songs) of Ascent. Psalms 120-134 were sung by Jewish pilgrims who traveled each year to one or all three annual festivals. Deuteronomy 16:16 details them as “the festivals of Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths).”[i] We know from the Parable of the Good Samaritan that travel in the Ancient Near East could be dangerous especially for those travelling alone. Traveling in larger groups no doubt provided a greater degree of security. Thousands of pilgrims journeyed from all over the Mediterranean for each festival. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70, the ‘pilgrimage’ festivals became synagogue based with prayers replacing animal sacrifices.

Imagine you are a Jewish parent living in Asia Minor some 900 years before Christ. Solomon’s Temple has recently been built. You want to take your family to experience it and offer a sacrifice to YHWH. You find other Jews who agree to travel with you. You will travel about 1,600 miles which by foot will take approximately 525 hours. That is six to seven weeks one way. As you travel, a man who likes to sing, pulls out his Hebrew hymnbook, the Psalms, and begins singing the Psalms of Ascent. Soon, even the small children have learned the lyrics and are singing along. As you near Jerusalem, the terrain becomes hilly and you are on a winding incline. The children ask you about several structures they see on the top of some hills. You explain that they are pagan temples where non-Jews worship their gods. Suddenly, Psalm 121 takes on deeper meaning and you ask for it to be sung. You explain to your family, “We can look at the hills and see where other people worship their gods, but we lift our eyes and look beyond to our Creator who made all those hills, mountains, and even the heaven and the earth itself.” Everyone sings Psalm 121 again and excitement builds as you near Jerusalem.

Now imagine Christ, both as a child with his parents and as an adult with the 12. He very probably made the pilgrimage from the Galilee 60 miles away from the Temple. That’s roughly a one-week journey by foot. Jericho is located at 800 feet below sea level, near the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is 2,500 feet above sea level. In the roughly 17 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem the pilgrims climbed 3,300 feet, more than six tenths of a mile. Finally, imagine Christ climbing with the pilgrims as they sang this Psalm.[ii]

This psalm can be divided into two parts:

(1) The Anticipation of Divine Help (Psalm 121:1-2) in which the psalmist speaks in the first person (‘I,’ ‘my,’ Psalm 121:1-2)

(2) The Assurance of Divine Help (Psalm 121:3-8) is written in the second person singular (‘you,’ ‘your’), which might have been intentionally written to allow this segment to be sung antiphonally.[iii]

Some commentators suggest that the psalmist is having an internal dialog with himself. Others see it as an antiphonal type interaction between the psalmist and a priest. Still others propose that a spiritual leader begins the psalm and