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God our helper and keeper (Psalms 121) February 7

Psalm 121, the second song of ascents in the first set of three, is one of trust in God as helper and keeper. It is written as a dialogue-a two-party discussion (note the use of "I" and "my" in verses 1-2 and of "you" and "your" throughout the remainder of the psalm). Some believe this suggests antiphonal, responsive singing, yet you would have one group or person singing only two verses and then others singing all the rest. It is conceivable that the first stanza, verses 1-2, was intended as a solo introduction and that the remaining three stanzas-3-4, 5-6 and 7-8-were intended as a choir response. Other commentators, however, believe the dialogue here is within an individual. That is, the one speaking in verses 1-2 is also seen as speaking in the remaining verses but to his inner self.

The song begins with looking up to the hills and considering the source of help (verse 1)-then declaring the Creator God as that source (verse 2). What do hills have to do with help? In the context of ancient Israel, hills were a place of refuge. Armies converged in war on the plains. The Israelite nation in the Promised Land began in the hill country-where they did not have to fight the Canaanites and Philistines out on the open plains. Hills provided a barrier against advancing forces. For individuals, being out in the open was dangerous. The hills provided many hiding places.

We can draw a comparison with the help and protection that God provides. Note what another of the songs of ascents has to say: "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people from this time forth and forever" (125:2). Jerusalem is at the top of the Judean hill country. And here the City of David and Temple Mount are surrounded by higher hills, which provided a natural defense against invasion. Sadly, the people of Israel and Judah often placed undue emphasis on such natural protection. They even used the heights of mountains and hills as false worship centers-the high places. Jeremiah 3:23 says, "Truly, in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains; truly, in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel."

The author of Psalm 121 understands this well. Lifting his eyes to the hills probably refers to looking ahead as he ascends in his journey to the hills of Jerusalem. "Ps. 120 sets the stage for the Israelites' journey to the Holy City; this poem [121] is a song 'for the road'" ( Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 121). Rather than the natural defenses of the hills, the psalmist understands that true help is to be found in the One who made those hills and everything else-Almighty God (verse 2; compare 124:8; 134:3). There was help to be found in the hills of Jerusalem-but only because God's blessing and protection was on this place of His sanctuary, where He commanded His people to convene and observe His spiritual feasts. Note the prayer in still another song of ascents: "Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens" (123:1).

In the remainder of Psalm 121 (verses 3-8), the psalm repeatedly affirms that God is our keeper-our watcher or guardian. We should note that the word translated "keeps" in verses 3-4 is the same one translated "preserve" in verses 7-8-so that a form of the word for "keep" is used six times in this psalm.

We see in these verses that God will protect us on our journey-both on our journey to His festivals and, in a figurative sense, on our lifelong journey to His Kingdom. He will be there to keep our foot from slipping (verse 3, NIV) and, though we have to sleep along the way, God never sleeps (verses 3-4)-He is always vigilant in His care for His people.

Verses 5-6 say that God is a shade "at your right hand" (meaning readily accessible) so that the sun won't strike you by day or the moon by night. Travelers in the Middle East needed shade from the sun to prevent heat exhaustion, heatstroke and severe sunburn. Yet what of the moon? "In ancient times people saw the harmful effects of the rays of the sun, and they thought that certain illnesses (especially mental disorders) were also caused by the rays of the moon" ( Word in Life Bible, note on verse 6). Thus our modern words moonstruck and lunacy. We should be careful, however, to note that verse 6 does not acknowledge this as a genuine phenomenon. The point is that God would protect the travelers from those things that posed concerns to them on their journey. Of course, a bright moon could pose a real problem in that it would make travelers more visible to bandits-and staring directly at it will briefly diminish night vision, which might be needed at that moment to better see such bandits and wild animals.

Verses 7-8 say that God will preserve us from all evil in all our goings and comings-i.e., at all times in our lives. "Preserve" here is a better sense than the English "keep," as the latter would seem to imply that nothing bad will ever happen to God's people. We have enough examples in the remainder of the psalms and throughout Scripture to show that this is not the case. The point, as we consider the rest of the Bible, is that whatever happens to us is within God's care and oversight. He watches over us and sees us through. He certainly does protect us as we go through life and keeps us from harm in far more ways than we are aware of. Yet He allows a certain degree of trials to befall us, though never more than we can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13). Most importantly, He will work things out to what is best for His people in the end (Romans 8:28)-a glorious end that will pale all present trials by comparison (verse 18). Accordingly, the focus of Psalm 121 is not merely for the here and now, but "from this time forth, and even forevermore" (verse 8). Here we have the promise of God watching over His people in such a way as to eventually lead them to the glorious future of eternal life.

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