Ps. 121: Entering Psalm 121

Early in my study of biblical Hebrew, one of my assignments was to memorize and recite Psalm 121 in the original. Even now when I read the psalm, I can remember with some residual nervousness standing in my professor’s office and stumbling over these verses. No one would have mistaken me for a cantor! But stronger than this memory of performance anxiety is my nostalgia for the way Psalm 121 became part of my daily life that semester. For two months I carried a copy of it everywhere I went (or, in the words of verse 8, every “going and coming”), and every so often I would recite it to myself and then check my accuracy against the written text. Today I can’t remember what grade I received for my recital, but I do remember the consolation that came with internalizing Psalm 121’s assurance of God’s help and protection.

One of the most interesting features of this psalm is the poet’s confidence that “YHWH will not slumber or sleep” (verses 3-4). The motif of God being dormant or inactive is commonplace in the Psalter, but Psalm 121 is distinctive for its affirmation of God’s attentiveness. More often speakers in the Psalms beseech a sleeping YHWH to wake up and vindicate them against their enemies (see, for example, 7:6; 35:23; 44:23; 59:5; 78:65). The presumed logic of these petitions is that the psalmist’s misfortune would not be happening if God were attentive and active. Psalm 121 turns this motif of despair into an assurance of divine support.

But who speaks this assurance? Many scholars think that the speaker in Psalm 121 shifts between verses 1 and 2. The first speaker looks to the mountains, which in this song of ascent most likely refers to Mount Zion where YHWH’s Temple sits. With his gaze turned to the horizon he asks whence will come his help. A second speaker, perhaps an officiant at the Jerusalem Temple, then offers an answer in verses 2-8: “My help comes from YHWH,” he tells the first speaker, “and so does yours.” The “you” addressed through the rest of the psalm is likely the original speaker. Although it is also possible that the two speakers represent an inner dialogue within a single person (perhaps when setting out on or at different points along a journey), the psalm is more likely an interchange between two people. In this way Psalm 121 is not just an expression of confidence in God but also a model of support within a community of faith. When one member of the group questions God’s help, another is there to help comfort and reassure her companion.

Stylistically, Psalm 121 is almost “sing-songy.” Its catchiness comes from the repetition of words within sequential verses: “my help” in verses 1 and 2; “slumber” in verses 3 and 4; “guardian” in verses, 3, 4, and 5; and “YHWH will guard” in verses 7 and 8. Finally, the “coming” in the last verse echoes the “come” in verse 1; the repetition seals the psalm’s answer to its opening question.

Key Terms/Expressions:

  • “the moon (will not strike you) by night” (verse 6) is the equivalent of the English adjective “moonstruck.” There is strong evidence that ancient people thought the moon could exert evil on humans. The list of ailments in Matthew 4:24, for example, includes “those struck by the moon,” which is often translated as “epileptics.” Consider also the word “lunacy,” which is derived from the Latin word for “moon” (luna).
  • nepeš (verse 7) is rightly translated in the NJPS as “life.” Sometimes, one sees this Hebrew word incorrectly rendered “soul,” following the Septuagint’s translation of nepeš with the Greek word psychē, which does mean “soul.” But that Greek word and the concept of the soul were not part of the ancient Israelite worldview, and therefore “soul” is a poor rendering of nepeš. The etymology of the Hebrew nepeš is “throat,” which as the passageway for life’s necessities (air, food, water) came to symbolize life itself.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are there particular words, phrases, or images in this psalm that call to you?
  2. Are there any rituals that you enact individually or communally before, during, or after a journey?
  3. How does the poet’s affirmation of God’s attentiveness feel to you today, given all that is going on in the world?
  4. If you were to create a contemporary interpretation of this psalm, how might you word or otherwise express your psalm?

Please share your thoughts on Twitter using #PsalmSeason or post in a comment on our Facebook page.

Psalm 121 Text and Translations:


שִׁ֗יר לַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת אֶשָּׂ֣א עֵ֭ינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִ֑ים מֵ֝אַ֗יִן יָבֹ֥א עֶזְרִֽי׃

עֶ֭זְרִי מֵעִ֣ם יְהוָ֑ה עֹ֝שֵׂ֗ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃

אַל־יִתֵּ֣ן לַמּ֣וֹט רַגְלֶ֑ךָ אַל־יָ֝נ֗וּם שֹֽׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

הִנֵּ֣ה לֹֽא־יָ֭נוּם וְלֹ֣א יִישָׁ֑ן שׁ֝וֹמֵ֗ר יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

