We continue with verse 3—-and a pronoun change.
Psalm 121 can be considered in terms of structures. You could think of the psalm as a two part structure: verse 1 raises the question, and 2-8 provide the reply. Since the pronoun of verses 1-2 is the first person “my” and the pronoun of verses 3-8 is the second person “you,” you could think of the first two verses as the pilgrim’s leave-taking words, while verses 3-8 are the assurances offered by a priest or family member.You could also think of the psalm as a three part song. Verses 1 and 2 form the introduction, verses 3 through 6 form a series of assurances for the pilgrim traveling toward the goal, and verses 7-8 conclude the psalm as a benediction that covers other aspects of the pilgrim’s life than just this particular journey.
Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism, wherein two or three statements belong together. Zechariah 9:9 is a well-known scripture for Palm Sunday:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
It’s not that the king is riding two animals simultaneously. In Hebrew poetry, one line answers or elaborates the other.
We see this in Psalm 121. The four sets of two verses are related. Verse 2 answers the question posed by verse 1. Verses 3 and 4 affirm, in similar ways, God’s inability to “slumber” while his people are in need. Verses 5 and 6 affirm God’s protection and power of renewal when we’re weary and threatened. Verses 7 and 8 affirm the ability of God to “keep” our lives, now and forever.
Verse 3 thus continues, with a new “voice,” the assurance of God’s care begun with verse 2. As God is the God of creation and salvation, so God will protect us on our lives’ literal and metaphorical journeys. God:
keeps us steady in difficult situations (vs. 3)
does not sleep; his care is uninterrupted (vss. 3 and 4)
cares for all his people (vs. 4)
places us in a heritage (vs. 4)
is our keeper and shade (vs. 5)
protects and comforts us (vs. 6)
saves our lives from evil (vs. 7)
cares for us through all our activities (vs. 8)
cares now and forever (vs. 8)
Theologically, we can express God’s care as “providence,” which includes God’s guidance of the natural world and of our everyday lives. The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead.
Many times in our lives, we find ourselves in the midst of a problem, and with startling timing, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news. The Lord introduces experiences into the flow of our lives, sometimes guiding us, sometimes reassuring us that God is there. I could provide numerous personal examples besides these.
In verse 3, we read the first of six times in which the psalm affirm that God “keeps” us and is our tireless “keeper.” Verses 1 and 2 used “help” twice.” This is one optimistic psalm! You could say that the word “keep” and its versions tie together all the psalm’s affirmations about God’s care. God is our creator, but he is also our “keeper.”
We think of “keeping” as possessing. “Finders, keepers,“ we kids used to say if we came across something wonderful that someone had lost. I also think of “keep” as reliability, as in to “keep a promise” or to “keep something in mind.” Of course, the expression “to keep awake” just means to remain alert.
“Keeper” makes me think of the word “zookeeper,” someone who cares for animals. Years ago, my daughter considered becoming a zookeeper or a veterinarian. A friend arranged for us to visit with a zookeeper who showed us her daily routine. One of the interesting things to me was the way the zookeeper placed a syringe on the arm of a monkey every day, regardless of whether she was going to give the monkey a shot. That way, the monkey was accustomed to the sight and use of a syringe and wasn’t so anxious when it actually received a shot. The keeper, in charge of the animals, not only cared for animals physical needs but also emotional needs.
Verse 3 of the psalm (and also subsequent verses) use that word “keep” in a simultaneously active and passive sense. In the passive sense, God keeps us as valuable possessions. Actively, God also watches out for us, keeps us steady in difficult situations, and God does not fall asleep while watching out for us. “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
No Snooze Button
In verses 3 and 4 of our psalm, the travel is assured three times that God is awake and watchful. The image of God “slumbering” is interesting. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah mocked the priests of Baal, “Perhaps he has gone to sleep or turned aside.” “Turned aside” means to urinate or defecate. What an insult to one’s deity, to say the god can’t hear prayers because he’s off somewhere doing numbers 1 and 2!
“Sleep” is also a metaphor for death. So in contrast to lifeless idols like Baal and other gods, the Lord God is living and awake. He has no “snooze button” to hit. He keeps the promises to be faithful and to stay awake to hear and watch over us.
Remember the story of Matthew 8:23-27. Jesus and the disciples cross the lake in their boat when a gale arose. The boat seemed in danger of sinking, but Jesus was asleep. The disciples woke him, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus chided them for their little faith, rebuked the storm and sea, “and there was a dead calm.” I suppose Jesus would chide my faith, too. But there are certainly times of one’s life when God seems asleep; too much trouble is happening, and no help seems forthcoming. We need reassurance to know that God does not, in fact, sleep.
Several of the psalms express concern for God’s absence or silence. It’s not that God does not hear, that God is not present, but that we don’t always feel that presence because we’re so stressed out. Or, quite conceivably, there are things way out of our control, like a terminal illness or a terrible disaster, which remind us of our frailty and mortality. (More on this when we get to verse 7.) Another verse that comes to mind is Exodus 2:23-25: the people are in trouble, but apparently they’ve been in trouble so long they no longer know to pray. The text says God heard their cries and remembered his covenant. I don’t think that means God forgot about the people, but for some reason, his response was delayed.
