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Psalms 121 Commentary

Psalm 121 - The God Who Keeps and Helps

This is the second of the series of Psalms titled, A Song of Ascents. As a song sung by travelers, this is particularly relevant for its trust in God through the journey.

"David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer of the continent of Africa, read Psalm 121 and Psalm 135, which praises God for his sovereign rule over all things, as he worshiped with his father and sister before setting out for Africa in 1840. His mother-in-law, Mrs. Moffat, wrote him at Linyardi that Psalm 121 was always in her mind as she thought about and prayed for him." (James Montgomery Boice)

A. Help from the Lord, the Creator of all and helper of Israel.

1. (Ps. 121:1-2) Help from Yahweh.

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.

a. I will lift up my eyes to the hills: The singer of Psalm 121 looked to the hills, likely the distant hills of Jerusalem as they travelled towards the city to keep fulfill their pilgrimage.

i. "The singer is still far from the appointed place of worship, lifting his eyes toward the distant mountains. He is not far from Jehovah, however. In Jehovah's keeping, even though far from the center of external worship, the pilgrim realizes his safety." (Morgan)

ii. The point is wonderful. The singer understood that they didn't need to arrive at Jerusalem before they were under God's protective care. He would watch over them on the journey. God is just as present in the journey as in the destination.

iii. There are two other suggestions of what was intended by this looking up to the hills, though they are less likely.

· Some suggest this was a consideration of the high places where idolaters set their altars (Numbers 22:41, Deuteronomy 33:29, 1 Kings 12:31).

· Some suggest this was an anxious look to the hills, looking for danger and threats from often-present robbers and brigands.

b. My help comes from the Lord: The traveller looked to Jerusalem as his goal, yet his trust was not in that city itself. Help would come from the God who made heaven and earth. The Creator would be his helper.

i. "The sole source of 'help' comes from Yahweh, who, as Creator, has unlimited power." (VanGemeren)

ii. "What he is telling us is that his gaze did not stop when he looked upward to the hills but that he looked beyond them to God, who made the mountains." (Boice)

iii. "The City of God, and the Temple, are to be desired and delighted in; the mountains upon which they rest are to be remembered. But not from them does help come to distressed souls; it comes from Jehovah." (Morgan)

2. (Ps. 141:3-4) The help God brings.

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.

a. He will not allow your foot to be moved: God would help His people by establishing them in a firm place, allowing them to stand and not allowing their foot to be moved.

i. "The foundation, God's infinite power and goodness, on which thou standest, cannot be moved; and whilst thou standest on this basis, thy foot cannot be moved." (Clarke)

ii. "Our feet shall move in progress, but they shall not be moved to their overthrow." (Spurgeon)

iii. For the Christian, this reminds them of the principles found in Ephesians 6:11 and 13-that the believer is to find a place to stand, and this can only be done by looking to the Lord and trusting He who will not allow your foot to be moved.

iv. The standing of the believer in Jesus is impressive.

· We stand in grace (Romans 5:2)

· We stand in the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1)

· We stand in courage and strength (1 Corinthians 16:13)

· We stand in faith (2 Corinthians 1:24)

· We stand in Christian liberty (Galatians 5:1)

· We stand in Christian unity (Philippians 1:27)

· We stand in the Lord (Philippians 4:1)

· The goal: that we should stand perfect and complete in the will of God (Colossians 4:12)

b. He who keeps you: This is the first of six times in this short psalm that the Hebrew word shamar (translated keeps and preserve) is used. The theme is that God will watch over His people as a watchman watches the city or the party of travelers.

i. "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." (Maclaren)

ii. "The Divine Being represents himself as a watchman, who takes care of the city and its inhabitants during the night-watches; and who is never overtaken with slumbering or sleepiness." (Clarke)

c. He who keeps you will not slumber: The one who looks to the Lord can have confidence in the fact that God does not sleep, and the idea is repeated in Psalm 121:4 for emphasis. God's watchful eye is always open looking with love and care upon His people.

i. In his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah mocked the idol prophets when Baal did not respond, saying of Baal perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened (1 Kings 18:27). We have the great comfort in knowing that He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

ii. Behold...: "He repeateth that sweetest promise (that we may roll it as sugar under our tongues, that we may suck and be satisfied, Isaiah 66:11), and setteth it forth with a behold." (Trapp)

iii. This promise was especially meaningful for the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. "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." (Maclaren)

iv. "A poor woman, as the Eastern story has it, came to the Sultan one day, and asked compensation for the loss of some property. 'How did you lose it?' said the monarch. 'I fell asleep,' was the reply, 'and a robber entered my dwelling.' 'Why did you fall asleep?' ... 'I fell asleep because I believed that you were awake.' The Sultan was so much delighted with the answer of the woman, that he ordered her loss to be made up." (McMichael, cited in Spurgeon)

B. The care of the Lord for His people.

1. (5-6) The Lord brings relief from the sun.

