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Psalm 121: Of Pilgrims, Perils, and a Personal God

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Michael Weiner


Shir la-ma`alot. Esa einai el he-harim: me-ayin yavo ezri? A Song of Ascents. I lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?

Entering the sixth month of a global health crisis that has rocked communities around the world, this question from Psalms has been on more lips than usual. Within the Jewish world, leading Orthodox groups, from the OU to Agudah, have called for increased Tehillim recitation and provided virtual platforms by which people can recite these psalms together. On a much bigger stage, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma recited Psalm 121 in its entirety on the floor of the US Senate during a March debate over a COVID-19 stimulus package bill. Given the preeminent role that Psalms have historically played in comforting and uplifting Jews and Christians during periods of crisis, I thought it would be worthwhile to study the text and context of one such psalm. Taking Lankford’s lead, I picked Psalm 121, in the hopes that its ancient message might resonate as many of us begin venturing out more fully into the world once again, confronted by risks and dangers both old and new.

א שִׁיר לַמַּעֲלוֹת אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי.

ב עֶזְרִי מֵעִם ה׳ עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ.

ג אַל יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ אַל יָנוּם שֹׁמְרֶךָ.

ד הִנֵּה לֹא יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל.

ה ה׳ שֹׁמְרֶךָ יְהוָה צִלְּךָ עַל יַד יְמִינֶךָ.

ו יוֹמָם הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לֹא יַכֶּכָּה וְיָרֵחַ בַּלָּיְלָה.

ז ה׳ יִשְׁמָרְךָ מִכָּל רָע יִשְׁמֹר אֶת נַפְשֶׁךָ.

ח ה׳ יִשְׁמָר צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם.

  1. A Song of Ascents. I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?
  2. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
  3. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; He that keepeth thee will not slumber.
  4. Behold, He that keepeth Israel doth neither slumber nor sleep.
  5. The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
  6. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
  7. The Lord shall keep thee from all evil; He shall keep thy soul.
  8. The Lord shall guard thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and forever.

Despite its brevity, clocking in at a mere eight verses, Psalm 121 has attracted much attention from readers over the ages in two primary, and perhaps contradictory, ways. While its simple, rhythmic, and beautiful expressions of faith have made it a favorite of Jewish and Christian public worship and personal prayer, Bible scholars and literary critics have been baffled by basic questions about its structure, grammar, cast of characters, and Sitz Im Leben — the original context of its creation and recitation. Indeed, nearly every line of this psalm has been painstakingly interrogated by scholars, leading to very different conclusions about its meaning and function.

While a cursory read of the Psalm might make it seem like the prayer of one individual calling out to God for help, the organization of the chapter compels us to search for a different Sitz Im Leben. The abrupt grammatical change from first person (“I will lift up mine eyes”) to second person (“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved”) between verses 2 and 3 seems to indicate the presence of multiple characters and begs the question: is this a dialogue between two live speakers or an internal imagined dialogue meant to reassure an individual reader? And if a dialogue, of what kind — a chorus song recited by a band of pilgrims, a priestly blessing, or a traveler’s leave-taking ceremony? To resolve this question, the textual evidence of the rest of the Psalm must be marshaled to see which possibility works best within the broader context of the chapter. For example, is “I lift up mine eyes unto the mountains” (v. 1) an idiomatic reference to prayer, an expression of fear about an upcoming journey, or an initial temptation to turn to the idolatrous non-Israelite gods of the hills (a la 1 Kings 23:20)? This ambiguity explains the modus operandi of scholarship about this psalm: first positing a theory of its original setting, and then “plugging in” the textual data accordingly to make it fit.

