Last month we began a series of messages on the Pilgrim Psalms—fifteen sequential psalms (starting with Psalm 120 and ending with Psalm 134). All 15 of those psalms begin with this superscription: "A Song of Ascents"—or in the King James Version, "A Song of degrees." And outside of those fifteen Psalms, that superscription is never attached to any other psalm. So these fifteen Psalms have clearly been grouped together for us by design and for a reason.
I won't review what we said in the introduction to the series, except to remind you that these fifteen psalms constitute a short book of choruses within the larger psalter. Most scholars believe these fifteen psalms are a collection of songs commonly sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship during the feast times.
You know, I hope, that Jerusalem is situated at a high elevation compared to everything around it. Mount Zion, the heart and the high point of the Old City in Jerusalem, is about 770 meters or 2550 feet above sea level, and no matter which direction you go once you get outside the Jerusalem metropolitan area, it's basically downhill. If you go east, once you get past the Mount of Olives, it's all downhill to the Dead Sea. From the Temple Mount to the Dead Sea is only 14 miles as the crow flies. (That's about the same distance from here to The Master's College, if you are trying to wrap your mind around it.) But the drop in elevation from the Temple to the Dead Sea is almost 4,000 feet. Jericho is the same straight-line distance (about 14 miles) from Jerusalem. But from the Temple mount to Jericho is about a 3400-foot drop in elevation.
That's pretty extreme. And it means when you travel from Jericho to Jerusalem, you have a climb of 3,400, feet and the route will take you on a precarious roadway that weaves around the edges of a steep canyon for about 22 miles or so. It's a very dangerous ascent, but that was the route taken by thousands of pilgrims every year as they traveled from Galilee to Judea for the great feast days.
As those travelers made their way up that treacherous road, they would sing these psalms. That, most commentators agree, is why these are called psalms of ascent.
So these are songs for pilgrims, and you can see evidence of that in the themes they deal with. Our psalm for this morning is Psalm 121, and it is perhaps the most striking single example of how these psalms would resonate with travelers on the Jerusalem road.
By the way, this is an anonymous psalm. We don't have any record of who wrote it or precisely when it was written. But it doesn't really matter. The substance of these psalms is what we are mostly concerned with. And this is a great one.
Psalm 121 is a prayer for traveling mercies. It is a powerful affirmation of God's sovereignty and the goodness of divine providence. (remember that Psalm 120, the first of the Pilgrim Psalms, was about persecution. This one is about God's providence and protection. So they are very different songs.)
Look at this psalm. It is a celebration of security for people in very insecure circumstances. Every verse is full of comfort and confidence. It's one of those totally triumphant, joyously upbeat passages of Scripture given to us as reminders that our heavenly Father is our Keeper and we can rest secure in His lovingkindness, even when we are surrounded by road hazards, threats from our enemies, and deadly dangers of all kinds. It's a psalm you ought to memorize, because it will encourage you in every conceivable trial, tragedy, or calamity of life.
Naturally, this psalm is a favorite of lots of people. So it's an extremely well-known psalm, and it has been set to music again and again by great composers. Felix Mendelssohn devoted two movements to Psalm 121 in his oratorio Elijah. John Rutter has written an anthem based on this psalm that Darlene thinks is the greatest piece of contemporary sacred music anyone has written so far. In fact, as I read the psalm, it probably will prompt an echo of some music in your mind.
I'm going to read from two versions, first from the King James Version, because the poetry of that version is how this psalm is best known to English-speaking people. Then I'll read from the English Standard Version, because that's the version I'll mostly quote in my message.
Here's the psalm (Psalm 121, "A Song of degrees."):
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
2 My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.
3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.
6 The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Now the ESV:
A Song of Ascents. I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8 The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
When the Arabic edition of The MacArthur Study Bible was released, I gave a copy to a pastor from the Middle East who now ministers in Europe to a small congregation of Arabic-speaking people. When I handed it to him, tears welled up in his eyes, and he handled it like you would handle something very rare and extremely delicate. He opened it; turned to a page in the middle of the Bible; and started reading in Arabic. When he finished, I had to ask him what passage he had read (because, of course, I don't have the gift of interpreting tongues). It was Psalm 121. He said it was his favorite psalm.
