Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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 (1Kings 18:27), is felt in every verse. (See Note Psalm 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.
A Song of degrees. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.(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 Psalm 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 Psalm 3:4; Psalm 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 (Psalm 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
My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.(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.)
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.(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.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.(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 (Psalm 76:5).
The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.(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 Psalm 121:7-8, where preserve is an unfortunate substitution by the Authorised Version.
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 (Psalm 16:8; Psalm 109:31, &c).
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.(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 (2Kings 4:18; 2Kings 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.
The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.(7-8) Instead of preserve, read keep, the persistent dwelling on this one word making one of the chief beauties of this hymn.
The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.(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, 1Thessalonians 5:23.)