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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Psalms 121

 

 

Introduction

CXXI.

This simple but exquisite little hymn of four fourline verses, dwells almost exclusively on the sleepless guardianship of His people by the (God who made the world. An implied contrast with the idols of the heathen, “peradventure sleeping,” while their votaries pray (1 Kings 18:27), is felt in every verse. (See Note Psalms 121:1.) But it is only implied. The poet seems to want nothing to heighten his truthful confidence, neither vivid colouring nor elaborate imagery, nothing save the repetition again and again of the one word keep. (See Notes.) What a history were that, if it could be written, of the countless thousands of Christians who have been consoled in trouble or sickness by this psalm! Among others, it was read at the deathbed of Julius Hare. It is in this psalm that the steplike progression of the rhythm is most plainly marked.

Title.—The Hebrew, in many editions, presents a variation from the usual “song of degrees.” Here, “a song for the degrees”—a variation which has been claimed in support of two rival theories, since it favours equally the view which make these hymns pilgrim songs, and that which sees in them a reference to the actual steps leading up to the Temple.


Verse 1

(1) Whence.—Our version is certainly incorrect in following the LXX. and Vulg. in making whence a relative. The Hebrew word is always interrogative; even in Joshua 2:4 it is indirectly interrogative. But the margin is hardly right in making the whole verse interrogative. Render, I will lift up mine eyes to the hills. Whence comes my help? The hills are those on which Jerusalem is built, the plural being understood, as in Psalms 87:1. (See Note.) This gaze of hope does not absolutely decide the standpoint of the poet. He might have been like Ezekiel (Ezekiel 6:2) when bidden to turn “towards the mountains of Israel” in the distant plain of Mesopotamia; or he may have been close on the end of the pilgrim journey, and actually under the sacred hills. But wherever he stands, this question is not one of doubt; he knows, as in Psalms 3:4; Psalms 14:7, that help will come from God’s holy hill “out of Zion.” He puts the question for the sake of the emphatic answer in the next verse. Possibly, as suggested by the marginal rendering and reference, the poet may in his mind have been contrasting the confidence with which a worshipper of Jehovah might look up to the sacred city on the crest of the holy hill with that superstition and idolatry which was associated with so many hills and high places in Canaan. If this is so, the best commentary, both on the poetry and the religion of the psalm, is to be found in Mr. Ruskin’s fascinating discourses on mountains in “Modern Painters,” their influence on the ancient, mediaeval, and modern mind, and the part they have played alike in the mythology of the pagan times and the religion of the Christian world. There must also be added, in connection with the feeling of the Jew, the part his mountains played as a barrier of defence (Psalms 125:2), and as heights of observation from which to watch for the messengers of peace (Isaiah 52:7; Nahum 1:15).

“In the mountains did he feel his faith

. . . . and there his spirit shaped

Her prospects.”—WORDSWORTH.


Verse 1-2

Help from beyond the Hills

I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains:

From whence shall my help come?

My help cometh from the Lord,

Which made heaven and earth.—Psalms 121:1-2

This psalm is one of that remarkable series of fifteen which are called, in the ancient headings of our Bibles, “Psalms of Degrees,” or, as the Revised Version renders the Hebrew, “Songs of Ascents.” In the ancient Greek and Latin versions of the Scriptures the rendering is, “Songs of Steps,” or “of Staircases.” They are psalms connected somehow with steps upward, as to a shrine; and one ancient explanation of the heading is that there were fifteen steps leading up to the “Court of Israel” in the Temple of Jerusalem, and that the fifteen Songs of Degrees have connexion with those steps, and were sung on certain ceremonial occasions on them, or while worshippers went up by them. A mystic meaning is given to the title by some of the ancient Jewish expositors. One of them sees in these psalms an allusion to the spiritual steps “on which God leads the righteous up to a blessed hereafter”; and true it is that these psalms, in a sweet way of their own, lead us to views of His Word, of His promises, and of Himself, which afford an uplifting guide and help to the pilgrim as he ascends “from strength to strength” towards the heavenly shrine. Another account of the word is that these were psalms used, not upon the steps in the Temple, but on the ascending march of pilgrims returning from exile in Babylon, or going up at the great festivals to Jerusalem from the remote parts of the Holy Land. They climbed towards the mountain throne where the City and the Temple were set, and they solaced their way with these psalms of peculiar and beautiful faith, hope, and joy, as most of them conspicuously are.

