< October 16, 2016 >

Commentary on Psalm 121

 

Psalm 121 is one of the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134, as indicted by its opening words.

In general these psalms focus on Jerusalem, the journey to Jerusalem -- always categorized as “going up,” and worship in the temple. Many readers and hearers know the first verse as “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” from the King James Version (KJV) which makes it sound like the help is coming from the hills. The KJV does not take the phrasing of the text as indicated by the cantillation (markings that function as punctuation) into account. The opening verse is two separate and complete sentences. The first is a statement: “I lift my eyes to the hills.” The second is a question: “From where will my help come?”

The psalmist never tells us why she lifts her eyes to the hills or to which hills she is looking though many assume Jerusalem. (The presence of women like the daughters of Heman among the psalmists means that it is possible some psalms have women as their authors, see 1 Chronicles 25:5-6; Psalm 88.) The same expression is used in Psalm 123:1. “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” The prophets also repeatedly exhort the people to lift up their eyes, Isaiah 40:26; 49:18; 51:6; 60:4; Jeremiah 13:20; Ezekiel 8:5. If the hills are the hill around Jerusalem as suggested by the title and category song of ascent, then she may be looking toward Jerusalem and its temple, the throne of God. Some have suggested that the psalmist is looking towards the hills with apprehension out of concern that there may be bandits between the psalmist and her final destination.

What is clear is that the help the psalmist seeks is that which is the particular specialty of God. The word ezer, “help,” familiar to some from the expression “stone of help,” “Ebenezer” in 1 Samuel 7:12, is rarely used of humans with very few exceptions. It is used for the help the first woman in the garden is to provide her partner. Verse 2 makes it clear that the psalmist’s help does not come from the hills bur rather from the God who created them, the heavens and the earth. The heavens are always plural -- actually dual -- in Biblical Hebrew. There is a shift in voice in the psalm. The psalmist begins speaking in the first person with “I” and “my” in vv 1-2. Then the psalmist addresses an audience in the singular, either a collective entity like a congregation or nation or, an individual. The second person address continues for the rest of the psalm. The addressee is likely Israel, named in v 4 however the psalmist only speaks about Israel by name in the third person, not directly to it.

As is common in psalms the psalmist provides the hearer/reader with a list of God’s accomplishments and attributes the justify confidence in and praise of God. In v 3 God is the one who keeps a person’s foot from “moving,” literally trembling, i.e. slipping, a theme also present repeatedly in Psalms; see Psalm 17:5; 18:36; 38:16; 66:9; 73:2; 94:18. There is also a pun here, the word for “move/slip” rhymes with the word for death. The psalmist’s God is ever-vigilant, neither slumbering nor sleeping in v 4. Curiously God sleeps in other psalms, waking as from sleep shouting like a drunken soldier in Psalm 78:65 -- a surprising image -- and in Psalm 44:23 the psalmist implores God to wake up. Even when read metaphorically, the language is striking.

In the psalmist’s language God is so protective that neither sun(light) nor moon(light) will touch her charges. The image conjured in v 5 is of an attentive God, constantly adjusting a canopy to provide shade as the sun moves throughout the day. That prosaic description builds to the primary claim of the psalm in v 7, God will keep/preserve you from all harm (evil) and will keep/preserve your life. (The multifaceted verb means “keep,” “guard,” “preserve” and “observe [i.e. commandments.]”) The last line of the psalm declares that God’s care will be ongoing, moving with a person as they move through their life.

Psalm 121 is a comforting psalm, presenting an ever-present and attentive God caring for her people. It is a psalm that many pray or recite in difficult times when they want to feel God’s comforting presence. Like many psalms the emphatic rhetoric transcends the experience of most people. We do come to harm, whether the minor harm of a sunburn or the greater harms inflicted by the broken world. Yet there are times when a person may find herself inexplicably spared from some harm or danger by no means of her own. At those times the words of this psalm speak to faith in a God who does indeed protect her wards.