As I said already, this psalm is the favorite passage of a lot of people, and rightfully so. It's full of precious promises that meet every need we will ever encounter on the upward journey. Its promises are applicable not merely for travelers on a difficult earthly journey, but more importantly, for earthly pilgrims on a journey to heaven.
And I'm convinced that is the true and divinely intended sense of this psalm. The comforts and guarantees in this psalm are not merely temporal reassurances for earthbound pilgrims on the ascent to Jerusalem. These are heavenly promises of spiritual blessings for redeemed saints of all time as we make our pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem. You'll find proof that this eternal perspective is the key to understanding Psalm 121 if you pay attention to the last word of the last line: "The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore."
So as we work through this psalm, keep that eternal perspective in mind. You'll miss the true significance of this psalm if you think only in terms of earthly security on a 20-mile journey up a mountain road. The scope of this psalm is infinitely larger than that. It's not really about physical safety and bodily protection—it's about the eternal preservation of our souls and the unshakable security of our spiritual standing before God.
Let me say it plainly: this is a song about the gospel. The promises outlined in this psalm are gospel promises. The psalmist is simply using the theme of journeying mercies to illustrate the benefits and blessings of God's inexhaustible mercy to those who trust Him. In fact, you could borrow words from 2 Peter 1:14 to describe the content of this psalm. These are "exceeding great and precious promises: that [point the way for us to escape] the corruption that is in the world."
The structure of the psalm is something you should notice. There are eight verses, and they go together in pairs. So you have four couplets, each one highlighting some comforting aspect of God's providential care. Four blessings of God's sovereignty that guarantee the security of our souls: (vv. 1-2) He saves us; (vv. 3-4) He steadies us; (vv. 5-6) He shelters us; and (vv. 7-8) He safeguards us from all evil. That will be our outline, so you'll hear that list again. But first—
Here's another significant fact about this psalm and its structure: It makes repeated use of a poetic technique known as anadiplosis (from Greek words that mean "doubling back"). Notice that the last two words of verse 1 are echoed in the first two words of verse 2. ("Whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD.") Then the last word of verse 3 is also echoed in verse 4: ("He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.") That's anadiplosis—where a thought is mirrored and repeated. You know, of course, that Hebrew poetry didn't use rhyming words; instead, they rhymed the ideas by using various kinds of parallel phrasing. And in this psalm, the parallelisms are seen mainly in the way each key thought is mirrored from one verse to the next.
There are other kinds of repetition to notice. For example, verse 5: "The LORD is your keeper"—and that idea is echoed again and again before the end of the psalm. Verse 7: "The LORD will keep you." And verse 8: "The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in." This idea of God as our keeper emerges as the single most important idea in this psalm. Keep that thought in mind. We'll come back to it.
By the way, parallelisms in Hebrew poetry always highlight key thoughts. And you see that very clearly in this psalm. Look for the echoed words and you have the important ideas. In verses 1-2, the central idea is help. In verses 2-3, the key is watchfulness, vigilance—seen in the repeated reminder that God does not fall asleep at the wheel. In verses 4-5, the idea that gets echoed is shade. And in the two closing verses, the repetition focuses on the idea of preservation. That's basically our outline again: The Lord saves us; He steadies us; He shelters us; and He safeguards us from all evil.
Now, given that there are four couplets and our outline has four points, you might think this psalm divides neatly into four stanzas. But actually, if you look more closely at the words of the psalm, it seems to divide more naturally into two parts. Notice that verses 1-2 use first-person singular pronouns: "I . . . my . . . [and] mine." But suddenly in verse 3, the perspective shifts, and the rest of the psalm employs second-person pronouns. In the Hebrew original, these are all singular pronouns, by the way. It's a very personal psalm.
The psalm bears the marks of being written for antiphonal singing, so that some cantor or song-leader would intone the first two verses, and then a group would respond with the words of verses 3-8. Or, it's also entirely possible that the psalmist is answering the question he raised in verses 1-2 by speaking to himself in the remainder of the psalm. In that case, the psalm would be a classic example of the psalmist preaching to his own soul, instructing himself and reminding himself of truths he already knew.
Either way, you see the psalm's two-part structure: There's an opening statement (or as I believe, a question) in verse 1, followed by an emphatic statement of faith in verse 2. This is the psalmist's personal testimony. Then a chorus (or a second singer) replies, expounding on the psalmist's testimony. The change of voices occurs at the start of verse 3, and the answering voice or chorus of voices continues through the end of the psalm,
And the theme that dominates the whole psalm is stated in the very middle of the song. Verse 5: "The LORD is your keeper." I gave you a hint of this earlier, but now let's look at it squarely. That opening statement of verse 5 is the key phrase that sums up the central lesson of the whole psalm. This (of course) is a bedrock gospel truth, teeming with the truth of eternal security: "The LORD is your keeper."
