Psalm 121:1
A Song of degrees. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
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(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

Her prospects.”—WORDSWORTH.



Psalm 121:1 - Psalm 121:2

The so-called ‘Songs of Degrees,’ of which this psalm is one, are usually, and with great probability, attributed to the times of the Exile. If that be so, we get an appropriate background and setting for the expressions and emotions of this psalm. We see the exile, wearied with the monotony of the long-stretching, flat plains of Babylonia, summoning up before his mind the distant hills where his home was. We see him wondering how he will be able ever to reach that place where his desires are set; and we see him settling down, in hopeful assurance that his effort is not in vain, since his help comes from the Lord. ‘I will lift up my eyes unto the hills’; away out yonder westwards, across the sands, lie the lofty summits of my fatherland that draws me to itself. Then comes a turn of thought, most natural to a mind passionately yearning after a great hope, the very greatness of which makes it hard to keep constant. For the second clause of my text cannot possibly be, as it is translated in our Authorised Version, an affirmation, but must be taken as the Revised Version correctly gives it, a question: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help?’ How am I to get there? And then comes the final turn of thought: ‘My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.’

So then, there are three things here-the look of longing, the question of weakness, the assurance of faith.

I. The look of longing.

‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’-a resolution, and a resolution born of intense longing. Now the hills that the Psalmist is thinking about were visible from no part of that long-extended plain where he dwelt; and he might have looked till he wore his eyes out, ere he could have seen them on the horizon of sense. But although they were unseen, they were visible to the heart that longed for them. He directs his desires further than the vision of his eyeballs can go. Just as his possible contemporary, Daniel, when he prayed, opened his window towards the Jerusalem that was so far away; and just as Mohammedans still, in every part of the world, when they pray, turn their faces to the Kaabah at Mecca, the sacred place to which their prayers are directed; and just as many Jews still, north, east, south or west though they be, face Jerusalem when they offer their supplications-so this psalmist in Babylon, wearied and sick of the low levels that stretched endlessly and monotonously round about him, says, ‘I will look at the things that I cannot see, and lift up my eyes above these lownesses about me, to the loftinesses that sense cannot behold, but which I know to be lying serene and solid beyond the narrowing horizon before me.’

There was the look of longing, and the longing which made non-vision into a look; and there was the effort to divert his attention from the things around him to the things afar off; and there was the realisation, by reason of the effort, of these distant but most certain realities.

Now this Psalmist’s home-sickness, if I may so call it, had nothing at all religious about it. It was simply that he wanted to get to his own country-his own, though he had been born in exile; and there was nothing more devout or spiritual or refining about his longing than there is about the wish to return to his native country that any foreigner in a distant land feels. But when we take these words, as we all ought to do, as the motto of our lives, we must necessarily attach the loftiest religious meaning to them. And here start up the plain, simple, but tight-gripping and stimulating questions, ‘Do I see the Unseen? Does that far-off, dim land assume substance and reality to me? Do I walk in the light of it raying out to me through earth’s darkness? Do I dwell contented with never a glimpse of it?’ It comes to be a very sharp question with us professing Christians, whether the horizon of our inward being is limited by, and coterminous with, the horizon of our senses, or whether, far beyond the narrow limits to which these can reach, our spirits’ desire stretches boundless. Are, to us, the things unseen the solid things, and the things visible the shadows and the phantoms? The Apocalyptic seer, in his rocky Patmos, was told that he was to be shown ‘the things which are’; and what was it that he saw? A set of what people call unreal and symbolic visions. ‘The things which are,’ the world would have said, ‘are the rocks that you are standing on, and the sea that is dashing upon them, and all the solid-seeming Roman world, and the power that has got you in its grip. These are the realities, and these things that you think you see, these are the dreams.’ But it is exactly the other way. The world and all that is about us, Manchester and its hubbub, warehouses crammed with cloth, and mills full of jennies and throstles-these are the shadows; and the things that only the believing eye beholds, that are wrapped in the invisibility of their own greatness, these, and these only, are the realities. We see with the bodily eyes the shadows on the wall, as it were, but we have to turn round and see with the eyes of our minds the light that flings the shadows. ‘I will lift up my eyes’ from the mud-flats where I live to the hills that I cannot see, and, seeing them, I shall be blessed.

