Commentary on Psalm 121
Journeys tend to be significant times for those who take them.
A journey can lead to anything from a new home and a new beginning in life, to a memorable excursion with family or friends. Journeys can involve challenging or even frightening destinations as well as eagerly anticipated returns home. True to these, and all the other myriads of possible examples, is the reality that the journey itself can be at least as significant, if not even more, as the eventual destination.
Journeying was a major reality for ancient life. As a result of the available modes of traveling, the ancients are likely to have had far greater appreciation for what was involved in getting from one place to another that we ever can. Abraham and Sarah took the countless steps necessary to travel from Haran to the land of Canaan and even as far south as Egypt. Elijah made the arduous journey from northern Israel to Mount Sinai and back again. Even Jesus traveled throughout the Galilee and eventually down to Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly then, one of the most common Hebrew verbs in the Old Testament is the one for “going, walking.” Likewise, a good deal of the biblical text, as alluded to above, deals with the undertaking and complexities of traveling. One such example is Psalm 121.
Psalm 121 is the second of the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). These texts seem to have been used by pilgrims during their travel to Jerusalem and/or as part of celebratory worship at the temple there. Individual cases have been made for the use of Psalm 121 by a traveler who is approaching and departing from Jerusalem. In either case we can say with some certainty that Psalm 121 deals with journeying.
The stark geographic diversity found in the land of Palestine is such that travel for the ancients was at best difficult and commonly dangerous. The availability of water would have been a constant concern, especially in the hot dry summers when the sun mercilessly beats down. In addition, the danger of bandits could never be ruled out, as the parable of the Good Samaritan later bears witness.
Psalm 121 responds to what must have been unavoidable misgivings about travel with unwavering reassurances that God protects his beloved. In fact, the Hebrew verb translated as “keep,” which has the sense of “watch over, protect,” occurs six times in only eight verses. In all of these occurrences God is the one doing the action. God protects the traveler from a host of possible dangers, from the most basic slipping of the foot (verse 3) to the light of the moon (verse 6), which in ancient times was viewed with a degree of supernatural apprehension. It is because God is the same one “who made heaven and earth” (verse 2), meaning all that exists, that the sojourner can rest assured in God’s ability to offer such far-reaching protection, even of the traveler’s very life (verse 7).
It may be enough that Psalm 121 offers such profound reassurance to the traveler moving from place to place. Yet it exceeds this particularity by reaching into the journey of human life itself. The final two verses of the text hint at the broad scope of God’s protective activity as it references to the protection of the traveler from “all evil” (verse 7) that lasts “from this time on and forevermore” (verse 8).
The life of faith that begins with baptism is indeed a journey on which God’s guidance and protection is needed. Accordingly, Psalm 121 plays a prominent role in the worship life of the Christian community of faith. Verse two contributes to the understanding of God the Father in the Apostle’s Creed while other parts of the text have appeared in either the baptismal liturgy or funerary services of various faith traditions. The reassurances of Psalm 121 are thus able to accompany the faithful at the beginning and end of their life’s journey, as well as help sustain and uplift them with God’s presence and protection along the greatest journey of all.