Unfortunately you can't tell this in every English translation, but the word keep and its derivatives are used 6 times in the psalm. (In the King James Version, for example, verses 7-8 use the verb "preserve" three times. It's from the same Hebrew root translated "keeper" in verse 5. Its a shame the translators didn't stay with the word keep.) That's the dominant word of this song and it is the main point of the psalmist's admonition to us and to himself: "Keep your eyes on the Keeper." That's where your salvation, your shelter, your strength, and your security lie. If you want encouragement in the midst of trials; if you are assaulted with threats; or if you are beset with dangers of any kind—just remember Who it is that keeps you.
Now let's work through these couplets and notice the four promises by which God guarantees our security:
1. He saves us
The psalm starts with the singer's recognition of his need for help. On the surface, of course, he is praying for traveling mercies. And that makes perfect sense in the context of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If you can visualize what the journey would be like for an ancient pilgrim leaving Jericho as he nears the holy city for one of the feasts (if you have ever traveled that road yourself), then this psalm will be very meaningful to you.
Remember, I said it's about 22 miles by road from Jericho to Jerusalem, all uphill—starting at about 840 feet below sea level in Jericho (where it is almost always scorching hot). And you have to travel to Jerusalem on a narrow, dusty, rocky road at a slow walking pace, and your journey will take you more than 2400 feet above sea level. That is a long, hard day's journey for anyone in good shape; it could be two days' journey or longer for someone who is old or infirm.
You have to carry lots of water. And as you know from the parable of the good Samaritan, there was the danger of thieves and highwaymen. In David's time and for generations after that—whenever and by whomever this psalm was written—the dangers were multiplied. Armed enemies, wild animals, hostile tribes (like the Amalekites and the Philistines), all posed a significant threat. Plus, the road itself was treacherous.
Now: when the psalmist says, "I lift up my eyes to the hills," he is not saying that's where he looked for help. That's where the dangers lay. Those rugged, barren, uninviting hills symbolized the obstacles the traveler needed to overcome in order to arrive safely at his destination. As he contemplated the journey ahead and saw the looming dangers—many that were obvious, many more that were hidden—He confessed his desperate need for help.
And the phrase "from whence cometh my help" is not a statement about the hills; it's an interrogative. He's asking, "From where does my help come?" All of the major modern English translations get this right, but the King James Version makes it declarative. In other words, according to the King James wording, the psalmist is saying he looks to the hills as the source of his help. On the contrary, the hills were where all the dangers lay—and not only physical dangers but spiritual ones as well. The high places in ancient Israel were notorious dens of apostasy, idolatry, and gross immorality. Jeremiah 3:6: ""Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She has gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot." Verse 23 goes on to speak of "orgies on the mountains."
The psalmist desires deliverance from all such pollutions and every spiritual danger posed by the false worship of the high places. But as he lifts his eyes, he sees himself surrounded by these rugged hills, and he wonders where he will find help on such a dangerous journey.
But he knows the answer, and he gives it immediately: "My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth." His God is greater than the hills and infinitely more powerful than every danger hidden in those hills. In fact, God not only made those hills, but all the earth and the heavens above as well.
We'll be studying a parallel verse in a few weeks when we get to Psalm 125. Psalm 125:2 says, "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore." That's talking about those same hills. They are filled with dangers for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, but once you got inside Jerusalem, those hills provided a natural barrier. They served as massive bulwarks that protected the city from armies and made it easy for sentinels to keep careful watch on the whole region around the city.
Notice: the point in Psalm 125 is also that God is greater than the mountains. He provides a better, more watchful protection, surrounding his people, guarding them from attack, in the same way those mountains encircle Jerusalem.
The point in both psalms is that the hills are not source of our help; God Himself is. Jeremiah 3:23 makes this very point explicitly: "Truly the hills are a delusion . . . Truly in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel." The New King James Version of Jeremiah 3:23 says, "Truly, in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, And from the multitude of mountains; Truly, in the LORD our God Is the salvation of Israel." Psalm 37:39: "The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble."
