Looking to God for help in Psalm 121

Richard Bauckham writes: Psalm 121 is one of the psalms that seem especially appropriate for a time of pandemic, and so it may be helpful to explain and reflect on it a little. It is a quite well-known psalm, remembered especially for its distinctive opening line: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” To make a change from whatever Bible version you are used to reading, I shall give here Robert Alter’s translation of this psalm. Alter is not a biblical scholar but a literary scholar who studies modern Hebrew literature, among other things, but he has made his own translation of the whole Hebrew Bible. It’s a translation noted for its literary sensitivity.

Psalm 121.  A Song of Ascents

1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my help come?
2 My help is from the LORD,
maker of heaven and earth.
3 He does not let your foot stumble.
Your guard does not slumber.
4 Look, he does not slumber nor does he sleep,
Israel’s guard.
5 The LORD is your guard,
the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 By day the sun does not strike you,
nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD guards you from all harm,
he guards your life.
8 The LORD guards your going and your coming,
now and forevermore.

An unusual sort of psalm

The form of the psalm is unusual, because it is not actually a prayer. It doesn’t address God. (This is also true of Psalm 91, which has the same theme and a similar form.) Instead, in verse 1, the psalmist asks a question, which he himself answers in verse 2. But another voice speaks in the rest of the psalm, speaking about the psalmist and God. This voice speaks reassurance to the psalmist, assuring him that God’s protection will not fail him. It may be that we should think of a setting in which someone comes up to the Temple in Jerusalem, speaks the first two verses, and then a priest speaks the rest of the psalm. In fact, verses 3–8 can be seen as an expansion of the priestly blessing, which priests regularly used to bless the people. The blessing begins, “The LORD bless you and keep you…” (Numbers 6:22), where “keep” = “guards” in Alter’s version of the psalm (other versions of the psalm have “keep”).

This psalm is one of a group of psalms that have the title, “A Song of Ascents.” Most of the titles of the psalms are obscure to us, but it is generally thought that these “songs of ascents” were used by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the Temple festivals.

Some notes of explanation

There are several details that you may need explaining:

Verse 1: You may be familiar with the old translations that take the second line as a statement: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (KJV). But the modern translations are certainly right to take the second line as a question (as in Alter’s translation above). The psalmist looks at the hills and then wonders where his help is to come from. But what is the point of referring to the hills? If the psalmist is a pilgrim on the way to the Temple, then he or she would see ahead of them, as they came near to Jerusalem, the small hills that surround the city. These could be seen as a kind of defence around the city and its Temple. The size and solidity of a mountain make it a natural symbol of reliable protection. So the psalmist notices how the hills protect Jerusalem, and wonders what will be his or her protection. Verse 2 then answers: the God who created the universe, including the mountains, will protect them. They have a much more powerful protector than the mountains are for the city. We could also remember that, since all travel in the ancient world was dangerous, the theme of divine protection is one that would come easily to the mind of a pilgrim.

Verses 3–4 stress that God does not sleep. The psalmist, on his or her journey to Jerusalem, needs to sleep, but God doesn’t. When the psalmist is asleep in a camp by the roadside, God is still watching over them.  You might remember Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, where he mocks them with the suggestion that their god must be asleep and needs waking up (1 Kgs 18:27).

Verse 6: The danger from the sun is probably sunstroke, a real hazard in Palestine. You could die from it. The danger from the moon may refer to the very widespread idea that the moon can drive people mad (“moonstruck”). But I think these specific dangers really stand for all the dangers of the daytime and all the dangers of the nighttime.

What sort of protection?

The message of the psalm is very simple: the Lord will protect you. The word “guard” (in Alter’s version) or “keep” (in other versions) occurs six times in verses 3–8, with a concentration of occurrences at the conclusion (verses 7–8). I think Alter’s translation, “guard,” is a helpful one.

In its original context I guess that physical protection from the many dangers of life would be primarily in mind. Note “from all harm” (verse 7), where this translation is clearer than those that have “from all evil.” The “evil” here is the harm that someone or something might do to you.

So, if we read this psalm in the context of the pandemic, does it assure us that, trusting in God, we will not catch the virus or die from it? I think we would probably all agree that Christian believers do not have some kind of immunity that others lack. An example from church history that has been quite widely shared in recent weeks is the behaviour of Christians during a devastating plague in the Roman empire in the mid-third century. This is an eyewitness account by bishop Dionysius of Alexandria:

Most of our Christian brothers and sisters showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death tothemselves and died in their stead.

We also know that the New Testament never promises us physical safety in all circumstances. Rather it urges us to be prepared for the suffering that may come our way, not least because we are Christian believers.