Further, do we know anything of that longing that the Psalmist had? He was perfectly comfortable in Babylon. There was abundance of everything that he wanted for his life. The Jews there were materially quite as well off, and many of them a great deal better off, than ever they had been in their narrow little strip of mountain land, shut in between the desert and the sea. But for all that, fat, wealthy Babylon was not Palestine. So amidst the lush vegetation, the wealth of water and the fertile plains, the Psalmist longed for the mountains, though the mountains are often bare of green things. It was that longing that led to his looking to the hills. Do we know anything of that longing which makes us ‘that are in this tabernacle to groan, being burdened’? ‘Absent from the Lord,’ and ‘present in the body,’ we should not be at ease, nor at home. Unless our Christianity throws us out of harmony and contentment with the present, it is worth very little. And unless we know something of that immortal longing to be nearer to God, and fuller of Christ, and emancipated from sense, and from the burdens and trivialities of life, we have yet to learn what the meaning of ‘walking not after the flesh but after the Spirit’ really is.

Further, do we make any effort like that of this Psalmist, who encourages and stimulates himself by that strong ‘I will lift up my eyes’? You will not do it unless you make a dead lift of effort. It is a great deal easier for a man to look at what is at his feet than to crane his neck gazing at the stars.

And so, unless we take up and persevere in maintaining a habitual attitude of stirring up and lifting up ourselves, gravitation will be too much for us, and down will go the head, and down the eyes; and down will go the desires, and we shall be like men that live in some mountainous country, who never lift their gaze to the solemn white summits that travellers come across half Europe to see. Christian men and women too often walk beneath the very peaks of the mountains of God, and rarely lift their vision there. They perhaps do so for an hour and a half on a Sunday morning, or an hour on a Wednesday evening, when there is no other engagement, or for a minute or two in the morning before they hurry down to breakfast, or a minute or two at night when they are dead beat and unfit for anything. For the rest of the time, there are the mountains and here is the saint, and he seldom or never turns his head to look at them! Is that the sort of Christianity that is likely to be a power in the world, or a blessing to its possessor?

II Further, notice the question of weakness.

‘From whence cometh my help?’ The loftier our ideal, the more painful ought to be our conviction of incapacity to reach it. The Christian man’s one security is in feeling his peril, and the condition of his strength is his acknowledgment and vivid consciousness always of his weakness. The exile in Babylon had a dreary desert, peopled by wild Arab tribes hostile to him, stretching between his present home and that where he desired to be, and it would be difficult for him to get away from the dominion that held him captive, unless by consent of the power of whom he was the vassal. So the more the thought of the mountains of Israel drew the Psalmist, the more there came into his mind the thought, ‘How am I to be made able to reach that blessed soil?’ And surely, if we saw, with anything like a worthy apprehension and vision, the greatness of that blessedness that lies yonder for Christian souls, we should feel far more deeply than we do the impossibility, as far as we are concerned, of our ever reaching it. The sense of our own weakness and the consciousness of the perils upon the path ought ever to be present with us all.

Brethren! if, on the one hand, we have to cultivate, for a healthy, vital Christianity, a vision of the mountains of God, on the other hand we have to try to deepen in ourselves the wholesome sense of our own impotence, and the conviction that the dangers on the road are far too great for us to deal with. ‘Blessed is the man that feareth always.’ ‘Pride goeth before destruction.’ Remember the Franco-German war, and how the French Prime Minister said that they were going into it ‘with a light heart,’ and how some of the troops went out of Paris in railway carriages labelled ‘for Berlin’; and when they reached the frontier they were doubled up and crushed in a month. Unless we, when we set ourselves to this warfare, feel the formidableness of the enemy and recognise the weakness of our own arms, there is nothing but defeat for us.

III. Finally, notice the assurance of faith.

The Psalmist asks himself, ‘From whence cometh my help?’ and then the better self answers the questioning, timid self: ‘My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.’ There will be no reception of the divine help unless there is a sense of the need of the divine help. God cannot help me before I am brought to despair of any other help. It is only when a man says, ‘There is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou, O God!’ that God comes to help.