These Psalms of Degrees, the Psalms from the 120th to 134th inclusive, display a certain characteristic rhythm, and they speak a tender pathetic dialect of their own, if one may use the word; a certain uplook, almost always, as out of a felt need to the ever-present Lord, seems to be the deepest inspiration of the song. This Psalm, assuredly, the 121st, is “a Song of Ascents,” a song of up-goings, a song befitting the heart which believes and loves, on its way to the eternal Zion. The whole direction of it is upwards, God-wards. It is, in the language of the Communion Service, a Sursum corda, a “Lift up your hearts; we lift them up unto the Lord.” Shall we describe the Psalm in few and simple words? It is the soul’s look, out from itself, and up to its all-sufficient God, under a sense of complete need, and with the prospect of a complete supply.

My need and Thy great fulness meet,

And I have all in Thee.1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, Thy Keeper, 8.]

The speaker, as we take it, was one of the Jews in Babylon. Under the hand of a tyrant and among heathen, neither day nor night, in going out or coming in, was he safe. Evening by evening, therefore, he put himself anew into a keeping that could not fail. Ever as the time came for the altar smoke to rise on Mount Zion did he come forth into the open. The great plain, arched by the great sky, was his temple: and Jehovah, the Lord of heaven and earth, was there. Nevertheless, his heart yearned towards the Holy of Holies, God’s chosen spot, and he turned his face to it. As he closed his eyes to pray, he saw the blue hills of Judah and the towers that crowned the Holy House. He sent his cry for mercy to the Mercy Seat. His help would come from beyond the hills, even from the Glory between the cherubim.2 [Note: D. Burns, The song of the Well, 65.]

When I lived at Oxford, a good many years ago, one of the tutors lay dying of a cancerous disease. It was a summer of perfect warmth and beauty, and every meadow was as a haunt of dreams. But the dying man was a native of Iceland, and amid all the glory of those days, the cry on his lips was to get back to Iceland, just that he might see the snow again. That same feeling breathes in this verse “I to the hills will lift mine eyes.” The writer was an exile, far from home; he was in a land where everything was strange. And what did it matter to him though Babylonia was fairer than the country of his birth! The hills of his homeland were calling him.3 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, 98.]

I

The Call of the Hills

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains.”

1. The hills that the Psalmist was thinking about were visible from no part of that long-extended plain where he dwelt; and he might have looked till he wore his eyes out, ere he could have seen them on the horizon of sense. But although they were unseen, they were visible to the heart that longed for them. He directed his desires farther than the vision of his eyeballs can go. Just as his possible contemporary, Daniel, when he prayed, opened his window towards the Jerusalem that was so far away; and just as Mohammedans still, in every part of the world, when they pray, turn their faces to the Kaaba at Mecca, the sacred place to which their prayers are directed; and just as many Jews still, north, east, south or west though they be, face Jerusalem when they offer their supplications—so this Psalmist in Babylon, wearied and sick of the low levels that stretched endlessly and monotonously round about him, says, “I will look at the things that I cannot see, and lift up my eyes above these lownesses about me, to the loftinesses that sense cannot behold.”

The eyes that the Psalmist speaks of are the eyes of the soul, and the hills to which he looks are the hills of help for the soul. Our souls relate us to the world of the soul, as our senses relate us to the world of the senses. The soul’s faculty of faith is to our eternal nature what our senses are to our temporal nature. And as the evidence of the senses puts an end to all strife about the things presented to them, so faith gives restful assurance with respect to the objects of belief. Faith is that faculty of pure reason with which the soul of all the senses is endowed. The assurance of faith is, therefore, not the assurance of one but of all our faculties in that ground of our nature which unites all our powers. The assurance of faith is the assurance of seeing, of hearing, of tasting, of handling—all in one and at once. The Psalmist is fully assured as to the hills of help to which he lifts up his eyes. He only speaks of what he sees with “the eyes of his heart”; for it is “with the heart man believes” and looks at spiritual things.1 [Note: W. Pulsford.]

