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.
God’s faithful guardianship is emphasized throughout the song and in ways meant to contrast the Covenant God (YWHH) and Creator with other regional deities. A slumbering god is an unresponsive God, as Elijah taunted the prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18:27). On other occasions, even the psalmist urged God to awake and carry out justice (7:6; see also 44:23) – the psalmist’s way of saying: Where are you God? Why don’t you act? However, in Ps. 121, the confident trust of the psalmist rings forth: the Lord does not doze or sleep (vv. 3-4); God is responsive to those who walk by faith. There is no need to fear daytime or nighttime dangers as God is a constant guardian.
One of the two key words in this psalm is ‘ezer (help), found in verses 1-2. This is the same word used in Gen. 2:20 when no suitable “help” was found for the man. Yet most often, as is the case in this psalm, the word is used of God as Israel’s help or helper.
The second key word is shamar (keep) used repeatedly in verses 3-8. The preacher and hearer may find added understanding and application in the various translations of shamar, used both in verb and noun forms: keep, keeps, keeper (NRSV); watch, watches (NIV); protect, protector (CEB); guard, guards, Guardian (MSG). The fullness of the word shamar may be highlighted to indicate that God is not a passive observer – as some may infer from “watches over” (the translation choice of the NIV); rather, God is an active protector who is able to keep, preserve, sustain the worshipper.
The Scriptures as well as history and experience reveal that God’s watch and protection do not mean that the faithful will never experience trouble or persecution or hardship. Yet we can affirm with Paul that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). Jesus prayed that his followers would be protected (John 17:11) and taught his disciples to pray, “rescue us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). Protection does not always look the way we would like it to look; however, the confidence of the pilgrim-believer today is that God the Creator is Jesus the Savior who sends his Holy Spirit to guide, comfort and keep those who walk in the light.
The change of person between verses 1-2 and 3-8 is worth noting. The psalm begins in first person singular (“I” in vv. 1-2) and shifts to second person singular in v. 3 (“you”). The three most common options regarding this change in voice are: (a) the pilgrim carries on an internal conversation, affirming reasons to have confidence in the Lord (admit it, we all talk to ourselves!); (b) one pilgrim-worshipper encourages another; (c) a priest encourages the pilgrim-worshiper.
Each of the options is worth considering. Yet, while this psalm is not a priestly blessing, it does echo the Aaronic benediction of Number 6:22-27; “the Lord bless you and keep you” (v. 24, emphasis added). Sometimes we need to be reminded – to remind ourselves and to remind one another – that God is the source of our help. The “Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 1, NIV) not only is able but is also willing to help, watch, keep, protect, and guard. For the Creator is also the Lord (Yahweh), the God who enters into covenant with creatures made in God’s image.
This second Sunday of Lent, we are also in the early stages of our journey to the cross with Jesus. As we journey this Lenten season, Psalm 121 offers the opportunity to consider the dangers that lie all around us. What false gods allure us with promises of health or long life or beauty or comfort or wealth or power or status or ______? What wild beasts lie in wait to attack, seeking to destroy our faith or to obstruct our journey with Christ?
Consider the people to whom you will preach on the second Sunday of Lent; where are they most likely to look for help? What dangers or obstacles are present to your people? Of course, the preacher must also consider carefully that question for her/himself. Help is sought from multiple sources: leaders, financial or material resources, family and friends, our own ingenuity or abilities. Many of these are neither intrinsically good or evil, nor were the mountains referenced in Psalm 121:1. The focus of our worship is the heart of the matter, and a matter of the heart. Ultimately, Psalm 121 encourages faith and trust: God alone is the firm foundation and eternal source of help.
This psalm can encourage people to respond with faith in God’s care and to step out in trust. In the Old Testament reading, God called Abram to step by faith into the unknown (Gen. 12:1-4), a theme visited again in the Epistle reading (Rom. 4:1-5, 13-17). In the Gospel reading, Jesus challenged Nicodemus to step out to a new level of faith in God (John 3:1-17). This psalm is another voice in the chorus urging faith and trust in God. God is our only sure and eternal source of help, “from now until forever from now” (Ps. 121: 8b, CEB).