Psalm 121: Help from the LORD

Dear Reader,

This is a return to my series on the Psalms. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here

For a fairly gentle return to Psalm study, I have decided to begin with the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). We began last time with Psalm 120 and continue this time with 121.

God’s Word is living and it is deep. We can come to it again and again and find new meaning. I do not claim that my way of approaching the Psalms is the only way or the best way. My aim is merely to give a perspective that I think is often missing when we read the Psalms in translation. My contention throughout this series has been that the form of the Psalms conveys meaning. Though our English translations often obscure this deeper level of meaning and beauty, we do not all need to learn Hebrew to begin to see and appreciate the Psalms on a deeper level. What we need are, first, good translations that take into account the structure of the Hebrew and its word choice, and, second, a few detection skills which can easily be learned.

When we looked at Psalm 120, we found a psalmist in distress. He has troubles which are not resolved by the end of the Psalm. But these poems do not come to us in isolation and so we will see today that Psalm 121 seems to speak to the one that comes before.

Translation of Psalm 121 [1]

A Song of Ascents

  1. I will lift my eyes to the mountains.
  2. Whence will come my help?
  3. My help [is] from the LORD*,
  4.                         the maker of heaven and earth.
  5. He shall not give to stumbling your feet;
  6. He shall not slumber,                            your keeper.
  7. See! He will not slumber
  8.          Nor will he sleep,                  the keeper of Israel.
  9. The LORD [is] your keeper.
  10. The LORD [is] your shade   upon your right hand
  11. By day                   the sun               will not smite you
  12. Nor the moon    by night.
  13. The LORD   will keep you          from all evil.
  14.               He will keep your soul.**
  15. The LORD will keep  your going out and your coming in
  16. From now and forever more.

Notes on the translation:

Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. 

*When rendered in all capitals, “LORD” represents the tetragram, YHWH, the personal divine name of God.

**Hebrew nephesh may be translated as “life” or “soul.”


Structure and Form

As always, I invite you to spend some time with this Psalm before you read my comments. Note which lines seem to go together and which words or ideas recur. I have tried to lay out this Psalm in such a way as to make the parallelism evident. [2] When looking at a pair of parallel lines, draw lines between the parts that correspond.

In Psalm 120, we found that the parallelism was often loose and that the lines came not just in pairs but in triads and even a quatrain. In Psalm 121, all the lines pair up (1 with 2; 3 with 4; and so on). The first two pairs and the last one (1&2, 3&4, and 15 &16) express complete thoughts. Their halves do not contain parallel elements as all the other pairs do. As such, they form a kind of bookends to the Psalm.

Within the bookends, we find five pairs of nice parallels. Having so many nice pairs gives us a chance to look at the ways parallelism can work in Hebrew poetry. Take, for instance, lines 7 and 8:

                    7. See! He will not slumber

                    8.           Nor will he sleep,                  the keeper of Israel.

It’s a little less obvious in English but line 7 has an extra word (“see!” or “behold!”) at the beginning. They both have the verb with the negative (“He will not slumber” is two words in Hebrew as is “Nor will he sleep”), but line 8 then adds “the Keeper of Israel,” telling us who the “he” is. “The Keeper of Israel” is the subject of both lines 7 and 8. The two lines maintain relatively equally lengths because while line 8 has “the keeper of Israel” at the end, line 7 has “see!” at the beginning. This kind of balancing is often used in Hebrew poetry. An element left out in one line is compensated for by another element in the parallel line. We see similar structures in lines 5 & 6 and lines 13 & 14.

This is not always the case, however, as in lines 9 and 10:

                             9. The LORD [is] your keeper.

                            10. The LORD [is] your shade   upon your right hand

Line 10 adds “upon your right hand.” There is no corresponding element in line 9. Thus even in a fairly regular Psalm, the psalmist manages to break up the rhythm a bit by varying his structure.

In lines 11 and 12, it is the first line of the pair that has the extra element, in this case the verb “will not smite you”:

                          11. By day                 the sun               will not smite you

                         12. Nor the moon    by night.

There is something else going on here as well. The structure we have in the beginning of the lines is called a chiasm. “Sun” parallels “moon” and “by day” parallels “by night.” If you draw lines between these elements they will cross, making an X which looks like the Greek letter chi, hence the name. Note as well that the terms used in parallel need but be synonymous, but can be opposites (sun/moon, day/night).