Ruskin, in his Modern Painters, has called attention to a suggestive fact. It is that the greatest painters of the Holy Family have always a hint of the mountains in the distance. You might have looked for cornfield or for vineyard, or for some fine pleasant garden sleeping in the sunshine; but in the greatest painters that you never find; it is “I to the hills will lift mine eyes.” What they felt was, with one of these intuitions which are the birthright and the seal of genius—what they felt was that for a secular subject vineyard and meadow might be a fitting background; but for the Holy Family, and for the Child of God, and for the love of heaven incarnate in humanity, you want the mystery, the height, the depth, which call to the human spirit from the hills. It is not to man as a being with an intellect that the hills have spoken their unvarying message. It is to man as a being with a soul, with a cry in his heart for things that are above him. That is why Zeus in the old Pagan days came down to speak to men upon Mount Ida. That is why Genius painting Jesus Christ throws in its faint suggestion of the peaks.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Return of the Angels, 100.]

2. The hills were associated with the greatest events in the history of Israel. The Old Testament is the record of the soul, and it is written against a background of the hills. It is true that it does not open in the mountains. It opens in the luxuriance of a garden. Its opening scene is an idyllic picture in the bosom of an earthly paradise. But when man has fallen, and sounded the great deeps, and begun to cry for the God whom he has lost, then are we driven from the garden scenery and brought amid the grandeur of the hills. It is on Ararat that the ark rests, when the judgment of the waters has been stayed. It is to a mountain-top that Abraham is summoned to make his sacrifice of Isaac. And not on the plain where the Israelites are camped, but amid the cloudy splendour of Mount Sinai, does God reveal Himself, and give His law, and enter into covenant with man. Do we wonder that the exiled Psalmist said, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains”? They were dyed deep for him with sacred memory, and rich with the precious heritage of years. Nor was it merely a heritage of home; it was a heritage of God and of the soul. Among the hills Israel had learned everything that made her mighty as a spiritual power.

From Venice, Ruskin travelled by Milan and Turin to Susa, and over the Pass of Mont Cenis. Among the mountains he recovered at once health and spirits. His first morning among the hills after the long months in Italy, he accounted a turning-point in his life:

“I woke from a sound tired sleep in a little one-windowed room at Lans-le-bourg, at six of the summer morning, June 2nd, 1841; the red aiguilles on the north relieved against pure blue—the great pyramid of snow down the valley in one sheet of eastern light. I dressed in three minutes, ran down the village street, across the stream, and climbed the grassy slope on the south side of the valley, up to the first pines. I had found my life again;—all the best of it. What good of religion, love, admiration or hope, had ever been taught me, or felt by my best nature, rekindled at once; and my line of work, both by my own will and the aid granted to it by fate in the future, determined for me. I went down thankfully to my father and mother, and told them I was sure I should get well.”

Ruskin might have said very literally with the Psalmist: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help.”1 [Note: E. T. Cook, The Life of Ruskin, i. 120.]

Nature has many aspects, and God is behind them all; but the mass and grandeur, the vast solitudes and deep recesses in the heart of the hills, are, in a peculiar sense, the inner shrine where He waits for those who come, worn and confused, from the noise and strife of the world. Here the sounds of man’s struggle are lost in His peace; here the fever of desire and the agitation of emotion are calmed in His silence. The great hills, purple with heather or green with moss, rise peak beyond peak in sublime procession; the mountain streams run dark and cool through dim and hidden channels, singing that song without words which is sweet with all purity and fresh with the cleanness of the untrodden heights. Through the narrow passes one walks with a silent joy, born of a renewed sense of relationship with the sublime order of the world, and of a fresh communion with the Spirit of which all visible things are the symbol and garment. This is perhaps the greatest service which the hills of God render to him who seeks them with an open mind and heart. Their grandeur silently dispels one’s scepticism in the possible greatness of man’s life. In a world where such heights rise in lonely majesty, the soul, to which they speak with voices so manifold and so eloquent, feels anew the divinity which shapes its destiny, and gains a fresh faith in the things that are unseen and eternal.2 [Note: H. W. Mabie, The Life of the Spirit, 81.]

