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Psalm 121

This psalm is the second in the group of Pss 120-134 designated by their Hebrew titles as “Songs of ascents” or possibly “Pilgrimage Songs”, although there is nothing overtly linking them together as a group connected with pilgrimage. While that is true of the group, there are indications that Psalm 121 could be a pilgrimage psalm. Verses 1-2 have often been read as the nervous words of a pilgrim about to commence a journey maybe either to or from Jerusalem. The hills (lit.: ‘mountains’ in Hebrew) are seen as a place of potential danger, from either bandits or wild animals. The psalmist reassures him or herself in v. 2 that their help comes from the Lord.

However, the beginning of the psalm can be read in other ways. Verse 1b could be read as a statement: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills from where my help comes.’ The mountains are the place where the Lord resides and hence they are a promise of protection (cf. Pss 48:1-3; 87:1-3; 123:1). However, the grammar in v. 1b would normally imply a question. Another possible reading retains the question but the mountains are seen positively as a source of protection. One scholar (L.C. Allen) translates: ‘I look up to the mountains to see where my help comes from’. Whichever way we read v. 1, the question is answered by the declaration in vv. 3-8, that the psalmist can put their trust in the Lord as protector. The Hebrew verb ‘to keep, guard, or protect’ is used six times in these verses and is the central theme of the psalm. The reason that the psalmist can have confidence is that Lord is the creator of heaven and earth (v. 2b). The personal trust of the psalmist is founded on the cosmic sovereignty of the Lord.

While the psalmist speaks in vv. 1-2, vv. 3-8 are in the second person. Someone else addresses the psalmist as it is unlikely that the psalmist simply reflects and reassures him or herself. Thus a dialogue is set up in the psalm. We might imagine the psalmist being assured by a Jerusalem priest as they are about to return home from their pilgrimage to the holy city. The change in pronouns from vv. 1-2 to vv. 3-8 accompanies a change in form from a statement of trust (v. 2) to one of promise, which is both the foundation of trust and that which sustains it along the way. There is also a movement from statements on the cosmic scale (‘my help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth’) to ones more concerned with the wellbeing of the individual (‘he will keep your life’). The trust of the individual, and the promise undergirding that trust, are grounded in the one who is creator and sovereign of all.

Verses 3-8 then divide into two sections, vv. 3-5 and 6-8. In vv. 3-5, the ‘one who keeps’ or ‘keeper’ occurs three times and the psalmist, addressed as ‘you’, is mentioned five times as the object of that keeping. The sense is of total protection. The Lord who protects does not sleep. The psalmist’s assurance lies in this one who is creator beyond time, and yet who is attentive to the least danger for the psalmist. The image of preventing the foot from slipping also brings to mind the rough mountain journey.

The poetic structure of these verses emphasizes the assurance of the psalmist. While at first the psalmist’s protector is described anonymously as ‘he’, in v. 5 the Lord’s name is twice used. The promised protector of the psalmist is one who can be named and potentially held accountable. This is no off hand commitment by the Lord. In addition, in v. 3b ‘he who keeps you’ is parallel to ‘your keeper’ in v. 5a. Between these two lines the protector is described as ‘he who keeps Israel’. The psalmist has the extra assurance that the one who has kept their people from time immemorial is the one who is now promised as their protector. The psalm bases its confidence in the Lord as keeper in both the Lord as creator, who is beyond not only time but also any source of danger that may come, and the Lord as the one who has kept the psalmist’s community throughout its history. The psalmist thus stands in a greater context than they at first possibly perceived, and is hence assured of their future.

In vv. 6-8 the psalm moves from the possibility of danger on a particular journey to the situation of life itself. The trust that the psalmist can have in the Lord is connected to both the particulars of life as well as to life in general. These verses open with a reference to the difficulties of the journey, particularly the heat of the day and the dangers of night. In the psalmist’s world the night represented a time of danger and particular vulnerability. The reference also recalls the mention of the protector who neither sleeps nor slumbers. However, it broadens its scope giving a sense of the Lord’s protection in all the endeavours of life. The verb ‘to keep, watch’ again appears three times, but this time in the form ‘(he) will keep’ and the psalmist addressed as ‘you’ is the object of those verbs on four occasions. In everything the psalmist does, the Lord keeps them.

In this psalm the words ‘the Lord will keep you’ function almost as a mantra. Their repetition undergirds the assurance. The words spoken to the psalmist promise the Lord’s protection at every turn, at every moment. But the psalmist also knows and proclaims in other places that even one who is faithful does not attain a life protected from all harm in every situation (e.g. Psalm 17). Many lament psalms arise out of innocent suffering. Nevertheless, the simple assurance of Psalm 121 has the power to strengthen the believer to face many difficulties and hardships. The prayer of the psalmist is thus not limited by experience and circumstance. They assert the possibility of trusting against the grain of experience. While the promise of the Lord’s protection and presence can be understood neither simplistically nor literally, trust in that promise is grounded in a reality that goes beyond experience. It is grounded in the Lord as creator and in the fact that the larger community of faith has discovered the Lord as one in whom trust can be placed. A prayer of trust is not simply an isolated word about the psalmist’s immediate wellbeing. Of course, in its particulars it is that, but it is more. It evokes and participates in a relationship that stretches beyond both the experienced world and the present. To pray a prayer of trust is to commit oneself to a relationship, or a web of relationships, that incorporates creation and history. And the promise of security, which incorporates our individual needs, spreads to the end of the world and time.

It is little wonder then that the psalm is set up as a dialogue and the promise (vv. 3-8) comes from outside the one who is called to trust. Of course this dialogue might make the psalm seem strange if we pray it today but that need not be a difficulty. If we pray the psalm on our own behalf, it is more than fitting if we hear the words of promise come from another voice, even that of an ancient priest. It helps ground us in the call to trust and the promise of security that span the centuries. On the other hand if we pray the psalm in relation to another who seeks assurance, we can evoke the promise for the other as part of the larger community of faith called to trust and proclaim the promise. This psalm gives the pray-er permission to express every anxiety and seek assurance. It also draws us all into the larger community of trust.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

The whole psalm could be used as words of assurance before the declaration of forgiveness. After a general prayer of confession the congregation could read vv. 1-2 with the leader of the prayer responding with vv. 3-8 before saying something like:

The one who keeps you
Proclaims in the words of Jesus:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
Thanks be to God.
The successive lines with the word ‘keeper’ in them (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8) could be used as congregational responses to particular petitions for the church, the world etc. in the prayers of the people.

Finally, vv. 7-8 could also be used as an introduction to the final blessing.

Old Testament reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

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