April 30, 2010

Our Helper, Keeper, and Preserver: Psalm 121


1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

Psalm 121 is the second of 15 “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134). These psalms were sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem one the three feasts in Jerusalem: (1) Unleavened Bread, (2) Pentecost, and (3) Tabernacles.

These feasts, or “holy days,” were of vital importance to the people of Israel. The Feast of Unleavened Bread signified purification from sin and was observed for seven days (all deemed to be Sabbaths) immediately following Passover. Pentecost was celebrated 50 days after Passover and featured the presentation of first fruits at the Temple. Tabernacles (or “Booths” in some translations) memorializes the wilderness years, when God led the people of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.

Psalm 121 acknowledges God’s character in preserving and protecting His people:

God is our helper (1-2)

1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

As the pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast, they traveled uphill for several miles. Jerusalem is 2,700 feet above sea level, higher than most other hills in the land. The summits of various hills in the land were the supposed dwelling places of the pagan gods. In the opening verses of this psalm, the psalmist notes the contrast between the God of Israel and all the supposed deities worshiped by the pagan peoples in the land. In contrast to the many false deities that the pagans worshiped and relied on for help and protection, the psalmist here affirms that the God is the source of unseen power in times of trouble or insecurity.

The psalmist is saying: “Where is my security?” or “On Whom do I rely for assistance?” The answer comes in verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” The psalmist refers to God as “Adonai,” the name of God which means “Supreme Lord,” thus stressing the contrast between the true God and His power and the false pagan gods who are regarded as having power, but who do not.

The reference to God as “the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” is a a common reference to God by the Israelites. The pagans in the land liked to point to their carved idols and point out to the Israelites that they had no visible God. The response from the psalmist is that Adonai (“the supreme Lord”) made heaven and earth. Consequently, all of the universe is testimony of the one and only true God and Creator, as contrasted with the man-made idols of the pagans. The whole universe is the testimony of the true God’s existence and His constant presence. There could be no adequate response from pagans to this truth.

Paul uses this argument in Romans 1 to point out that there is no excuse for unbelief and idolatry:

20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
—Romans 1:20-23

It is thought that the structure of this psalm may be responsive. The people recite or sing verses 1 and 2, and a priest or worship leader recites or sings verses 3-8. (Note the use of “my” in the first two verses and the shift to “your” in verses 3-8.)

God is our protector (keeper) (3-6)

3 He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The psalmist points out that God will not permit or grant anyone or anything to dislodge the child of God, which reminds the people of God’s characteristic of personal, minute-to-minute attention and care, both physical care and spiritual. He never sleeps nor takes His attention off of His people (the emphasis is vigilant care; all the time, day and night, never stopping His care for us). This word (“keep”) literally means to have charge of and protect, like a shepherd cares for his sheep.

The Psalms use this idea of God as their shepherd frequently, the most familiar being in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The Israelites recognized God's personal care for them as individuals, as well as His care for Israel as a nation. Unlike the secular culture of the U.S., the Israelites knew Him as their God with Whom the could have a personal relationship and as their God Who led and preserved the nation Israel.

Verse 4 emphasizes His vigilance, and verses 5-6 emphasize His specific role as protector. This was an important assurance and expression of faith for the for the Israelites. It also is an appropriate affirmation as they walk the many miles to Jerusalem, because they were not only at the mercy of the elements, but also in danger of highwaymen while traveling. The references to heat of the day and and the danger at night also can be seen as metaphors for His protection and preservation of His people facing any personal danger or calamity.

He is our preserver (7-8)

7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

The Hebrew word translated “keep” in verse 4 is translated “preserve” in verses 7-8 (some English translations render it “guard”). One word in the original language can have several different shades of meaning in translation as it is used in various contexts. In this case, “keep” can denote keep, guard, preserve, have charge of, protect, or watch over.

The idea of the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep applies here in verses 7 and 8, too. The shepherd's role is not just to take charge over the flock, but also to defend and protect the sheep from predators. The term “watchman” (the night watchmen or guards watching from the city walls for any approaching enemy) is from the same term (see Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain.”)

So protecting and preserving us is one of God’s character qualities, just as the shepherd lives with his sheep, watches for danger and steers the flock away from danger, guides them, protects them from predators, and in doing all of this preserves the flock.

God protects (“keeps”) us from evil—that is, from the influence of evil as well as the acts of evildoers. The idea here also is protection from harm, which may apply to physical, material, or spiritual harm. He protects and preserves (“keeps”) our souls; the context is that we will not be overcome by or separated from Him by evil because of His preserving influence. He guards (“keeps”) our going out and our coming in (a common Hebrew expression to mean the whole of life, our every moment and every activity). Verse 8 affirms that His protection and preservation of us are constant, minute by minute, forever.

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