Psalm 121 is about a solitary individual facing a threat and wondering if there is anyone who will help him. He expresses his trust that God will help him.
Psalms 120 – 134 comprise the 15 “songs of ascents.” All of them (except for Psalm 121) begin with the Hebrew words “shir hama’alot.”
Psalm 121 begins with the words “shir lama’alot.” For our purposes, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference in the wording.
The Gemara (Sukkah 51b) states that in the Temple there were 15 steps between the men’s and women’s sections. During Sukkot the Leviim would stand on those steps and recite the 15 “songs of ascents.”
The main idea of this psalm is God’s protection. This is seen clearly in the repeated use of the Hebrew root shin – mem – reish, which means guard, keep, observe, or protect.
Psalm 121 Analysis
Let’s start by analyzing Psalm 121 based on the approach of many commentaries. Later we will look at the approach of the Daat Mikra commentary.
A Song of Ascents.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains.
From where does my help come?
Most commentators understand the end of this verse as a question.
They suggest a scenario like this. Imagine a person who is in trouble. He expects help to arrive, but doesn’t know when it will come. He will look into the distance hoping to see a sign of help arriving soon.
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
The Ibn Ezra is unsure if this verse is a statement of prophecy or of hope. What is the difference?
Prophecy: The help I need WILL come from God.
Hope: I can’t rely on people, I HOPE God will help me.
Verse 1 asks where does help come from?
Verse 2 supplies the answer: my help comes from God. Who is this God? The second half of Verse 2 clarifies that God is the Creator.
The Hebrew word translated as “made” is “oseh” spelled ayin – sin – hey. Grammatically, this word is an active participle. The active participle, can be understood as an adjective, noun, or verb, depending on the context.
Many translations (like the one I’m using) understand oseh as a noun. Hence, they translate it as “Who made” or “maker.”
I don’t like the translation “Who made” because that implies creation was only in the past.
Rabbi Rafael Samson Hirsch points out that the translation of “oseh” should capture the idea of continuing activity. He suggests that the translation should be “shapes.”
Other possible translations capturing the idea of continuing activity would be “makes” or “making.”
This translation captures the idea that God not only created the world in the past, but He is still active in this world and sustains it every day.
Here is the whole verse using this approach: My help comes from the Lord, Who shapes heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
He who watches you will not slumber.
God’s help is such that not even your foot will be moved (Hebrew: lamot). This word can also be translated as waver or stagger.
As we have all experienced, your foot slipping is often the beginning of falling down.
In an earlier Psalm, King David offers this praise to God:
9. Who has kept our soul among the living, and does not let our foot to be moved [Hebrew: lamot].
In Psalm 66 David is speaking about God’s protection over the Jewish people as a whole.
However, when it comes to the nations that oppose Israel, God will allow them to slip:
35. To Me belongs vengeance, and recompense when their foot shall slip [Hebrew: tamut (a future tense)]; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.
When they are slipping, God will, as it were, take advantage of the opportunity and destroy those nations.
Behold, He does not slumber
nor does He sleep –
the Guardian of Israel!
The above translation is from The Metsuda Tehillim which seeks to preserve the Hebrew word order.
Here is a smoother English translation: Behold, He who watches Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
A sentry will often struggle to keep from falling asleep. This is especially true during a night shift.
The Talmud uses the above verse to prove that God never sleeps.
Rachava said: The Levites used daily to stand upon the dais and exclaim, “Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord?” [Psalm 44:24]
He [Yochanan the High Priest] said to them, Does then the All-Present sleep? Has it not been stated, “Behold, He that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep!” But so long as Israel abides in trouble and the Gentiles are in peace and comfort, then it should be said “Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord?”
God never sleeps. But at times it seems like He’s not alert to the plight of the Jewish people. Then it’s appropriate to pray, “Awake …”
The Ibn Ezra points out that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. That implies that we can look at Jacob’s life to better understand this verse.
When Jacob left Isaac’s home, he dreamed and saw a ladder reaching up to heaven. God appears to him. Here’s part of God’s promise to Jacob:
15. And, behold, I am with you, I will guard you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.
Even though Jacob needed to sleep, God guards him continuously. So, too, with the Jewish people, God guards them at all times and all places.
The Lord is your Guardian;
the Lord is your shade upon your right hand.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his commentary (HaTanach Hamevoar) links together Verses 4 and 5.
He explains that Verse 4 ends with the words, “the Guardian of Israel!” Who is this Guardian? Verse 5 tells us: The Lord is your Guardian.
The Gemara cites this verse to teach an important lesson about God as both King and Guardian of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Chanina said, Come and see how the character of the Holy One, blessed be He, differs from that [of men] of flesh and blood. According to human standards, the king dwells within, and his servants keep guard on him from without. But with the Holy One, blessed be He, it is not so. His servants dwell within and He keeps guard over them from without, as it is said, “The Lord is your Guardian; the Lord is your shade upon your right hand.”
The Gemara is discussing the commandment of mezuzah. The mezuzah is attached to the doorpost of a house on the right side as you enter the house. It is as if God is standing on that spot, standing on your right hand, as a sentry guarding the entire house.
The Hebrew word for “shade” is “tzeil” (spelled tzadi – lamed).
The word tzeil / shade in the Bible is used in 2 different ways. Beside being used literally, it is also used figuratively to mean “protection.”
The first time the word tzeil / shade appears in the Bible is when Lot meets some angels (who he thinks are travelers).
