From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 121 is the second in the fifteen songs of ascents. These songs all relate in some way to the idea of going up to Jerusalem as pilgrims to meet with God. These psalms are all rather short with pointed themes. The first of these songs expresses a feeling of being far from God and longing for his peace. The last psalm speaks of the blessing that Zion gives to the people. Other psalms celebrate the strength and joy of Zion, God’s blessings on the families of his people, and the full redemption of God.
Psalm 121 fits into this group as a reflection on the journey of the pilgrim toward Jerusalem. In Old Testament times, the journey was a real trip over difficult terrain to a physical city. For Christians in the New Testament, there is still a journey. We are still pilgrims on the way to the Heavenly Jerusalem. This psalm is as much for us as it was for them.
The psalm begins with the pilgrim surveying the hills before him. These hills are not a romantic and beautiful inspiration for the traveler. This pilgrim must walk over those hills. They represent the dangers and difficulties the psalmist will face. Where will the strength come from to get over those hills? Other dangers may beset the pilgrim on his journey. His foot may slip from the path, (v. 3), and the heat may endanger his life, (vv. 5-6). The psalm summarizes the dangers as “all evil” that can affect his life, (v. 7).
In applying this psalm, we must not allegorize these dangers by asking questions like, “What are the spiritual mountains we need to cross?” Rather, we need simply to remember as Christian pilgrims that we face many physical and spiritual dangers. Hebrews 12 calls us to run the race with perseverance, to cast off the sin that would weigh us down, and to keep our eyes on Jesus, “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted,” (Hebrews 12:3). Many difficulties confront the Christian pilgrim throughout life. In all of them, God is our helper.
The psalmist begins his journey to Zion with a confession of faith: “My help comes from the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth,” (v. 2). We find a similar confession in a similar situation in Psalm 124. That psalm also sees enemies threatening the people of God. It concludes with confidence: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth,” (v. 8). This confession is corporate rather than personal, but it rests in the same essential thought: the God who is committed to helping us is the God who created everything, including those difficult hills and those attacking men. He who created is more than able to help.
The beauty and appeal of this confession of faith has so resonated with the church that the words of Psalm 124:8 became a standard declaration of faith at the beginning of Christian worship services. This was true in the ancient church, and the practice was revived by John Calvin for the Reformed churches in the sixteenth century. Surely, it is good at the beginning of worship to declare our faith in the God who is the Creator of all and is our help.
This psalm focuses much more on the successful outcome of the journey than on the dangers of the journey. Our helper, the great Creator, will not let one foot slip, (v. 3). He is “your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night,” (vv. 5-6). The promise is clear and comprehensive: “The Lord will keep you from all evil,” (v. 7). Here is real motivation to praise.
This help from God is for both now and forever, (v. 8). In this life, God is our help in every circumstance. But the promises of God are not for this life only. “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” (1 Corinthians 15:19). God’s promised help is forever, for eternal life. Our spiritual pilgrimage ends only in the new Heaven and the new Earth that God will make.
The psalmist attributes the successful outcome of his trip to God alone. Central to the psalm are the words, “The Lord is your keeper,” (v. 5). Six times this psalm declares that the Lord keeps us. This keeping is not passive; it means that the Lord is actively guarding us. The Lord is the guardian of each pilgrim and of all his people. He always stands guard over his own to protect them from every danger.
The protection of the Lord is constant. It never falters or fails. It is never interrupted. The Lord is not a human guard who may fall asleep and fail in his duty. This psalm promises, “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” (vv. 3-4). The faithfulness of the Lord stands in marked contrast to the Baal whom Elijah taunts. On Mount Carmel, after the prophets of Baal had prayed for hours without response, Elijah said of Baal, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened,” (1 Kings 18:27). The promise and constant protection of the Lord are sure: “He will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore,” (vv. 7b-8).
We have now looked at something of the structure and meaning of Psalm 121 as well as its place in Book Five of the Psalter. We should pause to remind ourselves that once we have analyzed a poem like this, we must return to appreciate it as a poem. We must see its beauty and charm. At many points, its language is very concrete. For example, the psalmist might have begun Psalm 121 prosaically with the words, “I think about my problems.” Instead, with poetic vividness, he writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.”
Throughout the songs of ascents, powerful phrases both carry the meaning and shape the memorable character of these psalms. We should meditate on such phrases and allow their beauty to charm and refresh us. Consider some of the following:
Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace. (Psalm 120:6-7a)
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1)
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us. (Psalm 123:2)
Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:5-6)
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. (Psalm 127:1)
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3-4)
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. (Psalm 131:1)
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- As a psalm of reflection on the journey of the pilgrimage toward Jerusalem, how does Psalm 121 apply to us today? Why should it not be allegorized?
- How does Psalm 121 focus more on the successful outcome of the journey than on the dangers of the journey?
- Six times this psalm declares that the Lord keeps us. How is this keeping active instead of passive? Why is it important to meditate on such phrases in this psalm?