A song of ascents.

This Psalm has been precious to many:-

David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer of the continent of Africa, read Psalm 121 and Psalm 135, which praises God for his sovereign rule over all things, as he worshiped with his father and sister before setting out for Africa in 1840. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Moffat, wrote him at Linyardi that Psalm 121 was always in her mind as she thought about and prayed for him.

J. S. Watson, a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and the successor to Admiral Dewey, who commanded the U.S. fleet in the Philippines during the Spanish American War, wrote, “My favorite chapter is the Traveller’s Psalm, Psalm 121. The seventh and eighth verses mean more to me than any other.”

William Edwards was a British magistrate caught in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. His escape after hiding out for months is a thrilling story. He wrote at one point, “Nothing new has been settled about our plans, and we are much harassed. Heavy guns were firing at Turruckabad today. We know not for what cause, but they reminded us painfully of our fearful proximity to that place where so many are thirsting for our lives. Amidst it all, the psalms are most consoling and wonderfully suited to our cause, especially the 121st: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh our help’ [KJV].”

(Lockyer, cited by Boice)

Psa 121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

I – The first person singular in v1f becomes the second person singular in the remainder of the Psalm.  Accordingly, some understand there to be two persons represented, speaking antiphonally.  But Boice may well be correct in thinking that this is an internal dialogue, as in Psa 42 and Psa 43.

The hills of v1 might have be regarded with anxiety, as places of danger (sheltering robbers) or with longing, as places of refuge (the hills of Zion, cf. Psa 125:2; cf. also Psa 123:1).  A further possibility, mentioned by Broyles, is that they symbolise strength and stability.

But Mays is probably correct in suggesting that ‘in its position as the second in the sequence of Songs of Ascents, it can serve as a psalm of approach to Jerusalem when the pilgrim’s eyes are lifted up to see the distant hills around Jerusalem.’

Help might include protection and guidance.

The Maker of heaven and earth – The Psalmist’s thought moves from the creation to the Creator.  Mays reminds us that this expression (which occurs in a few other places in Scripture) is taken up in the Apostles’ Creed.

Spurgeon: ‘The purposes of God; the divine attributes; the immutable promises; the covenant, ordered in all things and sure; the providence, predestination, and proved faithfulness of the Lord—these are the hills to which we must lift up our eyes, and from these our help must come.’

Psa 121:3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

Watches over – The underlying Hebrew word is use six times in this short Psalm.  It is variously translated ‘watches over’, ‘preserves’, and ‘keeps’.

The Creator-God is not distant and impersonal, but wakeful and watchful.  He is ever alert to help and protect his people.

Kidner says that v3 should be read as a prayer (‘May he not let your foot slip…may he not slumber’) which v4 will answer with ringing affirmative.

He…will neither slumber nor sleep – ‘Man sleeps; a sentinel may slumber on his post by inattention, by long continued wakefulness, or by weariness; a pilot may slumber at the helm; even a mother may fall asleep by the side of the sick child; but God is never exhausted, is never weary, is never inattentive. He never closes his eyes on the condition of his people, on the wants of the world.’ (Barnes)

Psa 121:5 The LORD watches over you—
the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord watches over you – ‘The same that is the protector of the church in general, is engaged for the preservation of every particular believer; the same wisdom, the same power, the same promises. “He that keepeth Israel” (verse 4), “is thy keeper” (verse 5). The Shepherd of the flock is the Shepherd of every sheep, and will take care that not one, even of the little ones, shall perish.’ (MHC)

The sun will not harm you by day – A traveller in the Middle East was at risk from dehydration and heatstroke.

Nor the moon by night – The idea that too much exposure to moonlight is dangerous was maintained until quite recent times (cf. the term ‘lunatic’).

We may generalise the sentiment of this stanza by saying that there is nothing that either the day nor the night may bring that need cause us fear or anxiety.  ‘God is our covering against every calamity. He is our shade against the visible perils of the day as well as the hidden perils of the night.’ (Boice)

‘These two great lights rule the day and the night, and under the lordship of both we shall labour or rest in equal safety. Doubtless there are dangers of the light and of the dark, but in both and from both we shall be preserved—literally from excessive heat and from baneful chills; mystically from any injurious effects which might follow from doctrine bright or dim; spiritually from the evils of prosperity and adversity; eternally from the strain of overpowering glory and from the pressure of terrible events, such as judgment and the burning of the world. Day and night make up all time: thus the ever present protection never ceases.’ (Spurgeon)

Psa 121:7 The LORD will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

The Lord will keep you from all harm – ‘In the light of other scriptures, to be kept from all evil does not imply a cushioned life, but a well-armed one. Cf. Psalm 23:4, which expects the dark valley but can face it.’ (Kidner)

Your coming and going – Your private and your public actions.

Christians see this psalm as pointing to God’s providential oversight of believers in Jesus Christ.  See Jn 10:28; 1 Pet 2:25.  Boice rightly sees a pre-echo of Rom 8:35-39 here.

Mays points out that the Heidelberg Catechism makes an apt commentary on the message of this psalm: to trust in the God who is Maker of heaven and earth is to ‘trust in him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul. Moreover, whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father.… We are to be patient in adversity, grateful in the midst of blessing, and to trust our faithful God and Father for the future’.

Lest we suppose that this Psalm is unrealistic in its expression of faith in an every-present, ever-watchful, ever-protecting God, let us heed the words of Eugene Peterson (cited by Boice):-

‘The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; nor a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winners’ circle. … The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God; and therefore no matter what doubts we endure or what accidents we experience, the Lord will preserve us from evil, he will keep our life.’