On the Treacherous Paths
Have you ever walked on a hillside where the footing is precarious? Some of my friends have hiked the Grand Canyon, which I’ve not yet dared. Or have you driven along a mountain road where you wish the guardrail was a little more sturdy-seeming? I always think of my own favorite mountainous road, Route 89A north of Prescott, AZ on the way to Jerome, where the view is spectacular, the mountainsides are steep, and the road is narrow and winding.
God is like a mountain traveler who knows where the hazardous places are. He knows when we are afraid, and he is not “put off” by our fear. He stoops to care for us, to guide us.
The Bible has other images of high places, such as Habakkuk 3:19:
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
The older translation is “he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” A “hind” is female red deer. I remember seeing deer in the Judean mountains and also ibex on the side of hills, when I visited Israel several years ago. If God “makes my feet like the feet of a deer,” God is giving me “balance” and dexterity to navigate life’s hazards and difficulties.
For one of his cantatas, J.S. Bach wrote a song, “Wir eilen mit schwachen,” the first two lines of which translate, “We hasten with feeble, eager footsteps, O Jesus, O Master, to seek after your help!” The melody is bouncy and “eager,” but, as a choir director pointed out, the bass line plods, to connote the feebleness of our steps to God.
Sometimes pastors and congregation members depict the spiritual life as a more or less constant state of improvement, and then you feel scolded and “judged” if you lapse or slacken off. Instead, I think there are many steps forward and backward with the spiritual life. You think you’re making process, but something happens that reminds you how weak and fearful you are. Or you “relapse” a bit in the normal course of a hectic life. No matter what we do, God still guides and holds us.
The psalm says, “He will not let your foot be moved.” Other scriptures call attention to the fact that we do, indeed, stumble from the path: metaphorically our feet move from the safe place and we fall. Fortunately scriptures affirm God’s care even for those circumstances, for instance
Our steps are made firm by the Lord,
when he delights in our way;
though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the Lord holds us by the hand (Psalm 37:23-24).
I don’t think there is ever a point when we don’t need God to be like a mountain guide. The most conscientiously spiritual and worshiping people are always like Paul in Philippians: pressing on, but not there yet.
The Good Shepherd
Anyone in biblical times would’ve had the image of shepherds in mind when they heard the word “keep.” While not at all an appealing occupation, shepherds nevertheless were excellent metaphors for watchfulness and care.
I found a book at our church library, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller. He tells of a time when, as a young shepherd, he lost nine ewes overnight to a cougar. “From then on I swept with a .303 rifle and flashlight by my bed. At the least sounds of the flock being disturbed I would leap from bed and, calling my faithful collie, dash out into the night, rifle in hand, ready to protect my sheep.”
He writes: “In the course of time I came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field. The presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night.
“There was one summer when sheep rustling was a common occurrence in our district. Night after night the dog and I were out under the stars, keeping watch over the flock by night, ready to defend them from the raids of any rustlers. The news of my diligence spread along the grapevine of our back country roads, and the rustlers quickly decided to leave us along and try their tactics elsewhere.” (pp. 43-44).
As we’ll see in subsequent verses, too, God’s watchfulness and care is analogous to those qualities in shepherds.
There is another sense of verses 3 and 4, not contradictory with the image of shepherd. The first part of the verse implies a shepherd guiding sheep. But the second part of the verse, continuing into verse 4, also implies a watchman. I found two verses:
Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me (Ezekiel 3:17).
The prophet is like a watchman who, in this case, is alert to God’s word. Another image is this one:
For thus the Lord said to me:
“Go, post a lookout, let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently, very diligently.”
Then the watcher called out:
“Upon a watch-tower I stand, O Lord, continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed throughout the night …” (Isaiah 21:6-8)
The images of shepherd, the guide upon the mountainous path, and the watchman—all are excellent metaphors for God’s care and concern.
Angels Watching Over Me
Some people like to think of God‘s angels watching over us. This is a very popular kind of spirituality; you can purchase angelic figures in many gift shops and religious book stores. We have several figurines around our house! They’re nice daily reminders.
We should remember that angels function in service to Christ, and not independently. The book of Hebrews (1:4-14, and also 2:5-9) offers a set of scriptures to argue that, wonderful as angels are, they are secondary to Jesus, because God’s eternity and power have now been shown through Jesus.
Seemingly, the congregation to which the Hebrews author wrote had elevated angels to a similar status as Jesus. After all, angels are divine and they do not die. But, the author notes, angels cannot “taste death’ as Jesus did. That is, angels cannot identify with our human weaknesses the way that Jesus can. Jesus, on the other hand, suffered many things on our behalf. that is why Jesus was able to defeat death and break Satan’s power (Heb. 2;14-15). Furthermore, Jesus’ sufferings helped him become our high priest who can intercede on our behalf—because he knows what suffering is. Lovely as angels are and their protection, we can confidently think of Jesus protecting us and keeping us.(1)
1. My original research on selected passages in Hebrews was published as “Hold Fast to the Faith,” Daily Bible Study series, June, July, August 2004. Abingdon Press.