3. The hills evermore summon us to look up. The influence of the world begets a downward look, a sort of set of the eyes and heart downwards. We are in the world; in a thousand subtle ways we are kin with the world. We are subject to its influences, caught by its wind of excitement, absorbed by its pressing claims, and then we may easily be of the world as well as in it. But everything the world presents to us is below us, beneath us, and it so keeps us looking down that at last the habit of down-looking grows upon us. The world offers the attraction of its riches, but money is all below us, and we must look down upon it. The world fascinates us with its learning and its science, but books and experiments are all below us, we must look down upon them. The world bids the siren pleasure float on golden wing before us, winning us to her pursuit; but she ever flies low, and we must look down upon her. Even the better things that the world may give us, the things of family life and love, are still all below us; we look down even on the children about our feet.

I have read of a woman who worked hard with her pen, and at last found her eyes troubling her. The oculist whom she consulted told her that her eyes needed rest and change. From the windows of her home there was a grand view of some distant hills, and the doctor told her, when her eyes were tired with work, to look out of the window and gaze on the distant hills. It is good for us all to look out of the window sometimes. If we are always looking at the rooms where we live, the shop where we trade, the farm or the counting-house, we begin to think there is nothing else. Our little bit of ground is all this world and the next; we never see anything beyond our own handiwork, we are blind to all else, like the horse in the coal-mine.1 [Note: H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Day by Day Duty, 27.]

Sailors tell us that at sea, when the fog is so dense that they cannot see far ahead, they climb the rigging; and, seated there upon the yard-arm, they may see the heavens bathed in sunshine and the blue sky above the billows of mist that lie below.

God hath His uplands, bleak and bare,

Where He doth bid us rest awhile—

Crags where we breathe the purer air,

Lone peaks that catch the day’s first smile.


Lift me, O Lord, above the level plain,

Beyond the cities where life throbs and thrills,

And in the cool airs let my spirit gain

The stable strength and courage of Thy hills.


They are Thy secret dwelling places, Lord.

Like Thy majestic prophets, old and hoar,

They stand assembled in divine accord,

Thy sign of stablished power for evermore.


Lead me yet farther, Lord, to peaks more clear,

Until the clouds like shining meadows lie,

Where through the deeps of silence I may hear

The thunder of Thy legions marching by.

II

The Cry of Helplessness

“From whence shall my help come?”

1. The exile in Babylon had a dreary desert, peopled by wild tribes hostile to him, stretching between his present home and that home where he desired to be; and it would be difficult for him to get away from the dominion that held him captive, unless by consent of the power of whom he was the vassal. So the more the thought of the mountains of Israel drew the Psalmist, the more there came into his mind the thought, How am I to be made able to reach that blessed soil? And surely, if we saw, with anything like a worthy apprehension and vision, the greatness of the blessedness that lies yonder for Christian souls, we should feel far more deeply than we do the impossibility, as far as we are concerned, of our ever reaching it. The sense of our own weakness and the consciousness of the perils upon the path ought ever to be present with us all.

Man knows that he is low, that he needs to be lifted up, that he cannot lift himself—he can but lift up his eyes. He knows that his lowness is not lowly, but degraded and proud. By his natural birth he has come into low places, and in himself he has forsaken the heights. What he is by nature he has confirmed by choice, and allowed the conditions of his natural birth to form his character and determine his life. He has inverted the true order of his parts and powers, degraded his nobler faculties, and raised to a bad eminence his lower passions and propensities.1 [Note: W. Pulsford.]

2. All the delights of Babylon could not satisfy the exile’s longing. He was perfectly comfortable in Babylon. There was abundance of everything that he wanted for his life. The Jews there were materially quite as well off as, and many of them a great deal better off than, ever they had been in their narrow little strip of mountain land, shut in between the desert and the sea. But for all that, fat, wealthy Babylon was not Palestine. So amid the luxuriant vegetation, the wealth of water and the fertile plains, the Psalmist longed for the mountains, though the mountains are often bare of green things. It was that longing that led to his looking to the hills. Do we know anything of that longing which makes us “that are in this tabernacle to groan, being burdened”? Unless our Christianity throws us out of harmony and contentment with the present, it is worth very little. And unless we know something of that immortal longing to be nearer to God, and fuller of Christ, and emancipated from sense and from the burdens and trivialities of life, we have yet to learn what the meaning of walking “not after the flesh but after the Spirit” really is.