I think it is absolutely right that we should pray for God’s protection from disease and other physical dangers and also that we should pray for God’s protection for others. God wants us to share all such concerns with him, trusting them to him. Exceptionally God may make known his will to protect someone, maybe because they have a task to do for him. But generally, all our prayers of this kind carry the implicit thought: “if it is your will.”

But there is something else of great importance. What enabled those Christians in the great plague of the third century to minister to the sick and dying and to keep going “heedless of danger”? They knew they had no guarantee of physical safety, but they had a deep assurance of God’s love accompanying them in all circumstances. They did not need to doubt their spiritual safety. Like the martyrs of the same period, they faced death bravely and even happily, knowing that God’s love would hold onto them through and beyond death. I don’t think we should take Dionysius’s very upbeat account to mean that they did not have any mental anguish. Their own empathy with the suffering would entail that, as it does for nurses and doctors in ICUs today. But, through all that, they had the assurance of being in God’s hands.

Returning to the psalm, we should remember that most of the psalmists, like most people in ancient Israel, had no expectation of a desirable life after death. (I think that two or three of the psalms do express such a hope, though that is a controversial view.) They thought that the dead survived only as a “shade,” a sort of fading existence in death, in Sheol, which was a murky underground like the Greek Hades. So their hopes for God’s protection and blessing could envisage only their mortal life.

But what then do we make of the concluding verse of Psalm 121: “The LORDguards your going and your coming, now and forevermore.” Does the psalmist mean only “for the rest of your life”? Maybe, but I think it is one of those places where an Old Testament writer writes more than perhaps he consciously knows, something that gains more meaning when we read it from the perspective of the New Testament.

So we can read the psalm as promising us protection that includes physical safety. We can ask God to keep us safe from dangers and give thanks to him when he does. After all, weare kept safe from potential threats to our life and health every hour of every day. But we know that we cannot presume on God’s protection in this sense, since it may not always be God’s will for us. We can, however, also apply the psalm to the promise of spiritual safety that God makes unconditionally to all who trust in him. Whatever we may have to go through (even the lonely death of many who die in an ICU) God is with us in it and will in the end bring blessing for us and others out of it.

A metrical version

From the Reformation onwards people have written metrical versions of the psalms, mainly so that they can be easily sung. There are quite a few of them in our hymn books, the best known of them probably those of Isaac Watts. The Scottish Psalter of 1650, still used in the Church of Scotland, contains a metrical version of every psalm, sticking as closely as possible to the actual words of the psalm. Other metrical versions take more freedom to paraphrase and interpret the psalms.

So I decided to try my hand at a metrical version of Psalm 121. (Should you want to, you can probably find a hymn tune to fit it.) You will see that I have tried to include the main thoughts of the psalm, though often differently expressed. I have borrowed a phrase or two from Psalm 91. To reproduce the psalm’s emphasis on the word “keep” or “guard” I have used those words in all three stanzas.

Psalm 121

A Metrical Paraphrase

The Lord, the Guardian of my life,
Who holds me in his loving care,
Will keep the apple of his eye
Secure from every evil snare.

The Lord, Creator of the world,
Will never slumber, never sleep.
From threats of day and threats of night
His servant he shall surely keep.

Anguish and pain and death will come,
All that he wants me to endure,
But in the shelter of his love
He keeps me safe for evermore.


Professor Richard Bauckham is a biblical scholar and theologian. Until 2007 he was Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He retired early in order to concentrate on research and writing, and moved to Cambridge, where he is now Senior Scholar at Ridley Hall.

The illustration is Stanley Spencer’s ‘Resurrection: tidying’. The resurrection became a theme for a series of his works immediately after the Second World War.


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24 thoughts on “Looking to God for help in Psalm 121”

  1. ‘I look to the hills’
    I read a book recently that has David in Philistine territory looking back towards Judah and wondering from which hills his help would come from. He hoped for help from those hills. Hills seem to be symbolic of those things we think will always be there to help. Today it could be a pension scheme, a bank, the NHS etc. We are reminded that God in Zion is where our treasure is.
    I hope when things get difficult I’ll remember where my help comes from.
    Thanks for this I like your metrical paraphrase. A good thing to do.

    Reply
  2. There are many fine LM tunes (esp. to When I Survey, O Thou Who Camest, We Sing The Praise [Nicholson]) but for words like these maybe Tallis’s Canon to ‘Glory To Thee’ fits best for mood.

