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 the group of pilgrims conclude it. A fourth option posits the psalm as part of the Temple liturgy where a layman recites verses 1 and 2 followed by a priest or group of priests singing verses 3 through 8. It is very possible that all these variations were used at one time or another.
The use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ in verses 1-2 reveals a personal relationship between the psalmist and God. The words ‘hills’ and ‘mountains’ may be used interchangeably. Of the 52 English versions of the Old Testament catalogued in the BibleGateway.com database, 30 use the word ‘hills’ and 22 use ‘mountains.’ Some think the mountains refer to those encountered on the way to Jerusalem. Others see the mountains as the location where pagan gods, such as Baal, were worshiped and even believed to live.
A sidebar from Timothy & Julie Tennent on biblical mountains: “…the mountains provide a great reminder of the presence of God, because God met his people on the mountains. God met Abraham on Mount Moriah and provided the sacrificial substitute for Isaac. God met Moses on Mount Sinai and entered into covenant with his people, giving them both Law and promises. God met Elijah on Mount Carmel and revealed himself as the true and living God, not like the idols of the nations. As Christians, we realize that this trajectory of hope whereby God meets his people on mountains continued. Jesus met us on the Mount of Beatitudes and taught us the ways of the kingdom. Jesus met us on the Mount of Transfiguration and revealed his coming glory. Finally, in the greatest act of all, God met the whole human race on Mount Calvary, and revealed his greatest love for a lost world!”[iv]
To ‘lift up one’s eyes’ frequently reflects the desires of our hearts. In Genesis 13:10 and 13:14 both Lot and Abram lifted their eyes to the lands where they would dwell. Both bad and good consequences resulted. Where do we lift our eyes? To our culture or to Our Creator?
The psalmist lifts his eyes to look for help. The word ‘help’ appears in both verses 1 and 2. In Hebrew, the word for ‘help’ is ‘ezer. “The noun ‘ezer is used 21 times in the Old Testament. Twice it is used [for Eve]. Three times it is used of people helping, or failing to help, in life-threatening situations. Sixteen times it is used in reference to God as a helper.”[v] Those who push back and complain about the Bible portraying Eve as subservient to Adam are wrong. She stands as his different-but-equal partner in a role that is God-like; the role of being a helper just as the Spirit is our Helper.
The psalmist answers his own question of finding help. His help comes from YHWH himself. The very name God revealed to Moses at Sinai, a mountain, is the name the psalmist uses here – “the Creator of heaven and earth.”
The second section of this Psalm resonates with what Robert Alter terms a “cadenced repetition.” Think of this as the strong, familiar beat of a drum corps.[vi] Verses 3-8 feature the Hebrew word shomer or shamar six times. In English, it means ‘to guard,’ ‘to watch over,’ ‘to protect,’ or ‘to keep.’ The assignment God gave Adam in Eden was “to tend and watch over it” (New Living Translation, Genesis 2:15). In the wilderness, God protected Israel (Joshua 24:17). It’s something shepherds do. The Lord is our Shepherd – our shomer (Psalm 23:1). On the road or at rest, daytime or nighttime, at work or at home, God guards, watches over, protects, and keeps us. Hear the drumbeat! Pa rum pum pum pum!
Travelers on foot conscientiously work to avoid turning their ankles. A bad stumble makes for a longer and more painful trek. However, in the Old Testament, ‘stumble’ never refers to physical falling, but is a Hebrew metaphor for falling into a moral error. That will never happen to our Creator.
The pilgrims knew that thieves could rob them at night. Verses 3-4 declare that, while they slept, they would be “be placed under the care of Jehovah [YHWH], who will hold up their feet unwearied on the road and watch unslumbering over their repose.”[vii]
The ‘shade’ in verse 5 is a metaphor for protection.[viii] In Psalm 91:1, the same Hebrew word is translated ‘shadow’: He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty (New King James Version). Travelers in the scorching, arid Middle East are, and always have been, grateful for a place of shade that shields them from the heat.
Verse 6 poses the extremes between getting a sunstroke and being moonstruck. The first is physical and the second is mental. Sunstrokes can be deadly. Elijah restored to life the Shunammite’s son who suffered a sunstroke (2 Kings 4:18-37). Mental disturbances were often blamed on exposure to moonlight. From the Latin word for the moon, ‘luna’, we get the word ‘lunatic.’ This verse assures us that God will protect us both day and night.[ix]
Finally, in verses 7-8, God’s protection is enlarged from the journey to watching over us our entire lifetime. Bad things will happen to us, but Our Guard, Our Watchman, Our Protector, Our Keeper is always with us, caring for us more than we will ever know. Derek Kidner explains that, “To be kept from all evil does not imply a cushioned life, but a well-armed one.”[x]
The “going out and coming in” of verse 8 is a powerful couplet. According to Kidner, it is “a favorite Hebrew way of expressing totality: naming a pair of opposites to include everything in between. The psalm ends with a pledge… Your going out and your coming in is not only a way of saying ‘everything’: in closer detail it draws attention to one’s ventures and enterprises, and to the home which remains ones base; again, to pilgrimage and return; perhaps even to the dawn and sunset of one’s days.”[xi] C.H. Spurgeon declares, “Everywhere you go, you are guarded by omnipotence!”[xii]
James Limburg gives a nod to Willy Nelson’s popular song, On the Road Again, by using this same title for Limburg’s comments on Psalm 121. One of his college professors referred to this Psalm as “the traveler’s psalm” and recommended that it be “read before setting out on a journey.” Limburg goes on to observe that it is “suited for the journey of a lifetime, viewing all of life as a sojourn.”[xiii]
My wife and I served as Nazarene missionaries in Guatemala from 1981 to 1991. Before we left, a friend told us that Psalm 121 fit our going out to mission and our coming in on our return. This Psalm has been a hallmark for my life ever since. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the pioneer missionary and explorer to Africa, David Livingston, read Psalms 121 and 135 to his family before he walked to Glasgow with his father to board the steamer to Africa. I in no way am an equal to Livingstone, but, as Christians, we all are in the watchful care of Our Father, Our Guard, Our Watchman, Our Protector, Our Keeper our entire life long![xiv]
[i] (1) In the spring, at the beginning of the planting season, the Passover, or Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrated the Exodus. (2) Seven weeks later, coinciding with the early summer harvest, the Feast of Weeks or Harvest expressed gratitude for God’s provision of grain.
(3) In the fall, five days after Yom Kippur, the Feast of Booths or Ingathering recalls the wilderness wanderings and celebrates the harvest before the Winter rains begin.
[ii] Kitz, web
[iii] Hurt, web
[iv] Tennant, 180
[v] Mowczko, web
[vi] Alter, 438
[vii] MacLaren, 300
[viii] Allen, 153
[ix] Limburg, 425
[x] Kidner, 434
[xi] Ibid., 434
[xii] Hurt, web
[xiii] Limburg, 423
[xiv] Blaikie, 36