One-to-One: Psalm 121

  • Trent Hunter
  • 23 March 2016


These One-to-One articles are all about helping you help others to get into God’s word—a practical application of the approach found in David Helm’s One-to-One Bible Reading. Use these posts to prepare for a conversation over coffee, a meeting for counselling, or an unplanned opportunity to share from the Bible.

Life is a long and treacherous journey. Thankfully, the Christian life is a long and treacherous journey home.

In my role as a pastor, I have been visiting a man suffering from late-stage pancreatic cancer. In a recent conversation, Psalm 121 was God’s medicine for his soul—a picture of life’s journey, but also God’s protection on our way to him.

Psalm 121 is a well worn poem. It was used by Jewish pilgrims as they ascended to Jerusalem, the home of God’s temple and his presence, for the great feasts. That’s why it’s called a ‘Psalm of Ascents’. Later, it was placed in the last portion of the Book of Psalms, a section of psalms representing the 800-mile journey home from exile to Palestine. Jesus no doubt prayed this psalm years later, and today we do the same.

Here’s Psalm 121, a poem by a pilgrim for pilgrims on their way to God:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

            From where does my help come?

My help comes from the LORD,

            who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;

            he who keeps you will not slumber.

Behold, he who keeps Israel

            will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;

            the LORD is your shade on your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,

            nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;

            he will keep your life.

The LORD will keep

            your going out and your coming in

            from this time forth and forevermore.

What is the structure of this psalm?

This psalm begins with a question from the trail. If you’re on an afternoon hike, you might ask, “Where did I put my sandwich?” If you’re on a multi-day walking journey in the arid climate of the Ancient Near East approaching the hills, you will ask, “From where does my help come?” But this question from the trail is followed by an answer for all of life, for this traveller’s journey was a parable of the journey of his life. As a poem, Psalm 121 is organized according to a series of stanzas—small units of poetry—discernible in four sets of parallel lines: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8.

How does this psalm picture life’s journey?

Several images indicate a journey filled with trouble. Hills up ahead mean little to us when we’re in a car, but they are a threat to the traveller on foot. Hills were steep, but they were also dangerous—home to robbers and creatures. Our feet below carry the load of our entire person. Feet are vulnerable to cracks, crags and holes, as well as fatigue. Overhead, there was the sun, a giver and taker of life by day, as well as the moon, bringing cold and lurking shadows at night. All of life’s diverse miseries happen under one celestial sphere or another.

How does this psalm picture God’s protection?

Better than any other book, the Bible describes life for us as it really is: treacherous. Thankfully, better than any other book, the Bible offers protection that really saves: Yahweh, the keeper of his people. The hills are high, but he made them. Our feet slip from fatigue, but the Lord is not like us: he needs no sleep, and so he watches us, he focuses on us, and he does so without distraction or blinking an eye. He watches over what he loves and protects what he treasures. In the sunniest and coldest moments, the Lord is our keeper. From going out to our wedding day to coming home to news of cancer, the Lord is our keeper. In the lofty and the mundane, the Lord keeps our lives.

All of this sounds quite over the top, but it’s not. The Lord does not promise to remove our trouble, but he does keep us in it. Christians are born again to a living hope, an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:4-5). When Jesus ascended to Jerusalem, he took the hill of death for us, which we could not climb. He was struck by the sun and he took on the darkness. If Christ is our keeper, he will keep our life, and we will make it home just fine.