Now remember, I said that the true meaning of this psalm points us to the gospel. This is not merely a lesson about temporary help on a hard day's journey. This is about trusting the Lord for His grace "from this time forth and forevermore." Those are the closing words of our psalm. So the principles set forth in this psalm are matters of eternal significance for every life in every culture. This is not merely a traveler's guide for a middle-eastern road trip.
And when the psalmist says "My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth," he is looking far beyond the physical journey that lay ahead of him on that one day. He is making a very significant statement of faith. To borrow from Psalm 20:7: "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God." Or Psalm 33:17: "The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue."
Now obviously, a war horse could actually be a useful hope for salvation is some circumstances. If the threat comes from a foot-soldier wielding a club, a war-horse would give you a significant advantage. At the very least, it could outrun the foot-soldier and carry you away from the danger. But when the psalms make statements like this, they are always talking about spiritual salvation—deliverance from the guilt of our sin, the attacks of Satan and his minions, and ultimately even the wrath of God.
Those are the real dangers we face as fallen creatures. Jesus put it all in proper perspective for us in Luke 12:4-5, "Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!"
That's exactly how the psalm-writer is thinking in our psalm. As he looks to the mountains, he senses his desperate need for help. He needs help for the journey ahead, of course, but it is obvious from the direction this psalm takes that he also senses his deep spiritual need for divine grace. So as he declares his hope in the Lord, his sense of the help he needs turns from the dangers of the moment to matters of eternal significance.
You see that, first of all, in the fact that his perspective is infinitely larger than even the hills he is about to climb. The God whom he looks to for help is the creator of the whole universe—and by implication the psalmist is declaring that God's mercies are likewise bigger than the whole universe. That is the kind of help he needs, and he boldly claims it by faith: "My help comes from the LORD."
I love the immediate note of confidence. When we're surrounded by dangers and beset with almost insurmountable difficulties—wondering where to find help—the normal human instinct is to give voice to some expression of despair, or complaint, or melancholy. I confess: I tend to be pessimistic when I travel. If I imagine myself in the psalmist's place, I find this is an amazing expression of confident faith.
But the psalm-writer is a redeemed person. He understands that divine grace is the only help that really matters in anyone's experience. When God redeems a soul from sin and delivers that person from any threat of eternal judgment, there's really very little reason to fear anything else. Psalm 56:11: "In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?" Psalm 27:1: "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" Romans 8:31: "If God is for us, who can be against us?"
Now, you might say, "Yeah— But righteous people—true believers—do suffer. They can be hurt and even killed by the Lord's enemies. What about the martyrs?" I love how Jesus answered that. I already read this verse (Luke 12:4): "[Earthly enemies and the powers of evil might] kill the body, [but] after that have nothing more that they can do."
Earthly threats up to and including death are all temporal and short-lived. Isaiah 51:7-8: "Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations."
That eternal perspective is clearly what the psalmist has in mind in our psalm; he's not just thinking about the journey ahead of him as he makes the climb to Jerusalem. "My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth."
That's a good summary of the gospel message: Our salvation comes from God. Christ did everything necessary to redeem us. We don't need help or additional merit from any other source. Our salvation comes from the Lord. The psalmist did not know that. of course, because the ultimate payment for sin had not yet been offered, but he looked forward by faith to the redeemer who would come—and this psalm is an eloquent expression of that simple, trusting faith.
By the way, when the psalmist uses the word "help" here, he is not suggesting that he sees his deliverance as a cooperative effort—some kind of synergism—where divine grace is given to him only to supplement his own merit. He possesses no merit of his own, and like every redeemed person in Scripture, he must have recognized that. Titus 3:5: "[God saves] us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."
The "help" we receive from the Lord is comprehensive. God is our deliverer. Psalm 40:2-3: "He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God." God does everything necessary for our salvation. That's one of the central truths of the gospel message.
So that's the first promise of this psalm: God saves us, and He does it freely, by grace. Here's a second one:
2. He steadies us
Verse 3: "He will not let your foot be moved." The image there is someone who loses his footing. He slips, or stumbles, and on those treacherous mountain roads, that could be fatal.
I've actually made the journey from Jericho to Jerusalem twice. I had the privilege of doing it in an air-conditioned bus, and I would not want to try it on foot, even with a large group of other pilgrims.
