PSALM 121:4: “HE WHO KEEPS ISRAEL WILL NEITHER SLUMBER NOR SLEEP.”

Verse 4 reads, “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” In the style of Hebrew poetic parallelism, verse 4 follows upon and builds upon meaning of verse 3.

The Most Important Verse? 

In the “about” section of this site, I acknowledged two articles (found online) by James Limburg and by David Barker. Limburg writes about the importance of this verse: “Verse 4 comes close to expressing the theme of the entire Psalm. Mendelssohn recognized its significance when he made it the thematic statement for his chorus in the Elijah, ‘He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.’”(1)

Barker notes verse 4 is significant, because not only is God the shepherd of God’s people, but God’s care is a historical tradition! “The Shepherd of the covenant people is the Shepherd of the covenant person.” So the history of God’s care includes and also is a model for the individual person.

A Precious Heritage We Didn’t Earn or Deserve

This post may be a little more “preachy” and technical than the others, because we Christians have a wonderful religious heritage given to us by God—the Hebrew and Jewish heritage—and most of us don’t appreciate it as we should. But if we do, we can take tremendous comfort and help.

In Romans 11, Paul cautions Gentile Christians that they should remember something important: they were “grafted” onto the “tree” of God’s people.  In other words, God has shown himself most intimately to the Jews in their history with God—-and prior to Jesus, Gentiles would’ve had no need to read what we now call the Old Testament, because Judaism was just another religion out there in the world.  But now, argues Paul, Jesus has made it possible for Gentiles to share in this rich history of God’s words and deeds.  We know this because God has given his Spirit to Gentiles, in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecy (Joel 2:28) .  But Paul urges Gentile Christians to be grateful for this gift and to be careful in their faithfulness.  Reading the Old Testament, we know that God held the Israelites accountable for their faithfulness—and if God judged his own beloved people harshly, God also holds us Gentile Christians accountable too.

I’d guess that most Christians rarely think of that. In our perception of Judaism and the Old Testament, we Christians are a bit like new members of an organization who, once we’ve been included in the fellowship, now think we own the place and consider the older members foolish and misguided.

Thus, we assume that our faith has nothing to do with Judaism.  There are, of course, obvious as well as subtle differences between the two religions. Nevertheless, we Christians base our religious beliefs and heritage upon Hebrew and Jewish history and theology.

One time, in a Sunday school class, the classmates tried to think of similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. All the folks could remember were differences: Jesus, of course, and also different holidays. Looking back, I sigh, because now I know that almost everything important in Christianity is a “reconfigured” Jewish idea. (A major exception is the cross, a Gentile way of killing people, but even the crucifixion is foreshadowed in Hebrew scripture: e.g., Ps. 22:16-18, Ps. 69:21, Isa. 52:13-53;12, Zech. 12:10, et al.). The oneness of God, creation, atonement, redemption, the Hebrew people, holiness, ethics, and so on: these are ideas foundational to both religions.

Why am I talking about all this?  Because our psalmist of 121 is a Jewish person on a journey, and that psalmist takes assurance in the history of God’s wonderful acts—no less than in God’s creation (verse 2).  We’re given a wonderful gift from God that we can share this unknown Jew’s assurance for our own journeys, needs, and struggles.

God’s Keeping of Israel

Barker elsewhere notes that the term “keep” is also used in Joshua 24:17, where the people declare, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected [kept] us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.” In this chapter, Joshua recounts the great works of God in leading the people through the wilderness and to the land of Canaan.

Barker writes that, as he journeyed to Jerusalem, the psalmist of 121 and the other pilgrims could think of Israelite ancestors and their hardships, and then they could put themselves in that place, so to speak.

Crossing of the Red Sea by Bernardino Luini
from bibleartwork.wordpress.com

God’s rescue and protection of the Israelites as they escaped Egypt and finally entered the Promised Land is a theme on which the whole Bible hangs.  God’s “keeping” of his people is a key to the entire scripture.  As the Bible scholar R. E. Nixon writes in the article cited below, a line of development from the call of Abraham through the Exodus, the giving of the Covenant at Sinai, the wilderness years, the conquest of the land, and eventually David’s capture of Jerusalem, all of which have to do with God’s creation of the people and God’s promise to them of the Land.

The escape from Egypt and the splitting of the sea do not form the climax of the biblical drama but leads us straightway to God’s creation of his people and his covenant with them (Ex. 19-24). The covenant, in turn, is so momentous that the scriptures even connect it to Creation itself. First, the covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. Also, the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (2)

In Deuteronomy, as Moses gives a long farewell message, he instructs the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24), and sets the tone for Israel’s future. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experienced earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (3)

My teacher Brevard Childs writes, “[I]t is characteristic of the New Testament to place the redemption of Egypt into a new context which radically alters its meaning and function for early Christianity…Jesus not only participates in the history of the nation, but, as the true redeemer of Israel, he ushers in the messianic age which the original exodus from Egypt only foreshadowed. Moreover, it is characteristic of the New Testament to shift the emphasis away from the first exodus to the ‘second’. This is to say, the Old Testament exodus tradition has been heard primarily through its eschatological appropriation in Ezekiel and II Isaiah.”(4) Thus, we think more strongly of God’s rescue (salvation) of us through Christ, the water of baptism, the meal of the Lord’s supper, and the covenant of Christ, rather than the Passover meal, the escape through the sea, and the Sinai covenant.

