Psalms of Ascent: Psalm 121, 124, 133

The Songs of Ascents exhale a quiet bliss, like a warm evening in late harvest.
Yet this serene mood is rare in the Book of Psalms. Many psalms are shot
through with dark threads of fear, war, trouble, and pain. King David cries out
for deliverance from deadly enemies: Save me, O God... for merciless men
seek my life (Ps. 54.1, 3). The Asaph Psalms tell how foreign invaders have
laid Israel waste, and cry out for judgement: O God, the nations have invaded
your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced
Jerusalem to rubble... Pour out your wrath on the nations (Ps. 79.1, 6). The
Korah collection tell of one slain and cast into the underworld: Loose among
the dead, like the slain lying in the have put me in the lowest pit,
the darkness, the depths (Ps. 88.5-6); You have rejected, you have been very
angry with your have pierced his crown to the dust (Ps. 89.38-
39). The 'Moses' psalms describe the Israelites perishing in the desert through
unbelief in the divine promise: All our days pass away under your wrath (Ps.
90.9).' And when other psalms speak of Israel's joy, it often follows bloody
victory. The Holy One, like a lion, is majestic from the mountains of prey
where the plundered enemy sleep their last sleep (Ps. 76.4-5). The king of
Israel is a mighty conqueror who will burn his enemies with fire, pierce their
hearts with arrows, and crush heads all over the earth (Pss. 21, 45 and 110).

The Songs of Ascents have none of this. They have no present sorrows to
speak of, no hot rage against enemies. There are distant memories of foreign
aggression in Psalms 123, 124, and 129. But their overall mood is one of Israel
emerging into a happy present after a troubled past. Of Jerusalem they say,
May they prosper who love you! Peace be within your walls, security within
your fortresses…Peace within you; of Israel they say, Peace upon
Israel….How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell as one; of the king
they say that the LORD gives his beloved rest and upon him his crown will
shine." ––David Mitchell, The Songs of Ascents

א שִׁיר לַמַּעֲלוֹת [1]A song for ascents

אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים [2]I lift up my eyes to the mountains

מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי: and ask “from where will my help come?”

ב עֶזְרִי מֵעִם יְהֹוָה My help comes from YHWH

עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ: [3]Maker of the heavens and the earth

ג אַל[4]־יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ [5]He does not allow your foot to stumble

אַל־יָנוּם שֹׁמְרֶךָ: [6]Your guardian[7] does not sleep

ד הִנֵּה לֹא יָנוּם Behold He does not sleep

וְלֹא יִישָׁן [8]And He does not slumber

שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל: the guardian of Israel

ה יְהֹוָה שֹׁמְרֶךָ YHWH is your guardian

יְהֹוָה צִלְּךָ [9]YHWH is your shade

עַל־יַד יְמִינֶךָ: [10]He is at your right hand

יוֹמָם הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לֹא־יַכֶּכָּה [11]By day the sun will not strike you

וְיָרֵחַ בַּלָּיְלָה: [12]nor the moon by night

ז יְהוָה יִשְׁמָרְךָ מִכָּל־רָע [13]YHWH will guard you from all harm

יִשְׁמֹר אֶת־נַפְשֶׁךָ: He will guard your life

ח יְהוָה יִשְׁמָר־צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ [14]YHWH will guard you in your going and your coming

מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם: from now until forever

--translated by Josh Franklin

[1] The ascription שיר למעלות is a part of a group of psalms generally regarded as pilgrimage Psalms . This grouping goes from Psalm 120 to Psalm 134. Every other Psalm within this section contains the ascription שיר המעלות. The slight variation in this Psalm does not significantly alter the meaning, and is generally translated the same as the other Psalms within the group. NIV, NJV, and NRS render every ascription within the group: "A song of ascents." JPS holds with the other translations in translating שיר המעלות, but preserves the nuance of the different preposition for Psalm 121, and translates: "A song for ascents." The difference can possibly be attributed to a corruption in the text. The ascription within the Qumran version of Psalm 121 is the same as the others within the group, שיר המעלות. A likely possibility is that the ascription may have been within an early version of the text the same as Psalm 133, שיר המעלות לדוד, and was incorrectly apocopated to become שיר למעלות. The exact meaning and implication of the ascription appears uncertain. Some have speculated that the ascription relates to מעלות, steps (e.g. Neh 3:15, Ex 20:16, 1K 10:19, 2C 9:18, 2K 9:13, Ezk 40:6, Neh 12:37 ). Rashi notes that the peshat meaning is that the Levites would sing this Psalm while ascending the steps of the Temple. Others take the meaning to relate to an upward movement, particularly relating to people going up from Babylonia (Ezr 7:9) or on a pilgrimage (Ps 84:6 ). This parallels the commentator Ibn Ezra, who notes that this Psalm was said in times of trouble and during the time of our exile. In relation to the context of this particular Psalm, the latter etymology seems more likely in that it deals with YHWH protecting the psalmist from dangerous situations, i.e. a stumbling foot, the suns rays, and all other forms of danger.

[2] It seems unclear why someone would look to the mountains and then ask for help. Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin note that the text might relate to Ezekiel 18:6, which discusses lifting eyes up to mountains in regard to serving deities that dwell on the mountains. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Studies Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1425. Others have argued that the mountains are YHWH's dwelling place, as we see in Psalm 123: "I lift my eyes to you, who dwells in the heavens (Psalm 123:1)." Ibn Ezra puts forth a more likely interpretation. He notes, "It is the custom of anyone in a difficult situation to lift his eyes to see if help will come to repel the enemy." Because this Psalm is focused on the idea of YHWH as a protector, Ibn Ezra's understanding seems most fitting. Even more likely, as will be argued in the exegesis, the mountains are the very source of danger that the psalmist sees.

[3] עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ appears as an epithet for YHWH that is found exclusively within this section of Psalms (cf. Ps 115:15, 124:8, 134:3, 146:6 ). Synonymous formation of the same epithet appears as קנה שמים וארץ (Gn 14:9 Gn 14:22 ); אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ (Gn 24:3); יהֹוָה בּוֹרֵא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנוֹטֵיהֶם רֹקַע הָאָרֶץ (Is 42:5); יְהֹוָה נֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיֹסֵד אָרֶץ (Zc 12:1).

[4] The Qumran manuscript of this text reads ואל. The Syriac and Septuagint preserve this reading.

[5] The word רגל literally means foot, but contains nuanced meanings within other biblical contexts. The word appears with the Qal form of the root מוט, meaning to sway. רגל exists with the root מוט in several other biblical texts (inc. Dt 32:35, Ps 38:17, 66:9, 94:18). When used with together, the implication of the meaning seems to be a stumbling foot. HALOT suggests that the origin of the root מוט comes from the Ugardic מטה, staff or pole. The connection between the Qal usage and its possible origin suggests that a pole would generally be unsteady and sway back and froth. The root מוט can be found with the meaning pole or rod in two texts within the book of Numbers; the first regarding a pole used to carry large clusters of grapes; the second, in regard to carrying the Tabernacle (Nu 4:10-12, Nu 13:23). The commentator Radak suggests that the words אַל[5][5] The Qumran manuscript of this text reads ואל. This is also preserved within the translations of the Syriac and Septuagint. ־יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ were said from one to another during the exile as words of comfort.

[6] Cohen argues that this is a polemical verse similar to the mocking words of Elijah about Baal (KG 18:27). The Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, The Psalms (London: The Soncino Press, 1950), 421. Brettler and Berlin point out that it could be drawing a polemic against the very concept that YHWH sleeps (Ps 44:24).

