A Psalm of Confidence: Psalm 121 (Fred Zaspel)
In Psalm 121 we read:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
In this brief lyric psalm, the psalmist expresses his trust in God and rejoices in his safety under God’s faithful care. This confidence is emphasized throughout the psalm chiefly by the six-fold repetition of the verb šamar (keep, watch, guard, protect) in reference to YHWH (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8), who is both the creator of the universe and the “keeper” of His covenant people Israel. This theme of confidence is developed through the psalm by an overview of God’s protective activity. The repeated portrayal of God as a very personal guardian (“my help,” “your keeper,” “your shade”) highlights the central, unifying idea — firm confidence grounded in the continued protective care of Israel’s faithful covenant God.
Setting & Title
There is no sure way to establish the precise setting of this psalm. This book of the Psalter contains several postexilic psalms, and that time period is generally assigned to this psalm also. The title “ascents” (ma‘ălȃ) indicates its intent to be used for pilgrimage purposes, but little more can be concluded from it. The uncertain circumstances, however, can lend to its broader application to all areas of life.
The psalm is beautifully structured into four stanzas, each with a pair of verses. With the exception of verse 8 (enjambment) each verse contains a carefully crafted parallel of thought. Verses 1 through 3 are all examples of synthetic parallelism in which the second phrase somehow completes or supplements the first. Verses 4 through 7 are all synonymous parallels in which the thought of the first phrase is reiterated in the second.
In similar fashion, each stanza forms a parallel also. Stanza one is a synthetic parallel in that verse 2 completes the thought of verse 1. Stanza two is climactic — verse 4 repeats part of verse 3 (nȗm, to be drowsy) and adds more to the thought (yāšēn, to sleep). Stanza three is synonymous, and stanza four is again climactic, verse 8 adding the idea of God’s unending preservation.
In addition to these, several other poetic devices are skillfully employed throughout the psalm. For example, “maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2) is a merism emphasizing that God is creator of all. “He will not allow your foot to be moved” (v. 3) is a metonymous reference to the stability of life in God’s care. Verse 4 contains an ellipsis, and “he will not sleep” is pleonastic, stressing that God’s care is unceasing and diligent. “Your shade” (v. 5) is a metaphoric symbol of God’s protection from harm. Verse 6 is a perfect chiasm with lō ’ nācȃ (“will not smite”) pivoting both halves of the verse, each of which contains both a hypocastasis (“sun” and “night,” symbolic of various kinds of dangers) and a merism (“by day or by night,” encompassing all time). “From all evil” (v. 7) is another pivot and “your life” another metonymy, referring to the person himself. Finally, “your going out and your coming in” (v.8) is a merism descriptive of the whole of life.
Stanza one establishes the theme in clearest terms. “The hills” is most likely a hypocatastasis referring to the sanctuary of God appointed to be on the hills of Jerusalem (Zion; cf. Ps.133:3, 87:1; 1Kg.8:33, 35, 42, 44, 48) and reflecting the psalmist’s longing thoughts of his homeland from which he is now absent and toward which he is journeying. So directing his attention from an undetermined distance towards the place of God Himself, the psalmist makes his inquiry for help. Delitzsch says that “from where?” is always interrogative: it does not (as KJV) directly affirm but seeks the source of help. However, the question reveals not a feeling of desperation or the absence of faith but rather is designed to highlight the answer (Leupold) which is directly affirmed in the following verse (synthetically parallel to v. 1). The psalmist’s assurance (v. 2) is said to be in the fact that his Helper is the creator of the universe and so a sure source of aid. It is in YHWH exclusively that the psalmist finds help.
With the theme established, stanza two begins with an affirmation of God’s faithful protection (v. 3a) and immediately proceeds to elaborate on the broader idea of God’s character. “He will not allow your foot to stumble” reflects the danger while en route to Jerusalem, and by this the psalmist represents (metonymy) God’s care over every detail of life. To establish this care the psalmist directs his attention to the character of God who is never weary or negligent but always watchful. hinnē (v.4, Behold!” “Surely!”) renders the following affirmation emphatic. There is no discernable difference in meaning between nȗm and yāšēn (v.4), but rather the repetition of the idea (pleonasm) vividly emphasizes the point that Israel’s Keeper is altogether reliable. šamar (v.4) is used distributively to both nȗm and yāšēn and is perhaps positioned last in order to draw attention to Israel’s God in contrast to their neighboring false gods which are often considered asleep or away (cf. 1Kg. 18:27). Israel’s Keeper surely will not be negligent, for he does not and will not sleep.
Stanza three further advances the theme by an emphatic declaration of YHWH’s personal care. The initial position of YHWH (v. 5) seems to lay stress on the idea that it is Israel’s God himself, and no ordinary soldier, who stands as sentry over His people. š imreāk (2ms suffix) turns the attention to the believer personally as if to say, “what is true of Israel collectively is equally true of each of God’s covenant people individually.” To speak of God as “your shade on your right hand” vividly combines two images of protection from the elements (“your shade”) and from human foes (“on your right hand,” as an armor bearer), but it is the former that is carried into the following verse. In beautiful poetic style (v. 6, chiasm) the poet affirms that God’s care is always present (“by day … nor by night”) and protective from all kinds of dangers. “Will not smite” is used in reference to both dangers mentioned: no danger will be permitted to strike those whom YHWH keeps.
Finally, stanza four extends the promise of God’s protection to every realm of life. The protection is “from all evil” (v. 7) of whatever kind, physical or moral. In verse 8 the psalmist affirms that his confidence in God’s protective care concerns all that he does at any time. This is the third occurrence of “YHWH will keep,” the central idea of the psalm. “Your going and your coming” denotes the whole of life with all the various duties and dangers it may entail, and “from this time forth and forevermore” extends God’s protective care into all time; i.e. it is without end.
The psalm, therefore, stresses throughout the theme of confidence in God’s protective care. This theme is stated and affirmed in stanza one and progressively expanded in each successive stanza until it reaches its climax in verse 8, which is a comprehensive statement of YHWH’s constant and boundless protection. God diligently and unceasingly protects His own, and there is no detail of life outside of His providential control. He is our unfailing source of help, the one in whom we may place our most confident trust.
The Psalm is strikingly reminiscent of John 10:27-30, Romans 8:28-30, and host of other passages that remind us of God’s providence over all, his deep and unceasing care for his own, and our eternal safe-keeping in Christ.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.