In this third and final (for now) comment on Psalm 121 I want to risk sharing a few thoughts that could be easily labelled ‘half-baked’.
Researching this psalm and all the ‘Songs of Ascent’ (Psalms 120-134) a theme emerged that grabbed my interest; especially in light of my choice of ‘Singing in Babylon’ as the title of this blog.
One of my favourite episodes in the life of God’s people in captivity is the account of Daniel and his friends taken to be trained as advisors to King Nebuchadnezzar; (see Daniel 1:3-7)
‘6 Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.’
The matter of changing their names is worth thinking about.
From their original Hebrew names containing the syllable “el” for “God” or “iah” for “the LORD,” these four names were changed to honor gods of Babylon.
Daniel was called by the Babylonian name Belteshazzar, “May Bel protect his life!” invoking that pagan deity on his behalf. In Daniel 4:8 we read what Nebuchadnezzar thought of Daniel; ‘Finally, Daniel came into my presence ….. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)
Now the verses in Psalm 121 that led me here are verses 5 and 6;
‘The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.’
Which I found interesting in light of verse 2;
‘My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.’
Why are the people of God in need of his protection from his own creation?
I know that since the fall of man in Eden all of Creation has been affected and man’s (and woman’s) experience of life is dangerous even on a purely physical level. (See Genesis 3:17-19, for example.)
But how much danger were the people of Judah really in from the sun and the moon? Well there’s heatstroke I suppose; in the desert it must have been especially severe. We talk about the effect of the full moon on ‘lunatics’ and that’s not as crazy as it sounds. Some old commentators even suggest that moonlight in the desert (in days before the night sky was polluted by electric light) was so bright that it also posed a risk to anyone who fell asleep in the open.
And of course, Psalm 121:5 and 6 do mention that the LORD is ‘shade’ to his people; but surely (other than the pillar of cloud that led the people in the wilderness by day) has the LORD been about ‘shading’ his people from the sun? Well, there was Jonah’s happy experience of the giant gourd that God provided him for shelter too.
It just seems strange that heatstroke was felt ‘Psalm-worthy’ by these writers.
But then I looked again at their experience in Babylon where even their names were changed to reflect the influence of pagan gods and I began to realize that every part of their lives, day to day, in all those decades of captivity would have been coloured in this way. No wonder they began to find it difficult to ‘sing the LORD’s song’ there. (Psalm 137)
Then I remembered the LORD’s warning in Deuteronomy about worshiping idols and in Deuteronomy 4:19&20 this; ‘19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars–all the heavenly array–do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. 20 But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.’
Regardless of warnings like this, sun worship for example was often a temptation to the people. Kings of Judah, Asa and Josiah removed images used in sun worship from the temple of the LORD.
The ‘Songs of Ascent’ express the joy of the people at being ‘back’. From captivity in Babylon where pagan gods ‘ruled’ they were at last able to travel to Jerusalem, to the temple of the LORD, to worship him together; but the rest of the year they still lived, even in Judah, surrounded by worshipers of pagan gods; they felt threatened by them (rightly or wrongly) and were tempted to fall in with them, especially in times of hardship, famine and war.
In this respect we share their experience, I think.
In the Kingdom of God by his Grace, in Christ, we are still in this world and we are surrounded by paganism along with materialism, heathenism and a hundred other ‘isms’ too, I suppose.
Now, if it was the threat of this pagan oppression that the writer of Psalm 121 was reassuring the people about then surely we may take this for ourselves as well.
‘I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
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.’
When we feel the weight of oppression and ridicule for our faith; when we suffer because we are in Christ, in the world; when we feel the full force of temptation to cave in and replace the Word of God with the words of men as our authority and our comfort, then we also may remember Psalm 121.
1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
ROMANS 12:1, 2.