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Psalm 121

Pilgrim song

We can easily feel overwhelmed by all the chaos in the world around us. This psalm promises vulnerable pilgrims going to Mount Zion that Yahveh will be their unfailing guardian, protecting them from all harm.

A song of ascents.

1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from Yahveh
maker of heaven and earth.

3 He who guards you
won’t let your foot slip
and he won’t fall asleep on the job.
4 He who guards Israel
never dozes, never sleeps.
5 Yahveh himself is your guardian.
With him standing by to shelter and shield you
6 the sun will not strike you by day
nor the moon by night.
7 Yahveh will guard you from all evil—
he will safeguard your life.
8 He’ll guard your going out
and your returning home
now and for all time.

This second psalm of ascent begins with a key question for all pilgrims before answering it definitively in the second verse: Yahveh is every pilgrim’s ultimate source of help and protection. The psalm may be best known for its intriguing first line—intriguing since mountains evoke all sorts of images, among others, of difficulty and reward, danger and refuge, darkness and resplendence.

Given the psalmist’s ancient context, however, she’s most likely looking at the mountains as places of worship and divine authority. Israel’s neighbors worshipped in their gods’ mountaintop shrines, while the Israelites worshipped Yahveh on Mount Zion. They viewed his temple there as the home of heaven’s government on earth, which may be why the psalm names him as maker of heaven and earth.

Far from the safety of home, pilgrims walked arduous paths over inhospitable terrain to and from Jerusalem. This made them vulnerable to all sorts of dangers. So the psalmist assures them that Yahveh won’t let them lose their footing. She describes him as their ever-vigilant, never-sleeping guardian and assures them that he won’t let scorching sun, ghastly moon, or anything else harm them. He’ll guard them from the moment they set out till they return safe and sound. Now and always.

Besides being fully in control, Jesus, you promised to be with us to the end of the age. Thank you that you’re fully attentive to my needs 24/7. Help me to be fully attentive to you in return and, as you lead me, to be fully present, no matter where you put me—not afraid to engage. Amen.

During your free moments today, meditate on these words:

Yahveh will guard you from all evil—
he will safeguard your life.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.