יְהוָ֥ה שֹׁמְרֶ֑ךָ יְהוָ֥ה צִ֝לְּךָ֗ עַל־יַ֥ד יְמִינֶֽךָ׃

יוֹמָ֗ם הַשֶּׁ֥מֶשׁ לֹֽא־יַכֶּ֗כָּה וְיָרֵ֥חַ בַּלָּֽיְלָה׃

יְֽהוָ֗ה יִשְׁמָרְךָ֥ מִכָּל־רָ֑ע יִ֝שְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

יְֽהוָ֗ה יִשְׁמָר־צֵאתְךָ֥ וּבוֹאֶ֑ךָ מֵֽ֝עַתָּ֗ה וְעַד־עוֹלָֽם׃



NJPS (New Jewish Publication Society) Translation

1 A song for ascents. I turn my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?

2 My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber;

4 See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!

5 The LORD is your guardian, the LORD is your protection at your right hand.

6 By day the sun will not strike you, nor the moon by night.

7 The LORD will guard you from all harm; He will guard your life.

8 The LORD will guard your going and coming now and forever.


NIRV (New International Reader's Version)

A song for those who go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord.

1 I look up to the mountains.

    Where does my help come from?

2 My help comes from the Lord.

    He is the Maker of heaven and earth.

3 He won’t let your foot slip.

    He who watches over you won’t get tired.

4 In fact, he who watches over Israel

    won’t get tired or go to sleep.

5 The Lord watches over you.

    The Lord is like a shade tree at your right hand.

6 The sun won’t harm you during the day.

    The moon won’t harm you during the night.

7 The Lord will keep you from every kind of harm.

    He will watch over your life.

8 The Lord will watch over your life no matter where you go,

    both now and forever.


Read more about PsalmSeason here and subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

The expansion is fueled by concerns over political polarization on college campuses, an infusion of funds from foundations interested in bridge-building, and a merger with IFYC, which has a track record facilitating interfaith engagement.
Ancient rabbis imagined the great chain of tradition, that went from generation to generation, as a ball that is tossed, playfully, from teacher to student. Is there a "Lasso Torah" inside a television show about a fish-out-of-water Midwestern football coach?
Studies show houses of worship have provided solace during the pandemic, but companies across the U.S. are struggling to respond to requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
Catholics leaders have urged vaccination to "protect the most vulnerable," and studies show this outreach is helping improve vaccination rates among Latino Catholics.
Across the country, people from all political divides, faiths and walks of life are coming together to help resettle Afghan refugees arriving at the borders.
The first episode of “Home Sweet Home,” which DuVernay said prioritizes curiosity over conflict, features the Wixx family — a “super queer” Black couple with three children.
Each week, we share our top 10 religion stories from journals, news sites, podcasts and magazines.
Dr. Abel Gomez: "If we’re talking about interfaith work and we want to expand the ability of communities to practice their religious ceremonies, I ask my students: if we think about the experience of Native people under the occupation of the United States, do they actually have religious freedom?"
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871.
The last several months have been catastrophic for Haiti. The Aug. 14 earthquake left more than 2,200 people dead, followed by Tropical Depression Grace two days later. The country’s political sector has been in disarray & over 22,000 people have officially died during the pandemic.
Apache Stronghold will take part in a day of prayer Saturday (Oct. 9) at Oak Flat before meeting with leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who will offer a blessing and prayer for their travels.
It’s not just interactions with friends and families that are getting cut. Routine yet beneficial interactions with people at fitness and child care centers and volunteer organizations are also being eliminated.
Ismaili Jamatkhanas are designed to be both places of worship and community engagement, so when the chance to conduct a vaccine drive became a possibility, volunteers mobilized quickly.
Amid personal and professional crises, the author writes that she finds her Christian faith "one of the most fruitful sources of hope, even in the darkest hours."
Facebook has been a catalyst for religious communities that aren’t defined geographically. For religious leaders who connect with their flocks on the internet, the outage was a reminder to own their information.
The pedestal that propped up the statue of Junipero Serra looks bare at first glance, but once a smartphone camera is aimed toward it, an animated monument honoring the Tongva, the Indigenous people of Los Angeles, comes alive.
A Lutheran church in Wisconsin recently hosted an interfaith dialogue between a pagan and Lutheran pastor. They will continue the conversation this month in an event hosted by the Parliament of the Worlds Religions in Chicago.
The articles and videos are by and about inspiring Latinx/a/o interfaith leaders from diverse religious communities.
Our top 10 religion stories of the week show religious pluralism as an opportunity, not a cause for despair. They're also great reads.
The law, possibly the first of its kind in the nation, is part of a larger effort by women athletes to have more say about what they wear while competing.
"We are American faith leaders from six different faith traditions, including yours," said a letter to President Joe Biden. "We see our nation continuing to spectacularly fail in welcoming the stranger."

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.