Psalm 121 is one of the more familiar psalms and no doubt the favourite of many. Why is this? Probably because of the confidence that it evokes with the oft-repeated refrain of the Lord being our keeper. We would be justified in saying that Psalm 121 is the Romans 8 of the psalter, for it reminds us of God’s comprehensive care for His people. Like Romans 8, Psalm 121 reminds us that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God. He guides us and guards us.
This is the second of what are designated the “songs of ascent.” It is generally held that Psalms 120–134 were sung by faithful Jews as they went up to the three major yearly feasts held in Jerusalem (Passover in spring, Pentecost in summer, Tabernacles in autumn—see Exodus 23:14–17; 24:22–24).
Psalm 120 pictures the beginning of the Christian life. Having been exposed to the good news of God’s Word (Psalm 119) and then, by God’s grace, being delivered from Meshech and Keder (Psalm 120), we head for the city of God. We begin our pilgrimage to that “Celestial City.”
We set the eyes of our heart on the hill of God, the holy hill of Zion, and we make our way towards it.
At this point, I want to share a quote from Eugene Peterson who has written a wonderful little book on these psalms of ascent. In the beginning of his chapter on Psalm 121 he writes,
The moment we say no to the world and yes to God all our problems are solved, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquillity of the soul at peace with God. Nothing can interfere with the blessed assurance that all is well between me and my Saviour. Nothing and no one can upset the enjoyable relationship which has been established by faith in Jesus Christ. We Christians are among that privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with our spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by our peers, whose children do not obey us.
He then asks, “Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incredibly good news for you. You are wrong.”1
In truth, it is not long after we begin the journey that we realise that challenges confront us. The Christian life is not a walk in the park but is rather a race through hills and valleys, which traverses plain highways and treacherous terrain. The writer alludes to this, in fact, in the first verse when he asks, “From whence comes my help?” Yes, Christian disciples, those saved by grace through faith, are in need of help because life can be hard—very hard.
The glory of this psalm is both in its honest confession and in its hopeful confidence. “My help comes from the LORD” is the hopeful refrain of the faithful pilgrim. May we come away from this study with such confidence.
An Honest Contemplation
In vv. 1–2 we read the psalmist’s honest contemplation: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
The Relevant Question
The psalmist opens by asking a question relevant to all believers at all times: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help?”
The grammar of this opening stanza leads to a translation debate. The KJV does not recognise it as a question so the opening verse reads as if the writer is looking to the hills for help. This may have some merit to it, as we will soon see, but all modern translations read this as though the individual is looking to the hills and then asking the question, “From where does my help come?” But this still leaves us with the question, what is the significance of looking to the hills?
The writer may be looking to the hills surrounding Jerusalem as he makes his pilgrimage. As he does so, he contemplates the somewhat rhetorical and introspective question, where is my hope for help? “I am making my journey but, really, in whom am I hoping for help? Is this merely a routine trip or do I really trust the LORD for my help?” This is worth considering, for we need to have such an honest contemplation. After all, we come to church, we sing the songs, we bow our heads, we say the prayers and we affirm with an amen. But really, in whom or in what are trusting? This brings us to the next possibility.
As he makes his journey to the feast, he traverses the many hills that surround Jerusalem. And he well knows that in these hills, as in the valley to Jericho, robbers and thugs are hiding out. As he faithfully marches to Zion, the pilgrim is aware that there are dangers all around and this tempts him to return home. The threats are great and he perhaps is contemplating whether the treasure at the end of the trail is worth the trials along the way. So it is for those who begin the Christian journey.
Jesus warned us. He told us that we should count the cost (Luke 14) before embarking on the journey. On a couple of occasions (Luke 9) He told would-be followers that the road less travelled will mean sleep deprivation, uncomfortable surroundings, impoverished living, unpopular priorities and even division in families due to loyalty to the Lord. When we contemplate such trials we ask, “But, ultimately, from where does my help come? From finances, from friends, from family?” And those who have properly contemplated respond, “Lord, You have the words of eternal life; my help comes from You!”
