Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)

Psalm 121 is identified by its title as “A Song of Ascents.”

March 20, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 121

Psalm 121 is identified by its title as “A Song of Ascents.”

The significance of the term “ascents” is not certain. The same root in Psalm 122:4, however, refers to a ritual journey to Jerusalem (see also Ezra 7:9; Psalm 24:3).  Therefore, the heading of Psalm 121 may indicate that the psalm was used by pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for one of the three yearly festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16). The psalm is located in a group of psalms (Psalms 120-134) placed together for that purpose. In the lectionary Psalm 121 is paired appropriately with texts that recall and comment on Abraham’s journey from his home and family to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17). Like Abraham, the psalmist expresses trust in the protection and care of God on the journey.

Psalm 121 is liturgical in character, as indicated by the shift in voices throughout the psalm. Verses 1-2, and possibly verse 4, seem to be voiced by a pilgrim, who perhaps represents the whole company of travelers.  The remainder of the psalm may be the response of a priest if the setting is departure from the temple. Or the response may be the words of a travel leader, or one who is remaining at home, if the setting is the initial departure for Jerusalem.  Regardless of the exact orientation of the travelers, the main issue in the psalm is the safety God provides through constant attention to the faithful pilgrims.

The psalm begins with a declaration in verse 1a (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”) that introduces the central concern of the poem in the form of a question in verse 1b (“from where will my help come?”). The answer appears clearly in verse 2a, “My help comes from the Lord.” If the “hills” connote the hilltops around Jerusalem where shrines of other gods were located, the affirmation is intended to distinguish the Lord from other deities. 

Along with the profession, “My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:2a), is the qualifying title, “Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2b).  This description appears only once in this psalm, but its importance cannot be captured in numerical occurrences. The same label occurs two other times in the “Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 124:8; 134:3). The last occurrence appears to be an editorial addition placed on a psalm that acts as conclusion to the collection (Psalms 120-134).  Hence, it is possible that an editor understands “Maker of heaven and earth” to be a central tenet of faith in the Songs of Ascent.  Even if on a short journey to Jerusalem, the traveler surely observed worship sites devoted to other deities (on “the hills”), gods perhaps believed by their adherents to have ordered the cosmos.  Thus, to confess that Yahweh was “Maker of heaven and earth” was to declare these other deities in effectual. The significance of this label for God in the Church is clarified by its use in the Apostles’ Creed.

Verses 3-4 continue the comparison of Yahweh to other deities with the declaration that Israel’s God “does not sleep or slumber.” The contrast between Israel’s guardian and the gods of other people obviously relies on the common belief among Israel’s neighbors that their gods “slept” (or died) during winter months and were revived in seasons of growth and harvest. But the Lord did not sleep and therefore could keep constant watch over Israel and its pilgrims. The point is emphasized by the six occurrences of the word “keep” or “keeper” to describe what Yahweh does and who Yahweh is.

The final four verses of the psalm are spoken again by a “leader” and take the form of a “blessing”; that is, they are confessional, but since they are spoken on behalf of the pilgrims they have the tone of wish and assurance.  Verse 5 is a general word about the character of the protector of the pilgrims.  A new label, “your shade” is introduced there.  This description of God is appropriate in a psalm of pilgrimage since shade was at a premium for travelers in the Palestinian countryside.  However, the metaphor has other associations that should not be missed.  In other passages (i.e., Psalms 36:8, 61:5) Yahweh’s “shade” is equated with the safety of the temple.  This makes clear that the figure of “shade” is part of a larger portrayal of Yahweh as king (see Judges 9:7-15).

Verse 6 lists the range of possible difficulties for the pilgrim: the sun by day, the moon by night.  Although mention of the moon here may seem odd to the modern reader it should be remembered that ancient people believed the moon to be a cause of lunacy (hence, our term “lunatic” from the Latin word for “moon”).  More is involved than just the threat of two luminaries, however.  Both the sun and the moon were thought to represent deities: for example, the Egyptian god, Ra (the sun god) and the Mesopotamian, Nanna (the moon god). Verse 7 offers a final summary of Yahweh’s protection “from all evil” with a line that can be taken either as a wish (“may he keep you”) or a statement of what is typical (“he will keep you”).  The psalm ends (verse 8) with final reference to Yahweh’s “keeping” vigil over future pilgrimage to the holy city (“coming in” and “going out”).

Psalm 121 is well-suited for the joy of “pilgrimage” through Advent on the way to Easter. Such a journey should be made in full recognition of false gods all around who compete for our devotion. Psalm 121 highlights a point made many other places in Scripture, that the Lord is “Maker of heaven and earth,” the only one who gives and sustains life. The Lord is therefore the only one worthy of devotion.