We took a road out of Jericho that went uphill along a very deep, barren canyon—nothing green anywhere in sight. And I thought it was all pretty cool until the pavement abruptly ended, and we're in this massive tour bus on a narrow, unpaved, dusty road. (I use the word "road" with an asterisk, because it looked more like a goat trail than a road.) And just after the road ran out, if you looked to your right, you were looking across the canyon. And the opposite wall of the canyon was high, sheer-faced cliff that looked like there was no way to get to it. But just below the rim of that cliff there's a massive monastery. (It's St. George Monastery; some of you know where that is. If not, Google it.)
Anyway, at that point the road goes literally right to the edge of the canyon wall and takes a sharp turn. I wasn't driving, so I wasn't really watching the road; I was looking across the canyon admiring that monastery and suddenly everyone in the bus sort of gasped in unison.
Now, you know how buses are built. The wheels are placed behind the first or second row of seats, so if you sit in the front row, you're actually sitting further forward than the front wheels of the bus. And Darlene and I were sitting in those front-row seats. Now, those tour-bus drivers in Israel are highly skilled, and the way this guy was driving on that narrow road, I'm sure he was keeping the wheels safely on the road, but the part of the bus where I was sitting was literally hanging over the edge of the cliff. I looked out the window and it was straight down. I kind of like heights, and I have to say that was the most amazing thrill I have ever had outside a roller-coaster.
That's the kind of roads these pilgrims were traveling on. But they didn't have air-conditioned coaches with skilled drivers. They had beasts of burdens and groups of children and elderly people. On the way up they would have to make way for caravans and ox-carts coming down. If your foot slipped, you could die.
Now, in a biblical context like this, when you read about slippery feet, language like that actually speaks of something even more serious than a fatal fall into a dangerous canyon. This is a standard biblical picture of divine judgment. Listen to Deuteronomy 32:35. God is speaking here: "Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly." The psalmist, who knew the law well, would have been aware of that expression from Moses' law. That's another reason I'm confident he is writing about something far greater than road hazards. This is about God's eternal deliverance. This is not a promise that you'll never fall down and break a hip. I hope you never do, but plenty of righteous people do suffer physical injuries like that. However: not one justified believer in the history of redemption has ever had his foot slip in the Deuteronomy 32 sense.
This is a promise that is repeated numerous times in the Bible. Satan quoted one of these promises when he tempted Christ, and he misapplied it in a wooden literal sense to physical calamity. But this, again, is a promise about spiritual security. Psalm 91:11-12: "He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone."
First Samuel 2:9: "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones." Proverbs 3:21-26:
keep sound wisdom and discretion,
22 and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck.
23 Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble.
24 If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
25 Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes,
26 for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.
God steadies us—in a spiritual sense. Jude 24: "[God] is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy." Romans 14:4: "The Lord is able to make [you] stand."
And He does this continually, without taking a break from Hid guardianship. Verse 3: "He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep."
That is an amazing text, and one of these days I may preach a whole sermon on this thought alone: "he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." But for now, just note that this makes an emphatic statement about how cautious the Lord is in guarding the footsteps of His people.
I often wish I were more vigilant than I am, but I confess to you that I get tired—and there's a limit to how good a guardian I can be. Last week after church the grandkids came over and it was nap time. So I volunteered to take a nap with them.
After about 15 minutes, Darlene came up and found me dead asleep between these two giggling two-year-olds. They were wide awake, wrestling with one another, crawling all over me, and I was sound asleep. And (get this:) even though they were the ones more or less misbehaving (they were certainly not sleeping like they should have been) I was the one Darlene scolded!
I have to admit, the job I did as a nap monitor is not at all like God's care for us. He is able to keep us from falling, because He himself never falls asleep. There is nothing He does not see.
And by the way, that's nothing like the pagan idea of God. Remember when Elijah was taunting the priests of Baal? When their god gave them no answer, in 1 Kings 18:27, Elijah said "perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."
Not YHWH. He is eternally vigilant, all-knowing, all-seeing, never looking away, never distracted, and never neglectful of His people. There is a great amount of security in that.
And notice (I love this): verse 4 speaks of God's watchfulness over all His people collectively: "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." But verse 3 expressly makes it individual: "He who keeps you [singular] will not slumber." He is as watchful over one lamb as He is for the whole flock. And why is He keeping vigil over us like this? To keep us from stumbling.
