Psalm 121

Keith Ruckhaus © 2013

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

The strength and towering majesty of “mountains” remind the singer of the reliability of God.  Just as one can count on hills never to move, so one can count on a true rescue from this God of Zion.

It is perhaps difficult for us to understand the profound sense in which God’s real presence and involvement in the Israelite’s daily life was bound to Zion.   What is always implied in the Psalms is that Zion is the place where he chose to dwell.  It is the sole prerogative of Israel’s God to choose Zion as his place of abode.  God’s occupation of Zion is the clearest possible evidence that He has established a “beachhead” or headquarters in which to orchestrate his global campaign.  Here the King in Zion will wage His own kind of war against all his foes, against the nations.  The Lord’s conquest will not be by means of armies, weapons, political intrigue, siege-works, massacre and pillaging.  It will not be military might and political influence, as the prophet Zechariah proclaimed, but by the Spirit (Zech 4:6).   A law of justice and mercy will go out from this beachhead that will relentlessly march its way throughout the earth.  “The Law will go forth from Zion,” the prophet Isaiah proclaims (Isa 2:3). Because of this, Zion will be the place of pilgrimage for all nations.  The whole world can draw close to the Presence.

For extra force, our singer assures himself of God’s ability to rescue him from death’s grip.  It is not just that God established his beachhead on the mountains of Zion, He made those very hills.  The phrase, “who made heaven and earth,” is repeated several times in the Songs of Ascents, and it carries a certain connotation to it.  It is one of several repetitive phrases in the Songs of Ascents that serve to bind the set of psalms together and to provide a stair-stepping effect to it.[1]  Although the Israelites harbored notions of a creator god throughout its history, it was mostly overshadowed by the mighty saving acts of God in birthing Israel.  Yahweh was primarily a saving God.  It was not until the Israelites suffered the devastating conquests and deportations of Assyria and Babylon that they were confronted with gods who appeared for the moment mightier than Yahweh. 

After all, in every generation and culture, other gods appear to be more powerful than the “Mighty One of Jacob.”  This disparity becomes so great at times that the faithful can only envision radical and extreme reversals.  This is what gave birth to “apocalyptic” literature.  God will have to completely eradicate the present world in order to reestablish his kingdom.  In our day, the “gods” of the market place and technology rule the day, and the appeals to the god of Israel are discredited and even denounced.

Oddly, it was these foreign countries and under the shadow of massive, stone-sculpted gods, that Israel’s awareness of the greatness of their god swelled.  Whatever claims their captors’ gods of ruthless conquest could make for the moment, Israel began to retort:  our God made the very stones and wood that you make your idols from.  You make and fashion your idols, but our God fashioned “the heavens and the earth” (Isa 40:18-31). The kingdom of our God is not restricted to one small plot of ground. Even more so and even in contrast to, the Israelites began understanding their God as one who could establish his empire on earth without military conquest.

In our singing of the Songs of Ascents, the repetition of the phrase “who made heaven and earth” is a near manifesto and mantra with powerfully subversive undertones. 

He will not let your foot be moved,
            He who keeps you will not slumber.

For the Israelites, and really for us as well, we are talking about real, down-to-earth help from serious perils of life on planet earth.  As much as we all would like to secure a pleasant afterlife, when we “cry out for help,” we are looking for life-saving help.  It needs to be here and now.  For anyone who has struggled with addiction, a natural or economic disaster, a debilitating illness or political upheaval, the relief needs to be close at hand.  The essential operative notion in the ancient world is that if somebody doesn’t come to my aid, I will certainly die.  This is the essence of “bottom up prayers.” 

We like to think of ourselves today as being able to take care of our own dilemmas, and to some degree, this is true.  We have mega-systems in place than can buffer us against terrorist attacks, natural disasters or economic downturns.  Not so the ancients.  There was little in place to ward off even a small happenstance from becoming a disaster.  Salvation came almost exclusively from human aid and intervention of some kind. 

It may be, however, that our world is returning to a time like the ancients.  Since the “Great Recession,” we are reminded of our economic vulnerability.  It is apparent that decisions made in corporate meetings can send shockwaves through the whole global system.  Decisions made by a few in distant places may mean an economic disaster for a family.

Thus in verse three, the perspective shifts.  Up until this point, there has been a person speaking directly to God, someone who is in dire straits, whose earthly existence is threatened.  This person is looking for the God from Zion to rescue him.  This can be any man’s prayer.

But the voice shifts in verse three.  Now it is someone or a group of people, a choir as it were, that responds directly to the original petitioner.   The plight of that one is also the plight of the community.  As he goes, so goes the community.  If he perishes, they perish.  If he is victorious, then they are saved.   If he makes it to Zion, then they will survive the perilous journey to the abode of God.  It is the choir, then, who interjects with their own prayer born out of a mysterious confidence that God is with us through his chosen instrument of salvation.   The “hopes and fears of all the years” are bound up in the success of this One coming to Zion.

The psalm begins with an image of one approaching Zion, periodically straining the eyes in hopes of its mount appearing on the distant horizon.  He has passed through remote and unfriendly territory, Meshech and Qadar.  The choir senses the urgency of his journey and assures him (and itself) that God’s preserving hand is with him.

Even though the roads to Zion are jagged and uneven, passing through steep ravines and narrow passes, Yahweh will not let his foot slip (Ps 121:3).

Many a time along the way, one’s eyes will become weary.  One will not always be alert enough to watch for danger of wild animals, thieves, hostile territory, or even logistical problems.  The Lord, however, does not weary like humans.  He will stay alert even when our pilgrim must stop to rest.  God volunteers for the night watch. 

The “rescuing God” from Zion is also a shamar, a guard, a sentinel.   Perhaps the pillar of fire in the wilderness on the night of crisis at the Reed Sea is alluded to here.  Shamar mostly refers to keeping guard or overseeing a place, especially at night.  In other words, it speaks of being alert, especially to covert or stealth attacks.   To make the point and to spur on the faint hearted traveler, this verb is repeated six times in the course of six verses.   The word connotes direct and engaging action, intimate involvement.