8. Behold now, … only to these men do nothing; seeing that they have come under the shelter [Hebrew: tzeil] of my roof.
Literally, they were in the shade of Lot’s roof. Figuratively, Lot had invited them into the shade of his roof to protect them from the evil people of Sodom.
The second time the word tzeil appears in the Bible is when Joshua and Caleb are telling the Jewish people that they can conquer the Canaanites.
9. Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense [Hebrew: tzeil] is departed from them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.
In this verse the word “tzeil” is clearly used in a figurative sense.
For completeness, let’s look at an incident where the word shade / tzeil is used more literally.
5. And Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there he made himself a booth, and sat under it in the shadow [Hebrew: tzeil], till he should see what would become of the city.
6. And the Lord God appointed a castor oil plant, and made it grow over Jonah, that it might be a shadow [Hebrew: tzeil] over his head, to save him from his distress. And Jonah was exceedingly glad of the plant.
7. And, when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm, and it attacked the plant so that it withered.
8. And it came to pass, when the sun rose, that God appointed a hot east wind; and the sun beat down upon the head of Jonah, so that he fainted, and wished to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah built a booth that would give him shade, that is, protection from the sun.
Then God caused a plant to grow that gave Jonah even more shade, more protection. But his relief from the heat of the sun was short-lived.
The shade / tzeil in Jonah is literal and God used it to teach Jonah a lesson about himself and his relationship with the world.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Why does a person need God’s shade / tzeil? The shade protects a person from the heat of the sun during the day.
But the moon (representing “cold”) can also cause damage, so God protects from it as well.
The usual Hebrew word for day is “yom” spelled yud – vav – mem. However, in this verse it is spelled yud – vav – mem – mem (yomam), that is, ending with the letter mem repeated.
The repeated letter mem indicates that the word is an adverb and should be translated as “during the day” or “by day.”
The first time the word yomam appears in the Bible is in Exodus. The verses are talking about God leading his people in the wilderness.
21. And the Lord went before them by day [Hebrew: yomam] in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day [Hebrew: yomam] and night;
As in this verse, yomam is often used to contrast with “night.”
The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
What is meant by the phrase “all evil”?
Radak links this phrase to protection from evil people or from wild animals. These would be external threats.
Radak understands the phrase “preserve your soul” to include protection from internal threats or disease.
Ibn Ezra combines both ideas. God protects from everything that may happen to a person, whether it’s internal or external. This strikes me as the better approach.
The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
from this time forth, and for evermore.
There are several ideas about the phrase “going out.”
Metzudat David understands it very simply to mean protection when a person is on any sort of a journey.
Ibn Ezra views it as a protection against harm when going out to war.
Radak sees in this verse a promise that God will preserve His people even when they go into exile. Also, in the future, He will bring them back to the Land of Israel.
Approach of Daat Mikra Commentary
The modern Daat Mikra commentary brings a very different perspective to Psalm 121.
First, they suggest there could be an intentional juxtaposition between the end of Psalm 120 and the beginning of Psalm 121.
Psalm 120 ends with the words: “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”
Then comes Psalm 121 and answers: “My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” When faced with a calamity, such as war, the psalmist looks to God for help.
Psalm 121 – Dialogue
Daat Mikra commentary understands Psalm 121 to be a dialogue between 2 people: one going out on a journey and the other giving him a blessing. Let’s call them the Traveler and the Blesser.
How does this work? Verses 1,2, and 4 are all in the 1st person (I or we). But verses 3 and 5 – 8 are stated in the 2nd person (you).
Based on this we can outline Psalm 121 like this:
- 1-2: the Traveler
- 3: the Blesser
- 4: the Traveler
- 5-8: the Blesser
The main idea of the psalm is a blessing for protection while away from home. This is in keeping with Jacob’s experience.
In Genesis 28:3-4 Isaac blessed Jacob that he should be successful. A few verses later, when Jacob is traveling, God promised him protection on his journeys.
3. And God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of people;
4. And give the blessing of Abraham to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land where you are a stranger, which God gave to Abraham. …
15. And, behold, I [God] am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.
Psalm 121 – Verse by Verse
The Traveler expresses concern and hope. He is concerned because of suspected dangers. He has hope that God will take care of him. The word “help” implies a desire for assistance, protection, and success.
The Blesser agrees that help for the Traveler will come from God. He adds the ideas that God will keep him from slipping and that His oversight is constant.
A similar idea was stated in Psalm 66 speaking of the Jewish people as a whole:
8. O bless our God, you peoples, and let the voice of His praise be heard;
9. Who has kept our soul among the living, and does not let our foot slip.
The Traveler echoes the idea that God’s oversight is constant. He calls God “Guardian of Israel.” The Traveler thus views himself not only as an individual but as part of the Jewish people.
The last 4 verses of the psalm are said by the Blesser. He expands on the idea stated in Verse 3.
Daat Mikra suggests to understand these verses as a blessing: May it be that God is your Guardian. May it be that God is your shade protecting you like a companion who walks next to you.
A similar idea for the remaining verses.
The last verse of the psalm introduces the idea that God’s protection is not just for the Traveler’s immediate needs, but is also for the future.
The theme of Psalm 121 is God’s protection. The idea of protection is most clearly seen by the repeated use of the Hebrew root shin – reish – mem, guard or protect.
Plus, other words in this psalm, such as help and shade, also represent the idea of God’s protection.