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.

a. The Lord is your shade at your right hand: The brutal rays of the sun in the world of the Mideast can assault the traveler, such as the pilgrim on the way to one of Israel's feasts in Jerusalem. God promised care for the traveler, with a thought that goes back to the cloud by day that followed Israel in the wilderness from Egypt and shielded them from the sun.

i. "To shelter and shield thee from all annoyances, as the pillar of cloud did the Israelites in the wilderness." (Trapp)

ii. Similar promises are made in Isaiah 4:6 and 25:4. Psalm 91:1 is especially precious, with shade being the same word as "shadow": He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

iii. "Thy shade; both to refresh thee and keep thee from the burning heat of the sun, as it is expressed in the next verse, and to protect thee by his power from all thine enemies; for which reason God is oft called a shadow in Scripture." (Poole)

b. Nor the moon by night: Any superstitious fears they may have had from the light of the moon were of no concern to those whom God protected. He would keep and preserve His people day and night.

i. "What the psalmist really means, though in figurative language, is that nothing either of the day or night can harm us if God is keeping guard. God is our covering against every calamity. He is our shade against the visible perils of the day as well as the hidden perils of the night." (Boice)

ii. "God has not made a new sun or a fresh moon for his chosen, they exist under the same outward circumstances as others, but the power to smite is in their case removed from temporal agencies; saints are enriched, and not injured, by the powers which govern the earth's condition." (Spurgeon)

iii. "But let the pope be the sun and the emperor the moon (as the canonists called them), yet the sun shall not smite the Church by day nor the moon by night. Luther was at the same time excommunicated by the pope and proscribed by the emperor; yet died he in his bed." (Trapp)

2. (7-8) God preserves His people.

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.

a. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil: The singer had great confidence in God's protecting power. Evil man come and afflict the child of God, but never do him or her permanent harm, and the Lord shall preserve your soul.

ii. "In the light of other scriptures, to be kept from all evil does not imply a cushioned life, but a well-armed one." (Kidner)

iii. He shall preserve your soul: "Our soul is kept from the dominion of sin, the infection of error, the crush of despondency, the puffing up of pride; kept from the world, the flesh and the devil; kept for holier and greater things; kept in the love of God; kept unto the eternal kingdom and glory." (Spurgeon)

iv. The Lord shall preserve...He shall preserve...the Lord shall preserve: "Three times have we the phrase, 'Jehovah shall keep,' as if the sacred Trinity thus sealed the word to make it sure: ought not all our fears to be slain by such a threefold flight of arrows? What anxiety can survive this triple promise?" (Spurgeon)

b. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in: The promise is comprehensive. God's people may trust in His preserving power for all of one's activity (going out and coming in) and at all times (from this time forth, and even forevermore).

i. "When we go out in youth to begin life, and come in at the end to die, we shall experience the same keeping. Our exits and our entrances are under one protection." (Spurgeon)

ii. "Your going out and your coming in is not only a way of saying 'everything' (cf. the footnote to verse 6): in closer detail it draws attention to one's ventures and enterprises (cf. Ps. 126:6), and to the home which remains one's base; again, to pilgrimage and return." (Kidner)

iii. "He has not led me so tenderly thus far to forsake me at the very gate of heaven." (Adoniram Judson, cited in Spurgeon)

Psalm 121 • The Lord is Your Keeper

Introd: Psalms 120-134 are each labeled as "A Song of Ascent". As Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, these are the songs sung while traveling the roads slowly leading up to Jerusalem, culminating in their arrival at the Temple. One of the important functions of each of these 15 Psalms is in the way they prepare the worshiper for the culmination of their travel into the very presence of God, to have the right attitude in bringing their sacrifices to Him. So often we forget that what we think are delays in our life are really His patience waiting for our heart and mind and soul to take hold of the proper attitude and heavenly perspective. In reality, we are on a journey preparing us for eternal life in His presence.

Overview: Read through the entire Psalm and make note of the word that is used most to describe God's actions:
1. "He who keeps you" (v.3)
2. "He who keeps Israel" (v.4)
3. "The LORD is your keeper" (v.5)
4. "He will keep your soul" (v.6)
There are also 3 other phrases which closely compliment these thoughts:
5. "He will not allow" (v.3)
6. "The LORD will protect you" (v.7)
7. "The LORD will guard" (v.8)

The primary theme of this Psalm is the Lord as our personal Keeper, a truly inspiring meditation when coming into the very presence of the Lord, or to His temple as would be the case of the pilgrims preparing themselves for such an encounter.

1I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?

[Read v.1]
Q: There are at least 3 probabilities as to the meaning of "I will lift up my eyes to the mountains". Can you list them?