Writing from Aberdeen to Lady Boyd, Samuel Rutherford says: “I have not now, of a long time, found such high springtides as formerly. The sea is out, and I cannot buy a wind and cause it to flow again; only I wait on the shore till the Lord sends a full sea.… But even to dream of Him is sweet.” And then just over the leaf, to Marion McNaught: “I am well: honour to God.… He hath broken in upon a poor prisoner’s soul like the swelling of Jordan. I am bank and brim full: a great high springtide of the consolations of Christ hath overwhelmed me.” But sweet as it is to read his rapturous expressions when the tide is full, I feel it far more helpful to hear how he still looks and waits for the return of the tide when the tide is low, and when the shore is full, as all left shores are apt to be, of weeds and mire, and all corrupt and unclean things. Rutherford is never more helpful to his correspondents than when they consult him about their ebb tides, and find that he himself either has been, or still is, in the same experience.2 [Note: A. Whyte, Samuel Rutherford and Some of his Correspondents.]

3. Even the hills could not send help. Psalms 121:2 declares that, although the hills stand for earth’s best defence, the singer’s hope is in the Creator, not in things created, in Him who set fast the mountains, and is higher than they as heavens are higher than earth. The insufficiency of the hills is again implied in the two striking pictures of the third and fourth verses. Smooth rock or sliding sand, loose rubble or slippery turf, landslide beneath or avalanche from above, may betray the climber to injury or destruction. But Jehovah delivers His people from falling, and establishes their goings. Again, the recumbent hills lie ever wrapt in proverbial and unbroken sleep. They heed not, they hear not, and they suffer the night to change the cliff from a defence to a danger, and the slumbering slopes sound no alarm as the enemy scales them under cover of the night. But God is ever wakeful for His own—and darkness and the light are both alike to Him. The contrast is continued in Psalms 121:5. The hills are passive, God is active; He guards, He is fortress, garrison, and patrol. The strongest hill-forts must be well defended, or Petra will fall to Rome, the Heights of Abraham to Wolfe, Hannibal will pass the Alps, and Xerxes outflank Leonidas by Thermopylæ. The soldier must guard the hill that guards him, but God guards all.

We must avoid the mistakes frequently made by poets who have sought to personify nature and find in it a response to the varying moods of human life, and by theologians who have found in it an analogy of the ways of God. Nature is not like God. Her laws disclose no moral standards. When these are introduced she appears full not only of contradictions but of cruelties, and the God whose character we could induce from a consideration of the laws of nature would be as immoral as the pagan divinities. We need something nearer, more human and considerate, a God who can understand and suffer and love. Indeed we are so far from the poets who seek in nature an echo of their own inner life as to feel that it is in offering us an escape from ourselves that nature is most helpful to man. There she lies inscrutable, placid, expansive; now wrapped in mists and clouds, now sun-smitten or attacked by the furious onset of the thunderstorm. The craving for sympathy from her is morbid; we must find health in her unresponsiveness, her healing want of sympathy with morbid souls.1 [Note: J. Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, 224.]

Tennyson’s outlook on the universe could not ignore the dark and dismaying facts of existence, and his faith, which rose above the shriek of Nature, was not based upon arguments derived from any survey of external, physical Nature. When he confined his outlook to this, he could see power and mechanism, but he could not from these derive faith. His vision must go beyond the mere physical universe; he must see life and see it whole; he must include that which is highest in Nature, even man, and only then could he find the resting-place of faith. He thus summed up the matter once when we had been walking up and down the “Ball-room” at Farringford: “It is hard,” he said, “it is hard to believe in God; but it is harder not to believe. I believe in God, not from what I see in Nature, but from what I find in man.” I took him to mean that the witness of Nature was only complete when it included all that was in Nature, and that the effort to draw conclusions from Nature when man, the highest-known factor in Nature, was excluded, could only lead to mistake. I do not think he meant, however, that external Nature gave no hints of a superintending wisdom or even love, for his own writings show, I think, that such hints had been whispered to him by flower and star; I think he meant that faith did not find her platform finally secure beneath her feet till she had taken count of man. The response to all that is highest in Nature is found in the heart of man, and man cannot deny this highest, because it is latent in himself already. But I must continue Tennyson’s own words: “It is hard to believe in God, but it is harder not to believe in Him. I don’t believe in His goodness from what I see in Nature. In Nature I see the mechanician; I believe in His goodness from what I find in my own breast.”1 [Note: Bishop Boyd Carpenter, in Tennyson and His Friends, 303.]

