Commentary on Psalm 121
Psalm 121 will be familiar to many readers and worshipers. It begins with a question familiar to many: From where will my help come as I look to the surrounding hills? The identification of the hills has been a matter of some discussion. Are the hills where the speaker is living or where the Creator is present or perhaps where Zion stands?
Context is important here. The psalm is the second poem in a discreet collection, the Psalms of Ascents in Psalms 120-134. This collection of brief poems remembers pilgrimage to worship at the Jerusalem temple (Zion). The title reflects the need to ascend or go up to the temple to worship. The poetry of the psalm is in figurative language asking the question of who will protect the pilgrims who must pass through mountains, hills, cliffs, and other dangerous lands. Wild animals and marauders attack in the lands through which the pilgrims must go. They must navigate enemy territory. Who will protect the pilgrims?
The rest of the psalm answers that powerful poetic question in powerful poetic ways. The question comes from pilgrims who prepare their imaginations of faith for the remembered pilgrimage to come. The psalm is near the beginning of the collection of the Psalms of Ascents and so reflects the longing and anxiety of the beginning of pilgrimages. Yes, worshipers in the twenty-first century go on pilgrimages, but all people of faith can reflect on the life of faith as a journey or pilgrimage, and the hope for the guiding and protecting divine presence on that journey.
The broad, clear answer to the question with which the psalm begins comes quickly in verse 2 with a familiar confession of faith. YHWH is the one who is the sufficient source of help and protection for pilgrims. The following confession of faith portrays YHWH as the creator of heaven and earth, that is, of all things. The one who has made all things is surely sufficient to protect from any threats to the pilgrims from “the hills.” YHWH is the creator and deliverer who is able to offer full protection (Psalms 61:1; 62:1-2, 7; 91:4-6).
The psalm continues with the poetic characterization of YHWH as creator. The Lord protects the path of the pilgrim and does not sleep but is steadfastly attentive, always awake and aware. The poetry reminds the community that in these ways YHWH is steadfastly the help mentioned in verse 1. God is the keeper, the guardian, the protector. By the end of verse 4 the poetic parallelism brings the divine power and glory to the pilgrim’s imagination in what is a remarkable poetic answer to the psalm’s opening question.
The imagery of sleep, that God neither slumbers nor sleeps and that God brings full protection by not even allowing your foot to be moved, is an affirmation that brings great assurance in the face of threat. Careful readers and hearers will need also to remember the language used in crises portrayed in the lament psalms (Psalms 7:6; 44:23; 59:4-5), language that fervently urges YHWH to wake up from sleep to help those in trouble. Also the crisis ancient Israel endured during the time of exile brought to the prophetic imagination the urgent need for the creator to awake from sleep and inaction (Isaiah 51:9). The sweep of the Older Testament’s faith candidly confesses that the community experiences the absence of God and the dire need for divine help. This sense of absence stands in constructive tension with the strong and artful characterization of YHWH as creator who neither slumbers nor sleeps and acts as all-sufficient help.
The concluding four verses of Psalm 121 continue the poetic portrayal of YHWH, in this case with the quadruple repetition of the divine name with a continuing emphasis on YHWH as keeper or protector. In verse 5, YHWH is the one who protects from the heat of the sun and even the moon in the poetic parallelism of verse 6. Sun and moon stand under the rule of the creator and bring to mind the threats to the pilgrims. The guard or protector stands at the “right hand” of the pilgrims ready to defend them. Verses 7-8 move to more general language of YHWH as the keeper who guards against all manner of evil and every threat. The concluding verse is a benediction for the pilgrims, as they begin to travel and arrive and move along the way.
The simple and profound poem portrays YHWH as keeper. The term “keep” is central to the psalm, and confesses faith in the trustworthiness of the creator/liberator/guide who keeps pilgrims of faith in the midst of all kinds of threats. The psalm confesses faith in YHWH who keeps pilgrims in all parts of life and especially in departures and arrivals. The concluding verse uses going out and coming in as a way of including all of life, and it speaks of the needs of pilgrims who are excited and anxious at the beginning of festival pilgrimages and at the arrival at the sanctuary, the place of the fulfillment of their longing and anticipation for festival worship and its renewal of life.
Psalm 121 is a psalm of trust and so articulates affirmations central to the life of faith. This poetry with its images and repetition and parallelism and use of special vocabulary articulates for readers and hearers the divine trustworthiness for the community on pilgrimage with YHWH. The conclusion of Psalm 121 brings to mind the priestly benediction in Numbers 6:24-26. The “keeping” YHWH enacts in this psalm embodies the Lord’s blessing and keeping you on the pilgrimage of faith.