posted on Sep, 10 2021 @ 05:06 PM
Cards on the table. The Psalms are not really my thing. Even in poetry, I prefer narrative to lyric. So while I’m looking at this group of Psalms,
I won’t rely entirely on my own conclusions. I’ll separate out my own observations (in this first post) from what I find in commentaries and add
in the later posts..
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come?” (v1)
Modern translations add the question mark to the second half of the verse, with the implication that the question is answered in the next verse;
“… from the Lord who made heaven and earth”.
In the traditional translation, the second half of the verse explains the first. I lift my eyes to the hills, because I’m expecting help to come
from the hills.
I think the old version makes rather more sense. Why else would the speaker be looking into the hills? There’s no reason to think he would be
expecting danger from that direction. The God of Israel had a reputation amongst other nations as being “a god of the hills” (1 Kings ch20
v20); that was his base, that’s where he would be most formidable. So “my help comes from the hills” is another way of saying “my help comes
from God”. It is the equivalent of saying “from heaven”.
And I notice, looking ahead, that Psalm 123 opens with “To thee I lift up my eyes”, which implies that “I lift up my eyes to the hills” is an
equivalent. The eyes are being lifted for the same purpose in both cases.
The rest of the psalm describes how much the Lord helps us.
“He will not let your foot be moved” (v3).
I take this to mean “He will not let your enemies shift you from the home
you occupy, not by an inch.”
Anyone who has read history will be tempted to see an image of opposing lines of soldiers trying to push each other back, in the days before guns
became a serious factor. From the Greek hoplites (always edging to the right to take advantage of their neighbour’s shield) to the “push of
pike” of the English Civil War. But there are no other allusions to battle in this psalm, so that image is probably a red herring.
“He will neither slumber nor sleep” (v4). Another poetical redundancy.
The Lord keeps us. “The Lord is your shade on your right hand” (v4)
They need shade because the heat of the sun is dangerous. That is illustrated by the story of the child who died after a day spent in the reaping
fields, saying to his father “Oh, my head, my head!” (2 Kings ch4)
“On the right hand” is just another way of saying that he is a helper, a regular Biblical expression.
There’s no need to get over-ingenious here, and say- “If the shade is on the right, then the noon sun must be on the right, so he must be facing
“The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night” (v6).
In the first book of the Iliad, the sun-god Phoebus Apollo is angry with the Greeks, and he responds by sending a flood of arrows into the camp, which
cause an outbreak of plague. The logic behind this image may have been “We know that sunlight is responsible for heat-stroke, so it must be
responsible for other diseases as well”. That is probably how Apollo became a god of healing. If he caused the disease in the first place, then
people should ask his help in getting it cured.
In another psalm, the sun and the moon are both associated (by implication) with the arrows of pestilence;
“You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day
Nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Psalm 91 vv5-6)
So I suggest that this verse means “the Lord will protect you from pestilence and other diseases, known by medical science to be caused by the light
of the heavenly bodies”.
The last two verses offer four examples of “total help”.
“The Lord will keep you from ALL evil” (v7).
“He will keep your life”- that is, the whole of your life.
“The Lord will keep your going out and coming in” (v8)
“Coming in and going out” is a Biblical expression meaning “everything you do”.
As in “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out” Deuteronomy ch28 v16).
We are told that “all Israel and Judah loved David, for he came in and went out before them” (1 Samuel ch18 v16). That is, his life was in the
Moses told the people “I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I am no longer able to go out and come in” (Deuteronomy ch31 v2). That is,
his active life was over.
The same usage even comes into the teaching of Jesus, when he says the sheep “will go in and out and find pasture” (John ch10 v9), There’s a
confusing association with the “entering by the door” image, which is part of the same sentence, but they’re really separate pictures.
“From this time forth and for evermore”- for all time.
[Special note for grammatical pedants. That “from whence” has been carried over from the AV translation. Strictly speaking, in modern terms, the
“from” is redundant, because “whence” means “from where”. Just as “reticent” means “reluctant to speak”, so the “he was reticent
to speak”, which I keep seeing, involves another redundancy.
Yet the psalms ought to be translated into reasonably poetical speech, and poetical speech may require redundancies for the sake of the sound and
rhythm. Another good example is the following sentence (one of Cranmer’s, of course) which I used to hear in church services;
“Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, walking
from henceforth in his holy ways; draw near with faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort, and make your humble confession to almighty God,
meekly kneeling upon your knees.”
As a boy, I used to ask myself “Why are those last three words there? Where else can we kneel, except upon our knees?”
But as a writer, I recognise that those last words are necessary for the rhythm. Without them, the rolling sentence comes to a very abrupt halt,
instead of trundling gently into the full stop at the end.]