III

The Faith of a True Israelite

“My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.”

Here is the mark rather of a Babylonian than of a home-abiding Jew. This way of describing God—“which made heaven and earth”—is not usual by any means in the Psalms or elsewhere in the Scriptures. It occurs three times in these Pilgrim Songs, and only once in all the Psalms besides, and that Psalm (the 115th) seems to have been written after the Captivity. This large thought of God did not come naturally to the mind of an Israelite. The truth indeed he did accept. It was an item of his creed that the Lord of his worship did make heaven and earth, all visible and invisible things: but it was not his spontaneous thought about God. “Thou that walkest in the camp of Israel.” “Thou that sittest between the cherubims, shine forth.” There was the localizing of God in the heart of a Jew: one holy place for the tabernacles of the Most High. “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever.” The King, yes the King of all the earth, but especially our God. But the exiled Jew has the one advantage at least, that he escaped this narrowness of thought. The Jew born in Babylon (and almost all of those who returned from the Captivity were born in Babylon; the ancient men who had seen the first Temple, and wept because of the poverty of the second Temple, were very few indeed)—the Jew born in Babylon could hardly fail to take broad views of life. There was a tendency in all surrounding things to uncramp the thoughts. He lived in the midst of vastness. The mighty town itself more than fifty miles in circuit; the palace of the kings within it more than twice as large as the whole city of Jerusalem: and then those boundless plains spread forth under the great heavens, and losing themselves on all sides in the distant horizon—they that lived in the midst of these scenes took an impress from them. The sign of it appears in these children of the Captivity, whose eyes were lifted towards the hills of the sacred land, and who, looking forth over the months of its weariness and hazards, asked, one on behalf of all, “From whence cometh my help?” and answered, one on behalf of all, “My help cometh from the Lord.” Not the God of Jacob or of Israel, or of Him that sitteth between the cherubims; the teaching of Babylon has erased those barriers and exalted God above the universe. “My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.”

1. Help from God is sure to come when our spirits hold fellowship with Him. To do this often, and on occasion to linger long, cannot but have a great influence on our spirit. We become more and more of a heavenly mind, and look to heaven as our own place and as the goal of all our hopes. We live here with a view to our life there. We choose our intimates from those who shall still be our fellows there. We seek such gains as we can lay up there against the time of our coming. We disengage ourselves from all that we shall have to leave, and we refuse to make a home where our spirit never can feel at home. We keep ourselves free to arise at any moment and, by help from beyond the hills, to pass beyond, and not return.

Did you ever read that fascinating chapter in Washington Irving’s Life of Columbus where he describes the bursting of the New World upon the little crew which set out with Columbus on that memorable voyage? It is one of the most thrilling and most pathetic bits of recorded history. Columbus from a boy had dreamt of this discovery. Kings, statesmen, and philosophers had all been against him. But on he fought undaunted; and at last the reward was here.

Chances have laws as fixed as planets have,

And disappointment’s dry and bitter root,

Envy’s harsh berries, and the choking pool

Of the world’s scorn, are the right mother-milk

To the tough hearts that pioneer their kind,

And break a pathway to those unknown realms

That in the earth’s broad shadow lie enthralled;

Endurance is the crowning quality,

And patience all the passion of great hearts;

One faith against a whole earth’s unbelief,

One soul against the flesh of all mankind.1 [Note: D. W. Whincup, The Training of Life, 39.]

2. When God sends help, the spirit finds rests. He who penned this psalm, being a slave and a foreigner, had much to bear and to fear, and he lived under constant strain. For him, moreover, there was no break in the routine, and only a faint hope of one day being set free to find his way home. His spirit, however, was beyond the hand of the conqueror, and need suffer no exile. It was lord of itself, and could choose its own place and take rest at due times. It had wings swifter than the dove’s, and could fly beyond the hills and alight within the hush of the Holy Shrine. There, with all about him so different from the accustomed scene, he found a peace such as common words could not express. To tell it, he had to sing it, and in this world of unquiet hearts his song has been so prized that now no other is more widely known.

