The responsorial psalm for this week comes from Psalm 121, a psalm of confidence which is also a psalm of ascent, which means that it contains sentiments associated with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (pilgrims would ascend Mount Zion to reach the city).
I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me?
In ancient times, mountains were considered sacred sites. Their majesty inspired confidence, and they came to be considered places of refuge and safety. Because they seemed to reach high into the heavens, they were thought to be places where the gods dwelt, or at least from which the will of the gods was made known.
Israel was no stranger to this kind of thinking. Not only did momentous events of its history occur on mountains (Exodus 19), but Solomon had the Temple constructed on one (1 Kings 8:1).
That the psalmist should look to the mountains for help is very much in keeping with traditional Israelite piety. Here the psalmist seems to ask a general question: from where does my help come?
My help is from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
A very specific answer is given: My help comes from the LORD, who dwells in Jerusalem.
The reference to God as the Creator of heaven and earth is one feature of this psalm that identifies it as a psalm of ascent. This was an epithet of the Canaanite god who was worshiped at Salem long before David seized the city and renamed it Jerusalem (Genesis 14:18-20). It is believed that when David took over the city, the religious leaders he brought with him appropriated as much of the religious tradition of the place as they were able to incorporate into the worship of the God of Israel. Thus the divine epithet remained in the city, but it now identified the LORD.
May he not suffer your foot to slip; may he slumber not who guards you: indeed he neither slumbers nor sleeps, the guardian of Israel.
God is described as a solicitous protector, one who watches day and night, attentive to the needs of the entire people (“the guardian of Israel”).
The LORD is your guardian; the LORD is your shade;
God is also attentive to the needs of the individual worshipper (“your guardian”).
he is beside you at your right hand.
Since in times of assault, most people will grab whatever is at their right, God is described as the support that is ever there, waiting to be called upon.
The sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The sun and the moon were polar realities considered to be quite dangerous. Many people believed that fever and leprosy were caused by lunar disturbances and that those who were moonstruck were possessed by demons.
Besides holding back such evils, God will act as a shade, protecting against sunstroke and the ailments that often accompany it.
The LORD will guard you from all evil; he will guard your life. The LORD will guard your coming and your going, both now and forever.
Every aspect of the psalmist’s life will be in the safekeeping of this provident and sheltering God.