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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 121

Psalms 121

The Psalm is a simple expression of heartfelt trust in God, the Keeper of his church. We perceive here nothing of the mighty billows and tumults of the inner man who again seeks and finds rest, which Ewald, proceeding on a false construction of Psalms 121:1, would have us perceive; but the Psalmist, or the church in whose name he speaks, from the very first stands above the suffering and looks down upon it from the clear height of trust in God.

In Psalms 121:1-2 the church speaks itself, ( Israel, Psalms 121:4); and in Psalms 121:3-8 is addressed. The remarks made in the introduction to Psalms 91 are applicable to this change. The speaker in Psalms 121:3 ss. is the Psalmist or rather the Spirit, whose organ he is, watching over the church. The advocates of choruses in the Psalms have taken possession of this fact. They want, however, the necessary previous legitimation; and the presumption is not in favour of such external modes of interpretation but against them.

The Psalm consists of an Introduction and a Conclusion, each of two; and a kernel of four verses, which are likewise made up of two parts; so that the Psalm throughout is ruled by the number four. The transition from the Introduction to the main body is marked by the change of person. The latter is held together by the threefold naming of the keeper of Israel; the Conclusion by the threefold “he shall keep.” [Note: In the use of שמר which occurs with marked frequency, there is perhaps an allusion to Samaria, the capital of the then enemies of the people of God, the object being to deprive that name of all its terror.] The name Jehovah occurs five times; three times in the introduction and conclusion, and twice in the main body. With the two of the preceding Psalm, the five, which, as the signature of the half, and of what is unfinished, points to a completion, makes up the seven. This, as is usual, is divided by the three in the introduction and conclusion of our Psalm, and the four.

The contents of the Psalm are altogether suitable to such circumstances as are more exactly described in Psalms 120. The condition of the people appears as an oppressed one: they look out for help, they are in danger of their foot sliding; they cleave to their keeper, they hope that he will preserve their soul, their very existence is exposed to danger. According to Psalms 121:8 the people appear engaged in an important undertaking, in expectation that the Lord will forward them in it.

The title which designates the Psalm as a pilgrim song is confirmed in Psalms 121:1, according to which the Psalm was intended to be sung in view of the mountains of Jerusalem, which here, in accordance with Psalms 120, again appears as the seat of the Lord. It is hence impossible to conceive of the Psalm as having been composed during the captivity, as many have done. [Note: The windows of Daniel who lived during the captivity, were, according to ch. 6:11, opened during prayer toward Jerusalem, in remembrance of its early glory, and in anticipation of its glorious future; he did not however seek help from Jerusalem but from heaven.] The figures also of the Psalm are remarkably suitable for a pilgrim song, the sliding of the foot as an emblem of misfortune, the shadow as an emblem of protection, heat and cold as an emblem of conflict, outgoing and incoming as an emblem of undertakings.

The idea is a very probable one, that the Psalm was the evening song of the sacred pilgrim band, sung on retiring to rest upon the last evening, when the long wished for termination of their wandering, the mountains of Jerusalem had come into view in the distance. In this case we obtain a suitable connection with the following Psalm, which would be sung one station further on, when the pilgrims were at the gates of Jerusalem. In this case we find an explanation of the fact, that in the middle point of the Psalm there stands the Lord as the keeper of Israel, with reference to the declaration, “I keep thee,” which was addressed to the patriarch as he slept on his pilgrimage; and in this case also “he neither slumbereth nor sleepeth,” is seen into its true light.

Verses 1-2

Ver. 1 and 2.

A Song for the Pilgrimages. Ver. 1. I direct my eyes to the hills. From whence shall come my aid! Ver. 2 My aid cometh from the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth.