But if you want to appreciate how the Exodus and Moses stories function as typology and framework for the New Testament, Nixon gives examples: Zechariah’s “Benedictus,” Jesus’ very name (Joshua), the way his life parallels that of Moses (his endangered life as an infant, his parents’ exile to and return from Egypt), Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (compared to the Israelites’ forty years), the parallel between Moses and the mountain and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the parallel of the wilderness manna and Jesus’ bread of life, and others. A Bible explorer interested in digging into these texts can find numerous passages cited by Nixon in his article.

Stones from the synagogue at Capernaum. Photo by Beth Stroble

 

In Paul’s letters, Nixon finds Exodus typology in 1 Corinthians 5:7f, 1 Corinthians 10:1ff, and 2 Corinthians 3. Paul also uses the Exodus and Covenant in Romans 5-8, where in the words of scholar N. T. Wright, “Paul has retold the story of the exodus, the freedom story, demonstrating that the Egypt of sin and death has been decisively defeated through the death of the Messiah, and that the Spirit is now leading God’s redeemed people to their promised inheritance.”(5) Similarly, “The theme of ‘new exodus’ is a major topic in Second Temple Judaism. It is a central way by which Jews in Paul’s day expressed, symbolized, and narrated their hopes for the future—for the time when, as the prophets had foretold, that God would repeat, on their behalf, the great acts whereby their forebears were liberated from Egypt (e.g., Isa. 11;11; 35:3-10; 51:9-11; 52:4-6; Jer. 16:14, 15; 23:7-8; Ezek. 20:33, 38; Hos. 2:14-23).”(6) Wright then quotes Jeremiah 23:5-8 as particularly pertinent for Paul. (7).

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land (Jer. 23:5-8).

As “Second Temple Jews” looked with hope toward the fulfillment of God’s promises, so Paul—the Second Temple Jew who now preached Christ—-saw the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, and the liberation of God’s people accomplished in the “land” of Christ’s salvation.

We also find Exodus typology later in the New Testament. In the letter of Hebrews, the author admonishes his hearers to be faithful to God in ways that the ancient Israelites (especially those who lost the chance to enter Canaan) failed to do. Exodus imagery even permeates the book of Revelation! You may not realize that Revelation cites or alludes to more Old Testament passages than nearly any other New Testament writing. For instance, Nixon cites these passages: Rev 2:14 and Num. 31:16; 25:1; 2:17 and Ex. 16; 3:5 and Ex. 32:32; 4:1 and Ex. 19:19f; 8:5 and Ex. 19:16; 8:7-9:21 and the plagues in Ex. 7-11; a possible allusion in 8:11 to Ex. 15:23, and in 12:16 to Num. 16:32; plus, the reference to the song of Moses in Rev. 15:3. Altogether, Nixon writes, “The first triumphant Exodus has prefigured the second and we are to look ahead to its fulfillment in God’s victory at the end of time” (8).

Thus, in important ways, Christians share a similar position as the Israelites. In Paul’s imagery, sin and death are our “Egyptian slavery” from which we’ve been rescued. The Israelites were rescued by God, not because of their superior faith and deservedness but solely through God’s love and grace. But even though rescued, they had to look to a future redemption in the process of being fulfilled. Like the Israelites, we are called to respond with confidence to God’s grace, since we too are prone to failure and forgetfulness. We risk God’s sternness, too, when we persist in faithlessness (9)—although God gives us many, many opportunities for his love, forgiveness, restoration, renewal, and so on.

But Christians also depend upon God’s salvation of the Israelites for … well, everything concerning our faith. Jesus and the other New Testament figures aren’t just extra people tacked onto the Hebrew scriptures, but the people God created and, hundreds of years earlier, rescued under Moses’ leadership. We Gentiles are part of this heritage through God’s kindness and mercy (Rom 9:25, 11:17-22),

The Psalmist Walks in a Tradition 

I may be inserting a lot of scripture and theology into that simple verse—”He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” But “God’s keeping of Israel” is one way to describe the entire Bible, and so our psalm implicitly alludes to many, many acts and events in that one verse. As Barker writes, we can imagine the Psalm 121 author feeling very much a part of this history of God’s centuries of keeping. As we journey through life, you and I can, too.

*****

(Elsewhere, I’ve posted some notes on the theme of the Exodus in the Bible:
http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2011/04/92-exodus-and-our-faith_05.html
I’ve also sketched some ways that the Bible’s themes and stories interrelate: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html and also at http://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2011/01/ Consider “digging” into the Bible sometime in the future, and see some of the ways God’s keeping interrelate and interconnect.)

Notes

1. R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” originally published by the Tyndale Press: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf Pages 5-6 in the source.

2. Brevard S. Childs, in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 112, notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

3. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 9-10; Child’s Biblical Theology, 82-83.

4. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 233.

5. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 585.

6. Wright, 510.

7. Wright, 511.

8. Nixon, p. 29.

9. Childs, The Book of Exodus, pp. 238-239.

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2 Responses to PSALM 121:4: “HE WHO KEEPS ISRAEL WILL NEITHER SLUMBER NOR SLEEP.”

  1. shinu john says:

    Nice and funtastic interpretation.

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