Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteen psalms in the Psalter, Psalms 120-134, share a common superscription, “Songs of Ascents.

The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)
Paul Gauguin, "The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)." Creative Commons image from Wikipedia.

October 20, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 121

Fifteen psalms in the Psalter, Psalms 120-134, share a common superscription, “Songs of Ascents.

The root meaning of the word “ascents” is ‘alah–”to go up.” The frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion in this collection of psalms (Psalms 122:1, 6; 125:1, 2; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 134:3) may account for their superscriptions. Since Jerusalem sits on a hill, no matter where one comes from, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem. Thus, pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles may have sung the Songs of Ascents as they traveled along.

Others speculate that the “ascents” referred to in Psalms 120-134 are the steps of the temple, which Ezekiel calls “ascents” (Ezekiel 40:6). The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic traditions that date from 200 BCE to 200 CE) states that “fifteen steps led up within [the Court of the Women] to the Court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen songs of the steps in the Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing.” And, “The Levites on harps, and on lyres, and with cymbals, and with trumpets and with other instruments of music without number upon the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to ‘The Fifteen Songs of Ascent’ in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns.”

Although these fifteen psalms most likely come from a variety of times and places in the life of ancient Israel, the message of the collection as a whole is that Jerusalem is the place for the coming together of the people of God for celebrations and commemorations and for acknowledging the goodness and help of their God.

Psalm 121, the second Song of Ascents, is an individual hymn of thanksgiving sung by the psalm singer on the approach to Jerusalem; the hills of Jerusalem are in view and God guides the singer’s feet. Two voices are present in the psalm — an individual singer, who states firm trust in the Lord, and a respondent who assures the singer that the Lord will indeed guard the singer, thus dividing the psalm into two sections, corresponding to the two voices in the psalm:

  • Verses 1-2:    A Confession of Trust by the Individual
  • Verses 3-8:    A Response by the Priest or Worship Officiant

The psalm singer asks a question in verse 1 while approaching Jerusalem, “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help (‘ezer) come?”, and then promptly answers his own question with, ‘My help (‘ezer) comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’” The word “helper,” derived from, a verbal root that means “to help, to free, to come to help,” is a powerfully simple word. It is used in Genesis 2:18, where we read: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’”

‘Ezer occurs in its noun form some sixty-five times in the Old Testament, and in most cases, it refers to the “help” of God in some sort of life-threatening situation (e.g., Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 33:20). Thus the word ‘ezer conveys the idea of a “help” that is a strong presence, an aid without which humankind would be unprotected and vulnerable to all sorts of unsettling situations.

The phrase “maker of heavens and earth” appears three times in the Songs of Ascents (Psalm 121:2; 124:8; and 134:3) and in Psalm 146:6. Its earliest occurrence in the biblical text is in the blessing of Melchizedek in Genesis 14:19. The phrase was incorporated into the Apostle’s Creed with the words: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth …”

In verses 3-8, another voice, the respondent to the psalm singer, offers words of assurance. In these verses word “keep” appears six times, always in reference to the Lord. Thus, while the psalm singer refers to the Lord as “my help,” the respondent refers to the Lord as “the one who keeps.” The word “keep” is derived from a verbal root thatmeans “to protect, to guard, to watch over, to take care of.”

It is rendered in a number of English translations as “keep” (RSV, NRSV, NASB), but the word conveys a more active concept. The Lord does not just “keep” the psalmist in the sense of providing a space for the psalmist. But the Lord “guards, protects, watches over” the psalmist, fending off those who seek out the psalmist or who would do the psalmist harm.

The respondent further declares that the Lord will not slumber and will not be asleep (verses 3-4). In other places in the book of Psalms, the psalm singers call on the Lord to awaken (Psalms 7:6; 35:23; 44:23; 59:4-5). The “sleeping deity” is a literary motif found in numerous texts in the ancient Near East. The words of Psalm 121, stand in sharp contrast to the texts accusing God of sleeping and thus not paying attention to the cries of the psalm singer.

In verse 5, the psalm singer is assured that the Lord is a shade (tsel). The word occurs ten times in the Psalter, often as part the phrase “the shadow (tsel) of your wings” (Pss 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7) and connotes the protection provided by a mother bird to her chicks (e.g., Isa 51:16). In verses 6-7, the psalm singer receives further assurance that neither the sun in the day nor the moon by night will strike her. Verse 2’s “maker of heaven and earth” and verse 6’s “by day and by night” are merisms, word pairs that summarize the total by naming its opposite boundaries.

Verse 8 adds another merism, “your going out and your coming in,” indicating that the Lord will protect the psalmist’s every movement. This phrase apparently refers to typical city life in ancient Israel in which workers left the protective confines of the walled city in the morning to carry out field and pasture work and returned in the evening to the shelter of the city walls.

Psalm 121 thus provides words of assurance that if the faithful fix their eyes squarely on the source of their “help,” then the Lord, “the maker of heavens and earth,” who “does not slumber,” will indeed “guard, keep watch over, protect” and “be a shade.” If we take our eyes off of the source of our assuredness, when we look to other “mountains” for help, then the mundane, the ordinary — the sun, the moon, the malicious things — find us and strike us. Thus may we all remember to “lift up our eyes to the mountains.”