Commentary on Psalm 121
Psalm 121 is a “song of ascent.” It is the second psalm in a collection used by Israelites making pilgrimages to Jerusalem (Psalms 120-134).
In Exodus, Israelite males are commanded to “see the face of the Lord YHWH” three times a year (Exodus 23:17), for the festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread in early spring; Pentecost (or First Fruits and Feast of Weeks), which occurred after the wheat harvest in late spring; and Ingathering (The Feast or Booths), celebrated in early fall after the harvest of summer fruits and nuts (Exodus 23:14-17).
Pilgrimage has been understood in a number of different ways, but recent attempts at definition emphasize that it is not merely a religious or spiritual phenomenon (though it is that as well) but a social, political, and commercial one as well. It is a physical, ritualized journey undertaken through a particular landscape and often at a particular time to a destination that has been ascribed religious power (a place, a person, or an object). Upon arrival, the pilgrim offers prayers and sacrifices that will be particularly powerful and efficacious because of the holiness concentrated in the place. Mark S. Smith writes that pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple was “… like visiting paradise and temporarily recapturing the primordial peaceful and abundant relationship with God.”1
Perhaps because many modern Christians feel increasingly alienated from the landscape, from the rhythm of the seasons, and from their own bodies, pilgrimage has become a powerful way for Christians to link aspects of their lives that they have tended to hold separate: the spiritual and material, the body and the soul, the community and the individual. They go on pilgrimage in search of a full and intense experience of the divine. Although reading and preaching Psalm 121 in a church on Sunday morning surely cannot do what a pilgrimage can, it might be interesting for the preacher use the psalm as a way to imaginatively explore the phenomenon of pilgrimage.
The movement of the psalm
The psalm begins with a recognition that the world as-it-is is full of uncertainty, that fear threatens to uproot experiences of security and safety. The mountains (ha¯ri^m) loom large and daunting before the psalmist’s eyes. Thus the psalmist — in this case, the pilgrim—begins in a state of helplessness and wonders out-loud how they will be able to make this difficult journey (imagined literally or metaphorically): “from where will help come?” The answer comes quickly, but the process is important. The doubt and fear are expressed not squashed. The response channels the voice of tradition: “My help comes from YHWH.” YHWH is the god “who made heaven and earth” and who is powerful enough to help. The place of threat (the mountains) is also the place from which help comes. In the ancient world, divine abodes were associated with mountains. Perhaps the best-known example is Mount Olympus, the mountain home of the gods of Greek mythology. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, the pilgrim chooses to travel into the heart of holiness.
In the shift from “I” (verse 1) to “you” (verses 2-9), some biblical scholars have seen a mode of expression from the temple worship in which the people ask for help and the priest responds with a promise of divine assistance. Others have posited that this change in person reflects an interior dialogue (the psalmist talking to his or her own self or “soul”). Also compelling is the idea that the language captures communications between pilgrims, who exchange testimonies and support. One begins with a call for help and the other(s) respond with reassurance.
VERSE 3 addresses the literal, physical need of a pilgrim, whose feet are weary and wobbly; YHWH, who made heaven and earth, will not let the pilgrim falter. The one who watches over the pilgrim can be trusted to stay vigilant against the threats that assail them day and night. This is the same god who watches over Israel; the one who will neither slumber nor sleep. The verbs here are synonyms and the repetition (no slumber, no slumber, no sleep) is meant to assure the addressee that YHWH is ever-watchful, unlike human guards or shepherds (literal or metaphorical), who cannot resist sleep in the quiet hours of the night. While other Psalms implore YHWH to wake up, this one insists that YHWH does not need to be roused because he will never sleep (Ps 44:23). The emphasis here is on divine constancy and reliability.
The poem builds through a series of expansions, a “that and so much more” response to the initial question (“From where will my help come?”). YHWH will make sure, in this moment, that your foot will not slip. But YHWH will do so much more than that. YHWH will be “your shade” (verse 5), a comfort in the sun baked region of Jerusalem. The image draws on the metaphor of God as a raptor who covers his offspring with his wings (Ps 91:4) as well as on metaphors of God as a fortress that provides shelter and refuge (Ps 91:1-2). Because of this “YHWH shade,” you do need to fear the scary things that threaten at night (getting moonstruck or lunacy (from the Latin luna, “moon”) or during the day (getting heatstroke) (verse 6).
The assurance of protection by day and by night is extended in verses 7-8 to include “your coming and your going.” It is this affirmation (‘The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore’) that practicing Jews are to recite when they leave their houses and touch the mezuzah, a cylinder mounted on the doorpost that contains a small scroll etched with the words from Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21.
The psalm concludes by looking back on where it began. The word “come” appears at the beginning and the end of the poem, as does the preposition “from” (min) creating an enclosing envelope (inclusio) around the poem. Thus the poem begins with a basic and immediate question, “from where will come my help?” and ends with a response that radically expands the assumptions inherent in the question: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forever.” The question, “from where?”, with its limited spatial scope, is dramatically widened with the addition of the temporal dimension, “forever.” YHWH will watch out for you not just here and now but always and in every single thing you do. The impression is of a perfect microcosm of divine protection, reflected in the pilgrims’ reverberating testimonies of perpetual safety under God’s watch day and night, during your coming and your going, now and forever.
The journey metaphor that holds the psalm together works on a number of levels. As the pilgrim affirms that the protective presence of God accompanies them on their journey to Jerusalem, they are invited to make associations between their individual life trajectories and the story of Israel’s relationship with God. In this way, each pilgrim is invited to recall the ways in which God has cared for them while also seeing their journey as part of Israel’s journey. The psalm also gives each pilgrim a language and a tradition that binds them to the community, past and present. And all this collective and individual remembering is prompted, not by a private reading, but through communal singing, which happens as the people walk together, moving through the landscape united by a common purpose and shared destination.
Psalm 121 is a traditional expression of faith intended to strengthen—indeed, to surround—the ones who journey toward God, literally and metaphorically.
- Mark S. Smith, Psalms: The Divine Journey. (New York: Mahwah, 1987), 45.