The phrase נשא עינים with אל cannot be “to lift up the eyes to something high,” ( Genesis 39:7, Ezekiel 23:27, Ezekiel 18:6, are against this), but only either “to open the eyes” or “to stretch the eyes,” according to “where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” The kindred expression נשא נפש or לב with על is in favour of the latter view; comp. at Psalms 24:4, Psalms 25:1, also Lamentations 3:41. That the language does not refer to an inactive desire, a mere longing for home, but that the eyes are directed to the hills seeking and expecting help, is evident from the second clause, from Psalms 121:2, and also from the parallel passage, Psalms 123:1, “lift my eyes to thee who dwellest in the heaven,” where the omnipotent helper in heaven corresponds to the mountains here; comp. also “for my eyes are to thee, O Lord God,” Psalms 141:8, Psalms 25:15. The hills are the hills which the speaker has before his eyes. Every doubt on this point is removed by the connection, according to which we can only think of such mountains as could furnish help to the Psalmist. It is Mount Zion that is meant, the hill of the Lord, the seat of his church upon earth; and mountains in the plural are referred to only in so far as this mountain is a particular point of a high mountain range (comp. at Psalms 87:1) which was seen as one whole in the distance. The mountains of Palestine cannot be meant, for these never appear as the seat of the Lord, as the treasure house of help for his people: in Exodus 15:17, the hill is the hill of the sanctuary, the spiritual seat of Israel. Mount Zion, with its sanctuary, everywhere occurs in the same connection in which the hills are here introduced; comp. for example Psalms 3:4, Psalms 14:7, Psalms 20:2, Psalms 43:3, Psalms 68:16, Psalms 87:1. The parallel passage, also, Psalms 125:2, where the mountains which surround and protect Jerusalem appear as an emblem of God’s protection of his people, is decidedly in favour of the mountains of Jerusalem. Luther and others translate the second clause “from which help comes to me.” But םאין is always used interrogatively, “from which?” it is so, even in Joshua 2:4, where the question is only an indirect and dependant one. The question here, however, is not to be considered as expressive of doubt or uncertainty. The first clause is against this. According to it the Psalmist is perfectly decided as to where help is to be sought and found. The question is intended, like that in Psalms 120:3, Psalms 24:3, to give occasion to the joyful answer announced in Psalms 121:2. As this answer stands in the back ground, the second clause is in reality parallel to the first. The verse before us has been misunderstood in various ways. According to many expositors, the Psalmist, as Calvin expresses it, first personates an unbeliever, and represents the weakness natural to the whole human family, and then rises, in Psalms 121:2, to faith: I look round about me on the hills, and seek anxiously for help in every direction, &c. The mountains in this case, according to several, denote everything in the world which is high and glorious; according to others, specially the potentates and kingdoms of the earth; according to Ewald, regard is to be had to the mountains in the distance, “if from afar in any direction help will come.” [Note: Thus Amyr.: “They cast their eyes in every direction upon the neighbouring hills, and look around on every side, to see if any where there appear friendly and auxiliary troops.”] This sense, however, is not expressed with sufficient clearness; and the hills themselves are the object of trust and hope. And the analogy of the other pairs of verses is decidedly against this view; the contents of the first verse are everywhere strengthened in the second. Next, Psalms 121:2 would come in too much unconnected; the contrast which all these expositors introduce without any remark could not fail to have been distinctly marked;—“ but my help;” others introduce before the second clause of the first verse: “ yet whence cometh;” finally, the strikingly harmonious parallel passages are decisive in favour of our translation, especially Psalms 123:1, Psalms 125:1-2.

The name applied to the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth, in Psalms 121:2 (comp. at Psalms 115:15), points to the inexhaustible abundance of means of help, which he possesses; despair would be madness in any one who has such a God to help him.

Verses 3-6

Ver. 3. May he not suffer thy foot to slide; may thy Keeper not sleep. Ver. 4. Behold the Keeper of Israel sleeps not and slumbers not. Ver. 5. The Lord is thy Keeper, the Lord is thy shade at thy right hand. Ver. 6. By day the sun shall not hurt thee, nor the moon by night.

The אל , Psalms 121:3, is always the subjective negative, “according to the feeling and thought of the speaker,” Ewald § 310 a. Our verse expresses hope and desire; the following verse furnishes the higher confirmation. The sliding of the foot is a frequent description of misfortune, for example, Psalms 38:16, Psalms 66:9, and a very natural one in mountainous Canaan, where a single slip of the foot was often attended with great danger. The language here naturally refers to complete lasting misfortune. The second clause depends on Genesis 28:15, “Behold I am with thee and keep thee in all thy ways.” The application of what was said in the first instance to the patriarch, to his posterity, is all the more natural, as the vision was imparted to the former, as the representative of his whole race. The expression, “I keep thee,” is the text on which our whole Psalm is the commentary. The expression, “sleeps not,” shows how gross are the imaginations of human unbelief which are here met.

