Psalm 121 is a beautiful song of trust and confidence in which the psalmist expresses his joy that he is safe and secure under the watchful eyes of God, the creator of heavens and earth and the keeper of Israel. He who delivers Israel from its enemy and keeps the nation secure is also the deliverer of the person who trusts in him.
The psalmist had so much confidence that the Lord was his keeper that he used the word “keep” six times in the Psalm:
“He who keeps you will not slumber” (Psa. 121:3).
“He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4).
“The LORD is your keeper” (Psa.121:5).
“The LORD will keep you from all evil” (Psa. 121:7).
“He will keep your life” (Psa. 121:7).
“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore” (Psa. 121:8).
It is unfortunate that some of the English translations of this psalm dilute the emphasis of the psalmist by using another word to express the psalmist’s confidence.
For instance, the King James Bible uses the word “preserve” instead of the word “keep” in verses 7 and 8:
“The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil.”
“He shall preserve thy soul.”
“The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
The NIV does the same thing. Only once does the NIV use the word “keep.” The other five times, the NIV uses the word “watch over” to express the psalmist’s feelings of security.
“He who watches over you will not slumber.”
“He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
“The LORD watches over you.”
“The LORD will keep you from all harm.”
“He will watch over your life.”
“The LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
The repetition of the Hebrew word שָׁמַר (shāmar) in Psalm 121 is a deliberate effort by the psalmist to emphasize God’s care and protection for the individual and for the nation.
As one reads this psalm, it is proper to ask, “from where did the psalmist’s faith come?” The answer is evident from verse 2: “My help comes from the LORD.”
Recently, I was reading Theodore Beza’s translation of Psalm 121 and came to his unique translation of Psalm 121:1, a translation which may not be supported by the Hebrew text, but one which reflects the true theology behind the psalmist’s confidence.
Theodore Beza (Théodore de Bèze, June 24, 1519 – October 13, 1605) was a French theologian and a disciple of John Calvin who played an important role in the Reformation. Beza lived most of his life in Switzerland.
The Hebrew text of Psalm 121:1 reads as follows:
אֶשָּׂ֣א עֵ֭ינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִ֑ים מֵ֜אַ֗יִן יָבֹ֥א עֶזְרִֽי
Below are three examples of how English translations of the Bible have translated the words of the psalmist.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (Psa. 121:1 KJV).
“If I raise my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” (Psa. 121:1 CJB).
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (Psa. 121:1 ESV).
The three examples above reflect, in general, the ways English Bibles translate the words of the psalmist.
The problem with the King James version is that the translation takes the word מאַ֗יִן (“from where”) as a simple adverb to indicate the source of security: my help comes when I look toward the mountain.
The English Standard Version correctly follows the Hebrew by saying the psalmist looks toward the mountains and then asks about the source of his trust, while in the Complete Jewish Bible, the psalmist is wondering whether he should look to the mountains for help.
Then enters Theodore Beza and his unique translation of Psalm 121:1. Here is how he translated verse 1:
“Attollerem oculos meos ad istos montes? Unde veniret auxilium meum?
“Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains? From where will my help come?
According to Beza, the psalmist asked two questions, not one. The first question is whether or not he should look toward the mountains; the second question is about the psalmist’s source of confidence.
Most commentators believe that the “mountains” in question refer to one mountain, Zion, the dwelling place of God. They explain the plural “mountains” in Psalm 121:1 by referring to “the mountains of Zion” in Psalm 133:3.
Thus, whether the psalmist approaches Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims as they go up to the temple during one of the yearly festivals (Psalm 121 is a “Song of Ascent,” a song sang by pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem) or whether he looked from a distance to Jerusalem, where the sanctuary was, the psalmist believed that the Lord would hear his prayer from the sanctuary.
But Beza’s interpretation may reflect another reality behind the psalmist’s faith. In Israel, the mountains were the places where pagan practices and illegitimate worship were conducted by the Israelites.
In his condemnation of Israel, Jeremiah wrote: “For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds, and you said, ‘I will not serve!’ On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the whore” (Jer. 2:20).
On the mountains, the people of Israel built pagan altars. Although scholars are uncertain of the true meaning of the bāmâ, the high place, they believe that the high places represented Canaanite places of worship.
Thus, according to Beza’s translation, the psalmist refuses to look toward the mountains because he knew that his help would not come from there. Thus, using Beza’s translation of verse 1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains?”, the answer to the psalmist’s question is “no”, because his help will not come from the pagan gods worshiped on the mountains.
The Complete Jewish Bible’s translation of verse 1 comes closer to Beza’s translation: “If I raise my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” This translation implies that the psalmist is reluctant to look to the mountains because he knows that his help will not come from there.
The Hebrew text does not support Beza’s translation, but even if it does not, Beza’s translation may provide us with the real intent of the psalmist. The psalmist is unwilling to join the crowds and look for help and protection from the pagan gods worshiped on the high places. He will be different because he knows that his help will come not from Baal or Asherah, the pagan gods worshiped on the high places (“the mountains”), but from Yahweh, the one who is the keeper of Israel. The keeper of Israel is also the keeper of every faithful Israelite.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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What an eye opener…great for discussion!
Thank you for your nice words. I believe that the explanation I provided reflects the real intent of the psalmist.
This is a great explanation however, how do we handle God’s work done at “Mount Horeb” (Mount Sinai)? Based on Beza’s translation of the psalmist intent it seems we would be incorrect to associate God as “The God of the Mountains,” which is reserved for pagan gods. However, where does this leave Mount Horeb?
Thank you for your comment and my apologies for the delay in sending you a reply.
Beza is not talking about Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb. He probably was referring to the high places when Canaanite shrines were built. The Name El Shaddai is generally translated as “The God of the Mountains.” God revealed himself on Mount Sinai (or Mount Horeb), but the high places of the Canaanites were places of pagan worship.
You are right to talk about Mount Horeb because it was “the mountain of God.” However, the title El Shaddai can also be translated as “The God of the Mountains.” What Beza is saying is that a faithful Israelite should not look at the mountains for help, because false gods were worshiped on the mountains. Faithful Israelite should look to God, not to the mountains.
What a powerful explanation.. proud of you professor…
regards form Indonesia
Thank you for your nice words. I am glad to know you enjoyed the post.
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I was seeking such explanation on Psalm 121 and it is excellent. Can you help me to get more materials on this psalm.
My late response to your comment: There are many good commentaries on Psalm 121. I hope you found the help you needed.
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Hi Dr. Mariottini,
I would like to know how to share this in a sermon. When a person reads this, it can seem like God is always going to protect his people but, we know differently (the holocaust). How can a person explain the hope without being disappointed that God is not there for them as the words seem to describe?
My late response to your comment: God is always present. The problem was that some people in Israel were looking for help from the gods on the mountains. Those gods are false gods. One should look to the Lord because he is the only one who can help in time of need. The gods on the mountains are unable to help.
the exegesis is well done but do include the application part for the sake of your large readers.
Thank you for your helpful comment. I made a note to myself to add an application to the post. At a later date I will add an update to the post.
Thank you. I really love this!
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