There is a story in the Book of Chronicles, about one battle in which Judah engaged, of a very singular kind. The first step in the campaign was that the king of Judah gathered all his people together, and prayed to God, and said, ‘We know not what we shall do. We have no strength against this great multitude that cometh against us, but our eyes are unto Thee.’ Then a prophet came and assured him of victory, and next day they arrayed the battle. It was set in this strange fashion: in the forefront were put the priests and Levites, with their instruments of music, and not soldiers with spears and bows, and they marched out to battle with this song, ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful. His mercy endureth for ever.’ Then, without the stroke of sword or thrust of spear, God fought for them and scattered their foes.

‘Which things are an allegory.’ If we recognise our helplessness, God is our help. If we conceit ourselves to be strong, we are weak; if we know ourselves to be impotent, Omnipotence pours itself into us. We read once that Jesus Christ healed ‘them that had need of healing.’ Why does the Evangelist not say, without that periphrasis, ‘healed the sick’? Because he would emphasise, I suppose, amongst other things, the thought that only the sense of need fits for the reception of healing and help.

If, then, we desire that God should be ‘the Strength of our hearts, and our Portion for ever,’ the coming of His help must be wooed and won by our sense of our own impotence, and only they who say, ‘We have no might against this great multitude that cometh against us,’ will ever hear from Him the blessed assurance, ‘The Lord will fight for you.’ ‘Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord!’ So, brethren! the assurance of faith follows the consciousness of weakness, and both together will lead, and nothing else will lead, to the realisation of the vision of faith, and bring us at last, weak as we are, to the hills where the weary and foot-sore flock ‘shall lie down in a good fold, and on fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.’

Psalm 121:1-2. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills — To Zion and Moriah, called the holy mountains, Psalm 87:1, the hills on which the tabernacle or temple stood, where were the ark of the covenant, the oracle, and the altars. I will have an eye to the special presence of God in his church, and with his people, and from thence I will expect help. My help cometh from the Lord — From God alone, and therefore to him alone will I turn mine eyes; which made heaven and earth — And therefore how great soever my straits and difficulties may be, he has power sufficient for my succour and relief.

121:1-8 The safety of the godly. - We must not rely upon men and means, instruments and second causes. Shall I depend upon the strength of the hills? upon princes and great men? No; my confidence is in God only. Or, we must lift up our eyes above the hills; we must look to God who makes all earthly things to us what they are. We must see all our help in God; from him we must expect it, in his own way and time. This psalm teaches us to comfort ourselves in the Lord, when difficulties and dangers are greatest. It is almighty wisdom that contrives, and almighty power that works the safety of those that put themselves under God's protection. He is a wakeful, watchful Keeper; he is never weary; he not only does not sleep, but he does not so much as slumber. Under this shade they may sit with delight and assurance. He is always near his people for their protection and refreshment. The right hand is the working hand; let them but turn to their duty, and they shall find God ready to give them success. He will take care that his people shall not fall. Thou shalt not be hurt, neither by the open assaults, nor by the secret attempts of thine enemies. The Lord shall prevent the evil thou fearest, and sanctify, remove, or lighten the evil thou feelest. He will preserve the soul, that it be not defiled by sin, and disturbed by affliction; he will preserve it from perishing eternally. He will keep thee in life and death; going out to thy labour in the morning of thy days, and coming home to thy rest when the evening of old age calls thee in. It is a protection for life. The Spirit, who is their Preserver and Comforter, shall abide with them for ever. Let us be found in our work, assured that the blessings promised in this psalm are ours.I will lift up mine eyes - Margin, "Shall I lift up mine eyes to the hills? Whence should my help come?" The expression would properly denote a condition where there was danger; when no help or aid was visible; and when the eyes were turned to the quarter from which help might be expected to come. What the danger was cannot now be ascertained.

Unto the hills - Hebrew, the mountains. To the quarter from where I look for assistance. This (as has been shown in the Introduction) may refer

(1) to the mountains from where one in danger expected help; or

(2) to heaven, considered as high, and as the abode of God; or

(3) to the hills on which Jerusalem was built, as the place where God dwelt, and from where aid was expected.

The third of these is the most probable. The first would be applicable to a state of war only, and the second is forced and unnatural. Adopting the third interpretation, the language is natural, and makes it proper to be used at all times, since it indicates a proper looking to God as he manifests himself to people, particularly in the church.

