Psalms 120-134 are called Songs of Ascent. This group of songs was most likely used by pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem to worship the Lord during the three annual national feasts, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. As pilgrim families made the arduous journey to the Holy City for festive worship, they would use these psalms as encouragement along the way. It is also possible that once they arrived in Jerusalem, they would sing these songs anew as they approached the temple, reenacting their journey and affirming God’s blessings on their path. It might be that this was sung antiphonally. The leader sang the first two verses and the people answered him in verses 3-4, and so on. The theme of this psalm is God’s protection over His people and the word keeps or watches is used six times. The psalm can be divided into four parts. The first two verses are an affirmation that help is from God. The next two verses are a word of praise to God who does not slumber. Verses 5-6 are words of praise to God who keeps His people, and the last two verses affirm that God will protect His people during their journeys. So, let’s take a closer look at this psalm.
Psalm 121 is a psalm of trust, along the lines of psalm 23. The opening line of this psalm, “I lift up my eyes to the hills” can also be translated I will lift up my eyes. So a couple of things about the mountains or hills. They were known for being places where many worshiped idols, and Israel was often enticed to go to the hilltop shrines. This question the psalmist asked can be understood as a rhetorical question that expects a negative answer. The gods of the hilltop shrines cannot rescue anyone. Only the Lord can rescue His people. Others understand the mountains to be a symbol of the Lord’s strength. In that case the question would be interpreted literally, and the answer comes in the next verse. The psalmist paints a picture of travelers approaching the city of Jerusalem, situated in the surrounding mountains. The first sight would be the city walls and the temple. They knew that God dwelt there in His sanctuary, and He would provide all the help they might need. Everything in heaven and on earth bears witness to the Lord as Creator who is also our Heavenly Father. Why then should we fear?
The word in verse three translated ‘move’ can also be translated to slip and slide, to stagger, or to be shaken. How easy it would be to sprain an ankle or even fall and break a bone when walking on rocky and uneven paths. The psalmist reminds us that the Lord is concerned even about where our feet land and our walking. The Lord keeps us. In other words, He guards and protects us. The good news here is that the same God who created the heavens and the earth is also the guardian of Israel, and us. God stands beside Israel, supporting and caring for the godly. On the long journey to Jerusalem the pilgrims would have had to stop and sleep but they would still be cared for by God. He never slumbers or sleeps. Not even a brief cat nap! This is a big deal because pagans “permitted” their gods to sleep. The God of Israel is not like any other god. He has no need to recreate, rest or eat. The language of confidence in this psalm indicates that it is about the psalmist’s trust in the living Lord, his protector.
Our keeper is not only on the throne looking down on us, but He is at our side to shield us from all harm. However, this does not mean there will not be trouble. The Lord never promises that once we believe we will have smooth sailing for the rest of our lives. In fact, Jesus warned us that in this world we will have trouble. But we are to take heart because Jesus has overcome the world. We may experience things that hurt us, but they will not harm us. Look at King David. He experienced many things that brought heartbreak and even threatened his life, but the Lord enabled him to turn those struggles into beautiful psalms that we use for encouragement in our struggles.
In writing about the sun and the moon, the psalmist was saying several things. The sun and moon cover the night and the day, meaning God is ever off duty. The keeper of Israel is always present. In the ancient near East, like here in the desert, the burning sun is menacing, dangerous, even deadly. At night, the drop in temperature can also be uncomfortable and unhealthy, especially if you lack a warm covering. The psalmist is saying that day and night our Father is with us to shelter us from that which could harm us. The psalmist could be referring to the lunar calendar here. So think about this. From day to day, month to month, year to year, and season to season, the Lord is with us. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He will be with us in the many challenges and changes in our lives. Whatever it is, the Father’s presence provides all we need.
We have no need to fear life or death. We do not need to live in dread of either today or tomorrow. Time and eternity are nothing to be afraid of either because we are in the loving care of our Father in heaven. When the psalmist refers to all evil, he means say thing that might harm us. Picture Joseph. He endured the hatred and slander of his brothers. He was separated from his father for years. His boss’s wife leveled false accusations against him, and those accusations landed him in prison. All because his brothers hated him enough to want to destroy him. But in the end, after he had revealed himself to his shell-shocked brothers, Joseph was able to say, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” We will know challenges and struggles…guaranteed. But we will not walk alone…ever. God is with us at all times, the going out and coming in of our lives. This is the ordinary-ness of our day-to-day living. The Lord is in that too. The psalm ends with one more affirmation of God’s protection in this life and the one to come, not just for the Israelites but for you and me as well.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W