Commentary on Psalm 121
Many readers of Psalm 121 have connected it with life’s journey — or at least with life’s journeys.
A friend of mine always leads his family in reciting Psalm 121 when they depart on a journey. Another friend loves this psalm because it speaks words of promise about God’s providence and protection on life’s journey. Another friend who has written quite a bit about the psalms calls this one, “A Psalm for Sojourners.”1
One reason interpreters have connected this poem with the idea of journey is that it is part of the “psalms of ascent.” These psalms, 120-134, all bear the superscription shir-hamma’alot or shir-lammal’alot translated in the NRSV as “a song of ascents” or “a song of ascent.”
The best guess is that these psalms were collected to be used in conjunction with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For that reason, Psalm 121 is most commonly understood as a liturgy of blessing for one about to leave on a journey.
The structure of the psalm is elegantly simple:
verses 1-2 A Traveler’s Question and Confession
verses 3-8 A Priestly Blessing
A Traveler’s Question and Confession
1 I lift my eyes to the hills —
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
The psalm begins with a question to which anyone can relate: Where can I get help? Or better, where can I look for help?
[An aside: The Hebrew-savvy preachers among the audience may be ready to fire off an urgent email: “Hey, the opening verse does not have to be translated as a question, does it?” And this is true. Ancient Hebrew had no punctuation, so the only way to signal a question was either through inverted word order or through the use of an interrogative particle such as “where” (‘ayin), “how” (mah), or “why” (lamah). But Hebrew poetry often inverts word order for, well, poetic reasons. And sometimes interrogative particles are used to signal exclamations rather than questions. As in: How cool is that!! Or: Who’s the boss now!! The Hebrew in the second half of verse one reads: me’ayin yabo’ ‘ezriy. Literally, “from where comes my help.” Although the translation, “from where my help will come” is possible (so KJV), the far more common translation, “from whence cometh my help?/from where will my help come?” is more likely (so NRSV, RSV, NIV, NJPS, NAB, NJB, etc).]
As noted above, many interpreters imagine a traveler about to depart on a journey — perhaps a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival, or perhaps any journey. Such a question is a natural — whether one is thinking of a geographic journey through dangerous territory, a lifelong journey through many ups and downs, or a spiritual journey to discovery seeking a homecoming to God.
Life is full of many dangers. The physical: disease, injury, accident, war, infirmity, or natural disasters. The economic: recession, depression, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, or theft. The spiritual: doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, or false teaching.
What more natural question to ask than, “From whence shall my help come?”
In fact, consider giving the congregation a minute or two to discuss the greatest fears and threats that they or a loved one faces right now. Send out an email ahead of worship and ask people to reflect on the question, or even to bring written responses that can be collected and set before the altar of God. Or ask them to share a fear with a neighbor.
The psalmist answers his or her own question with a confession of faith: “My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”
Modern translations obscure the poetic, chiastic structure of the sentence. The word “my-help” is the last word of verse 1 and the first word of verse 2. In this overly literal translation, a hyphen indicates when several English words are translating one Hebrew word:
I-lift my-eyes to-the-hills
from-where shall-come my-help
my-help from-with YHWH
maker of-heaven and-earth.
The verse is a chiasm:
A creation (hills)
B whence comes my help
B’ my help is from the Lord
A creation (heaven and earth)
The psalmist does not look to nature for help! Those hills, after all, might be hiding some threat, some predator. The psalmist’s help comes from the very one who made the hills, the heavens and the earth: God! The hills may obscure some threat, but they also by their very existence bear witness to the creator.
A preacher could do worse than to try to render this confession of faith — “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”– available to the congregation. That is often the best way to preach a psalm — to teach and preach about the prayer in order that the congregation may enter into the poem and become the speaker. If you gave people a chance to name the threats and fears they face, invite them to stare those fears down by saying these words out loud: My help comes from the Lord, who make heaven and earth.
The rest of the psalm is a blessing. The pronouns switch now from the first-person “my” and “I” of verses 1-2, to second-person singular “you” and “your.”
Many interpreters imagine a change of speaker, most likely a priestly figure — or at least someone speaking priestly words of blessing. The genre here is benediction. An under-utilized genre in our world.
Verses 3-8 have two parallel “legs.” The key word is keep/keeper — which translates the Hebrew word shamar. Although most English translations obscure this, in the first leg, the benediction uses the masculine, singular participial form: keeper. In the second leg, the form switching to the third, masculine, singular imperfect form: he will keep.
The following translation seeks to show the structure:
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
your keeper will not slumber.
4 Israel’s keeper
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.
The logical movement here is from God identity and character to God identifying and characteristic actions.
Who is God? God is a keeper. God’s identity is to protect, shield, watch over, guard, keep. God does this like a watchman keeping guard over a city (130:8) or a bird shielding its young in the shelter of his wings (91:4).
What does God promise to do? God promises to keep you. God will guard you as you go on your journey of life, and as you return home. As you go out and come in. As you face the dangers of the day and of the night.
The list of promises here is not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will face no harm or that nothing ill will befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.
These promises, however, are meant as characteristic promises — these are the sort of things that the Lord does for those who rely on him. And the words of blessing and promise evoke God’s protection and our awareness of it.
For this reason, it is common for Jewish families to post Psalm 121 in the delivery room, or in baby carriages, or in a child’s room.
As noted above, the genre of blessing is under-utilized in today’s world. But I believe that every child of God should give and receive a blessing every day. In our home, we make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead and bless each other every night before bed with words borrowed from the baptismal service. A friend of mine and his wife bless their kids every morning as they leave for school, likewise making the sign of the cross on each other and using baptismal words and images.
The words of Psalm 121 make a great blessing. Perhaps close the sermon by asking the congregation to bless each other, making the sign of the cross on each other and saying, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”
- James Limburg, Psalms for Sojourners, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2002), p. 70. In his full commentary on the psalms, Limburg transfers that title to Psalm 119 and retitles Psalm 121 “On the Road Again” — continuing the view of reading Psalm 121 as a pilgrimage or journey psalm; Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 405.