One and all, we are bent on winning this same rest of spirit. All our quest is, indeed, but this one endeavour. We strive after success, or pleasure, or influence; but, behind it all, there is our inborn longing for the one true home and the one true life. Such rest can come to us—sinners, and exiles because of our sin—only as we look, with this man, beyond the hills to the blood-besprinkled Mercy Seat. There, where we see the Divine pardon, we see a Help that is alert by day and night, and that is active against all that would do us ill.

The Archduke Palatine died in 1847, a humble and believing penitent at the foot of the Cross. He had for many years been a regular reader of the Bible, but it was only when the shadows of the coming darkness gathered round him that full spiritual light arose in his soul. Several months before his death he was seized with a violent illness, which threatened to carry him off. From this he partially recovered. A cloud passed over him for a time, but it was dissolved, and he became unusually cheerful. He acknowledged afterwards that in the days of gloom he had been reviewing his past life, and had everywhere discovered sin, and that now he put his whole trust in the merits and righteousness of Christ. Soon afterwards his last illness began. A few hours before his death his wife said to him, “As you are now so soon to stand before the judgment-seat of God, I wish to hear from you for the last time what is the ground on which you rest your hope.” His immediate reply was, “The blood of Christ alone,” with a strong emphasis on the alone.1 [Note: G. Carlyle, A Memoir of Adolph Saphir, 44.]

3. The help of the Lord means moral health and vigour. To this poet, life in Babylon was a ceaseless jeopardy of spirit. As he passed from day to day he seemed to himself as one hastening on foot across the desert. The sun blazed on him from a cloudless sky, and spears of fire struck into his heart and drank his strength. When the longed-for night came, the moon brought a dew that chilled him to the marrow, while she sought to pierce eye and brain with her arrows of steel. Nevertheless he journeyed unfainting and unfevered! One, unseen, walked at his right hand to do what his right hand, with all its strength and skill, could not accomplish. Not in vain had he made frequent flight of spirit beyond the hills, and kept alive his fellowship with the Lord of Zion. What though he could not stay day and night in the sanctuary? He who made it safe would come forth with him and be ever by him. The earthly figure was not fit to picture all the fact. The heavenly Guard, as Spirit Infinite, is in the threatened spirit. He fills and clears and lifts the life, so that the evil influences have no effect for evil. The godly man can live in Babylon, and be as safe from sin as if he were in Jerusalem, a priest at the altar and never outside the sacred walls.

When Dr. Wilberforce was enthroned as Bishop of Chichester, his first sermon in his new Cathedral had as its text the opening verse of his favourite Psalm—the 121st. The sermon concluded with these words: “If I inquire from those who have preceded me the secret of their power, as, called unto their rest, they now throng up the steeps of light, each, with faithful finger, points to the motto of his life, ‘I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.’ To the hills where the first faint rays of the coming dawn are seen; where echoes haunt and linger, caught from higher heights beyond, where air is pure and free and strong; to the hills lifted above the swamps and the miasma, above the low-lying lands of doubt and uncertainty, above the babble and the questioning, above ‘the world’s loud stunning tide,’ up where they rear themselves towards the gathering of the solemn stars, where the night winds whisper, and the beat of angel wings is heard, where man can commune with his God, whence cometh help. To the hills, where the showers gather big with blessing, and fall drop by drop till the rills begin to sparkle and leap, and the tiny rivulets are swelling into the broadening river, refreshing hamlet and homestead, falling down into the plain and cleansing every city, sweeping onward with its gathering burden to the mighty sea, the broad fertilizing stream of the life of the Church of God.”1 [Note: J. B. Atlay, Bishop Ernest Wilberforce, 226.]

When sick of life and all the world—

How sick of all desire but Thee!—

I lift mine eyes up to the hills,

Eyes of my heart that see,

I see beyond all death and ills

Refreshing green for heart and eyes,

The golden streets and gateways pearled,

The trees of Paradise.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

Literature

Brooks (P.), The Candle of the Lord, 270.