    Reply
      • Yes – someone should write a book on the process whereby tunes and hymns become ‘wedded’. (For example, ‘O Jesus I Have Promised’ has still not found a secure bride after all these years.) Herongate (It is a thing most wonderful) also gave a serene/innocent calm, as opposed to Tallis’s eternal/ancient calm.

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  3. Eugene Peterson had a different slant on the problem of the hills in his reflection on this Psalm in ‘A Long Obedience In The Same Direction’. He argued that at this time, Palestine was over-run with pagan worship, and much of that paganism was practised on hilltops. Therefore the psalm cautions against looking for hope in paganism and nature worship, rather than in Yahweh.

    Reply
    • I would offer cautious agreement here. Having had ministry in a nominally Christian area of Indonesia it was clear that a common outlook was that the natural world was infused by the supernatural world – something that took me a while to realise!. Later, teaching the Psalms to those preparing for cross-cultural mission, back in the UK, I would mention this reading.

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    • I know that suggestion, but it seems to me that, if the point were to reject the shrines to other gods, this would be clearer and stronger. We might expect something more like: “Do not lift up your eyes to the hills,” or “I do not lift up my eyes..” The psalm seems not to be saying that it’s wrong to lift up your eyes to the hills, only that it’s not where help is really to be found.

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  4. Many thanks for the article, which, to me, goes beyond scholarly study to reach the purpose of that study, the purposes of the Psalms.
    If I may may the temerity to bring the following:
    Alex Motyer, with his own translation entitles the Psalm. “Security” A song of Great Ascent. Keeping to keep, he points out that the verb to keep is employed six times, with the danger or problem not made explicit.
    The Psalm is set out as
    1 The Question v 1: He suggests the problem is left vague, so it applies to every threat, now as then.
    Interestingly, he suggests the looker, (watcher on the walls of Jerusalem?) was a look out for attacking forces, bandits, in the mountain lairs,
    – or a pilgrim to Jerusalem may look up to see the mountains through which they must pass to reach Jersusalem,
    – or, as Richard suggests it may rebut the idea that Zion’s safety comes from the surrounding mountain/hill defences.

    2 The first answer v2 – Yahweh the Creator (in contrast to Baal, below)
    Verses 1 and 2 are first person, verses 3-8 are third person. “Thus the subjective needs of an individual are met by the objective certainties of the truth.”

    3 The second answer, verses 3-4: Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Redeemer.
    (Comment: the underlying point seems to be the covenant keeping God of Israel, throughout history).
    Motyer, too, refers to the comparison and contrast with Baal who was mocked as sleeping, gone on a journey, relieving himself, by Elijah in 1 Kings 18.
    As it happens 1 Kings 18 was our church home zoom study passage this week, where the contrast between the covenant keeping God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and comparison with Baal and the earlier synthesistic worship of some Kings as they fall into religious declension from Yahweh the covenant keeping God and with them, national worship. (Ugaritic texts that portray the death of Baal, refer frequently to his need to be awakened.)

    4 The third answer, verses 5, 6: Yahweh our companion and protection.
    Motyer, too, draws out the “round the clock preservation” from “sun stroke and moon stroke” “comprehensiveness expressed by contrast”.

    Summary: verses 7, 8: Comprehensive preservation.
    For all time, from now, eternal.

    99.9% from PSALMS by the Day- A New Devotional Translation: Alec Motyer (2016)

    As an afterthought, the Psalm following Motyer’s title the Great Ascent, brings to mind an Ascent to the City of God, Jerusalem, paradoxically, the ultimate City descending, with God’s salvation, his presence. protection and provision, in infinity, eternity.

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  5. I suppose this was obvious to everyone else but I’m new to counting words. Do we know if the number of “guards” is deliberate? 3 nouns then 3 verbs. The opposite of English literature where you have to search for synonyms so as not to repeat.

    Reply
    • It means at least that “keep” is the main theme of the psalm. Hebrew does have a much smaller vocabulary than modern English (which I think has the largest of all vocabularies), but I don’t think that is the only reason for repetition of words I psalms. Some psalms have keywords seven times, which is number symbolising completeness. Six is not as such a symbolic number. There may well be other numerical features of the composition. (E.g. in Ps 23 the numerically central words are “you are with me”.) But the book I would go to to find the data for Ps 121 is not available to me while the libraries are closed!

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  6. I wonder if the ‘problem’ of the hills is a distraction from the larger sense of this song.

    What if the picture was more to do with David reflecting on the novelty of being royalty in his new capital city but bearing in mind the caution of his promoter, Samuel, he too wants to emphasise that it’s God that’s king over all.

    For me what jumps out of the picture is the image of a sheikh with a body guard on one side and a parasol holder on the other.

