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Saturday, September 30th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 121

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-8

How many timid, anxious hearts has this sweet outpouring of quiet trust braced and lifted to its own serene height of conscious safety! This psalmist is so absorbed in the thought of his Keeper that he barely names his dangers. With happy assurance of protection, he says over and over again the one word which is his amulet against foes and fears. Six times in these few verses does the thought recur that Jehovah is the Keeper of Israel or of the single soul. The quietness that comes of confidence is the singer’s strength. Whether he is an exile, looking across the plains of Mesopotamia towards the blue hills. which the eye cannot discern, or a pilgrim catching the first sight of the mountain on which Jehovah sits enshrined, is a question which cannot be decisively answered; but the power and beauty of this little breathing of peaceful trust are but slightly affected by any hypothesis as to the singer’s circumstances. Psalms 121:1 and Psalms 121:2 stand apart from the remainder, in so far as in them the psalmist speaks in the first person, while in the rest of the psalm he is spoken to in the second. But this does not necessarily involve the supposition of an antiphonal song. The two first verses may have been sung by a single voice, and the assurances of the following ones by a chorus or second singer. But it is quite as likely that, as in other psalms, the singer is in Psalms 121:3-8 himself the speaker of the assurances which confirm his own faith.

His first words describe the earnest look of longing. He will lift his eyes from all the coil of troubles and perils to the heights. Sursum corda expresses the true ascent which these psalms enjoin and exemplify. If the supposition that the psalmist is an exile on the monotonous levels of Babylon is correct, one feels the pathetic beauty of his wistful gaze across the dreary flats towards the point where he knows that the hills of his fatherland rise. To look beyond the low levels where we dwell, to the unseen heights where we have our home, is the condition of all noble living amid these lower ranges of engagement with the visible and transient. "Whence comes my help?" is a question which may be only put in order to make the assured answer more emphatic, but may also be an expression of momentary despondency, as the thought of the distance between the gazer and the mountains chills his aspirations. "It is easy to look, but hard to journey thither, How shall I reach that goal? I am weak; the way is long and beset with foes." The loftier the ideal, the more needful, if it is ever to be reached, that our consciousness of its height and of our own feebleness should drive us to recognise our need of help in order to attain it.

Whoever has thus high longings sobered by lowly estimates of self is ready to receive the assurance of Divine aid. That sense of impotence is the precursor of faith. We must distrust ourselves, if we are ever to confide in God. To know: that we need His aid is a condition of obtaining it. Bewildered despondency asks, "Whence comes my help?" and scans the low levels in vain. The eye that is lifted to the hills is sure to see Him coming to succour; for that question on the lips of one whose looks are directed thither is a prayer, rather than a question; and the assistance he needs sets out towards him from the throne, like a sunbeam from the sun, as soon as he looks up to the light.

The particle of negation in Psalms 121:3 is not that used in Psalms 121:4, but that which is employed in commands or wishes. The progress from subjective desire in Psalms 121:3, to objective certainty of Divine help as expressed in Psalms 121:4 and the remainder of the psalm, is best exhibited if the verbs in the former verse are translated as expressions of wish "May He not," etc. Whether the speaker is taken to be the psalmist or another makes little difference to the force of Psalms 121:3 which lays hold in supplication of the truth just uttered in Psalms 121:2, and thereby gains a more assured certainty that it is true, as the following verses go on to declare. It is no drop to a lower mood to pass from assertion of God’s help to prayer for it. Rather it is the natural progress of faith. Both clauses of Psalms 121:2 become specially significant if this is a song for pilgrims. Their daily march and their nightly encampment will then be placed under the care of Jehovah, who will hold up their feet unwearied on the road and watch unslumbering over their repose. But such a reference is not necessary. The language is quite general. It covers the whole ground of toil and rest, and prays for strength for the one and quiet security in the other.

The remainder of the psalm expands the one thought of Jehovah the Keeper, with sweet reiteration, and yet comprehensive variation. First, the thought of the last clause of the preceding verse is caught up again. Jehovah is the keeper of the community, over which He watches with unslumbering care. He keeps Israel so long as Israel keeps His law; for the word so frequently used here is the same as is continually employed for observance of the commandments. He had seemed to slumber while Israel was in exile, and had been prayed to awake, in many a cry from the captives. Now they have learned that He never slumbers: His power is unwearied, and needs no recuperation; His watchfulness is never at fault. But universal as is His care it does not overlook the single defenceless suppliant. He is "thy Keeper," and will stand at thy right hand, where helpers stand, to shield thee from all dangers. Men lose sight of the individual in the multitude, and the wider their benevolence or beneficence, the less it takes account of units; but God loves all because He loves each, and the aggregate is kept because each member of it is. The light which floods the universe gently illumines every eye. The two conceptions of defence and impartation of power are smelted together in the pregnant phrase of Psalms 121:5 b, " thy shade at thy right hand."

The notion of shelter from evils predominates in the remainder of the psalm. It is applied in Psalms 121:6 to possible perils from physical causes: the fierce sunlight beat down on the pilgrim band, and the moon was believed, and apparently with correctness, to shed malignant influences on sleepers. The same antithesis of day and night, work and rest, which is found in Psalms 121:3 appears again here. The promise is widened out in Psalms 121:7 so as to be all-inclusive. "All evil" will be averted from him who has Jehovah for his keeper; therefore, if any so called Evil comes, he may be sure that it is Good with a veil on. We should apply the assurances of the psalm to the interpretation of life, as well as take them for the antidote of fearful anticipations.

Equally comprehensive is the designation of that which is to be kept. It is "thy soul," the life or personal being. Whatever may be shorn away by the sharp shears of loss, that will be safe; and if it is, nothing else matters very much. The individual soul is of large account in God’s sight: He keeps it as a deposit entrusted to Him by faith. Much may go; but His hand closes round us when we commit ourselves into it, and none is able to pluck us thence.

In the final verse, the psalmist recurs to his favourite antithesis of external toil and repose in the home, the two halves of the pilgrim life for every man; and while thus, in the first clause of the verse, he includes all varieties of circumstance, in the second he looks on into a future of which he does not see the bounds, and triumphs over all possible foes that may lurk in its dim recesses, in the assurance that, however far it may extend, and whatever strange conditions it may hide, the Keeper will be there, and all will be well. Whether or not he looked to the last "going out," our exodus from earth, {Luke 9:31; 2 Peter 1:15} or to that abundant entrance {2 Peter 1:11} into the true home which crowns the pilgrimage here; we cannot but read into his indefinite words their largest meaning, and rejoice that we have One who "is able to keep that which we have committed to Him against that day."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 121". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-121.html.
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