Butler (H. M.), Public School Sermons, 49.

Capen (E. H.), The College and the Higher Life, 59.

Cox (S.), The Pilgrim Psalms , 24.

Doney (C. G.), The Throne-Room of the Soul, 173

Hutton (J. A.), At Close Quarters, 125.

Kelman (J.), Ephemera Eternitatis, 223.

King (T. S.), Christianity and Humanity, 285.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Psalms 51–145, 335.

McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, iii. 249.

Morrison (G. H.), The Return of the Angels, 98.

Moule (H. C. G.), Thy Keeper, 7.

Power (P. B.), The “wills” of the Psalms, 217.

Pulsford (W.), Trinity Church Sermons, 50.

Scott (J. M.), Some Favourite Psalms , 117.

Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 42.

Smith (G. A.), Four Psalms , 99.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, xiv. (1891), No. 37.

Whincup (D. W.), The Training of Life, 33.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), Day by Day Duty, 27.

Wright (D.), Waiting for the Light, 238.

Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 154 (R. Tuck).

Homiletic Review, li. 219 (W. H. Walker); lxiv. 139 (W. J. C. Pike).

Treasury (New York), xvii. 668 (D. M. Pratt).


Verse 2

(2) My help cometh . . .—Not as the superstition of the Canaanite said, from the sacred summits themselves, but from their Creator’s Lord. It is noticeable that the style, “maker of heaven and earth,” is a peculiarity of psalms which are certainly post-exile, and show how strongly the contrast with heathenism impressed the creative power of God on the Hebrew mind. When the idolater, pointing to his visible god, taunted the Israelite with having no god, the reply, that He made the heavens, and the earth, and all things, and that these were the proofs of His being, was most natural. (See Jeremiah 10:11.)


Verse 3

(3) He will not.—The LXX. and Vulg. rightly, “may He not suffer,” &c. The Hebrew cannot be a simple negative. That it is Israel which is addressed the next verse seems to prove.


Verse 4

(4) Slumber nor sleep.—This repetition, with the addition of a synonym, offers a very good instance of the step-like style supposed by many critics to give their name to these psalms. But it must be carefully noticed that there is no climax in the force of the two words, the first, if anything, being the stronger. It is used of the sleep of death (Psalms 76:5).


Verse 5

(5) Thy keeper.—Notice again how the prominent word is caught up from the preceding verse and amplified, and then again repeated, and again amplified in Psalms 121:7-8, where preserve is an unfortunate substitution by the Authorised Version.

Shade.—An image of protection, and one peculiarly attractive to the Oriental. (See Numbers 14:9, margin; Psalms 91:1; Isaiah 25:4; Isaiah 32:2.)

Upon thy right hand.—Some commentators combine this expression with the figure of the shadow, supposing the psalmist, in the phrase “right hand,” to allude to the south or sunny side. But this is prosaic. No doubt there is here, as so often, a confused combination of metaphors. We have several times met with the figure of the right-hand comrade in war, a protection to the unshielded side (Psalms 16:8; Psalms 109:31, &c).


Verse 6

(6) Smite thee.—The mention of shade leads to the amplification of the figure. The evil effects of sunstroke are too well known to need comment. They are often mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 4:18; 2 Kings 4:20; Jonah 4; Judith 8:3).

Nor the moon by night.—Possibly there is allusion to the belief, so common in old times, of the harmful influence of the moon’s light—a belief still recalled in the word lunacy. It is a fact that temporary blindness is often caused by moonlight. (See authorities referred to by Ewald and Delitzsch.) Others, again, think that the injurious cold of the night is here placed in antithesis to the heat of the noonday sun (comp. Genesis 31:40; Jeremiah 36:30), the impression that intense cold burns being common in the East, as indeed everywhere. Tennyson speaks of the moon being “keen with frost.” But it is also possible that the generally harmful effects of night air are intended.


Verse 7-8

(7-8) Instead of preserve, read keep, the persistent dwelling on this one word making one of the chief beauties of this hymn.


Verse 8

(8) Thy going out and thy coming in.—A common Hebrew expression to denote the whole of life. (See Deuteronomy 28:6, &c; comp. St. Paul’s prayer, 1 Thessalonians 5:23.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 121:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/psalms-121.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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