Psalm 121: What a Difference a Question Mark Makes

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭121‬:‭1‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, From whence cometh my help.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭121‬:‭1‬ ‭KJV‬‬

My denomination once owned a conference center nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was blessed to work on a camp staff one summer, and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

The theme verse for the conference center was Psalm 121:1. It was on the plastic cups in the cafeteria. You could buy a coffee mug or a T-shirt in the gift shop. After all, what could be a more appropriate verse for a conference center surrounded by such majestic mountains? How could you not draw strength from God in such a place. It just made sense that everywhere you looked, you saw Psalm 121:1 as it is rendered in the King James Version:

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, From whence cometh my help.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭121‬:‭1‬ ‭KJV‬‬

There is just one problem. Since Hebrew doesn’t have punctuation, it is up to the translators whether “from whence cometh my help” is a declaration or a question. And—trigger warning— I think the KJV got this one wrong.

Before you unsubscribe to my blog, let’s remember two important tools for rightly interpreting Scripture: External context and internal context. Internal context is when you examine what else is happening in the Psalm. External context is what is happening around the Psalmist. Put those together, and I’d like you to consider a few reasons why I think this is supposed to be a question— “Where does my help come from?” —instead of a declaration of faith: “The hills, where my help comes from.”

Internal Context: What else Does This Psalm Say?

Immediately after this phrase, verse 2 reads “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of Heaven and earth.” It is as though the Psalmist is answering a question. “Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

The Maker of the hills. Not the hills themselves. The rest of the Psalm is all about who the Lord is and what the Lord will do. Notice that the hills are never mentioned again:

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭121‬:‭3‬-‭8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

God is everywhere. He is not limited to the hills. The pagans surrounding Israel had gods of the hills, a god of the sea, a god of the crops, a god of the river. Not Israel. Israel had one God, who was not bound to a landmark. And so do we.

External Context: What Was Happening Around the Psalmist?

As I noted in another post, Psalm 121 is part of a collection known as the Psalms of Ascent. They are fifteen Psalms that pilgrims would sing as they went up to Jerusalem for the required feasts. In today’s Bible Recap podcast, Tara-Leigh pointed out that since Jerusalem is higher in elevation than its surroundings, you had to go “up” to Jerusalem no matter which direction you were coming from. It could be hot on the road, so the Lord would be their shade. It could be dangerous on the road, so the Lord would be their protection. It could be uncertain footing on the pilgrim trail. So the Lord would not let your foot be moved. The hills did none of these things. So it doesn’t fit with the context to imagine that the pilgrims, on their way to worship Yahweh, would sing a psalm of praise to the hills “from whence cometh their help.”

And one more thing: As we get into the kings of the divided kingdom in a few weeks, pay attention to how many kings “failed to remove the high places,” and how many kings built an Asherah pole on a “high place.” Asherah was the goddess of fertility. She was the consort of Ba’al. And the two of them were worshiped on high places. So it would not be unusual for pilgrims to Jerusalem to “lift up their eyes to the hills” and see smoke rising from a pagan altar, and an Asherah pole silhouetted against the sky. And perhaps the devout pilgrim would think in her heart, “I will never find help from those places. My help comes from he Lord.”

Beloved, from whence cometh your help?

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