1. It could be the prayer of someone needing to be rescued, looking to the high ground for a sign that help has arrived.

2. It could be a reference to the fact that so many idols and temples built to false gods were established on hilltops, and that to trust false gods is to hope for help that will never come.

3. Most likely, Jerusalem being located at the top of a mountain, and the fact that private worship often took place in one's home by opening an eastern window and gazing towards Jerusalem, that it is an affirmation of all the positive attributes of God as symbolized in Jerusalem and the Temple on their mountain.

2My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

[Read v.2]
Q: Of all the myriad of qualities and attributes of the character and nature of God that COULD be mentioned, why in this context is it significant that He is here affirmed as the Creator?

A: Our help is not coming from someone merely familiar with our situation, or merely experienced in similar matters, but the One Who created everything that has gone into creating the very situation we find ourselves in. There is no higher expert to assist us than the Creator Who obviously knows every detail of what the situation is, as well as the precise solution.

Application: From where do YOU expect help to come in any of the issues or trials currently going on in your own life? Do you realize that if you're not fixated-looking exclusively to Him-that you're looking for the solution in someone/something else? Do you seek help from the Creator Himself or one of His created?

3He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.

[Read v.3]
Q: We're seeking help for one reason or another, for one circumstance or another. How does His assistance to "not allow your foot to slip" relate to the kind of help He will provide?

A: It's not a promise that all the physical problems associated with our situation will be automatically erased, but that He will reinforce our spiritual character so that we will not "slip" in our faith and walk during these times.

Point: In the course of the tests and trials of such great Biblical characters such as Moses, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and so on, the common characteristic they share is concern for maintaining their spiritual walk even more than overcoming the difficult circumstances before them. It's always God first, self second.

Application: Is our first concern in a time of crisis the quality of our faithfulness or the desire to escape?

4Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.

[Read v.4]
Q: What comfort do we derive from v.3-4 that the Lord "will neither slumber nor sleep" in regard to either Israel collectively or each of us individually?

A: There is no day and night, no times of working and times of sleep from working with God. He is present, available, and working all the time. It's not a matter of us catching Him at the right time, but that we are always obedient in order to receive Him according to HIS timing.

5The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.

[Read v.5]
Q: What is the meaning of "shade on your right hand"?

A: The right hand is always a biblical symbol of one's power and strength. "Shade" can also be translated here as "shadow". Taken altogether, it's the reassurance that we are always standing in His shadow, that He is always present with us, and that HE is the source even behind our individual strength.

6The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

[Read v.6]
Q: Are we REALLY concerned that the sun and moon are sources of problems for us?

God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also.
―Genesis 1:16

Throughout the Bible the sun and the moon are used to represent rulers or powers over the physical environment. Just as Joseph's dream identified his father as the sun, his mother as the moon, and his brothers as stars. Since our help is the Creator, these things are in His control and subordinate to Him. Even authorities that seem beyond our ability to deal with are brought under control through Him.

Application: Are there any situations, any factors that you're not fully trusting in God's overriding authority? Is there a persistent issue in your life that might be traced back to the fact that you think the influences are too big even for God to help?

7The LORD will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.

[Read v.7]
Q: How does this expand on the thought initiated in v.2?

"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
―Matthew 10:28

Jesus Himself said that His kingdom is not of this world. It's more important to make it into the next kingdom than to achieve temporary peace in this present age. We have ETERNAL assurance of help, not temporal.

Q: What is significant about the word "protect" in this instance?

A: He knows that without His help, evil could overcome us. It's one of the things that can appear overwhelming to us if we had to face it alone; but He Who is greater can be trusted to protect us from even the worst spiritual and/or moral influences.

8The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.

[Read v.8]
Q: To the people living during Old Testament times-even until recently in history-what would "your going out and your coming in" mean to them?

A: One's house and/or city in which they lived was their safe haven, the place most fortified for their protection from wild beasts or even marauders. It was therefore normal for them to have to go out of these safe havens to the place they actually worked-to grow crops, tend cattle, chop wood, etc.-and at the end of each work day return to that place. People in those times were the most vulnerable while going to and from work.

WE must go to and from God's work but have the assurance that He will keep us in the process as we are working in the world and safely return back together to His church.

Q: What might be significant about the last word "forever"?

A: This Psalm is not just an affirmation for this part of our life in Christ while on earth, but for our entire life with Him in eternity. This is why the most important protection He provides is for our faith and soul.

Overall Application

• On what are your eyes and thoughts fixed? Do you realize it's in direct proportion to your faith in God?

• Do you wonder if God slumbers, why He doesn't act as quickly as you would like or deem necessary? How should you interpret the time that goes by before you see His help arrive?

• How would you live if you truly believed that you are currently in, and have never actually left, His shadow? What difference will that make going forward?