Psalm 121: The Keeping God
Wandering eyes are bad harbinger in Scripture. From the opening chapters of Genesis, when Eve looked at the tree and saw that it was good for food and “a delight to the eyes,” humanity’s false reliance on sight is a consistent theme. From Lot to David, whenever an individual sees that something appeals to their sense of sight, sin and disaster follow closely behind. The opening line of Psalm 121 then should immediately strike us with an impending sense of disaster. This sense is exacerbated by the object of the psalmist’s gaze: the hills. Written to be sung on the march to Jerusalem for worship, the worshippers were quite literally passing through a valley of the shadow of death. Vandals and thieves inhabited those hills, lying in wait for the estranged traveler to traverse those hidden and treacherous roads alone. They would jump out from the many hidden places to attack and steal. The road to Jerusalem was a dangerous way. The listeners to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, who was attacked in this very manner, would have understood the situation perfectly. So when casting one’s eyes up to the mountains, the natural question is exactly what follows: where does my help come from?
The answer of the psalmist is immediate and definite. The Lord is his help, the Lord who is Creator of all things. The contrast is sharp: the thieves may inhabit those hills, but it is the Lord who made them and who commands their very existence. The psalmist expresses swift confidence that he has nothing to fear on his journey to worship, because the God that he worships is the maker of heaven and earth. But this confident assurance is not mere comfort for the psalmist; it is polemical. Notice how the personage switches from first to third: “He will not let your….” The psalmist’s profession of faith is not merely personal but is instructive for all those who walk the same path. The psalmist almost wills that his readers and singers express the same trust that he displays. But what further evidence does he provide for the recipients of his message?
The psalmist highlights two truths about God by using two images: sleeping and shading. In verses 3-4, the psalmist reminds the listener that God doesn’t sleep. He is always watchful, always awake and ready to come to the aid of His people. The setting of the evening sun doesn’t bring a sleepiness or dullness to the eyes of God. He is always knowledgeable of all that is taking place within His creation. Furthermore, He is the God who has already demonstrated his watchful care of His chosen nation Israel, as the psalmist reminds in verse 4. Imagine the very visible and comforting reminder of the presence of God dwelling with His people in the wilderness as He led them in a pillar of fire by night, a flaming beacon to every onlooker that God is there and watching over His nation. God has designed the human body to use sleep to regenerate itself, bringing a newness of life with it. Yet God, as the eternal unchanging I AM, has no need to sleep because His Being is never spent, never tires, never changes. We humans feel that passing of time one nightly slumber at a time, yet God has no need of such nightly regeneration. God is wholly unlike us, and what a comfort that should be to us. This is a vital truth that many of us adults take for granted, but one that parents often teach their children when they are afraid of the dark or afraid to sleep because of what may happen to them overnight while they do. The believer can rest well each night because they have confident assurance that God cares for them while they do.
The second image the psalmist uses to instill comfort in his listeners is that of a shady tree on a blistering summer day. We see again how a part of God’s creation…the mountains and now the hot sun…can bring harm. Yet God is the one who can bring a respite from the heat, relief from the burn. Desert travelers know full well the dangers of wilderness journeys through the scorching sun, and any place of shade brings with it the chance for survival and relief. If in the first image we see a God who is always aware of what’s happening, the second image tells us that God then acts on behalf of His people when He does see their plight by providing the necessary relief.
And of course, the fact that God acts on behalf of His people is the point of this Psalm. The most repeated word in the psalm is “keeps.” Six times the psalmist uses this word to describe God’s relationship with His people. Six times the psalmist tells the weary and fearful traveling worshippers that God is their guard, their fortress, their very present help in trouble. He surrounds them with His loving and watchful care, fending off the attackers, protecting them from any evil that would assail them.
Brothers and sisters, this life is filled with many trials and hardships. Satan and his minions would tempt us away from God and His Word. An unbelieving society would assail us, persecute us, and call us traitors to our own species. They may even throw us in prison or kill us for having the audacity to hold fast to the Word of Christ. The pandemic lockdowns have even brought with them actual persecution during corporate worship gatherings, eerily reminiscent to the setting of this psalm of ascent. Yet the confident assurance of the psalmist must be ours. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear, because He is with us and keeps us for all eternity.
Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.