First published October 15, 2012
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 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 from 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.