Psalm 121 – A Song of Steps

“Songs of Ascent” is the title given to fifteen of the Psalms (120-134) whose theme is drawing near to God on His holy hill for a tryst between heaven and earth. In liturgical imagery, the worshipers ascend the steps of the mountain-altar of Eden as blameless “living sacrifices” that their praise might rise from there as a “smoky” tower to heaven, an ascension offering which is acceptable to God.1For more discussion, see The First Ascension.

This act of ascending God’s altar on steps was forbidden in Exodus 20:26, because the nakedness of those who were ascending – their “private parts” — would be exposed to God. This alludes to the unworthiness of Adam and Eve, the fact that they were not invested with authority as God’s representatives, their subsequent expulsion from Eden, and the requirement of substitutionary sacrificial blood before they could draw near to God for fellowship.

The fifteen Songs of Ascent constitute two “matrix” cycles, the first of which includes Psalm 121. The theme of each Psalm in the first cycle is represented in the following titles:

120: Against Those Who Hate Peace  (Creation/Sabbath – Genesis)
121: My Help Comes From The Lord  (Division/Passover – Exodus)
122: Let Us Go To The House Of The Lord  (Ascension/Firstfruits – Leviticus)
123: Our Eyes Look To The Lord Our God  (Testing/Pentecost – Numbers)
124: The Nations As A Flood  (Maturity/Trumpets – Deuteronomy)
125: The Land Allotted To The Righteous  (Conquest/Atonement – Joshua)
126: Restore Our Fortunes  (Glorification/Booths – Judges)

Setting Off To Bootcamp

Within this literary ziggurat, Psalm 121 exists as a smaller musical ziggurat, the second in the sequence. This means that its theme concerns Hierarchy and sanctification, that is, the setting apart of God’s people from the world in preparation for service, or in modern lingo, setting off to bootcamp. This helps us to understand the meaning of the Psalm, especially the first stanza. Moreover, as usual, each stanza is a Covenant-literary ziggurat within the Psalm:

A song of steps. (Day 1 – Initiation)
Will I lift my eyes (Day 2 – Delegation)
to the hills? (Day 3 – Presentation)
From where comes my help? (Day 4 – Purification)
My help (Day 5 – Transformation)
from the Lord comes, (Day 6 – Vindication)
that made heaven and earth. (Day 7 – Representation)

  • In the first stanza, Israel is pictured as a new Egypt, a civilisation which worships manifold gods. The psalmist separates himself from the false worshipers through a public testimony of allegiance to the one true God. This stanza reminds Israel that there is only one God, who is truly transcendent, and not limited to a particular locality.
  • It is crucial that we have the various matrix “threads” under our skin as we read the parsed text. Doing so means that we are able to notice features such as the placement of the “hills” in line 3, which refers to the idolatrous high places in Israel. Another is the “help” in line 5 which alludes to the hosts or “swarms/clouds” of heaven (Day 5 / Trumpets), and also to Adam’s helper, Eve the multiplier.
He will not allow (Initiation)
to be moved your foot. (Delegation)
Will not slumber (Presentation)
he who keeps you, Behold, (Purification)
will not slumber nor sleep (Transformation)
He who keeps Israel. (Vindication)
The Lord is your keeper. (Representation)

  • The “Passover” stanza draws the worshiper into the veil of darkness, the obscuring firmament between heaven and earth. Beginning with Adam and Abraham, the worshiper must symbolically “die” before being raised up again for priestly service. This process is also observed in the investiture of the prophets, who fall down as dead men before Yahweh. The sword that cuts off the generations of the wicked is not fatal for the princes of God.
  • The expansion of “slumber” in line 3 into the double witness of “slumber nor sleep” in line 5 (legal witness) is wonderful.
ETHICS (Leviticus)
The Lord (Ark of the Testimony)
your shade is (Veil)
on your right hand. (Bronze Altar & Table)
By day, the sun (Lampstand)
shall not strike, (Incense Altar)
Nor the moon (Laver and Mediators)
by night.

  • The faithful priesthood of Israel would protect the nation from attacks by the kings of the earth, the rulers pictured by the sun, moon and stars. Moreover, when Israel bowed to the heavenly lights under her own kings (such as Manasseh), God gave them over to domination by earthly powers. The reason these appear in stanza three is that the Psalm follows the fivefold pattern rather than the sevenfold, so the sun and moon still appear at the center of the construct. This also indicates that this Psalm is a promise yet “unopened” as sevenfold history. The Ethics stanza is only Priesthood at this stage. When opened, it becomes threefold as Priest, King and Prophet, expanding the pattern to seven points.
  • This stanza works its way subtly through the Tabernacle: Lines 1 and 2 are obvious. Line 3 is interesting because the Table is the “left hand” of the cruciform layout, but it is only the priestly Lamb who is worthy to serve as the Lion, the kingly right hand. The striking of the earthly kings appears in line 5, where plunder and plagues are the “multiplication” of Adam’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness. The subsequent striking by demonic forces (as in Matthew 17:15, where the demon-possessed boy with seizures is described by his father as “moon-struck”) refers to self-harm, a judgment resulting from the withdrawal of God which hastens the destruction of a rebellious people when their sins are “filled up” and have reached maturity. This was the case with King Saul, and indeed with all Israel in the last days of Jerusalem during the Roman siege. As it was for Adam, who failed to divide between light and darkness in the moral realm, instead of rest in line 7 there is blindness, lack of judgment, outer darkness.
The Lord (Transcendence)
shall preserve you (Hierarchy)
from all evil. (Ethics)
He shall preserve (Oath/Sanctions)
your soul. (Succession)

  • This step in the Covenant process concerns the blessings and curses meted out by God. It was at this point that the Egyptian-hearted generation of Israel was cut off by God in the wilderness.
  • In the sevenfold pattern, this step refers to the Day of Coverings (Atonement). Like Adam and Eve, instead of being dis-covered as naked, and exposed to the full penalty of the law, the believer is “covered” by God through faith in atoning blood. Another corresponding event is the faithfulness of Phinehas, who dis-covered and slew the idolaters/adulterers in their own tent, and was “covered” by God, invested with the Aaronic succession.
  • Interestingly, these final two stanzas are only fivefold, which means they are future events in the mind of the Psalmist, and conditional upon the faithfulness of the worshiper to God.
SUCCESSION (Deuteronomy)
The Lord (Genesis)
shall preserve (Exodus)
your going out (Leviticus)
and your coming in (Numbers)
from now until the ages. (Deuteronomy)

  • The final stanza works through the fivefold Covenant pattern, but with a “Deuteronomic” spin: the final words of Moses to Israel before they inherited the territory promised to them by God.
  • The Hebrew word for “keep” has its final mention, and it is the word used to describe Adam’s priestly station in the Garden of Eden, the purpose of the flaming sword of the cherubim, and Cain’s shirked responsibility for his murdered brother. A keeper is a shepherd, and a true shepherd bears a sword to protect the sheep.

If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

References   [ + ]

1. For more discussion, see The First Ascension.

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