There is another possibility. The Old Testament, on 78 occasions, mentions the high places that at times existed in Israel and in the surrounding nations. These were hills where pagan religion was practiced, such as Baal worship. These religions promised fertility and forgiveness and fulfilment. But, of course, they could deliver on none of these promises.
So, as the pilgrim makes his journey, he perhaps reflects upon the fact that he is bypassing all of these snake oil salesmen marketing their lies. He contemplates their empty advertisements and the suckers who have listened to their lies. He realises that there is no hope in these gods for the simple reason that their lords are not spelled with capital letters. No, he knows that his help comes from the LORD.
Again, there is an important application here for you and me: As we follow the Lord on our pilgrimage of faith, we find ourselves facing challenges and troubles. And as we face them, we may be tempted to turn to the hills of the purveyors of easy answers but disappointing outcomes. There are plenty of pundits willing to give us guidance but they will only lead to futility rather than fertility. Our help comes from the LORD!
Finally, somewhat like the first possibility, this may be a reference to the hill of Zion. And, in fact, it may that he is merely asking a rhetorical question in order for an excuse to speak about His hope, which lies in the Lord—the one who dwells in His holy hill. If this is the case, then Leupold is correct: “He who puts the question is not perplexed; he is not in search of information. For he at once answers in a way that is full of assurance.”2 In other words, these hills are not a challenge to his faith but rather they supply confidence for his faith. In terms of Ephesians 2, we would liken this to the church as the place to feed our confidence in the Lord.
The Right Answer
In v. 2, the psalmist gives the right answer: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” This is a bold and believing answer—the only kind that will do. But is it believable? The second part of the verse indicates why it should be: “who made heaven and earth.”
Since Yahweh is creator, it would be foolish to seek ultimate help in mere creation. God may (and most usually does) use creation as a means, yet ultimately He is the one who helps.
We need to contemplate God as creator and therefore as controller. As we do, we will focus on His hill and ignore the cries of the false gods in the surrounding hills.
Baal worship and other false religions claimed to be in control and to have ultimate truth. But it is clear from biblical references such as 1 Kings 18 that these gods got hungry, had to relieve themselves, and often fell asleep and needed to be awakened! But the LORD is the only God. He is the maker of heaven and earth. Only He is worthy of our belief, and only He is worthy of our obedience.
The principle is simply this: Devotion depends upon a healthy awareness of our dependence.
Paul said that we are not “sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). Elsewhere he wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” Because he had learned this, he could write, “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:11, 19).
In light of this, our commitment needs to be that expressed by Solomon: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
What trial are you facing? Economic, relational, familial, spiritual? Then look to the hill and remember Him who is your help. He will help you.
A Hopeful Confidence
In vv. 3–4 the psalmist expresses a hopeful confidence: “He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
From this point onwards, the psalm provides us with every reason why our contemplation of the character of God should lead us to complete confidence; that He will help us through every step of our pilgrimage in earth.
The Hebrew word here translated “keeps” is found six times in these remaining six verses. It speaks of God as guardian of His people. This concept is driven home in these verses so that we might have confidence in God as our guide. As He leads us, He is there for us.
I have broken this up into two stanzas. In the first stanza (vv. 3–4) the writer drives home why we should be completely and hopefully confident that the LORD will help us.
God Keeps Us from Slipping
First, God keeps us from slipping: “He will not allow your foot to be moved.”
The Christian life, in the words of John Newton, places us in a context of “trials and snares.” As one brother said to me recently, his life was easier before he became a Christian. Before he was saved, sin did not bother him, but now he knows what it is to struggle against it. Well said. The Christian life is no guarantee against trials. We will face temptation. “Protection is a burning issue for a pilgrim who is travelling arduously and through lonely country.”3 But this verse assures us that God will so guard us that He will not allow our “foot to be moved.”
What this does not mean is that God will preserve us from all difficulty. It does, however, mean that, ultimately, we will not fall (see Jude 24–25; Romans 8:31–39).
