Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm is entitled simply, "A Song of Degrees." See the notes on the title to Psa 120:1-7. Nothing is known, or can be known, of the author or of the occasion on which it was composed. DeWette and Rosenmuller suppose that it was composed in the exile; Rosenmuller regarding it as a psalm to be sung on the return to Palestine after the captivity - DeWette, as the psalm of a pensive exile looking toward the hills of Palestine, his native land, as the source from where all his help must come - and expressing confidence in God that he would bring him out of his exile and his trouble. There is no proof, however, that either of these suppositions is correct. The language is such, indeed, as might then be employed, but it is also such as might be used on many other occasions. It might be the language of the leader of an army, endangered, and looking to the "hills" where he expected reinforcements; it might be that of a pious man encompassed with dangers, anal using this expression as illustrative of his looking up to God; or it might be the language of one looking directly to heaven, represented as the heights, or the exalted place where God dwells; or it might be the language of one looking to the hills of Jerusalem - the seat of the worship of God - the place of His abode - as his refuge, and as the place from where only help could come. This last seems to me to be the most probable supposition; and thus the psalm represents the confidence and hope of a pious man (in respect to duty, danger, or trial) as derived from the God whom he worships - and the place where God has fixed his abode - the church where he manifests himself to people.
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.
My help cometh from the Lord - From Yahweh. This is the answer to the anxious inquiry in Psa 121:1. It indicates
(a) a consciousness that help could come only from God;
(b) a belief that it would come from him; and a confident yet humble reliance on him.
Which made heaven and earth - The great Creator of the universe. He must, therefore, be able to protect me. The Creator of all can defend all.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved - He will enable you to stand firm. You are safe in his protection. Compare the notes at Psa 38:16. This, with the remainder of the psalm, seems to be of the nature of an answer to the anxious question in Psa 121:1 - an answer which the author of the psalm, in danger and trouble, makes to his own soul, imparting confidence to himself.
He that keepeth thee will not slumber - He will be ever watchful and wakeful. Compare Isa 27:3. All creatures, as far as we know, sleep; God never sleeps. Compare Psa 139:11-12. His eyes are upon us by day, and in the darkness of the night - the night literally; and also the night of calamity, woe, and sorrow.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel - The Keeper - the Guardian - of his people. The psalmist here passes from his own particular case to a general truth - a truth to him full of consolation. It is, that the people of God must always be safe; that their great Guardian never slumbers; and that he, as one of his people, might, therefore, confidently look for his protecting care.
Shall neither slumber nor sleep - Never slumbers, never ceases to be watchful. Man sleeps; a sentinel may slumber on his post, by inattention, by long-continued wakefulness, or by weariness; a pilot may slumber at the helm; even a mother may fall asleep by the side of the sick child; but God is never exhausted, is never weary, is never inattentive. He never closes his eyes on the condition of his people, on the needs of the world.
The Lord is thy keeper - Thy Preserver; thy Defender. He will keep time from danger; he will keep thee from sin; he will keep thee unto salvation.
The Lord is thy shade - The Lord is as a shadow: as the shadow of a rock, a house, or a tree, in the intense rays of the burning sun. See the notes at Isa 25:4.
Upon thy right hand - See Psa 16:8; Psa 109:31. Perhaps the particular allusion to the right hand here may be that that was the place of a protector. He would thus be at hand, or would be ready to interpose in defense of him whom he was to guard. It is possible, however, that the idea here may be derived from the fact that in Scripture the geographer is represented as looking to the east, and not toward the north, as with us. Hence, the south is always spoken of as the right, or at the right hand (compare the notes at Psa 89:12); and as the intense rays of the sun are from the south, the idea may be, that God would be as a shade in the direction from which those burning rays came.
The sun shall not smite thee by day - The Septuagint renders this, "shall not burn thee" - συγκαύσει sungkausei. So the Latin Vulgate. The Hebrew word means to smite, to strike, as with a rod or staff, or with the plague or pestilence; and then, to kill, to slay. The allusion here is to what is now called a "sun-stroke" - the effect of the burning sun on the brain. Such effects of the sun are often fatal now, as doubtless they were in the time of the psalmist.
Nor the moon by night - The psalmist here refers to some prevalent opinion about the influence of the moon, as endangering life or health. Some have supposed that he refers to the sudden cold which follows the intense heat of the day in Oriental countries, and which, because the moon rules the night, as the sun does the day, is either poetically or literally attributed to the moon. Lackmann and Michaelis suppose that there is some allusion to the influence of the moon in producing various kinds of disease, and especially lunacy - an idea which gave origin to that name. Compare the notes at Mat 4:24. See Mat 17:15; Mar 9:17; Luk 9:39. Knapp supposes the idea is, that from the moon's not giving a clear and full light like the sun, travelers trusting to its guidance may be led into rivers or quagmires. Macrobius refers to a custom among the Orientals of covering the faces of children when asleep, from some imagined effect of the moon on the health of the child. Andersen (Orient. Reise-Beschreib. i. 8) refers to an effect, which he says is common, and which he had often seen, of sleeping in the moon-beams, of making the neck stiff, so that it could not be turned from side to side as before. See Rosenmuller, Morgenland, in loc. Others have supposed that the allusion is to the effect of the moon, and of sleeping under the open air, in producing ophthalmia - a disease very common in the East - an effect guarded against by covering the face. The influence of the moon, in producing madness or disease - the general influence of it on health - is often referred to. Thus Shakespeare says:
"The moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound."
Midsummer Night's Dream, ii. 2.
"It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad."
Othello, v. 2.
Some of these things are evidently purely imaginary. The true idea seems to be that there were effects to be dreaded from the sudden changes from the heat of day to the cold of night, and that these effects were attributed to the moon. See Gen 31:40. The meaning is, that God would be a Protector alike in the dangers of the day and of the night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil - This is an advance of the thought. The psalmist had in the previous verses specified some particular evils from which he says God would keep those who put their trust in him. He now makes the remark general, and says that God would not only preserve from these particular evils, but would keep those who trusted in him from all evil: he would be their Protector in all the perils of life.
He shall preserve thy soul - Thy life. See Psa 41:2; Psa 97:10.
The Lord shall preserve thou going out and thy coming in - Preserve thee in going out and coming in; in going from thy dwelling, and returning to it; in going from home and coming back; that is, everywhere, and at all times. Compare Deu 28:6. See the notes also at Job 5:24. "From this time forth, and even forevermore." Through this life and for ever. This is the gracious assurance which is made to all who put their trust in God. At home and abroad; in the house, in the field, and by the way; on the land and on the ocean; in their native country and in climes remote; on earth, in the grave, and in the eternal world, they are always safe. No evil that will endanger their salvation can befal them; nothing can happen to them here but what God shall see to be conducive to their ultimate good; and in the heavenly world they shall be safe forever from every kind of evil, for in that world there will be no sin, and consequently no need of discipline to prepare them for the future.
"In foreign realms, and lands remote,
Supported by thy care,
Through burning climes they pass unhurt,
And breathe in tainted air.
When by the dreadful tempest borne,
High on the broken wave,
They know thou art not slow to hear,
Nor impotent to save.
The storm is laid - the winds retire,
Obedient to thy will;
The sea that roars at thy command,
At thy command is still.
In midst of dangers, fears, and death,
Thy goodness we'll adore;
We'll praise thee for thy mercies past,
And humbly hope for more.
Our life, while thou preserv'st that life,
Thy sacrifice shall be;
And death, when death shall be our lot,
Shall join our souls to thee."