George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 121

1. Structure

Personal confidence in God (expressed by Hezekiah?)
The psalmist (Isaiah?) confirms this confidence as well-founded

Note the pronouns:
“I”, “my” (Hezekiah speaking).

“Thee”, “thy” (Isaiah speaking to Hezekiah)..

This very beautiful song illustrates, best of all, a further meaning of the title “Songs of Degrees”. The “degrees” appear in the rhythmic thought-progression and repetition of the poetry as the song moves forward step by step to a climax: “help... help... slumber... keepeth... keepeth... slumber... sleep... keeper... preserve (s.w. ‘keep’)... preserve... preserve”.

2. Jacob

Sustained allusions to Jacob/Israel dominate the psalm:

I will lift up mine eyes
Gen. 31:10,12; 33:1
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved
He that keepeth Israel (as a shepherd) shall neither slumber nor sleep
28:15,20 (cp. Psa. 79:13; 80:1), 28:11; 31:40
Sun, moon / day, night
The Lord shall preserve thy soul
32:8,11; 48:16
Thy going out, thy coming in

The aptness of the foregoing to the times of Hezekiah is easy to perceive. Sennacherib’s invasion brought about a massive deportation of captives on a far larger scale than happened in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. After the destruction of the Assyrian army, these were all sent home again (Psa. 79:11; 85:1; Isa. 42:7; 43:5,6,14,18-21; 48:20,21; 49:8-26). The parallel with Jacob’s “going out and coming in” is obvious. See also Par. 5.

3. Hezekiah

Other contacts with this period are easy to trace:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. These are the “hills” or “mountains” of Israel, made sacred by God’s promises. An exile on the Mesopotamian plain, looking toward the southwest, would dimly see the Holy Land as a range of mountains. As Daniel in captivity prayed toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10) in a later day, so the exiles in Assyria turn their eyes and hearts toward the mountains of Israel. They look for help, not superstitiously to the actual mountains, but to the Lord who made the heavens and earth (v. 2), and who chose Zion for His resting place (Psa. 122:4; 125:2; 132:13; 134:3).

From whence cometh my help should be a new sentence: “From whence does my help come?” (RV, RSV, and others). Help for the righteous most emphatically does not come from any “hills” (v. 2)!
My help cometh from the Lord. There is, for Hezekiah, no reliance on other gods or even on the treaty with Egypt, but only on Jehovah: “With him [Sennacherib] is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help and to fight our battles” (2 Chron. 32:6-8).
The Lord is thy shade. An allusion to the moving of the shadow on the sun-dial? (Compare the “sun” in v. 6.)

Upon thy right hand. ‘Hezekiah’ means “held by the Lord”.
The moon. The Assyrian destruction (Isa. 37:36) took place under a Passover full moon (Isa. 26:20,21; 30:29; 31:5), as did, of course, the Egyptian destruction (Exod. 13; 14). Hence the many “Passover”/“Exodus” allusions in Isaiah.
The Lord... shall preserve thy soul. It was at this same time that the king was given his life back again (Isa. 38:5,6).

4. Messiah

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence does my help come? Here the word is horim, mountains. If this is an intensive plural for the great mountain, Zion, then here is a picture of Christ in Gethsemane. No help, but only hatred, would come to him from that source. From that source would only come those who would arrest him. So in Gethsemane his help came from the Lord which made heaven and earth (v. 2; Melchizedek’s phrase: Gen. 14:19).
My help cometh from the Lord. This was more true and more specific in the experience of Christ than is often realized (Luke 22:43; 4:29,30; John 8:59; see H.A. Whittaker, Bible Studies, pp. 2-5).
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved (Psa. 91:3-12). He who moved the earth on its foundations (Matt. 27:51), as a token of His indignation at the despite done to His Son, cares for his nailed feet and will not suffer them to be moved.
Slumber... sleep. Respectively, intermittent drowsiness and deeper sleep. Contrast the disciples in Gethsemane. The repetition here is very appropriate, as they fell asleep three separate times!
The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand: Psa. 16:8; 109:31; 110:5.
The sun shall not smite thee by day. This refers to the unnatural darkness at the crucifixion, from the sixth to the ninth hour (Luke 23:44).

Nor the moon by night. There was no smiting of Jesus when he was arrested under the Passover moon; and by the next night he was resting in his tomb.
Thy going out and thy coming in might be:

a. the frequent crossings, during the last week, of the Kedron;

b. his death and resurrection;

c. the first and second advents; and/or

d. his ascension and second coming.

From this time forth and even for evermore. Such is magnificently true concerning both Jacob (the promises) and Hezekiah (his faith), but it is especially true of Messiah, the Lord of Life.

