De-sentimentalizing Psalm 121

Here is a classic sort of Inspirational Poster you can find in a million places:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My  help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth - Psalm 121:1-2 :  Versesoftheday

This passage gets quoted times without number, overlaid on a piece of gorgeous photography or a painting suggesting something to the effect that “How Great Thou Art” was intended by the psalmist:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, 
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; 
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, 
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Chorus:
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 
How great Thou art, How great Thou art! 

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, 
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

In short, the Psalm is read as a specimen of 19th century English or American Romantic nature piety, in which the beauty of the hills is a sign of the grandeur of God.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s not a bad sentiment and I don’t fault anybody for intuiting the God who is Beauty from the beauty of Creation. Augustine was dead right, 1610 years ago this Easter, to intuit Beauty as one of the four ways into the natural knowledge of God (along with Unity, Truth, and Goodness):

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them; question all these things. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.

Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable? (St. Augustine, Sermons, 241, Easter: c.411 A.D.)

It’s just that this is not what the psalmist was getting at in Psalm 121. Psalmists do that elsewhere (such as in Psalms 8, 19, 29 and 105), but that is not what is happening here.

Psalm 121 is the second of the “Psalms of Ascent”, a series of fifteen psalms that were sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. You see, medievals were not the firste folk longen to goon on pilgrimages. Israel is the source of that tradition as the tribes streamed in from all over the Holy Land to celebrate the various feasts of the Mosaic covenant in the House of God. And rather as people do today when traveling some distance in groups for some big social event, they worked up songs and chants in the general festive atmosphere of the thing. These are the Psalms of Ascent, sung on the roads as the pilgrims climbed their way up to the heights of Zion and Moriah, the hills on which Jerusalem and the Temple were built. Why that particular site wound up being the most sacred height in Israel is grist for another time.

What I want to focus on here is the point of Psalm 121. It’s not an accident that a Psalm of Ascent, sung in the process of climbing up to the top of one hill in particular, should allude to the many other heights and hills in Israel. But it is quite wrong to think the psalmist sees these other hills as inspirational posters. On the contrary, the psalmist is making a sharp and pointed dismissive remark here.

For there should be a question mark after the word “help” (as indeed there is in better translations). Why? Because “Whence cometh my help?” is a rhetorical question. In ancient Israel, the hills were “high places” where altars to Baal stood, a perennial temptation to the rude country folk of Israel, who often figured, “We’ll worship the LORD, but maybe it couldn’t hurt to placate the deities of the Gentiles too in order to ensure good crops, fertility, and nice weather.”

To this pagan, bet-hedging impulse of the ancient polytheist, the emphatically monotheistic Psalmist is saying “Look at those hills where idolators worship. Is that where my help comes from? No! My help is from the only LORD, the God of Israel, who made the hills and everything else.” This psalm is a rebuke to idolatry, not a vague testament to how nice scenery is an aid to pious feelings. Think of it as a sort Team Cheer for the faithful in Israel as they went up to the Temple on pilgrimage, reminding them “You shall have no other gods before me. I am the Lord, I alone. There is no other. The gods of the nations are nought.”

The rest of the Psalm only drives this point home further:

He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

This is a direct allusion to another moment in Israel’s history that brought the worship of the God of Israel into direct conflict with the much more powerful cult of Baal, starring the beleaguered prophet Elijah, the target of repeated manhunts by the house of Ahab and his queen Jezebel (whose name means “Where is Baal?” a ritual acclamation from a liturgy in honor of Baal). Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to invoke Baal in prayer and perform a sign by igniting a sacrifice with fire from heaven. They exhaust themselves with frenzied prayers and gash themselves with knives while Elijah taunts them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27). Then, when they give up, Elijah pours water over the sacrifice three times, invokes the God of Israel once and fire from heaven instantly consumes the sacrifice.

“The LORD, he is God” cries the crowd. You may notice a certain unity of theme here with the first stanza of the psalm.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade
on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day,
nor the moon by night.

This is less obvious continuation of the same theme to moderns (who tend to think in astronomical, not supernatural terms about these heavenly bodies). The sun we can see as a danger that might “smite” us with heat stroke, especially in a desert climate. The moon, not so much. But we tend to gloss over such matters as one of those “poetic, Bible things” and not give it much more thought precisely because we know what the sun and moon are: a large sphere of superheated plasma and a cold, lifeless rock in orbit around the Earth. They are not personal things to us.

But that is not what they were for Israel. For Israel, they were rival gods and heavenly powers worshiped by Israel’s neighbors and constantly proposed to the People of Israel as fit objects for worship too. And as possible gods they were also things that possibly needed to be placated lest they be angry and “smite” us with heat–or lunacy. (It is important to realize how much ancient religion, like some modern religion, was the superstitious fear that Somebody Up There needs to be mollified and placated with some sort of offering or other.) One of the interesting things about the development of Israelite religion is the slow realization that, while sacrifice is at the heart of it, that is not because God somehow needs a steady stream of meat or blood to make him happy.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of he-goats. (Isaiah 1:11)

Eventually, Israel will figure out that “the sacrifice God requires is a contrite heart” and (with the coming of Christ) that all the Mosaic sacrifices in the world cannot save. The Christian claim will be that God offered himself in sacrifice for us since we cannot offer ourselves without his help. Jesus dies, not to save us from his Father, but to save us from our own sin and brokenness that put him on the cross.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and for evermore.

And, yet again, the Psalm reiterates the assurance of protection to Israel, a huge subject of prayer in an intensely dangerous world where not just human, but supernatural enemies lurk around every corner and under every rock. The core idea at work in the psalm is the sufficiency of God to care for his people without the need for supplemental Baals to make up the difference. You don’t need to hedge your bets by trying to please every Canaanite deity your neighbor tries to add to the pantheon, just to be safe.

I reiterate, I have no trouble with the kindly Romantic piety of images above. It does no particular harm I can see to quote this psalm and attach it to images like the one above. But I think it is worth penetrating the mental world of ancient Israel all the same to understand what the literal sense of the text is.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for an interesting exegesis. One further point you could make is that the confusion is abetted by the King James translation used in the poster. As you say, “from whence cometh my help is a rhetorical question, but in KJV it reads like the clarification of the first phrase, that help does indeed come from the high places. Just the opposite of the point you are rightly making. For all its majesty, it is always better to read a more modern translation.

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