The difference between Psalms 121:3-4 does not, as Calvin and others suppose, consist in this, that what is promised in Psalms 121:3, to the individual, is applied here on the subject of the providence of God to the whole people. It is with the whole community that the Psalmist has every where to do. The difference consists simply in the relation of the objective to the subjective negative. In accordance with the former, we find standing here, the word “behold,” which, points to some patent, undoubted fact. Luther translates “sleeps not nor slumbers;” the translation commonly given at present is, “slumbers not nor sleeps,” Thus Calvin, “If God does not even once slumber, there is the less cause for fearing at any time an ordinary sleep.” But the idea that נום signifies to slumber is founded altogether on the false supposition that a climax is to be found in the passage before us, and in the parallel passage, which agrees word for word, Isaiah 5:27, where the same thing is said of Israel’s enemies,—a passage which the Psalmist to all appearance had distinctly before his eye, setting the wakeful Keeper in heaven over against the wakeful enemies upon earth. In every other passage, it is used of a deep sleep, Nahum 3:18, Isaiah 56:10, Psalms 76:5; and it has this sense also in Arabic. And, on the other hand, ישן signifies to fall asleep; this indeed is its original and prevailing sense, comp. at Psalms 4:8. Hence we must translate: he does not sleep (generally) and he does not fall asleep.

The shade, Psalms 121:5, is a figurate expression for protection and shelter, more appropriate in the hot east than with us, and especially suitable in the mouth of pilgrims who had hourly experienced the severity of the heat of the sun, and the pleasant refreshment of the shade. Allusion is made, as is apparent, to Numbers 14:9, where it is said of the enemies of Israel: “their shade is departed from them, and the Lord is with us, fear not.” The observations made at Psalms 109:6, render it evident that we must translate “ at” not “ over thy right hand.” The right hand is named here also, “because, as it is the organ of action; to stand at the right hand is the most convenient position for one who is determined perseveringly to hinder or to assist.” The enemies of Israel stood at his right hand, marring all his efforts; and his God stands at his right hand promoting these efforts. As the shade is a figurative expression for protection, there is no reason for tearing the words from each other, and translating: “ he is at thy right hand.” According to the common view הכה is supposed to be suitable only to the sun, and to be applied merely by a zeugma to the moon. But the word does not signify to pierce or to burn, but to strike, and applies to the sun only in so far as striking is a figurative expression for injuring; and this is equally applicable to the moon. In Genesis 31:40, to devour, is in like manner applied figuratively to heat and cold. But how can injury be applied to the moon? There is no use for spending words upon those who suppose that “this expression was caused by the association of ideas from a regard to the parallelism.” The sacred Psalmist gives us no reason to believe that he was not in possession of sound human understanding. Those persons also are as little to be attended to who suppose that the Psalmist hints at “an essential evil influence of the moon.” Physical secret doctrines are here not in their place, and are nowhere to be found in the Psalms. The key is to be found in Genesis 31:40, where Jacob complains: “the heat consumed me by the day, and the cold by night,” comp. Jeremiah 36:30, where it is said of Jehoiakim, “his carcase shall be cast out during the heat by day and the cold by night.” Heat and cold serve the Psalmist as figurative expressions for the conflicts to which the people are exposed, because suffering assumed this form in the case of the patriarch, and the pilgrims must have felt themselves, from their situation, peculiarly exposed to it. It cannot appear remarkable that the cold of the night which is so perceptible in the East, is attributed to the moon. The moon, according to Genesis 1:16, “the great light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night,” is the ruler of the night; and everything belongs to it which happens during its reign, without regard to whether that thing proceeds properly from it, and without our laying any stress upon Lampe’s remark, “the cold is more intense when the moon shines, than it is during nocturnal rains.”

Verses 7-8

Ver. 7. The Lord shall keep thee from all evil: he shall keep thy soul. Ver. 8. The Lord shall keep thy outgoing and incoming from henceforth even for ever. The threefold repetition of the expression, “he shall keep thee,” is, according to the correct observation of Calvin, a testimony to the greatness of human unbelief, which needs continually repeated assurances. [Note: He adds: “this passage reminds us, if a brief sentence be not sufficient, that whatever occurs in Scripture in different passages on the subject of Providence, ought to be collected together.”] Luther has erroneously understood the two verses as expressive of desire instead of assurance. The outgoing and the incoming in Psalms 121:8 denote the commencement of the undertakings, and their completion after the people had returned home. Compare the fundamental passage, Deuteronomy 28:6. In the expression “from henceforth even for ever,” the old expositors, taking for granted that the Psalm applies to individuals (a view which even the expression before us is sufficient to disprove), have found a proof of personal immortality instead of the immortality of the church. The consideration that the outgoing and the incoming are applicable only to the circumstances of this life might have guarded them against this idea. The passage before us, however, does lead indirectly to this result: God’s eternal protection of his church is a pledge that he will graciously take care of its individual members for ever. A firm faith in personal immortality, or, more correctly, in the eternal salvation of the individuals who have been elected, must grow out of the soil thus well prepared.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 121". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-121.html.