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.
- “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:
- Are there particular words, phrases, or images in this psalm that call to you?
- Are there any rituals that you enact individually or communally before, during, or after a journey?
- How does the poet’s affirmation of God’s attentiveness feel to you today, given all that is going on in the world?
- 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.
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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.