[7] The root שמר appears six times in this Psalm in relation to YHWH. The reoccurrence repeats more times with YHWH as the subject than any other place in the entire Hebrew Bible. When YHWH is the subject of the verb or participle of the root שמר, it means: to watch, guard, protect, or to take care of (cf. Gen 28:15, Ps 12:8, 16:1, 17:8, 25:20). While the root has nuanced meanings within the different contexts, I have chosen the word "guardian" to preserve the repetition of each occurrence.

[8] The roots נום and ישן are also found in a parallel pair in Is 5:27. In the context of Isaiah, however, it describes Israel's enemies, not YHWH.

[9] The word צל likely stems from the root צלל, relating to shade or a shadow. HALOT suggests that the word derives form the Akkedian sillu, meaning shade, covering, or protection. Its meaning in this context suggests protection, and is rendered as such in the JPS, but like most translations (King James NIV, NJB, NRS, Robert Alter), I have preserved the word shade in order to keep the metaphor which carries into the next verse. The word צל is most often associated with YHWH. In Isaiah 49:2 we see: בְּצֵל יָדוֹ הֶחְבִּיאָנִי, in the shadow of His hand he hides me. Similarly in Psalm 17:8 we see: בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ תַּסְתִּירֵנִי, in the shadow of your wings you hide me. In these cases the shade or shadow is a protective covering that shields Israel from outside danger. (cf. Is 51:16, Ps 36:8, 57:2, 63:8).

[10] It is unclear here whether צלך modifies על יד ימינך. If this were the case, then the phrase would read: "He is your shade upon your right hand." As Julian Morgenstern has noted, shade from the burning rays protecting your right hand is utterly meaningless. More likely is a rendering of: He is at your right hand. From other texts in the Hebrew Bible, we see that YHWH protects and leads people on their right side (e.g. Isaiah 63:12, 109:31). Julian Morgenstern, "Psalm 121" Journal of Biblical Literature 58:4 (Dec., 1939), 321n.

[11] The root נכה in the hif most often implies causing death. In the other contexts in which it is used with the sun as the subject, it means death resulting from heat or sun stroke, i.e. hyperthermia (cf. Is 4910 Jon 48). Symptoms that would result from this fatal ailment would include: nausea, vomiting, headaches, low blood pressure, dizziness, seizures, and a pale or bluish skin color. As body organs begin to fail, unconsciousness and coma would result. Wikepedia, "Hyperthermia,"

[12] The moon does not strike someone the same way that the sun does. Robert Alter notes that "in all likelihood these words refer to the danger of being moonstruck, evidentially thought to be a cause of madness in ancient Israel, as it has been imagined in many cultures." Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, on the other hand, contend that the notion of being moonstruck is postbiblical, and this affliction is not the focus of the verse. They note that this half of the verse is "a type of filler, resulting from the use of parallelism, where by night formally parallels by day, and moon parallels sun." Berlin and Brettler, 1425. Ibn Ezra (supported by Radak) explains the while the sun strikes someone with heat, the moon causes dampness which breeds disease. This is something, he notes, that is well-known through experience.

[13] The most common word association with רע is evil. Some translations utilize this meaning and render the text "from all evil" (inc. King James, NRS). The majority of translations (inc. NIV, NJB, JPS, and Robert Alter) see the text within the context of protection, and thus render מכל רע as "from all harm (cf. Gn 48:16)

[14] The expression "going and coming" is not clear within the context of this Psalm. Berlin and Brettler argue that it is generally an expression of daily work (e.g. Deut 31:2, 2K 11:17 ). This does not seem fitting here. They also put forth the possibility of that "it may refer more specifically to setting out on the journey to the Temple and returning home." Berlin and Brettler, 1425. Ibn Ezra argues that it refers to YHWH protecting the Israelites in their going out to war. Radak puts forth the possibility that it is referring to the going out into exile, and that the Israelites should leave in peace and return to the land of Israel in peace. It seems to me that the expression is a temporal merism that is paralleled to "from now until forever." The merism likely indicates the span of the psalmists life; that is from his going out into this world until the time when he comes to the life eternal (cf. שמות רבה מח: א).