    When I did a word study on “king” I found the first references to God being one were Samuel saying “Sovereign Lord”. Then David making all his royal allusions to God.

    It makes me wonder if both, being conscious that kings weren’t really God’s choice, were trying to underline that just because the country suddenly has a classic (for the time) monarchy with the much desired standing army to make them feel safe, in fact that’s not really where the nation’s security comes from.

    I wonder if they both felt the need to counterbalance the spin shown so clearly in Judges that it was a king that would give vision and bring order and security to the nation. So they, well David in particular, kept using royal pictures in his prayers and worship songs to keep people focussed on God and off himself. Expectations of him and his successors could have been unrealisticly high, even worse, his own expectations of himself and he’d seen what happened to his father-in-law Saul. I really respect his humanity and his humility. He’s saying – you want me to be your king, your guard, your shepherd, your judge but God is my king, guard, shepherd, judge, so even under me you’re really under him.

    Despite the emphasis on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for worship I’m sure people would have looked to the new monarchy, it’s palaces, rituals and official for shows of pomp, status and national pride so they could now compete with neighbouring kingdoms and hold their heads up. The sheep people are no longer just hicks who only manage to strike back at their powerful neighbours’ raids once a generation. They’d no longer be in the shadow of those amazing Phoenician trading cities along their west coast, a humble milk cow for the Philistine raiders.

    I don’t think the picture is quite as weak as our modern view would make it, with God being merely a body guard and shade holder. I suspect they were very high status jobs being in permanent intimate contact with a king, a situation of total trust. I think David is saying I’m not looking for reinforcements from outside, or even the city’s amazing geographical location as security, as I have The Lord as personal guard.

    I think this sort of close personalising of God’s role fits with The Shepherd image too. All designed to balance the fact that they would soon have a temple to focus on as well as a king to rely on and maybe David was very aware in his own life how he didn’t want to loose the close, even intimate faith he and his followers had had in his adventures and wanderings.

    The pilgrims singing this would have a powerful picture in their heads as it starts in the first person singular – the great David himself has given them this reassurance as they travel through well known bandit territory in the foothills leading towards Jerusalem (Good Samaritan country, also the first reason for founding the Knights Templar for protecting pilgrims in that self same region albeit so many years later) – as David had relied on God to be his closest body guard (imperial guard) he was saying that God was not locked up in the temple only accessible to priests through the rituals they were on their way to participate in.

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    • Left off my conclusion.

      I find this all particularly helpful and relevant at our time in history where we’re looking to scientists to come up with solutions, doctors to fix us, governments to manage the national crisis. And so we should, that’s fine, it’s their job. But to see beyond that to the one in whom we put our ultimate trust puts the whole thing in quite a different perspective. I look up to the hills to see if they’re managing to keep out the enemy, and are reinforcements are coming. But in my heart of hearts I know my ultimate guide, guard, government, is God.

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      • Other scholars would argue that around half the psalms were written by David, and the rest by others at various times. What evidence is your understanding that most of the psalms were not written by David based on?

        Peter

        Reply
        • Peter, it is a commonplace in psalms scholarship to note that the phrase ‘le-david’ could mean ‘by David’, ‘for David’, or ‘in the style of David’. Thus ‘Davidic’ might simply mean, ‘a David kind of psalm’.

          Apart from interpreting this phrase, I am not sure on what grounds you could specifically argue that a psalm was authored by David himself. How would you know?

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      • Would not an allusion to 1 Kings18 and Baal, indicate it is from a period well after King David, who, if the chronology is to be followed, would not have gone up, ascended, to Jerusalem for the proscribed Festivals to worship at Solomon’s Temple and if the songs of ascent are centred on going to Jerusalem for the Festival’s, which will have fallen into disuse particularly at the time of Ahab, Jezebel and Baal worship in Israel.
        However, as in previous articles by Ian Paul, it is probable that Jesus would have attended, ascended to Jerusalem as an adherent of the Festival’s, on more than one occasion.
        Indeed, he, on the last occasion, attended, ascended to His coronation when his disciples warned against it, as some wanted to kill him, his life threatened, leading ultimately to the, his, post resurrection Ascension to the Throne Room of God, as King of Kings.
        Maybe it is a step too far to suggest he’d have the Psalms of Ascent on his lips on his last visit.

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        • Dear Geoff,

          so probably under some monarchy then, so the image of a ruler with a guard including holding a sunshade isn’t too far fetched? Plus a long standing priestly desire to keep a royal image of God to stop people going overboard on the national king thing … why not ? Perhaps am being too “Tom Wright” about it.

          Reply

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