Because of its aforementioned fame and ambiguity, this Psalm has been the subject of much theorizing and analysis, so much so that “Scholars have proposed no less than fifteen basic Sitze im Leben for this Psalm.”[1] Within this amorphous chaos of interpretation, there is some consensus: most scholars believe that this psalm is about or for “a pilgrim or traveler at some point on a trip destined for Jerusalem,” which would then identify the mountains of verse 1 as referring to “the hills on which Jerusalem rests, especially or particularly Mount Zion on which Yahweh dwells in his temple.”[2] The best evidence for this is the superscription of our psalm, Shir Ha-ma’alot (which appears in Psalms 120-134), and indicates that it is a “reference to the “going up” to Jerusalem for the annual festivals held there.”[3] As a result, we can read these psalms as pilgrimage psalms, a kind of “handbook for pilgrims”[4] to be recited by individuals or groups on their journey to Jerusalem. Although this reading does not answer all of the questions raised by the tricky language of this psalm, it gives us a context for the expressions of faith and blessings of divine protection that permeate the text. In understanding this psalm as a sort of “tefillat ha-derekh,” we can explicate the rich meaning of the leitwort “shemirah,” which appears six times in eight verses, and appreciate the sundry evils mentioned throughout as specifically referring to the dangers of the road. In a context of travel and pilgrimage, protection and blessing are not mere metaphorical abstractions but immediate needs for concrete threats. Finally, this Sitz Im Leben will enable us to understand the theological assertions of this psalm as assurances and comforts to a nervous pilgrim about the reach of God’s providence, that the “Guardian of Israel” (v. 4) and “Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2) is also the guide and protector of us all on our individual journeys through life.

As a “song of ascent,” our psalm begins on an ironic note. Our would-be pilgrim raises his eyes in the direction of the hills of Jerusalem and feels not awe or praise, but fear: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come? (v. 1)?” Though he yearns to make the trek and arrive in Jerusalem, the danger of the journey gives him pause. While some do interpret “to the mountains” as an “idiom meaning… the heavenly heights above,”[5] Amos Hakham, in his introduction to the psalm, reads it more straightforwardly as the “sentiments of a man going on a journey through the mountains. He lifts up his eyes toward the mountains through which he will pass and he asks himself: is there anyone among these mountains who will come to my assistance and protect me from the dangers that lie in store for travellers?”[6] From here, verse 2 comes across as somewhat strange: “My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Is the pilgrim simply answering his own question? And if so, was it merely a rhetorical one? Either way, this line itself is clearly not a sufficient answer to the question, as we have six additional verses in the chapter. To read this line matter-of-factly, as some scholars do, that “after some thought and reflection, he replies to his own question, ‘The real source of my help is Yahweh’”[7] seems to misunderstand the tone. Rather, I would read this line as a depiction of our anxious pilgrim grasping at straws. One scholar creatively imagines verse 2 as a kind of “traditional saying,”[8] in which case the pilgrim would be repeating an old and reassuring maxim about the Lord’s protection to comfort himself. And yet, it does not seem to work. Why not?          

In verse 3, the confusion mounts: “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; He that keepeth thee will not slumber.” Who is speaking here? Clearly not the pilgrim of verses 1 and 2, who referred to himself in the first person! While we probably cannot know for sure, Amos Hakham suggests that it is someone “giving a parting blessing to the traveler about to leave on his journey…” you spoke well, and I assure you that the Lord, in whose help you trust, will not allow you to come to harm on your journey.”[9] Thus establishing the Sitz Im Leben of a “dismissal ceremony” or “leave-taking”[10] might lead us to identify the structure of the psalm in the following way: “v. 1-2 are ‘The one about to set out says:’ and v. 3-8 are ‘The one staying behind addresses the traveller.’”[11] If there is indeed a dialogue here, then we must reread verses 1-2. Instead of a simple question that is fully addressed with a cursory, satisfying answer, we have a question that lingers. It is undoubtedly true that “My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” but the pilgrim needs more reassurance, more comfort, and more understanding of the nature of God’s protection than just this. “Where does my help come from?” is thus the guiding question of this psalm, and the blessings of vv. 3-8 (whether by fellow pilgrims or those staying at home) are a drawn-out answer, both illustrating and praying for the protection that God offers to all of Israel.

