My continuing thoughts and notes on Psalm 121….. In an earlier post, I said that Hebrew poetry uses a “parallelism” where the second statement builds upon the first or restates it in some way. Verse 6 of our psalm—“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night—similarly echoes and broadens the meaning of verse 5—“The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade at your right hand.”

God’s “shadow” or “shade” that protects us. God protects us as a shepherd protects sheep; God protects us as we go about our work and life.  Think of my post on verse 3 and imagine sheep trudging along in a steep and difficult terrain, but the shepherd is watchful, looking for grass and water for the sheep, searching for a cool place for them to rest.  The psalmist of 121 seeks physical respite as well as spiritual confidence during the hazardous trip to Jerusalem.

Earlier, we thought together about God and creation. Sometimes creation bites you in the butt, so to speak. “Nature” provides us with sun and rain and the seasons, but we also experience terrible weather, rain which is indifferent to farmers, flooding, and the damaging effects of too much sun. A few months ago I posted a blog discussion about how and to what extent God is present in the natural forces (in that case, the Japanese tsunami of 2011).  Although the Bible attests to God’s presence, natural disasters that upset and take many lives makes us wonder about God’s care.

In Job 38-41, God scolds Job a bit, explaining that the natural world—and God’s care of it—are greater than human beings can fathom.  God affirmed that God is, ultimately, in control of things. Like Job, we still might have tons of questions about God and providence, while still affirming that, in ways we don’t understand, God is in the midst of things.

Travels through Arid Places 

We probably think of this psalm too much in terms of our modern lives. Verse 6 would have been very understandable by persons traveling on foot or on an animal or in a wagon. Our own trips can be dangerous but not in the same way: we have enclosed, self-cooled and self-propelling vehicles, emergency systems, telephones, and all kinds of ways to handle travel-related crises.

Obviously Bible people didn’t have instant sources of meals and water as we do. Their roadside facilities, so to speak, were quite different.  For instance, a well was a very big deal and a cherished gift to people.  Anytime you read in the Bible about a well being done, you’re learning about a cherished gift to people. I was reading the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:14-19.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 

Real life! In our country—in our “first world” lives—we typically wouldn’t have such a dilemma.

When you read John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, commentators note that, usually, women would have come to the well earlier in the day to draw water for themselves and their families. The woman with whom Jesus spoke, however, came later in the day, suggesting that she avoided other people in the village or otherwise was socially isolated, perhaps because of the difficult personal history which she soon conveyed to Jesus. Her isolation, though, made a physical problem for her, as she had to draw and carry water during a more uncomfortable time in the day.

In the part of Isaiah that deals with the returning exiles, God promises them, among other things, help in the hot sun.

 Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
   on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
   as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
   to apportion the desolate heritages;
  saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
   to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They shall feed along the ways,
   on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
   they shall not hunger or thirst,
   neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
   and by springs of water will guide them.
  And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
   and my highways shall be raised up.
  Lo, these shall come from far away,
   and lo, these from the north and from the west,
   and these from the land of Syene (Isaiah 49:8-12)

There’s that word “keep” again!

Our psalmist of 121 needed a lot more reassurance about God’s care than we do, because the psalmist faced dangers and uncertainties that we normally would never encounter as we travel.

An Outdoor Bible

Have you noticed that a lot of the Bible happens outdoors? Consider the travels of the patriarchs and their families; the people in the wilderness; the armies on the move, the ministries of Jesus. In one poignant Old Testament scene, Ezra commanded the people to repent of their sin, and the large multitude agreed—as soon as they could go inside from the heavy rain (Ezra 10:9-15). We know little about the place where Jesus lived (Mark 2:1, John 1:38-39); if he wasn’t visiting someone else’s home, he was outside somewhere, turning his observations of outdoor events into eternal teachings.

Once you notice the “outdoor” sections of the Bible, imagine the sounds in the background of the text: the sounds of wind blowing, the rustling of leaves, the crunch of stones as people walk, the lapping water of the waters, and the sounds of animals. We read the Bible for teachings that pertain to our spiritual and moral lives, but what about the outdoor world that lies so close behind the words of God? Read Psalm 8, 19, 14, and 136, all wonderful affirmations of God’s providential care of the natural world.

Traveling to Jerusalem in the outdoors—-on foot or on an animal—the psalmist experiences the sun and moon above, and associated risks.

As Barker notes, sunstroke is a danger in Mediterranean areas.  In fact, he notes, the verb of verse 6 can mean “smite, strike, hit, beat, slay, kill.”  Sun not only burns our skin but dehydrates us and causes us sickness. Arid regions have extremes of temperature. We used to live in Arizona, where in the lower elevations the daytime temperatures could become very high and the nighttime temperatures comparatively chilly. Somehow the expression “but it’s a dry heat” doesn’t help when you’re strolling among shops on a 110-degree day.

Limburg gives some biblical examples of victims of the sun.  In 2 Kings 4:18-37, Elisha helped a man who was “struck down by the sun.” Also, Jonah was stricken by the sun (Jonah 4:8). In the apocrypha, Judith lost her husband to sunstroke (Judith 8:2-3).

As Barker notes, the form of verse 6 is “chaistically crafted to focus on the promise of protection”

By day,
the sun
will not harm you,
or the moon,
by night.

You might think the sun is more dangerous than the moon, although the moon can still hurt one’s eyes if viewed for a long time. The psalmist perhaps had a more superstitious idea of the moon’s powers.  Informally, we sometimes make a connection of the moon with mental problems!. We still say, casually, “people are acting weird, it must be the full moon.” The word “lunatic” comes from the word luna, or moon, reflecting an old idea that the moon was responsible for abnormal psychology. We also say that people are “moonstruck.”

Barker writes: “While the Hebrew pilgrim may well have known from his understanding of God and the world that such a danger does not actually exist, it is easy to understand how popular lore and superstition would invade and dominate in spite of theological understandings to the contrary. The psalm realistically addresses the mind-set of the pilgrim in his perceptions of dangers and fears.”

Barker adds in a footnote, “One wonders how many of God’s people today still pause to pick of a four-leap clover or feel a twinge of anxiety when a black cat crosses the road ahead of them.” But the Bible takes compassion upon a person’s fears and superstitions—and affirms with confidence that the Lord keeps us.

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