Psalm 121 is the second of the fifteen songs of ascent or degrees (120–134) that were put together to help the pilgrims as they travelled to Jerusalem to keep the annual feasts. Psalm 120 presents the pilgrim’s everyday location by using the names of Meshech and Kedar, two countries that were far away from Jerusalem; Psalm 121 describes the journey from there to Jerusalem; Psalm 122 details the welcome they received as they entered Jerusalem. The remaining psalms in the collection focus on various features found in the religious life of God’s people as they kept the annual feasts.
Psalm 121 has two kinds of speaker. Verses 1 and 2 are in the first person singular and verses 3 to 8 are in the third person. We should picture a group of pilgrims making their way along the road and looking up to the hills. One pilgrim sings or says the words of verses 1 and 2, and then the others with him respond with the words of verses 3 to 8. The obvious lesson from this dialogue is the necessity of fellowship. This psalm does not depict a traveller going by himself to keep the feast; instead he was journeying with those who shared his faith and sympathised with his concerns.
The first speaker
He begins by referring to the hills. When he looked at the hills, he was not admiring the scenery. Instead he was concerned about two common details of life as he made his way along the road. The first detail was his sense of danger because the hills were the hiding place of bandits and robbers; the second detail was his observance of pagan temples and statues because they were built on high places. There should be a question mark after ‘help’ in verse 1: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?’ The hills were permanent reminders of (1) his need of God’s protection and (2) his worship of the true God. Therefore, he says to his fellow pilgrims in verse 2: ‘My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.’
His companions on the journey now contribute to the conversation and continue speaking about the way God helps his people as they journey through life, throughout each stage of it. They remind their friend that God will be his personal shepherd for the entire journey.
First, they remind him that God will be his guardian. He will function in this way both when the pilgrim is on the move and when he is at rest. As he moves, making his way to Zion, God will watch over each step that he takes. We can imagine a traveller having to avoid holes in the road or rocks left by landslides. There would always be occasions of danger, of falling. God guards every step to make sure that we cannot be tripped up. We, too, as we journey are always facing situations where we might fall into temptation or into sin. It is wonderful to know that the Lord is so concerned about us that he takes note of where our next step will be.
God, the guardian of his people, does not sleep. The allusion here is to the practice of travellers placing guards round the encampment during the hours of darkness. Even if they chose the best guards, there was always the concern that they might fall asleep and allow robbers or wild animals into the camp. There could never be a sense of total security. How different it is with the Lord! Each of his people can rest secure, knowing that God is in charge of their protection.
Second, they remind him that God will be with him as his refreshing protector. This is the point of him being described as a shade from the heat of the sun or from the cold of the clear, moonlit skies at night. Travellers had to take rest at noon from the strength of the sun; they needed shade at night to keep warm. God does not merely provide a shade, he is the shade. What a wonderful reality that is! The heavenly Shepherd provides his pilgrim people with rest of soul by reminding them of who he is and what he has done and of the joys that are ahead of them.
Third, they remind their friend that God will be his permanent protector and his comprehensive protector (vv. 7-8). There will never be a time when God will not be protecting them (their going out and their coming in) and there will never be a situation in which God cannot help them. From what enemies will they be safe? Paul provides a list in Romans 8:38-39: ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’