For the longest time, I looked at Psalm 121 in the wrong way.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
I usually pictured looking up at a mountain in the near distance, with the sun rising above it, and everything colored brightly. Then, in verse two, the author says that, despite how nice the mountain looks, his help comes from God.
Part of this confusion probably stemmed from the fact that the King James Version does not phrase the second half of the verse as a question, when it in fact is asking from whence comes our help.
The cultural context of Psalm 121 is crucial to its interpretation. The psalm is one of the 15 “Ascension Psalms”. These were sung by pilgrims as they made their three annual trips to Jerusalem for feasts. Despite the joyous occasion, the psalms are realistic about difficulties encountered along the way.
Here’s what I discovered: these pilgrims weren’t looking at the mountains with awe. They were looking at them with dread. The most dangerous part of journeys back then (and maybe even now) were the mountains. The catalyst to the story of “The Good Samaritan” parable was a man being attacked by robbers on a mountain road. Pilgrims faced hazards from the landscape, attackers that hid behind rocks, and wild animals. They rightfully asked, “From whence comes my help?”
A couple of translations completely miss this point and destroy the proper context of the chapter. The New Living Translation states:
“I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there?”
The pilgrims weren’t asking if their help comes from the mountains. They were asking where their help comes from because of the mountains.
And, shockingly, The Message also misses the point:
“I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains?”
For KING & COUNTRY, unfortunately, uses this quote at the beginning of their otherwise-good song, “Shoulders”.
When viewed in the appropriate cultural context, a lot of other phrases in Psalm 121 make sense:
“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved,” because the terrain is treacherous.
“(T)he Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” The pilgrims are exposed to the elements.
“The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.” Their lives are in danger from robbers and wild animals.
“The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in,” since they are headed to a feast and then back home.
I want to call special attention to verse five, which says that “the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.” I had to cross-reference with a couple of other verses, as it initially didn’t make total sense.
Isaiah says this of God in Isaiah 25:4:
“For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.”
Regarding the right hand, Psalm 16:8:
“I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”
The sun will not beat down on us in the day because God shadows us from it. We don’t have to worry because he is always at our right hand. Always with us.
This is a way of saying that throughout the entire journey, God is with the pilgrims.
So when they looked up to the mountains and felt fear, the pilgrims were comforted with the fact that God was with them throughout the journey and would protect them from the dangers the mountains presented.
This referred to the physical dangers of the pilgrims, but it certainly is applicable to all the trials we face today. When we look ahead at a tough circumstance, we should recognize that God will protect us every step of the journey.
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