My notes and thoughts about Psalm 121 continue….
Verse 5 reads, “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is the shade at your right hand.”
In verse 3, the psalmist promises that God keeps our steps as we journey. Now, the psalmist promises that God keeps us protected from the hazards of the journey.
Does God protect us physically, as verse 5 and 6 teach (especially 6)? Does God protect us from ALL evil, as verse 7 teaches?
You sometimes hear people say, “Every word of the Bible is true.” That’s true if you affirm that the Holy Spirit inspires the book. But the statement implies that every verse is true at face value. Take Psalm 37:4:
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Of course that’s not true in the sense that God provides everything we desire, even when we delight in him! But our hearts grow in the Lord as we seek him, and over time, the desires of our hearts come into line with God’s desires for us.
It’s the same way with Psalm 121. If you take these verses at face value, you might conclude that no one would have any trouble or challenge. In some of the other psalms, the the psalmists have tons of trouble—dangerous trouble. Those psalmists wondered why God wasn’t helping them as fast as they thought they needed. But in “hanging in” with their faith, they came out on the other side of trouble and praised God.
Psalm 121 is, in a way, a statement of simple faith. A simple faith is good; a child has simple faith, praised by Christ in Luke 18:15-17.
As we grow in God, we may see a confluence of our dreams and desires, our hopes, God’s providence, and God’s direction. But many things we may not understand. Some things in our lives may always seem painful and inexplicable. All the while, we’re growing in our knowledge of and relationship with God. Later, as we look back upon our lives, we may see how certain difficulties and disappointments became sources of blessing (even though the pain and regret may remain). I saw a saying on Twitter: “If you life seems to be falling apart, it may just be falling into place.”
We do have to interpret the Bible, though. If I “claimed” a particular verse as if it were God’s specific promise to me personally, I might be disappointed. For instance, I might assume God will never allow me to be harmed or to fall, based on this psalm. But then I might be hurt in some day—which is part of being human, after all. Would my faith in God survive if I’ve based my faith upon that expectation of safety?
I’m guessing that a lot of people have struggled in their faith because they felt let down by God in some way. I certainly have, at different times in my life. Our psalm affirms an overall trust in God. Whatever might be our specific circumstances, God has “the big picture” and continues to help us.
God Still Keeps Us
Earlier, I discussed a few meanings of the word “keeper.” Verse 5 gives us the third instance of the term “keep” or “keeper.” Of course, “keeper” can also point to a specific animal: sheep.
Shepherds are a biblical metaphor for God (Psalm 23, Ezekiel 24, John 10:1-18), which means that sheep are an unflattering metaphor for us.
Sheep are needy, foolish-seeming animals. They look at you, with those horizontal pupils. They stick their tongues out as they “bah” at you. They lack the placidness of cows and the intelligence of horses. As recounted in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, Roosevelt during his western ranching days called sheep “bleating idiots” and wrote, “No man can associate with sheep and retain his self-respect.”
In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, W. Phillip Keller writes, “The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways… Our mass mind (or mod instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.” A farmer once told me that sheep easily become lonely; you can’t have only one sheep and raise it. Sheep are also prone to stray and to follow “rogue” sheep; Keller tells of a healthy ewe that, with great regret, he had to slaughter because she repeatedly escaped through wire fences and taught other sheep to do so.(1)
Hardships befall sheep. Sheep wander off, they come under attack, they suffer because they’ve inadequate fields on which to graze, and they fall prey to disease. They do stupid things and lead others to do so, too. Shepherds do a great deal to help and protect the sheep but cannot do everything.
If we ever wondered about God’s care for us, we should think of shepherds. They do not turn their back on sheep just because sheep do stupid things and are prone to mess up their own lives. Shepherds are devoted to the sheep’s care. So much more is God devoted to our care—-dumb and wandering though we are.
“The Lord is your shade at your right hand.” This verse–translated in this way—reminds me of being outdoors in summertime. Shade is protecting and cooling. Even on the hottest days, when the air is still and heavy, the shade of a tree or an awning provides relief when you’re walking among businesses or working in your yard. I love taking barefooted walks and recall times when I appreciated the protection of a shady sidewalk after I’d run on tiptoe across a hot street.
