Psalm 121 Commentary: Where Does Our Help Come From?

Jeremy Bouma on October 12th, 2018. Tagged under ,,,,,.

Jeremy Bouma

Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) has pastored on Capitol Hill and with the Evangelical Covenant Church in Michigan. He founded THEOKLESIA, which connects the 21st century Church to the vintage Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at jeremybouma.com.

9780310206705When your world turns dark and your journey turns rugged, where do you turn for help? What is your source for the confidence you need to face the headwinds of life?

Psalm 121 encourages us in such times. It reminds us where our help comes from and infuses us with confidence: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” W. Dennis Tucker Jr. unpacks the true depths of this message by offering sound exegesis and application of the psalm in the new commentary Psalms, Volume 2 (NIV Application Commentary), co-authored by Tucker (who covers Psalms 107-150) and Jamie A. Grant (Psalms 73-106).

This Psalms commentary from the NIV Application Commentary Series will help you learn how the message of the Psalms can speak as powerfully today as when they were first written. In other words, this book will help you achieve both halves of the interpretive task: you will understand the passage’s original meaning and its contemporary application.

Psalm 121 has a thematic center, writes Tucker:

In verses 3–8 the theme of Yahweh as the “guardian” of Israel or the one who keeps watch (shamar) over Israel is the fundamental claim in the psalm, as suggested below. In verses 1–2 the psalmist looks for a helper and refers to Yahweh as “my help” (‘ezri). The image of God in verses 1–2, however, shifts from “helper” to that of “guard” or “keeper” in the subsequent verses. (730)

Explore the source of our help below. Let this psalm build your confidence—and celebrate God’s providential care along the way.

Psalm 121’s Great Claim: The Source of Our Help

Tucker explains the structure of Psalm 121 as a division of four strophes (vv. 1–2; 3–4; 5–6; 7–8):

The first strophe provides an overarching thematic claim for the entire psalm, namely, the Lord will be the psalmist’s helper. Since the language in the first two verses is put in the first person, this opening strophe appears as a confession by the psalmist. Beginning in verse 3, however, the language shifts to the second person (“you”). The claims made in verses 3–8 serve as a response to the confession made by the psalmist in the opening strophe. (729)

Before exploring the meaning of this passage in detail, here is the whole passage for your consideration from the NIV:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

    where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—

    he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—

    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—

    he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

    both now and forevermore.

Commentary on Psalm 121

“Psalm 121 is classified as a psalm of confidence meant to celebrate God’s providential care and is the second psalm in the Songs of Ascent” (429), which begin with Psalm 120. This theme is carried through the four strophes, and uses a poetic technique frequently employed in the Songs of Ascent, called anadiplosis.

The technique “occurs when a word or phrase at the end of one line is picked up and used in the subsequent line, often near the front” (730). As the authors further explain, “Some interpreters refer to this literary device as a ‘stair-step’ technique— the vocabulary connects each line as the reader moves through the psalm” (730), and connects the main theme over the course of the poetic movements.

Confidence in the Lord (121:1–2)

Psalm 121 opens with the confident assertion that God will be his helper: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains.” Tucker explains “mountains” has been interpreted negatively, as “the treacherous and dangerous path” or “the places at which false gods were worshiped” (730); or positively as Zion or the hills surrounding Zion. They point to the first part of the colon as a possible answer to deciding on its meaning:

In both Hebrew and Akkadian, the action of “lifting the eyes” implies looking at something longingly or with desire rather than looking at something with dread. This meaning is clearly evident in another psalm in the Songs of Ascent . . . Understood in this way, “mountains” likely refers to the mountains of Zion, thereby creating an “emphatic confession of YHWH as the God present” on Zion, the mountain of God. (731)

Of course, the reason the psalmist is looking “to the mountains” is because that’s where his help comes from, help that “comes from the Lord.” However, Tucker reveals that the English rendering of the Hebrew term ‘ezer as “help” or mere “assistance” doesn’t do the term justice:

In its nominal form, “help” occurs twenty times in the Old Testament, with thirteen of those occurrences referring to Yahweh’s ability to save and deliver. Further, when combined with the word for “shield,” the terms together indicate Yahweh’s divine protection over Israel. While the word “shield” is absent from Psalm 121, this latter meaning (i.e., divine protection) appears in view in verses 1b and 2a. Both the language and imagery in the remainder of the psalm extend this understanding of ‘ezer. (731–732)

This understanding seems to hold up, as the psalmist refers to God’s watchful care over him in the following verses, “and in the fourth strophe he even confesses that ‘the lord will keep you from all harm’ (v. 7). God provides this kind of ‘help’ because he is ‘the Maker of heaven and earth’” (732).

