Monday, October 7, 2019

Psalm 121: "My Help Comes from the LORD"

This psalm is part of the collection known as the “Songs of Ascent,” a collection (120-134) contained in Book 5 which parallels Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch or the “return from exile” in Israelite history.  The “Songs of Ascent” were traditionally used in what are known as the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) and were often sung as the congregation approached the Temple in Jerusalem.

This particular “Song of Ascent” is known also as a “Song of Trust,” a psalm that declares trust in God.  This trust, which is a relational component, has been formed through the peaks and valley of life, those times of disorientation and re-orientation that chart their way through the Psalms.  This psalm opens with a call-and-response structure.  The opening verse (v. 1) is the question posed by the poet and the liturgist.  Springing up from a lifetime of memories, the poet asks the congregation if they ascent to his question, hoping they hold trust in the same God that he does.  Thus, the natural expression is that “My help comes from YHWH!”

The remaining verses of this “Song of Trust” proclaims three elements of God’s nature that have served as the foundation for that trust.  In these verses, the poet notes that he trusts God’s direction.  The imagery in the first line (v. 3a) is that of God “keeping” the steps of the worshipper, much like a parent who helps a toddler take steps by clasping their hands around the child’s ankles and helping her learn the motion of walking.  The imagery of the remaining three lines (v. 3b-4) is that of God carrying the worshipper while the worshipper slumbers, much like the tales of mythical beasts carrying their wards in their arms or on their backs.

In v. 5-6, the poet notes that he trusts God’s provision.  In the New Revised Standard Version, the phrase “keeps” is repeated in each elemental passage.  Whereas the previous passage focused on God “keeping” the poet’s feet on the correct path, this passage focuses on God “keeping” the poet provided for.  Generally we think of provision as dealing with food or drink, however the tale of Jonah seems to hint in the background here as the poet trusts God to provide shade in the heat and shelter during the night (cf., Jonah 4:6).

In v. 7-8, the poet notes that he trusts God’s protection.  Here we see a more intimate nature of God’s “keeping.”  Drawing from more pastoral imagery, God is the worshipper’s shepherd, laying down in the gateway of the sheep pen, “keeping” the sheep in and “keeping” the thief out.  It is this imagery that inspired Jesus’ “I am the gate” teaching in John 10:7-10.  God does not simply nurse the wounds of the worshipper; God risks God’s own life to “keep” the worshipper safe.  In concluding his words here, the poet articulates that God is worth our trust because God directs, provides and protects us.

Articulating trust in God is easy when times are good and plentiful, yet harder when times are difficult and lean.  This psalm provides a structure for prayer in times when our trust in God is low, when our guilt rises and our faith wanes.  Begin by asking yourself the call of the opening verse: “From where does my help come?”  If you can honestly state that your help comes from God, remind yourself of why you trust God by thanking God for God’s direction, provision and protection.