The promise of the psalm—and both Hebrews and Christians have always read it this way—is not that we shall never stub our toes, but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us.4
Once we are in the grip of God’s grace there is no way out (see John 10:27–30). Even when we fail, we do not fall, for there is forgiveness with God (Psalm 130:4).
Think of Peter’s failure as he denied the Lord and his restoration in John 21. Peter may have wondered whether his failure was final, but the Lord graciously restored him.
Think of your own experience. Think of your fellow church members. Failure and hardship are inevitable, but the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24) is exactly that—the gospel of grace! So be hopeful and be confident. Live confidently. And forgive others whom God is also keeping!
God is Never Sleeping
The psalmist next reminds us that Yahweh never sleeps: “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (vv. 3–4).
This is no doubt a dig at the false gods, especially Baal. “The fertility gods of Canaan …, when vegetation died off, were thought of as having gone off duty or as being asleep for a period.” But God “watches over every step that his faithful children take.”5
Perhaps at this point it will be helpful to point out that, when dealing with pagans, we should be very, very careful not to mock their idols. Paul, in fact, presents a wonderful example of how to show respect while disagreeing with those practicing false religion (Acts 17). In every case where idols were mocked by the prophets, it was in the context of God’s chosen people who were guilty of forsaking the true God to worship false gods.
Baal, in fact, did sleep. He grew weary. He slumbered. But the God of Israel, the true God, does neither. No matter the time of day, no matter the difficulty, no matter what is going on in the world, those in covenant relationship with Yahweh are kept 24/7.
Be encouraged: God is aware of your whereabouts, all the time. He is attentive, all the time. He is active, all the time—even when He seems to be silent; even when you are undergoing severe temptation. The Christian pilgrim is always in the grip of God’s very alert grace (see Psalm 139).
A Holistic Confidence
Verses 5–8 show us that the psalmist had complete confidence in God’s care: “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.”
In this final stanza we are told of the great scope of God’s care for us. These verses are an elaboration on the promise of v. 3 that God will not allow our foot to slip or stumble. We are told repeatedly in these verses that the LORD is our “keeper.” He is our preserver. And this is true in every possible eventuality. God’s care, guidance and comprehensiveness for His children are holistic.
God’s Care is Astronomical
We see in vv. 5–6 that God’s care is what we might call astronomical. The Lord is portrayed as protecting His own from the effects of the sun and moon.
Kept from Sunstroke
First, God’s children are kept from sunstroke: “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day” (vv. 5–6).
To walk in the Middle Eastern climate towards Jerusalem can be precarious, depending on the time of year and where you are coming from. The sun can beat down and deplete you of energy and even of life itself. But the picture here is of God providing shade for the traveller.
Sometimes, as we travel the road of life as a Christian, we are confronted by life-sapping elements of trials and tribulations (broken relationships, conflict in the home, temptation to sin, other difficulties, etc.) and we might feel as if we are at the end of it all. We are ready to simply lie down and die, as it were. But He who does not sleep nor grow weary knows just when to send a cloud to give us cover from the heat of hardship and heartache. “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
When Paul was discouraged in Corinth, despairing even of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8), the Lord encouraged him: “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city.’” The encouragement was just what Paul needed: “And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9–11).
God often provides such shade for His children when they need it. Sometimes, He doe so by a still small voice. Sometimes, He does so by an answer to prayer. Sometimes, He does so by reminding us of a Scripture. Sometimes, He does so through a friend, a note, or a word of blessing/hope. Sometimes, He does so through a sermon. Sometimes, He does so through a rebuke or admonition. Sometimes, He does so through a wonderful surprise.
I recently found myself in need of some shade. I had encouraged our church members to invest financially in a particular opportunity. It seemed to be quite a commitment and, at one point, I wondered whether we were in over our head. I was voicing my doubts out loud to someone, and as I was doing so I received a notification on my phone. I ignored it at first and continued expressing my doubt. When I eventually looked at it, I found that’s member had committed, for the period of a year, a full third of the monthly amount that we needed. It was just the shade I needed from the proverbial sun—and I realised that I should have checked the message when it first came through!
