Summary: Year C, Psalm 121 October 21, 2001
Heavenly Father thank you for the gift of your awareness and the awareness of Christ within us, to give us power, not our own, but yours, to not only ward off evil, but to actually dismiss it. Amen.
Title: “In the eternal dimension we need have no fear that evil will haunt us.”
Assurance of God’s Protection
A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills--
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
Psalms 120-134, fifteen in all, are variously called “Ascent Psalms,” “Gradual Psalms,” or “Pilgrim Psalms.” They are a sub-category of Psalms of Confidence. They all pertain to either going up to or returning from Jerusalem and the Temple. Pilgrims from the Diaspora or other parts of Palestine would naturally sing songs together along the way to lighten the journey, strengthen their bonds of community, teach their children their common history and mysteries, and just have fun. These songs may have their basis in this pilgrimage, required by Jewish law, but they would be sung and prayed on many other occasions as well. The journey-model or theme would fit quite well into many everyday situations since life itself was perceived as a journey. Also, being poetry, the metaphorical meaning of historical and liturgical references would be easily loosened from a particular context and more generally applied. This psalm, for instance, can easily be prayed by a parent and child before the child departs on a journey, be it to school or grandma’s house or leaving the nest for good. This is true even given the fact that this psalm was originally sung in the context of departing from one of the feasts in Jerusalem and the speaker was a priest. All the psalms can be lifted out of their original context and applied more generally. Psalm 121 is no exception. Thus it is used by the Church as a prayer before departure into death or any other departure or journey.
The structure of the psalm reveals its flexible applicability. After the opening question in verse one, verses two answers, but who is answering remains uncertain. It could be the questioner answering himself, or it could be a priest answering a departing pilgrim, or a parent speaking to a child. Verses three to eight, expand on the answer, God is my help, in the form of a blessing, which is more than a blessing, more than a prayerful wish. It amounts to a promise, an oracle of salvation. Like so many psalms, this one may have been revised over the years as it was removed from its original liturgical use and applied to everyday life, to all sorts of departures, ventures and journeys.
In verse one, I lift up my eyes to the hills, in the context of a pilgrim about to leave the Holy City after celebrating a festival this would capture the anxiety of setting out into the dangerous hills that surround Jerusalem. Rugged terrain, wild animals and muggers would all be awaiting the pilgrim who had just enjoyed a few days of rest, relaxation, safety, peace, and a pause from everyday living. Now he or she must return to everyday life and there is apprehension. The environment the pilgrim is about to re-enter is too well known to him or her as fraught with danger.
“From where will my help come?” Of course, the psalmist knows his help is from the Lord. Implied in his question is whether the Lord will accompany him on his journey into the ugly, dangerous world or is the comfort of his presence only reserved to Jerusalem, the Temple, holy, geographical, places. He knows the feeling of peace and protection will not accompany him. That is situational. But will the protective shield accompany him or must he leave it behind along with the feeling?
In verse two, “My help,” the pilgrim could be answering himself with a confession of faith or he could be listening to someone else answer, maybe a priest in the Temple at a farewell ceremony. It matters little. His trust in God comes not from his feelings but from the fact of God’s power and, the next verses will say, his desire to protect. The situation may be threatening, fear may be present, but God will look out for his own. This is not so much a theological explanation as a decision to surrender oneself to God as one faces a very practical challenge.