So He saves us, and He steadies us. Here's a third promise:
3. He shelters us
We have arrived at the enter and the key verse of the whole psalm (v. 5): "YHWH is the One keeping you." Every point in this psalm either points to or unpacks the meaning of that statement. "The LORD is your keeper."
That word "keeper" speaks of guardianship. It's the same Hebrew word used of Adam in Genesis 2:15, where it says, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it." It's an active word, denoting watchful care and stewardship. It develops the idea already touched on in verses 3 and 4. Notice once more the repetition of the word keep: "He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." That's the same basic word, used as a verb in verses 3-4; reiterated in noun form in verse 5. "He . . . keeps . . . He keeps . . . The LORD is your keeper."
That same Hebrew word is used elsewhere in Scripture to speak of shepherds, doorkeepers, prison keepers, and vinedressers. All of those occupations are also employed as metaphors for God here and there in Scripture. They all picture God closely tending His people, ministering to their needs, guiding them in their journey, protecting them from harm, and caring for their afflictions and even atoning for their guilt.
How closely does He tend them? I love this image (vv. 5-6): "the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night." God Himself is our shelter, hovering so that His shadow shields us day and night. The expression "on your right hand" speaks of a strategic position that is both near and personal—but the distinctive position of a defender. Psalm 109:31: "He shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul." And not merely a defender but a support and sustainer as well. Psalm 16:8: "I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved."
The idea of shade is likewise a common figure in Scripture. Psalm 36:7: "How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings." This is the cry of a redeemed heart (Psalm 17:8): "Hide me in the shadow of your wings." Psalm 57:1: "Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by." Psalm 63:7: "In the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy." Psalm 91:1: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty."
And since God neither slumbers nor sleeps, He is our shelter both day and night. That's all that is meant by this expression. You might wonder if it's possible to get a moonburn. I know there are people who believe that, and especially in ancient times it was thought that too much exposure to the moon could be harmful. Words like lunacy and lunatic refer to the belief that overexposure to the moon could damage your mind. The fact is, there aren't enough ultraviolet rays coming from the brightest full moon to give you a moonburn, and there's no reason to think lunacy is in any way caused by the moon.
But bear in mind, this is not meant to be taken in a woodenly literal sense. As we have already seen, this psalm isn't actually talking about physical safety; it's about spiritual security. And verse 6 is a figure of speech that simply reiterates the truth of verses 3-4: God Keeps us both day and night.
Verses 3-4 talk about how He keeps us from stumbling; in verses 5-6 the stress is on how He shields us from any kind of external threat—including those that are unrelenting, like the rays of the sun in a desert climate. Including also those that are merely frightening, annoying, or otherwise worrisome, like the glow of the moon that exposes you to predators and criminals when what you really need is peaceful rest during a grueling journey. There is no better shelter from all the various threats to our spiritual well-being than God—who has saved us; who steadies us; who shelters us. And now, finally—
4. He safeguards us
Three more times in the final two verses the psalmist uses that same word, "keep." Here the psalmist sums up and reiterates all the previous promises in one broad category. These statements are deliberately as comprehensive as possible. Verses 7-8: "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 forevermore."
That stresses the utter completeness of the Lord's protection. Three statements, all beginning with the words "The LORD will keep." Verse 7: "The LORD will keep you from all evil." (He will preserve you from everything that could ever threaten your spiritual well-being). "He will keep your life." (He will protect you from everything that might diminish or rob you of your salvation.) "The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in." (He will providentially guard and direct your steps.)
By the way, that's another common expression in Scripture—"Your going out and your coming in." It's a Hebrew figure of speech that means "no matter where you go or what you do." Deuteronomy 28:6: "Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out." In Isaiah's prophecy to Hezekiah (Which you'll find in 2 Kings 19:27, then it's repeated verbatim in Isaiah 37:28) God says this to Hezekiah: "I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me."
So when Psalm 121 says, "The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore" it means no matter where you go or what you do, God exercises His providential care and guardianship over you—and that promise applies not merely to an earthly pilgrimage that takes you from some village in Israel to the city of Jerusalem. That's a promise about the upward spiritual journey in which God brings you from this life to the heavenly New Jerusalem.
In other words, this psalm is a comprehensive promise of eternal security for all believers of all time. No wonder it's one of the best-loved psalms in Scripture. These promises will serve you well in every circumstance of life: "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 forevermore."