Ultimately, shade is provided through the hope of the gospel. The Son protects us from being consumed by the sun of God’s wrath.
Kept from Moonstruck
The Lord also offers protection from the effects of the moon: “Nor the moon by night” (v. 6).
Our not-so-nice word “lunatic” comes from the Greek word for moon. In the ancient world, the idea prevailed that there was a connection between the phases of the moon and people’s behaviour; hence the myths surrounding a full moon.
Without getting into a lot of discussion about this, let me just note that, first of all, weather patterns can affect people emotionally. Cloudy days can have a depressing effect upon people. Weather is not deterministic, but it can be a source of temptation to discouragement. The point that the writer is making is that, whether daytime or nighttime, the Lord is in control. Boice says, “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.”6
Regardless of what we are facing, He cares and He keeps us. In all circumstances God’s care of us in this world is out of this world. It is astronomical. We can always cast our cares on Him because He always cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). We can, therefore, like Paul, learn to be content regardless of our circumstances (Philippians 4:11).
God’s Care is Anatomical
Not only is God’s care astronomical, it is also anatomical: “The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul” (v. 7).
The word “evil” does not necessarily speak of moral badness but includes (perhaps predominately) the idea of calamity or of bad things happening. We are told in this verse that, in connection with God keeping us, He preserves our souls.
The word translated “soul” is nephesh and it speaks of the entire person. The idea, therefore, seems to be a promise of God keeping us in the midst of bad things happening to our person. Does this mean that God promises to protect His children from accidents, crime, attacks, injuries, sickness? No. As we compare Scripture with Scripture, we realise that the Bible does not promise health and wealth in the here-and-now. But we are promised that God will preserve us until His heavenly kingdom and that, one day, even anatomically, we will have glorified bodies (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:18). We need to keep this before us as we lift our eyes to the hills. In fact, if we are not contemplating this, then we need to lift our eyes to the hills and be reminded of where we are headed and who it is that will bring us there.
Be careful of the seduction calling from the hills of the health industry to a pursuit that will, in the end, decay. Self-preservation and self-glorification are too easily joined at the hip.
Be careful of living in fear of what might happen to your body. Rather, fear the Lord (Matthew 10:28).
If we properly keep our eyes lifted up to the right hill, then we will gladly risk all to and for the glory of God. After all, the worst thing that can happen to a Christian is at the same time the best thing that can happen.
God’s Care is Chronological
Finally, God’s care is chronological: “The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore” (v. 8).
The psalm closes on a note promising God’s uninterrupted guidance and guardianship—“from this time forth, and even forevermore.” It matters not where you are on the timeline of life, God keeps (preserves) His people—all of them at all times.
The phrase “your going out and your coming in” probably is poetic to make the profound point that, at all points in life, God will be there for us. “The expression ‘going out’ and ‘coming in’ was intended to cover the totality of a man’s activities together with all that lay between … Generally speaking, there is nothing to which the providential care of God does not extend.” (Leupold)
This is good for us to know. Children need to know this. Young people and young adults need to know this. Single and married need to know this. Those with children and those without children need to know this. Those venturing away home need to know this. Those embarking on a new job or university or whatever need to know this. Missionaries and those they will leave behind need to know this. Regardless of where you are chronologically in life, you, Christian, need to know this.
Peterson notes, “Faith is not a precarious affair of chance escape from satanic assaults. It is the solid, massive, secure experience of God who keeps all evil from getting inside us, who keeps our life, who keeps our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
But if you are not a Christian, then you do not know this. The first step for you is to lift up your eyes to the hill of Calvary and see the Lord Jesus Christ dying for your sins. And if you see this, and if you repent of your sin, calling upon God to save you, then He will. And when He does, you will join the multitude of pilgrims as we make our ascent to the holy hill, knowing that He who keeps His people neither slumbers or sleeps. Rather, He sovereignly keeps. What a great and gracious guide and guardian.
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 23. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 868. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 431. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 28. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 869. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1078. ↩