Our second speaker’s soothing reassurances continue, with a strong theological message thrown in for good measure. In an article exploring this Psalm, the biblical scholar Bob Becking compares verses 3 and 4: “Verse 3 ends with ‘your guardian’ while v. 4 has the phrase ‘the guardian of Israel’ at the end. This parallelism indicates that the phrases refer to each other and are similar in meaning… The divine care for the people as a whole, does not exclude attention to the individual.”[12] The parallel is clearer in the Hebrew, where the root sh.m.r. is used twice in quick succession. And so, the God to whom our pilgrim initially referred as the “Maker of heaven and earth” has become the “guardian of Israel,” and also (most importantly), the God who “watches over you.” In addition to this theological point about God’s providence reaching not only the world at large or Israel as a nation but also to individuals, some see a more explicit polemical argument about the relative power of YKVK versus foreign deities latent in v. 4: “…some within Israel thought of Yahweh too as sleeping when the wicked were allowed to oppress the innocent. Nonetheless, the more authentic Israelite impulse affirms that Yahweh is always vigilant.”[13] This added intention seems plausible, especially in light of Elijah’s pointed mockery of the priests of Ba’al in I Kings 18:27 and the god they serve: “Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened!” And yet, once again, it feels rather out of place. If the Sitz Im Leben is indeed a pilgrim’s prayer for protection on his journey to Jerusalem, reminders about the supremacy of YKVK are certainly warranted, but subtle theological jabs seem out of step with the overall tone. Just as the “hills” in verse 1 do not obliquely refer to foreign gods, so too, I would contend that the insistence that YKVK will neither “slumber nor sleep” is not a declaration of dogma, but rather a colorful depiction of the character of YKVK’s shemirah. Without wading too deeply into the waters of biblical metaphors and anthropomorphism, it is fair to say that the declaration “God is a shomer” is itself a metaphor of some sort, in that it compares YKVK’s protection to the work of a sentry manning his post for incoming threats. As Limburg notes: “That which is essential in the work of a watchman is that he stay awake. The Lord, says Psalm 121, is the Good Watchman who remains alert, neither dozing off nor sleeping.”[14] Thus, the lines about YKVK not sleeping are not theological remarks, but rather elaborations on the theme of shemirah denoting Him as the shomer par excellence. Unlike human watchmen, YKVK does not desperately “wait for the morning (cf. Psalms 130:6),” for His “shift” is eternal.  

Verses 5 and 6 extend the themes of protection and journeying: “The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” At risk of pointing out the obvious, the two lines are connected: because YKVK will be “your shade,” as our blesser puts it, you will not be harmed by sun or moonlight. While the Hebrew word tzel can mean somewhat different things depending on the context, I would link our word to an occurrence in Genesis 19:18, where Lot attempts to hold back the rapacious mob from attacking his angelic guests by insisting that “they have come under the protection of my roof,” where protection here is that same word, “tzel.” In Genesis, the word refers to the protection a host offers his guests through the shelter of his roof over their heads, while in Psalm 121, YKVK Himself acts as a tzel, a roof-like force shielding travelers from the elements, and especially the moon/sunstroke our psalm mentions. Consequently, verse 5 sets up an interesting parallelism between two different metaphors: YKVK is a shomer, a watchman (5a) and also a tzel, a protective “sukkah” of sorts, like Jonah’s, guarding against inclement weather. 

