2. Psalm 121. The Lord Is Your Keeper


Audio (12:39)

 Vincent Van Gogh, 'Les Alpilles' (1889), oil on canvas, 23 x 28 in,  Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'Les Alpilles' (1889), oil on canvas, 23 x 28 in,  Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Pilgrim bands from all over Israel and beyond are headed up to Jerusalem for Passover, or perhaps, the Feast of Booths, singing as they go. One of these Songs of Ascent deals with the dangers that travelers experience, and is sometimes called the Traveler's Psalm. It might be classified as a psalm of confidence, of trust in the Lord.

"A Song of Ascents.

1  I lift up my eyes to the hills. 
From where does my help come? 
2  My help comes from the LORD, 
who made heaven and earth. 
3  He will not let your foot be moved; 
he who keeps you will not slumber. 
4  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 
5  The LORD is your keeper; 
the LORD is your shade on your right hand. 
6  The sun shall not strike you by day, 
nor the moon by night. 
7  The LORD will keep you from all evil; 
he will keep your life. 
8  The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in 
from this time forth and forevermore." (Psalm 121:1-8, ESV)

Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills (Psalm 121:1)

The song begins with a look to the hills. It is apropos, since pilgrims to Jerusalem are traversing the mountain chain that runs north and south through Judah.

 "I lift up my eyes to the hills.22  From where does my help come?" (Psalm 121:1)

Why does the psalmist look to the hills, to the mountains, we wonder. A couple interpretations make some sense:

1. Place of worship. In Old Testament times, mountains were often places of worship for the Canaanites -- the "high places." From whom does my help come, asks the psalmist? From Mount Zion, of course, Jerusalem, the place where Yahweh is enthroned.23

2. Place of danger. For a traveler, the hills can be a place where bandits hide and then swoop down suddenly upon a band of pilgrims to rob and perhaps kill them. Canyons through the hills can be places of ambush, as they were for the merchant on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan.

The second context makes the most sense to me, but either scenario is possible, and it doesn't matter much to the point of this psalm. The focus is on the one who is Israel's Keeper, Israel's Helper, Israel's Protector.

Yahweh Is My Help (Psalm 121:1b-2)

"1b From where does my help come? 
2  My help comes from the LORD, 
who made24 heaven and earth." (Psalm 121:1b-2)

"Help" occurs in both verses 1 and 2. The word often refers to military help or assistance.25 Here Yahweh is "My Help," a common name or title of God.

  • "My Help" (Psalm 22:19; 40:17).
  • "Helper of the Fatherless" (Psalm 10:14).
  • "My Helper" (Hebrews 13:6; Psalm 30:10; 118:7; Hosea 13:9).

Maker of Heaven and Earth (Psalm 121:2)

"My help comes from the LORD,  who made heaven and earth." (Psalm 121:2)

The Canaanites believe in Baal, the god of fertility. Babylonians and Assyrians worship Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. But Yahweh's power is absolute. He alone creates heaven and earth. He is Lord! Both the Apostles and Nicene Creeds begin by affirming, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker (or Creator) of heaven and earth...." His power is all-encompassing!

Yahweh Is My Keeper (Psalm 121:3-7)

Yahweh is my Help, the one who provides assistance as needed. He is also my Keeper. The verb "keep" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) or "watch over" (NIV) is shāmar, "keep, guard," with the basic idea of, "to exercise great care over."26 He won't allow us to be tripped up by an enemy who sneaks up on us.

"3  He will not let your foot be moved; 
he who keeps you will not slumber. 
4  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." (Psalm 121:3-4)

He never gets distracted or drifts off. He is always watchful, like a soldier who never sleeps while on guard duty.

"5  The LORD is your keeper
the LORD is your shade on your right hand. 
6  The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night." (Psalm 121:5-6)

Heatstroke from the blazing sun was always a danger in the Near East. And there was the thought of mental disorders from being "moonstruck."27 Yahweh is your Shade and Keeper who will protect you.

Our Psalm contains three merisms, that is, word pairs that summarize the total by naming opposite boundaries -- heaven/earth (verse 2), sun/moon (verse 6), going out/coming in (verse 7).28 Since Yahweh is Lord over the extremes, he can protect you from anything in between. He also guards us from the Evil One.

"The LORD will keep you from all evil; 
he will keep your life." (Psalm 121:7)

Will God Really Protect Us?