5. Israel in the last days

The great events of the life of Jacob serve as types of the greater events which occurred in Hezekiah’s days. These events are being repeated yet again in the life of twentieth-century Israel. A few of the most extraordinary, with suggestions as to the spiritual significance of each:

Jacob is specially chosen as God’s seed of promise, over him who is physically more impressive, and despite obvious shortcomings of character (Gen. 25:23,27). This is indicative of Israel’s selection as God’s special people, though they are not the strongest, most numerous, or most righteous nation.
Incurring the anger of his less favored brother, Jacob must flee from the land of promise (27:43). In the same way his descendants were forced by successive Gentile nations — Assyria, Babylon, and Rome — to wander into exile. (Haran, where Jacob dwelt, is near Halah and Habor by the river Gozan, where the captives of Israel were resettled by the Assyrians: 2 Kings 17:6; 18:11.)
In the midst of his flight, Jacob receives a vision of God’s angels watching over him in his exile, and a promise that He will bring him back into the Land (Gen. 28:13,15). Also of the nation of Israel it might be said: “Behold, I the Lord am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land.” Or, as the psalmist puts it: “The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in” (cp. Deut. 28:6).
In exile, Jacob’s band increases in numbers and wealth, bringing good fortune to his friends and consternation to his enemies, until the time that Laban’s displeasure toward him causes him to look again toward his homeland. The dispersed of Israel suffer at alien hands and yet are enriched by God, preparatory to the time of their return to the ancestral land.
In his return to Canaan, Jacob wrestles with the angel, is humbled and bows down in humility, at last to be blessed and receive a new name (Gen. 32). The nation of Israel wrestles with God in the person of Jesus Christ (in his second as well as his first coming), will be humbled (weeping when she realizes that her fathers crucified the Messiah), and will be blessed at last as the “first dominion” of God’s kingdom, joyfully taking upon herself a new name, that of the rejected Son of God.
Jacob returns to the Land to assume his birthright and receive unexpected friendship and solicitations of his brother Esau (Gen. 33). Those of Israel who have come through the “fire” and accepted Christ as their king return from the lands of their captivity to assist the Lord God is reclaiming His rightful inheritance. All resistance from former enemies is swept away, and Israel dwells in peace, “the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land” (Isa. 19:24,25).

The return to Judah of the remnant of Israel after Sennacherib’s great defeat, and the resultant peace and prosperity of Hezekiah’s remaining years, is the original fulfillment of many of Isaiah’s most beautiful “kingdom” prophecies. Our appreciation of these Messianic Scriptures is tremendously enhanced if they are first clothed in the fabric of a previous reality; they then become typical, or enacted, prophecies. From such studies we receive fresh insights by a comparison of divinely-guided history with divinely-ordained prophecy, and our faith is strengthened and enlarged. The promises of God come alive!

6. Other details

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. The “mountains” here may refer to the high places of idolatry so common in Old Testament times. Jeremiah suggests this:

“Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains... truly in the Lord our God [instead] is the salvation of Israel” (3:23).

“Isaiah refers to the practices associated with the prevalent idolatry, and hints at wooden or stone images in the thickets, votive offerings on trees, brick altars, stones for libations, tables for feasting, broth of abominable things, obscene practices, human sacrifices, and spiritualism” (E. Whittaker, For the Study and Defense of the Holy Scripture, p. 108). There are many “mountains” of idolatry — more in our modern world than we usually remember — but only one true mountain of hope — Zion, around which cluster in faith the one true church of the firstborn (Psa. 122:1-4; Heb. 12:22,23).
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psa. 127:1). “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?” (118:6; Heb. 13:6). Man builds “hills” and towers and mighty cathedrals; he carves images of wood and stone; but the Lord made heaven and earth, a vastly superior work.

“The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands... Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord. Hath not my hand made all these things?” (Acts 7:48-50).
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved (Psa. 66:9). In a land such as Palestine, with its rough mountains and rocky passes, it is not difficult for a traveler to lose his footing. Thus the oft-repeated promises of security to God’s children, that they will be as the roes and hinds upon the mountains, the most sure-footed of God’s creatures (Song 2:17; 8:14; Hab. 3:19).
He that keepeth thee will not slumber... Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep (Psa. 3:5,6; 4:8). Contrast the Assyrian army in Psa. 76:5,6. In the famous scene enacted upon mount Carmel, Elijah chides the priests of Baal: “Peradventure your god is asleep and cannot hear you” (1 Kings 18:27). But the one Creator of heaven and hearth fainteth not, neither is He ever weary (Isa. 40:28). In this is the hope of His people.
The Lord is thy keeper, as a shepherd keeps his flock (Psa. 23:1; Ezek. 34:11). The s.w. (to keep, observe, or preserve) occurs six times in this one short psalm. At Bethel, when he fled from Esau, Jacob received the same promise: “Behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest” (Gen. 28:15,20).
The Lord is thy shade (Isa. 4:6; 25:4)... the sun shall not smite thee by day. The sun is often a fiery trial in the lands of the Bible (Jon. 4:8; 2 Kings 4:19), and thus a vivid symbol of oppression (Rev. 7:16). But to the righteous their God is a shelter from the cruel rays of persecution. He is “a great rock in a weary land” (Isa. 32:1,2), and a “shield” (Gen. 15:1). Though His people sojourn among barbarians, yet by faith they dwell in the secret places of the Most High, and they abide under the shadow of the Almighty (Psa. 91:1; cp. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7). And as they began their pilgrimage home, these words would be a special comfort to them (Isa. 49:10).
The moon (shall not smite thee) by night. It was a common fear in ancient times that prolonged exposure to the moon might be harmful mentally. But this may simply refer to the bitter and injurious cold of the eastern nights. In his role as a shepherd for Laban, Jacob was “consumed” by the frost of night (Gen. 31:40; cp. Jer. 36:30).
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