From whence cometh my help - A more literal rendering would be, "Whence cometh my help?" This accords best with the usage of the Hebrew word, and agrees well with the connection. It indicates a troubled and anxious state of mind - a mind that asks, Where shall I look for help? The answer is found in the following verse.


Ps 121:1-8. God's guardian care of His people celebrated.

1. I will lift up mine eyes—expresses desire (compare Ps 25:1), mingled with expectation. The last clause, read as a question, is answered,

1 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

2 My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved - he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord is thy keeper, the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

6 The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil, he shall preserve thy soul.

8 The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Psalm 121:1

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." It is wise to look to the strong for strength. Dwellers in valleys are subject to many disorders for which there is no cure but a sojourn in the uplands, and it is well when they shake off their lethargy and resolve upon a climb. Down below they are the prey of marauders, and to escape from them the surest method is to fly to the strongholds upon the mountains. Often before the actual ascent the sick and plundered people looked towards the hills and longed to be upon their summits. The holy man who here sings a choice sonnet looked away from the slanderers by whom he was tormented to the Lord who saw all from his high places, and was ready to pour down succour for his injured servant. Help comes to saints only from above, they look elsewhere in vain, let us lift up our eyes with hope, expectancy, desire and confidence. Satan will endeavour to keep our eyes upon our sorrows that we may be disquieted and discouraged; be it ours firmly to resolve that we will look out and look up, for there is good cheer for the eyes, and they that lift up their eyes to the eternal hills shall soon have their hearts lifted up also. The purposes of God; the divine attributes; the immutable promises; the covenant, ordered in all things and sure; the providence, predestination, and proved faithfulness of the Lord - these are the hills to which we must lift our eyes, for from these our help must come. It is our resolve that we will not be bandaged and blindfolded, but will lift up our eyes.

Or is the text in the interrogative? Dose he ask, "Shall I lift up mine eyes to the hills?" Does he feel that the highest places of the earth can afford him no shelter? Or does he renounce the idea of recruits hastening to his standard from the hardy mountaineers? and hence does he again enquire, "Whence cometh my help?" If so, Psalm 121:2 answers the question, and shows whence all help must come.

Psalm 121:2

"My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth." What we need is help, - help powerful, efficient, constant, we need a very present help in trouble. What a mercy that we have it in our God. Our hope is in Jehovah, for our help comes from him. Help is on the road, and will not fail to reach us in due time, for he who sends it to us was never known to be too late. Jehovah who created all things is equal to every emergency; heaven and earth are at the disposal of him who made them, therefore let us be very joyful in our infinite helper. He will sooner destroy heaven and earth than permit his people to be destroyed, and the perpetual hills themselves shall bow rather than he shall fail whose ways are everlasting. We are bound to look beyond heaven and earth to him who made them both, it is vain to trust the creatures' it is wise to trust the Creator.

Psalm 121:3

continued...THE ARGUMENT

The matter of this Psalm sufficiently showeth that the psalmist was conflicting with great difficulties and oppositions, and looking. hither and thither for help, as men in such cases use to do, and then turning his eyes to God and his providence, and encouraging himself by God’s promises made to his people.

The psalmist showeth that the great safety of the godly is from the Lord, Psalm 121:1-5, who keepeth them in their outgoings and incomings from all evil, Psalm 121:6-8.

Unto the hills; either to Zion and Moriah, which are called the holy mountains, Psalm 87:1; or rather,

2. To the hills in general, whereof there were many in the land of Canaan, and upon which the forces, which he hoped would come to his aid, might be seen at a great distance.

Cometh; or, may come; Heb. will come.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,.... Not to the hills and mountains in Judea, looking about to see if the inhabitants of them, or any bodies of men, appeared upon them to his help in distress; rather to the hills of Moriah and Zion, where the ark of God, the symbol of his presence, was, and to whom he looked for assistance and deliverance: or to heaven, the holy hill of the Lord, and to him that dwelleth there; see Psalm 3:2. The lifting up of the eyes is a prayer gesture, John 11:41; and is expressive of boldness and confidence in prayer, and of hope and expectation of help and salvation, Job 11:15; when, on the contrary, persons abashed and ashamed, hopeless and helpless, cannot look up, or lift up their eyes or face to God, Ezra 9:6. Some read the words, "I will lift up mine eyes upon the hills" (f); standing there and looking up to the heavens, and God in the heavens; who is the most High over all the earth, higher than the highest, and above all gods. Others render them interrogatively, "shall I lift up mine eyes to the hills?" (g) to the idols worshipped on hills and mountains, and pray unto them, and expect help from them? No, I will not; salvation is not to be had from them, Jeremiah 3:23; or to the kings of the nations, as R. Obadiah interprets it; and to powerful kingdoms and states he was in alliance with, comparable to mountains and hills, Psalm 46:2? No, I will not; "it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes", Psalm 118:9. And so the following clause may be read,

