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Psalm 121

Psalm 121 is the second in a group of psalms (Pss. 120-134) known as the Songs of Ascent. These psalms are traditionally associated with pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem and the Temple to participate in one of the major festivals of the Jewish year. Regardless of the direction from which the pilgrims traveled, at the end of their journey they would ascend to Jerusalem, Mount Zion, and the Temple.

Psalm 120, the first song of ascent, indicates a foreign setting; note the phrases “alien in Me’shech” and “among the tents of Ke’dar” in verse 5. It is plausible, then, that Psalm 121 is a song for or by those setting out for Jerusalem, or the early stages of their journey.

Safe travel was never guaranteed. Various threats posed potential danger for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. Bandits, wild animals, or heat were some of the most obvious perils. As travelers looked around – “I lift up my eyes to the hills” (v. 1a) – the question posed was not mere rhetoric: “from where will my help come?” (v. 1b). Who will protect the pilgrims?

To be sure, the mountains or hills of ancient Israel held danger but also could offer refuge or comfort. The Temple in Jerusalem was set on a hill and worshippers went up to worship. The hills could provide a hiding place from enemies. Furthermore, other ancient Mediterranean religions associated mountains with deities or holy places; thus, shrines or temples were often erected on high places. Unfortunately, ancient Israel too often prostituted themselves by worshipping other gods.

Any, perhaps all, of these thoughts could have been in the mind of the psalmist and the pilgrims. That which holds danger may also offer refuge. Ultimately, the psalmist affirms a basic yet profound truth: The Lord “made heaven and earth” (v. 2) and thus is the surest source of help. Others may look to the hills, the sun or the moon as deities, but the psalmist reminds worshippers not to confuse created objects with the Creator of all things.