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,
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.
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.
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