How can this be? we wonder. Surely, godly believers have died in dangerous situations. Does God really protect us? This very question, of course, probably results from sad negative experiences mixed with unbelief. The promises in these protection psalms are for people who will actually put their trust in God and his word. The promises are activated by faith. Let me remind you of two passages from Hebrews:

"We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (Hebrews 6:12)

"I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies." (Hebrews 11:32b-34)

The Bible is full of people who by faith experienced God's supernatural protection. Today's world, as well, is full of believers who have seen the fulfillment of these promises first hand. God is not impotent, but our unbelief can make us impotent, preventing us from seeing these things (Matthew 13:58; Mark 6:5).

But consider: Christians don't seem to be immune to death in accidents, war, persecution, etc. How do we understand this in light of this psalm? Did all those who succumb to enemies just lack enough faith? Some did, of course, but surely not all. Two passages of Scripture may shed some light on this. The first is from the Apostle Paul:

"We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

But this truth does not exclude what we read a few verses later.

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?" (Romans 8:35)

We may suffer persecution, even death, but "in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:37).

The second passage is Jesus' teaching about the end times:

"You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish." (Luke 21:16-18)

People without faith look only at what happens in this life. And God is quite able to protect us in this life! But people of faith look beyond this life to the next. In the ultimate sense -- and that is what is important to us Christians -- our enemies cannot harm even one hair on our head. They can kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul (Matthew 10:28). And God will have the very last word on Judgment Day. In Revelation, the martyrs in heaven cry out:

"How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Revelation 6:10)

The answer is not quite yet, but soon. When Jesus comes in his kingdom, there will be singing and shouting and the fulfillment of all the promises of the Bible on that Day. Come, Lord Jesus!

So if you are in danger, by all means come to Psalm 121 or Psalm 91 for strength and encouragement. May you be one of those saints who through faith, "shut the mouths of lions, quench the fury of the flames, and escape the edge of the sword" (Hebrews 13:34). Just realize that the final chapter of your life and mine is not written in the here and now, but on that Day it will all be revealed in victory and glory. God has us all in his hands.

Your Going Out and Coming In (Psalm 121:8)

Back to a traveler's protection from the dangers of the road.

"The LORD will keep your going out
and your coming in 
from this time forth and forevermore." (Psalm 121:8)

Jude picks up this refrain as he closes his letter: "Now and forevermore. Amen."

The going out and coming in reminds me of ancient Celtic Christian prayers, many of which call upon God to be with them in every time and every place and every circumstance. Here's one that expresses that all-encompassing trust in God's protection.

"God with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without him,
Nor one ray without him.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
Forever and forevermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen."29

Prayer

Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in PDF, and Kindle formats only US $2.99.

Lord, in the midst of all the dangers we may sense around us from men, from circumstances, from disease -- in them all, Lord, we choose to put our trust in you. You are our Help, our Keeper, our Shade. Shelter us from all that comes against us, and bring us safe to our eternal home, according to your Word. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Meditation

Day 2 Meditation (Psalm 121). In what ways is God your Help? How does he help you? In what ways  is he your Keeper? How do you perceive that he guards and protects you? How is he your Shade? How do you see that he shields you? http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1901-2-keeper/

Endnotes

Abbreviations and References

[22] "Hills" is har, "hill, hill country, mount, mountain."

[23] DeClaissé-Walford, NICOT Psalms, p. 896.

[24] "Made" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "Maker" (NIV) is the Qal participle of ʿāśâ, "do, fashion, accomplish," with the basic connotation of "do" or "make." When used in the sense of "make," the emphasis is on the fashioning of the object. The word occurs with great frequency in the Genesis account of creation (Thomas E. McComiskey, TWOT #1708). See also Psalms 86:9; 95:5; 96:5; etc.

[25] "Help" in verses 1 and 2 is ʿēzer, "help, support, helper" from ʿāzar, "to help, support." The verb often refers to military help or assistance. While this word designates assistance, it is more frequently used in a concrete sense to designate the assistant. This word is generally used to designate divine aid, particularly in Psalms, where it includes both material and spiritual assistance (Carl Schultz, TWOT #1598a).

[26] Shāmar, TWOT #2414. This includes keeping or tending a garden, a flock, a house, guarding against intruders. Cain asks, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). David asks for God's care and protection in the Psalms (Psalm 34:20; 86:2; 121:3-4, 7; etc.).

[27] There was a widespread ancient belief in a connection between certain phases of the moon and various mental and physical disorders among human beings. Epileptic seizures were associated with the transcendent powers of the moon (Matthew 4:24; 17:15; BDAG 919; Nola J. Opperwall, "Epilepsy," ISBE 2:122).

[28] DeClaissé-Walford, NICOT Psalms, p. 897.

[29] Ancient Celtic prayer collected by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), published in Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1992), #2, p. 36. These are prayers, hymns, and incantations collected from the common folk in the highlands and islands of Scotland by Carmichael in the second half of the 19th century.

Copyright © 2020, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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