A song for Monday: Psalm 121

I’ve never talked with you about Psalm 121. It’s a song that strengthens me. When my heart sings it, I am encouraged. It has been shaping me for a several decades but I’ve never talked with you about it.

“The sun will not smite me by day, nor the moon by night.” That’s not exactly how the NIV reads, but it is how Bernstein included this Psalm in “A Simple Song“. I started singing those words, the phrases form Psalm 121 in college. Not out loud, for to me to sing outside my head encourages no one. But the musical blend of dissonance and resolve in this piece reflects the lyrical dissonance and resolve in the Psalm itself. Somehow, singing the lines strengthens me.

When Eugene Peterson writes about that passage (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction), he asks, “How can the moon smite you?”, then talks about the struggles we have in the dark, the doubts that creep, the questions that rob us of sleep. Peterson’s explanation of the lyricist’s imagery makes sense. And comforts.

I realized why I haven’t talked about this song. It’s easy to treat it as an assertion and to offer counterexamples. When the psalmist says, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life,” it is possible to say, “But what about the time that evil hurt my friend, my daughter, me?” When the psalmist says, “He will not let your foot be moved”, we say, “But what about the time my friend did slip?”

And so, to avoid the argument, I’ve not mentioned the song. In the process, I’ve not pointed you to this pilgrim song, sung for generations on their way to Jerusalem. I apologize. We need anthems that teach large truths even while we sort out specific events.

4 thoughts on “A song for Monday: Psalm 121

  1. Rich Dixon

    Seems like we can either try to construct truth from our limited perspective based on a small sample of individual events, or we can seek to understand how our experiences mesh with what we know to be true…and accept that apparent contradictions mean we’re unable to see big enough.

    Path #1 demonstrates faith only in my personal experience. Path #2 requires faith in something bigger.


  2. Hugh McDevitt

    Jon, you and I share love of a number of psalms. Psalm 121 is one of my favorites. And, as I have done in this forum before, I’d like to share one of my favorite choral settings of this psalm–by jazz artists Pat Metheny and Lyle Mayes. The choir I direct has sung this setting in church, and we have used it quite often for a Compline service that we sometimes sing at Stanford University Memorial Church.


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