The Hebrew word tsel can also be translated “shadow.”(2) A notable example is Psalm 91. Here is the whole psalm:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Psalm 91, which affirms many of the same things as Psalm 121, uses many images and metaphors to describe God’s protection and care. God is our machseh, a word translated as “dwelling place” or “refuge” depending on the translation (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:27, Psalm 46:1), connoting protection and relief. (Here is a lovely piece that begins with the ninety-first psalm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwQU3JNNPIY)
God is also a tsel in Isaiah 25:4-5:
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
God’s hand is a “shadow” in Isaiah 49:2, and as we’ve seen already, God is said to have sheltering “wings,” as in in Psalm 17:8 and also Psalm 36:8:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
“Shadow” can have negative meanings, too, as in the transitory question of our lives (Ps. 102:11, 144:4, Eccl. 6:12, etc.) and similarly as the presence of darkness, as in Psa. 9:2 and Psalm 23’s “valley of the shadow.”(2) But here in Psalm 121, we certainly have the meaning of shadow/shade as something protective.
The Right Hand
“God is the shadow (or shade) at your right hand.” With apologies to left-handed people, “the right hand” symbolizes strength and favor. As our Psalm 121 author David Barker notes: you could paraphrase this verse to: whatever you’re doing right now, God is close by.
We find the image elsewhere in the psalms,: 18:35 and 98:1. Perhaps the most famous verse using this metaphor is Psalm 110:1:
The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Psalm 110:1 is frequently used in the New Testament as a messianic text pointing to Christ. The Apostles’ Creed also alludes to verse 1 when it says Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father.” In the psalm, the king sits in an honored place of trust beside God. Since most people favor their right hand and use it the most, the right hand also is the symbol of God’s power and protection. (If you’re a southpaw, read all of the short Psalm 110 and notice that the king switches places in verse 5. The power of God is at the king’s right hand, and so the king is at God’s left.) In both cases, God and the king are seen in close relationship and identical purposes.
“The right hand” also appears in the previous Psalm, where God “stands at the right hand of the needy” to save them (109:31). This juxtaposition deepens the meaning of Psalm 110, for God’s Messiah is not only powerful over worldly authorities but also intercedes (often against those authorities!) for the sinful, poor, and needy.
None of us are kings or queens, but “the right hand” still symbolizes individual power and work (no matter which hand is our strongest). In the midst of our daily efforts, God provides protection, power, and defense as we go about our lives.
Here again, we think of the image of the strong and vigilant shepherd who protects the sheep. Psalm 23 again:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You can work or play in the hot sun, but but it’s so much better to work and rest in the shade. Maybe that’s a good way to think about God’s shade—God’s protection.
Resting in Christ
God helps us rest. Our pastor preached a good sermon this past Sunday on the spiritual discipline of solitude. Among his points, he noted that Jesus spent alone time with God as he balanced his public ministry and private teaching. Our pastor then connected Jesus’ prayer times with Jesus’ own words:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28).
If we are weary and burdened, we can set aside time to spent with Jesus (in whatever form that may take: Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, worship, the sacraments, time spent in nature, and some combination of these).
This Matthew 11 verse bothered me when I first read it, years ago. Jesus’ teachings in, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount constitute a very high standard, after all: how, then, can Jesus’ “yoke” be “easy”? His yoke (that is, our discipleship and our obedience to him) seemed hard.
Well…. in some ways, it is! But we’re not supposed to be out there trudging along and doing things on our own. We can approach Jesus for help, without fear that he’ll disapprove of our weakness and failure (Heb. 4:14-16). We can call upon divine help for our worries and burdens, knowing that our prayers are heard with gentleness.
We might think of this verse in Matthew in conjunction with Psalm 121:5. Even if we have trouble, God offers a “place” of refuge and protection. Paradoxically, we can feel safe in God even if other aspects of our lives are difficult.
1. Philip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 22, 37-38.
2. James C. Moyer, “Shadow,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), p. 208.