The Watchful Care of Yahweh (121:3–4)

Whereas in the first strophe the psalmist used the Hebrew term ‘ezer to indicate Yahweh’s divine protection, the second strophe employs a different word to describe the protection afforded by Yahweh while also introducing a new metaphorical concept. Occurring six times in the final three strophes, the verb shamar (‘to guard,’ ‘to protect,” or ‘to watch’) is translated by the NIV as “watch.” However, Tucker explains, “the watchful care of Yahweh must not be limited to passive observation; rather, Yahweh ‘watches’ over Israel by providing protection” (732). This image is heightened in verse 4a, where “the verb appears as a participle (shomer) and stands in a construct relationship with ‘Israel’” (732). They believe the psalmist may have intended to label Yahweh as “the Guardian of Israel.”

This title is further explored and even exploited by invoking the metaphorical image of the sleeping deity. Tucker offers important context for this image:

Within the larger ancient Near Eastern tradition, the gods were frequently depicted as sleeping. This activity on the part of the deities was not considered exceptional or unusual but simply necessary. Even as humans need sleep to perform their daily activities, so too do the deities. In the Atrahasis Epic (1800 BCE) the god Enlil is awakened from his restful slumber by the humans, and he demands that they be cut off from food as punishment for waking him (II:1–9). In the Enuma Elish the god Apsu also complains about his lack of sleep because of the noise made by his offspring (I:35–50). Neither text records outrage or shock that a deity was asleep—only that a sleeping deity had been disturbed. (732)

Psalm 121 subverts these prevailing notions of the deities, for as the “Guardian of Israel,” Yahweh remains on watch to protect his people, neither slumbering nor sleeping. “While the two words may appear synonymous, the first Hebrew term, num, refers to drowsiness or light sleep, while the second term, yashan, may be understood as sleep in the more traditional sense” (733). Using both words heighten the indication “that the Guardian of Israel never ‘nods off’ or dozes, much less falls into a deep sleep, but rather remains attentive and keeps continual watch over his people so that not even a foot of theirs will slip from the path” (733).

The Lord is your Shade (121:5–6)

Yahweh watches over the psalmist, for he is the “Guardian of Israel.” Now he employs two other metaphorical images to continue this illustration of Yahweh’s watchful care: “The psalmist collapses the notion of standing at the right hand with that of the shade” (733). 

As Tucker explains further, “Because the soldier carried his shield in his left hand, the right side of his body remained exposed and vulnerable. Consequently, one always sought to have a friend or ally at his ‘right hand’ to provide protection” (733). Yahweh is that friend standing at the right hand, fending off potential threats—an image found elsewhere in the Psalter (e.g., Pss 16:8; 109:31; 110:5).

Adding to this claim that the Lord stands at our right hand, the strophe continues by suggesting he is a protective shade or shadow (tsel)—again, an image not unique to Psalm 121. “Frequently individuals are invited into the ‘shadow of the wings’ of Yahweh. In that space the psalmists find relief from the forces that threaten them” (733). As shade, Yahweh will protect the psalmist “from the searing heat of the sun by day and the dangers of the moon by night,” the latter image perhaps connected to the Babylonian moon god, Sîn, which was thought to have caused a number of illnesses.

However, the mention of the sun and moon “has a rhetorical force that supersedes its literal meaning. The two concepts [sun and moon] create a merismus, a literary device in which two contrasting ideas or objects are mentioned in an effort to capture the sense of the whole” (733–734). Mentioning threats by both day and night indicates “God stands as the protective shade over all life” (734).

The Lord Will Protect Your Life (121:7–8)

The psalmist reinforces and extends the theme of Yahweh’s attentive and protective care in the final strophe with the repetition of the verb shamar (“to guard,” “to watch,” “to keep”) in verses 7a, 7b, and 8a. “The repetition of the verb in all three cola should not be missed, however. As the psalm draws to a close, the thrice-repeated word creates a sort of crescendo celebrating Yahweh as the guardian and keeper of all life” (734).

Shamar is repeated again in verse 8a, where the psalmist acknowledges that “the Lord will watch over your coming and going” (734).  Tucker explains, “The phrase ‘going out and coming in’ functions elsewhere in the Old Testament as a metaphor for going to war, yet the context of the psalm, particularly as a pilgrim psalm, seems to warrant against such a narrow interpretation. Elsewhere the phrase functions as a merismus referring simply to the general activity of life” (734). 

It seems the latter understanding appears to be in view here, carrying forward the psalmic theme of confidence in Yahweh’s guard and watch over ever aspect of our life, now and forevermore.