Additionally, as Becking helpfully notes, “the reference to sun and moon is a merism (the juxtaposition of two opposing words to refer to a complete whole). By referring to these two extremes, the whole circle of day and night is indicated. This merism parallels the expression of faith that YHWH neither slumbers nor sleeps.”[15] Once again, some scholars see a religious polemic here: “the assurance that Yahweh will protect the psalmist from the sun and moon (v. 6) may reflect an ancient belief that the sun, moon, and stars were deities… But the Israelites affirmed that Yahweh is greater than the heavenly beings, for he created them.”[16] This time, it seems more unlikely. The exact same usage of the sun, “smiting” (the root n.k.h.) appears in Jonah 4:8: “The sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted,” and Psalm 91, which also contains a litany of dangers for travelers, uses the similar poetic device of describing their appearance by night and day: You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (v. 5). Thus, our psalm’s prayer against sunstroke nicely captures the realia of ancient travel while also emphasizing the nature of YKVK’s all-encompassing protection, which has been built up since verse 3: He will never “fall asleep on the job,” (v. 4) even to the point of “letting your foot slip” (v. 3) and will carefully watch over you as a good guardian would, both by day and by night — 24/7.

The last two lines of the Psalm bring everything to a close — the journey and the chapter together: “The Lord shall keep thee from all evil; He shall keep thy soul. The Lord shall guard thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and forever.” Limburg brings to our attention the expansion of God’s protection that occurs in the latter verses: “Vv. 3-6 had promised the Lord’s protection from the dangers of the day and the night; now the Psalm asserts that ‘the Lord will protect you from all evil.’ Vv. 3-6 had been concerned with the Lord’s watching over for a specific journey; now the Psalm asserts that the Lord will watch over ‘your life.’”[17] Perhaps there is another shade (pun intended) of significance to this expansion as well, given the pilgrimage context. While verses 3-6 had focused on the immediate present of the journey, verses 7-8 look ahead to the future, to the pilgrim’s return home and resumption of life. He might feel that, having left the presence of YKVK and His throne in Jerusalem, the levitical blessing of “May the Lord bless thee and keep thee” has grown stale and worn off. It would then be for this reason, perhaps, that Psalm 121 closes on decisive, repeated notes of divine protection throughout life, even long after the pilgrimage to God’s house has ended.

Ultimately though, the immediate context of the psalm is less significant than its larger message, which asserts itself as relevant in all times and places. As Becking points out, “The character of the pilgrim’s need is unknown. This absence of clarity is at the same time the power of this psalm.”[18] While its superscription, reference to hills, and depiction of a journey leave us confident that its foregrounded meaning is of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, its final message of ubiquitous, all-embracing Divine shemirah that follows us day by day, stone by stone, is certainly much larger. When contemplating and relating to God as the creator of heaven and earth is insufficient to instill this faith, the blessings of our psalm, with its emphasis on a personal, persistent relationship and individualized protection are the assurances that every pilgrim wants and needs to hear. Both on and off the road, from subways to supermarket lines, may we feel the comforting shade of God’s love and protective care, “from this time forth and forever.” 


[1]John T. Willis, “An Attempt to Decipher Psalm 121:1b,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52:2 (1990): 242.

[2] Ibid., 246.

[3] Ibid., 244.

[4] James Limburg, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners,” Word and World (1985): 182.

[5] Willis , “An Attempt to Decipher Psalm 121:1b,” 244.

[6] Amos Hakham, Psalms (Da’at Mikra) (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2003), 293.

[7] Willis, “An Attempt to Decipher Psalm 121:1b,” 248.

[8] Bob Becking, “God-Talk for a Disillusioned Pilgrim in Psalm 121,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9, (2009): 10.

[9] Hakham, 293.

[10] John T. Willis, “Psalm 121 As A Wisdom Poem,” Hebrew Annual Review, 11 (1987): 441.

[11] Limburg, 184.

[12] Becking, 8.

[13] Bernard F. Batto, “The Sleeping God: An Ancient Near Eastern Motif of Divine Sovereignty,” Biblica 68:2 (1987): 155.

 

[14] Limburg, 185.

[15] Becking, 9.

[16] Willis,  “Psalm 121 As A Wisdom Poem,” 446.

[17] Limburg, 186.

[18] Becking, 5.