Psalm 121 encourages pilgrims braving dangerous roads to Jerusalem. It promises Yahweh’s protection.
The change in personal pronouns between verses 1-2 (I-my) and verses 3-8 (you-your) may signal a dialogue between pilgrims or groups of pilgrims.
The psalm divides naturally into two verse groups––1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8.
- In the first group (vv. 1-2), verse 1 asks a question, “Where does my help come from?”––and verse 2 provides the answer.
- In the other three groups, the second verse expands on the statement made by the first verse. For instance, verse 3 says, “He who keeps you will not slumber”, and verse 4 says, “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” This same pattern holds for verses 5-6 and 7-8.
A Song of Ascents. (Heb. ma‘alah)
The word ma‘alah means ascent, step, or rising.
This is one of 15 psalms (120-134) that begin with this superscription. These psalms would have been sung by pilgrims ascending the road to Jerusalem (located on Mount Zion) for the three great festivals: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (which we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles. Levites may also have sung them as they ascended the fifteen steps to the temple.
PSALM 121:1-2. WHERE DOES MY HELP COME FROM?
1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills.
Where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from Yahweh,
who made heaven and earth.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills” (v.1 a). The psalmist doesn’t tell us what he is thinking about the hills, but the tone of the psalm suggests that it is danger––and the need for God’s protection. Jesus set the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, which wise people traveled in groups because of the threat from bandits––so the psalmist would have seen the hills as threatening.
“Where does my help (Heb: ‘ezer) come from?” (v.1b ). A rhetorical question, not expecting a reply. This is simply a lead-in to the answer, which the psalmist gives next.
The word ‘ezer means help or helper. The psalmist uses it only in verses 1-2, but uses a word with similar meaning, samar (keep or keeper), six times in verses 3-8.
“My help comes from Yahweh,
who made heaven and earth” (v. 2). Yahweh is the name of the God of Israel. In the Hebrew, it is spelled YHWH. In English translations, YHWH is usually translated “the Lord.”
From the beginning, the Hebrew scriptures state that Yahweh created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 outlined that creation in detail. Yahweh created:
- The heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1)
- Light (1:3)
- Day and night (1:4-5)
- The sky (1:6-8)
- The waters and the dry land (1:9-10)
- Grass, herbs, and fruit trees (1:11-13)
- The great lights in the sky that rule the day and the night (1:14-19)
- Swarms of living creatures (1:20-25)
- Humans, created in God’s image (1:26-27).
This was true creation––not the rearrangement of existing material. Yahweh powerful word effected the creation. “God said, ‘Let there be light’––and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).
Yahweh continues to exercise his creative powers day by day.
“He sends forth springs into the valleys.
They run among the mountains.
They give drink to every animal of the field.
The wild donkeys quench their thirst….
He causes the grass to grow for the livestock,
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food out of the earth:
wine that makes glad the heart of man,
oil to make his face to shine,
and bread that strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:10-15).
Obviously, the one who has the power to create heavens and earth also has the power to provide any help needed by the psalmist.
PSALM 121:3-4. HE WHO KEEPS ISRAEL
3 He will not allow your foot to be moved.
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
“He will not allow your foot to be moved” (Hebrew: mot) (v. 3a). The word mot means moved or shaken. It can refer to a foot slipping (Deuteronomy 32:35). The best translation for this verse is probably, “He will not allow your foot to slip”––an important promise for pilgrims traveling on foot on a road little better than an unpaved pathway.
“He who keeps (Heb. samar) you will not slumber. (Heb. num)
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep” (Heb. yasen) (vv. 3b-4). Verse 3b says, “He who keeps you will not slumber.” Verse 4 expands on that theme, saying, “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
The word samar (keep or keeper) appears six times in verses 3-8, and is the key word in these verses. It means to watch or guard or care for someone (in this case Israel), and thus provides assurance of protection. In Numbers 6:24-26, Yahweh gave Israel this benediction:
“‘Yahweh bless you, and keep (samar) you.
Yahweh make his face to shine on you,
and be gracious to you.
Yahweh lift up his face toward you,
and give you peace.”
We all desire security. The idea of a protector is very attractive, particularly if the protector is both powerful and trustworthy. In these verses, the psalmist promises that Yahweh is a powerful, trustworthy protector.
The words num (slumber) and yasen (sleep) are nearly synonymous. The psalmist uses the two words in poetic parallelism, reinforcing the idea that we can depend on Yahweh to be available to us 24/7.
PSALM 121:5-6. HE WHO KEEPS YOU
5 Yahweh is your keeper.
Yahweh is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
“Yahweh is your keeper.
Yahweh is your shade (Heb. sel) on your right hand” (Heb. yamin) (v. 5). The Hebrew word sel means shade or shadow. While we might be tempted to think of shade or shadow as dark or sinister, in Hebrew thought sel most often means a welcoming shade from the noonday sun or the protection afforded by the shadow of Yahweh’s wings (Psalm 17:8).
“on your right hand” (Heb. yamin) For most people, the right hand is the dominant hand––the strong hand––the hand that wields a sword. Therefore the right hand is a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; etc.). Kings wore the ring signifying their authority on their right hand. Fathers used their right hand to confer their blessing on their firstborn son.
“The sun will not harm (Heb. nakah) you by day,
nor the moon by night” (v. 6). The word nakah (harm) is best translated strike––as in to strike a blow.
The sun is a blessing. We couldn’t survive without the warmth it provides. However, excess can turn blessings into a curse. In Israel, the sun could be oppressively hot. In their forty-year wilderness trek, the Israelites experienced heat that sometimes threatened life, especially when water was short, as it often is in desert climes. The psalmist says that Yahweh will not strike the pilgrims with deadly doses of the sun.
The moon is likewise a blessing, providing light for travelers to find their way. But some people thought the moon had the potential to cause mental illness––a belief that led to our word lunatic (from the Latin word luna, which means moon). This verse appears to promise protection from moonstruck lunacy.
PSALM 121:7-8. YAHWEH WILL KEEP YOUR SOUL
7 Yahweh will keep you from all evil.
He will keep your soul.
8 Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth, and forevermore.
“Yahweh will keep you from all evil. (Heb. ra’)
He will keep your soul” (Heb. nepes) (v. 7).
The word ra’ has a variety of meanings:
- It can mean wicked (Genesis 3:22)––contrary to God’s will (Numbers 11:10).
- However, it can also take on milder meanings such as harmful (2 Kings 2:19) or deficient (Genesis 41:3).
- In this verse, “all evil” could be construed to embrace the full range of meanings. However, we are inclined to hear it as protection from danger––a pledge of security (see Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 21:18-19).
The word nepes means soul or life. The Israelites also used the word nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life. When the psalmist promises that Yahweh will keep our nepes, he is referring to that which is at the center of our lives––at the core of our being.
“Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth, and forevermore” (v. 8). The psalmist uses two phrases, each of which he intends to mean the totality of life. The phrase, going out and coming in, is all encompassing––as is the phrase “from this time forth, and forevermore.”
Going out and coming in could also have special meaning for pilgrims, who had to leave their homes to travel dangerous roads to worship in Jerusalem, a big city.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2019, Richard Niell Donovan