Bridging the Contexts

Like all NIV Application Commentaries, this commentary on the Psalms includes a “Bridging the Contexts” section to build a bridge between the world of the Bible and the world of today by focusing on both the timely and timeless aspects of the text. With that goal in mind, Tucker cites how James Limburg calls Psalm 121 “A Psalm for Sojourners” (734). Tucker likes this label because the psalm presents explicit “journey” imagery. Tucker notes this language: 

lifting up one’s eyes to the hills (v. 1); the potential for feet to slip (v. 3); the mention of the sun and moon (v. 6); and the final image of “coming and going” (v. 8). The images in the last three strophes of the psalm function as reminders that such sojourns are fraught with peril, whether it is getting lost along the way (v. 3a), being beaten down by natural forces (v. 6), or simply the more generalized notion of “harm” (v. 7a) that could beset any traveler. (734–735)

The Songs of Ascent collection depicts the world as a hostile and threatening place, and the writer of this psalm within that collection “understands well that the journey to God and the journey with God never occur in a vacuum, but rather in the context of a life that at times feels more like a tempest than a solitary walk down a quiet pathway” (734). And yet the psalmist exudes confidence, which is rooted in the character of Yahweh.

So, according to Tucker, there are at least two timely and timeless aspects of the text: Yahweh as helper and maker; Yahweh as guardian and keeper. Both explore the character of the Lord in reference to the confidence the psalmist has for his fraught journey. Let’s consider the first part, Yahweh as helper and maker.

In the opening verses of Psalm 121, the poet describes Yahweh using two labels: “my help” and “the Maker of heaven and earth.” Both aspects of God’s character are found elsewhere in the Old Testament, but they appear together only here in Psalm 121 and in Psalm 124 (735). Tucker notes how this unique combination relates to a key theme in this collection of psalms: our dependence upon Yahweh in a hostile world, which must be rooted in a proper understanding of this God. They explain:

Amid a threatening and hostile world, having a God who desires to help but whose power is not sufficient provides little hope. Conversely, a God who stands over all as Creator yet fails to intervene personally remains equally problematic. The psalmist rejects what is sometimes labeled as a “false dilemma” in logic—that there are only two solutions to the problem. Instead, the psalmist provides a “third way” that offers a much more powerful affirmation about the God of Israel. The God who will deliver the psalmist is the God who stands over all creation as its Maker, and the God of all power who stands over all creation as its Maker seeks to intervene in the life of the psalmist to ensure that not even his foot will slip (v. 3). (735)

Those who journey in this world are assured that God journeys with them and helps themas the one who stands over all creation, as its Maker.

Contemporary Significance

The collection of psalms known as “The Songs of Ascent,” which includes Psalm 121, are pilgrimage psalms that were likely sung by God’s people on their way to Jerusalem. If you’ve ever gone on a road trip, you know know people traveling together sing together. The Israelites were no different. But while road trip songs are typically silly and nonsensical, designed primarily to entertain and pass the time, this collection had a much larger theological purpose: “These psalms were confessional. Together as people recited these psalms, they were making claims about God, themselves, and the world in which they lived” (737).

Psalm 121 invites people to consider the source of their help. Of course, God is that source, “but to speak it is one thing, to believe it is another. The psalmist assures those who pray this psalm that we do not walk alone—the Maker of heaven and earth journeys with us as our helper” (737). Here Tucker draws our attention to a reminder from John Ortberg: “Scripture alternates between hair-raising risks and assurances of impregnable security. And when we look at the lives of great followers of God, we see this combination of breath-taking risks with an almost brazen confidence of being safe in God’s hands” [Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason, 172] (737).

Ortberg mentions such moments in biblical history when people journeyed with God at great risk:

  • Moses defied Pharaoh;
  • Israel occupied the promised land;
  • David challenged Goliath;
  • A poor band of disciples followed Jesus;
  • Paul sat in a Roman prison (737).

“None of these actions make sense unless the actors all understood ‘from whence’ came their help—unless they understood that they were ‘in the watch-care of a great big God’ [Ortberg, 172]” (737). The same is true for us. Our own circumstances may be challenging and risky, yet we are not forced to confront them alone. We know this in part through Psalm 121.

***

9780310206705According to Tucker, the crux of Psalm 121 is this: “We have confidence that the Maker of heaven and earth stands as Guardian ‘watch[ing] over [our] coming and going both now and forevermore”
(737).

Let them show you how to have this confidence through their careful exegetical work on Psalm 121 and on Psalms (73-150). Add Psalms, Volume 2 to your library today in order to grasp the original meaning, exegetical context, and contemporary significance of these precious Hebrew poems, hymns, and prayers.

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