The Historical Background or Setting
Psalm 121 is one of the Song of Ascents (cf. Psalms 120-134). They were sung by the Jewish people as they traveled to Jerusalem, particularly, as they made their ascent up the hill to the Holy City of God, for their religious festivals.1
The Literary Classification
The literary classification of Psalm 121 is a Psalm of Trust and rightly so, for as Roland Murphy, a scholar of Wisdom Literature, says, “The note of trust in God for help and protection dominates the poem.”2 The Prayer Book refers to Psalm 121 under the spiritual categories of “God’s Providence” (i.e., his loving concern for creation), “Trust in God” and “God our Refuge.”3 The psalm, then, has historical significance, referring to the people of Israel; the psalm also has spiritual and psychological significance, referring to a believer’s relationship with God.
Outline of the Psalm
First, the psalmist or poet, the worshiper of Yahweh – the Lord, the one, true God – speaks in verses 1-2. Second, the worshiper, through the words of the priest, receives a promise of divine protection in verses 3-8.
The Psalmist’s Words
The psalmist looks to “the hills” on which the city of Jerusalem rests, the place where God dwells in his temple, for help from the Lord (v. 1).4 The poet recognizes that, ultimately, his only source of help and strength is “the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2, NIV). The psalmist’s confession presupposes that God alone is omnipotent, for he is the Creator of the universe.
The Human Need for Protection and Security
Human beings have many basic needs, such as the need for clothing, food, water and shelter. From the beginning of their existence, even in their mother’s womb, humans have the need for protection and, thus, personal security.5 Without feeling protected, children become anxious, uneasy, insecure. For example, Abraham Maslow writes,
“Quarreling, physical assault, separation, divorce or death within the family may be particularly terrifying [to a child]. Also parental outbursts of rage or threats of punishment directed to the child, calling him names, speaking to him harshly, shaking him, handling him roughly, or actual physical punishment sometimes elicit … total panic and terror in the child….
“Confronting the average child with new, unfamiliar, strange, unmanageable stimuli or situations will too frequently elicit the danger or terror reaction, as for example, getting lost or even being separated from the parents for a short time, being confronted with new faces, new situations or new tasks, the sight of strange, unfamiliar or uncontrollable objects, illness or death. Particularly at such times, the child’s frantic clinging to his parents is eloquent testimony to their role as protectors.”6
Psalm 121, then, addresses the need for all human beings to feel secure, protected from harm. For example, the psalmist or biblical poet uses metaphors for protection, such as “the Lord is your shade” (v. 5.b) and “the sun will not harm you … nor the moon” (v. 6). Thus, the poet speaks about a person’s need for security from God’s help and protection.
Security is rooted in faith, that is, the belief that God will keep a person safe. For instance, the psalmist prays, “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1, NIV). Not only the poet, but every person, for psychological and spiritual reasons, needs a “refuge, which is “a hiding place.”
Ultimately, every human being needs to know that he or she will be okay. Belief in God meets that need, giving a person security and comfort. That is why God says, particularly, to his people, “I am the Lord, I will … hold you by the hand and watch over you….” (Isaiah 42:6, NASB). Like a warrior, God forms an invisible shield around the believer; or, like a loving parent, he wraps his spiritual arms around a person, keeping him or her protected, safe. Thus, the psalmist says, “the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore” (Psalm 125:2, NIV).
The Priest’s Words of Assurance to the Psalmist
“God never sleeps” (vv. 3-6).7 Unlike human creatures who need sleep, God is always awake, conscious and, thus, aware of what he happening to believers. That God is awake and watching over his people presupposes his omnipresence, being present everywhere; omniscience, being all-knowing; and omnipotence, being all-powerful to help and save his people. He is, then, “by day” and “by night,” that is, “always,” watching over believers.8
The priest, speaking for God, says to the psalmist, “The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life” (Psalm 121:7, NIV).9 However, the priest is not saying that believers will neither undergo any suffering nor face any difficulties. Rather, the poet’s message is that like a loving parent, God, the Heavenly Father, says, as it were, to his people, his sons and daughters, “Everything will be okay, alright.” They will be kept from “ultimate harm.”10
The poem concludes by reaffirming that the Lord God is the “creator, ever vigilant guardian, refuge and guide” of his people.11 As the worshiper leaves the temple, returning home, the priest blesses him, saying, “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” (Psalm 121:7-8, NIV).
Therefore, wherever a person goes, whether he or she travels nearby or far away, in going to or from the journey, the Lord always watches over the believer, being under God’s loving care.12
- William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1991), pp. 768, 769.
- Roland E. Murphy, “Psalms,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one-book-in-two volumes, Vol. I., p. 598.
- The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 American ed. (New York, N.Y.: The Church Hymnal Corporation/ The Church Pension Fund, n.d.), p. ix. Italics are the publisher’s.
- Anthony L. Ash and Clyde M. Miller, The Living Word Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 10: Psalms, ed. John T. Willis (Austin, TX.: Sweet Publishing Company, 1980), p. 397.
- Abraham Maslow. 1943, 2004. A Theory of Human Motivation. Classics in the History of Psychology, developed by Christopher D. Green. [Web:] http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm [Date of access: 5 February 2018].
- Anthony L. Ash and Clyde M. Miller, The Living Word Commentary on the Old Testament, op, cit., p. 398.
- Roland E. Murphy, “Psalms,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, op. cit., p. 598.
- Anthony L. Ash and Clyde M. Miller, The Living Word Commentary on the Old Testament, p. 398.
- Roland E. Murphy, “Psalms,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 598.
- William A. VanGemeren et al., “Psalms,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, op. cit., p. 774.