In Psalm 120 we noted that repeated words link the sections within the Psalm together and give the whole Psalm structure. The technique is continued here in Psalm 121. “My help” appears on lines 2 and 3, linking the pairs of 1&2 and 3&4. “Slumber” occurs in lines 6 and 7 linking 5/6 with 7/8. “Keeper” in lines 8 and 9 links 7/8 with 9/10.  Though its use here in Psalm 121 is not entirely consistent — it does not run throughout the whole Psalm — it is notable enough to provide a point of connection between Psalms 120 and 121. As we said above, Psalm 120 ends on a bit of a low note; there is no resolution within it. In terms of its content, Psalm 121 responds to Psalm 120 — it offers hope and help. But there is also a connection in form as well, the two use the same technique.  Thus the form also points is to the meaning, that Psalm 121 provides a kind of conclusion to Psalm 120.

A visual to show you how I mark up a Psalm:


Word Choice and Content

The latter part of Psalm 120 in particular betrays the psalmist’s distraught mood. He exclaims ”woe ie me!”, “long enough!” and he uses short utterances without verbs “I — peace . . . they– war!” The Psalm ends on this low note. If we read through the Psalms in sequence, as they come in our Bible, we might think that the psalmist is continuing in Psalm 121. “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains,” he says. “Whence will come my help?”  And then a statement of confidence: “my help [is] from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Note again that “my help” links these two airs of lines. There is no word which links lines 4 and 5. Perhaps this is intentional because we also find another kind of break here. In line 5, the psalmist switches to the second person (not “I” and “my” but “you and “your”).

From line 5 on, the words “you” and “your” occur frequently through the rest of the Psalm. There are other repeated words as well. “LORD” occurs five times in the Psalm. Some form of the word “keep” occurs six times. In fact, once the psalmist switches to the second person in line 5 “keep” occurs at least once in every pair of lines except for lines 11 and 12. As I mark up my text with repeated words, lines 11 and 12 stand out. The only word in them that is repeated elsewhere is “you” (which in Hebrew is actually a single letter suffix on the verb). I am struck by how these two lines stand out in the Psalm, both for their chiastic structure (see above) and for their lack of the words which define the rest of the Psalm. There is one small point of connection to what comes before, however — in line 10 we are told “the LORD [is] your shade.” A shade, perhaps, to protect us from the sun and moon. 

A few final, more minor points — In line 14 I translated “He will keep your soul.” The word for “soul” here can also simply mean “life” and I suspect that life is what is meant. But this word also occurs twice in Psalm 120. Since the two Pslams seem closely linked, I wanted to be consistent in how I translated the word so I used “soul” in all three instances.

At the end of line 1, many translations have “hills” instead of “mountains.” Either is an acceptable translation of the Hebrew word. The word used is the most common word for mount or mountain and as mountains are so significant in the Bible (think: Mount Sinai, Mount Zion and others) [3] I liked using “mountains” to call up those connections.


What struck me most as I read through Psalm 121 this time is how naturally it follows after 120. Psalm 120, as we have said, leaves us hanging. But Psalm 121 has connection with is in both content and form. Yet, at the same time, the connections are not complete. One does not get the impression that this is the same psalmist continuing but rather that Psalm 121 speaks to what came before. Lines 1 through 4 (as I have laid them out) continue in the first person but in line 5 we have a break (again supported by both content and form) with a switch to the second person. Here the psalmist of 121 can be seen to speak directly to that of 120, encouraging with lots of “you”s and “your”s. The word “keep” seems to also be quite significant to this psalmist. There is a kind of crescendo in lines 13 and 14 which are set off by their chiastic structure and their lack of the words so often used in the rest of the Psalm. They are oddly specific as well with their references to the sun and moon smiting, perhaps hinting at the original purpose or setting of the Psalm. Whatever its original context, as it stands Psalm 121 provides a much-needed note of hope and consolation after Psalm 120.


[1]  In order to highlight the structure of the Psalms and to accurately portray their word-choices, I always start by making my own translation. Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here which is useful for printing and sharing. If you use it beyond your own home, please credit me.

[2] For more on parallelism and how Hebrew poetry works, see this post.

[3] “[T]here are in Scripture, even more than in other ancient literature, many references to [mountains], far outnumbering references to the other leading aspect of nature, the sea . . . the Word of God is full of mountains . . . indeed the basic structure of sacred history might be related to the mountains of Scripture.”  — Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and The Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) pp. 229-30.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] we looked at Psalm 121 we found lots of nice parallel sets of lines. Even Psalm 120 had fairly good use of parallelism. […]


  2. […] the Psalm we see the same kind of linking through repeated words that we saw in Psalms 120 and121. Line 1 through 5 are a section because they all have the word “eyes” and […]


  3. […] the previous Psalms of Ascent. Those, as we saw, were filled with emotion. Psalm 120 was a lament, Psalm 121 an expression of confidence in the Lord’s deliverance, and Psalm 122 a kind of love song to […]


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