from whence shall my help come? (h) not from hills and mountains; not from men, for vain is the help of man; not from kings and princes, the great men of the earth, nor from the most powerful nations; but from the Lord, as in Psalm 121:2, which may be an answer to this.

(f) "super montes", Vatablus, Amama; so Kimchi. (g) "attollerem oculos meos ad illos montes?" Junius & Tremellius; "attollamne", &c. Piscator; so Gejerus and Ainsworth. (h) So Musculus, Cocceius, Gejerus, Junius & Tremellius, Piscator, Michaelis.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
1. I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains:

From whence shall my help come? (R.V.)

The mountains are not the “mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 6:2 and often), to which the exile turns his longing eyes, but the mountains upon which Zion is built (Psalm 87:1; Psalm 125:1-2; Psalm 133:3), the seat of Jehovah’s throne (Psalm 78:68), from which He sends help to His people (Psalm 3:4; Psalm 20:2; Psalm 134:3). The question of the second line (which cannot be taken as a relative clause) is not one of doubt or despondency, but is simply asked to introduce the answer which follows in Psalm 121:2. That answer gives a deeper turn to the thought of the question. It is not from the mountains of Zion, but from Jehovah Who has fixed His earthly dwelling-place there that help comes.

Verse 1. - I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. The "holy hills," that stand round about Jerusalem, are intended (Psalm 87:1; Psalm 125:2). There God had "promised his blessing, even life forevermore" (Psalm 133:3). From whence cometh my help. Most modern critics regard this clause as interrogative, and translate, "Whence is it that my help shall come?" But "the question is only asked to give more effect to the answer" (Cheyne). Psalm 121:1Apollinaris renders as meaninglessly as possible: ὄμματα δενδροκόμων ὀρέων ὑπερεξετάνυσσα - with a reproduction of the misapprehended ἦρα of the lxx. The expression in fact is אשּׂא, and not נשׂאתי. And the mountains towards which the psalmist raises his eyes are not any mountains whatsoever. In Ezekiel the designation of his native land from the standpoint of the Mesopotamian plain is "the mountains of Israel." His longing gaze is directed towards the district of these mountains, they are his ḳibla, i.e., the sight-point of his prayer, as of Daniel's, Daniel 6:11. To render "from which my help cometh" (Luther) is inadmissible. מאין is an interrogative even in Joshua 2:4, where the question is an indirect one. The poet looks up to the mountains, the mountains of his native land, the holy mountains (Psalm 133:3; Psalm 137:1; Psalm 125:2), when he longingly asks: whence will my help come? and to this question his longing desire itself returns the answer, that his help comes from no other quarter than from Jahve, the Maker of heaven and earth, from His who sits enthroned behind and upon these mountains, whose helpful power reaches to the remotest ends and corners of His creation, and with (עם) whom is help, i.e., both the willingness and the power to help, so that therefore help comes from nowhere but from (מן) Him alone. In Psalm 121:1 the poet has propounded a question, and in Psalm 121:2 replies to this question himself. In Psalm 121:3 and further the answering one goes on speaking to the questioner. The poet is himself become objective, and his Ego, calm in God, promises him comfort, by unfolding to him the joyful prospects contained in that hope in Jahve. The subjective אל expresses a negative in both cases with an emotional rejection of that which is absolutely impossible. The poet says to himself: He will, indeed, surely not abandon thy foot to the tottering (למּוט, as in Psalm 66:9, cf. Psalm 55:23), thy Keeper will surely not slumber; and then confirms the assertion that this shall not come to pass by heightening the expression in accordance with the step-like character of the Psalm: Behold the Keeper of Israel slumbereth not and sleepeth not, i.e., He does not fall into slumber from weariness, and His life is not an alternate waking and sleeping. The eyes of His providence are ever open over Israel.
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