(א) שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד לוּלֵ֣י יְ֭הֹוָה שֶׁהָ֣יָה לָ֑נוּ יֹאמַר־נָ֝֗א יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ב) לוּלֵ֣י יְ֭הֹוָה שֶׁהָ֣יָה לָ֑נוּ בְּק֖וּם עָלֵ֣ינוּ אָדָֽם׃ (ג) אֲ֭זַי חַיִּ֣ים בְּלָע֑וּנוּ בַּחֲר֖וֹת אַפָּ֣ם בָּֽנוּ׃ (ד) אֲ֭זַי הַמַּ֣יִם שְׁטָפ֑וּנוּ נַ֝֗חְלָה עָבַ֥ר עַל־נַפְשֵֽׁנוּ׃ (ה) אֲ֭זַי עָבַ֣ר עַל־נַפְשֵׁ֑נוּ הַ֝מַּ֗יִם הַזֵּידוֹנִֽים׃ (ו) בָּר֥וּךְ יְהֹוָ֑ה שֶׁלֹּ֥א נְתָנָ֥נוּ טֶ֝֗רֶף לְשִׁנֵּיהֶֽם׃ (ז) נַפְשֵׁ֗נוּ כְּצִפּ֥וֹר נִמְלְטָה֮ מִפַּ֢ח י֫וֹקְשִׁ֥ים הַפַּ֥ח נִשְׁבָּ֗ר וַאֲנַ֥חְנוּ נִמְלָֽטְנוּ׃ (ח) עֶ֭זְרֵנוּ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְהֹוָ֑ה עֹ֝שֵׂ֗ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃ {פ}
(1) A song of ascents. Of David.

Were it not for the LORD, who was on our side,
let Israel now declare,
(2) were it not for the LORD, who was on our side
when men assailed us,
(3) they would have swallowed us alive
in their burning rage against us;
(4) the waters would have carried us off,
the torrent would have swept over us;
(5) over us would have swept
the seething waters.
(6) Blessed is the LORD, who did not let us
be ripped apart by their teeth.
(7) We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap;
the trap broke and we escaped.
(8) Our help is the name of the LORD,
maker of heaven and earth.
(א) שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טּ֭וֹב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד׃ (ב) כַּשֶּׁ֤מֶן הַטּ֨וֹב ׀ עַל־הָרֹ֗אשׁ יֹרֵ֗ד עַֽל־הַזָּקָ֥ן זְקַֽן־אַהֲרֹ֑ן שֶׁ֝יֹּרֵ֗ד עַל־פִּ֥י מִדּוֹתָֽיו׃ (ג) כְּטַל־חֶרְמ֗וֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד֮ עַל־הַרְרֵ֢י צִ֫יּ֥וֹן כִּ֤י שָׁ֨ם ׀ צִוָּ֣ה יְ֭הֹוָה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה חַ֝יִּ֗ים עַד־הָעוֹלָֽם׃ {פ}
(1) A song of ascents. Of David.

How good and how pleasant it is
that brothers dwell together.
(2) It is like fine oil on the head
running down onto the beard,
the beard of Aaron,
that comes down over the collar of his robe;
(3) like the dew of Hermon
that falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD ordained blessing,
everlasting life.
רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק פָּתַח לַהּ פִּתְחָא לְהָא פָּרַשְׁתָּא מֵהָכָא שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לוּלֵי ה׳ שֶׁהָיָה לָנוּ יֹאמַר נָא יִשְׂרָאֵל לוּלֵי ה׳ שֶׁהָיָה לָנוּ בְּקוּם עָלֵינוּ אָדָם אָדָם וְלֹא מֶלֶךְ
Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak introduced this passage with an introduction from here: “A song of ascents of David. If not for the Lord Who was with us, let Israel now say; if not for the Lord who was with us, when a man rose up against us” (Psalms 124:1–2). The verse speaks of “a man” who rose up against us and not a king. This occurred in the days of Haman, as he, and not King Ahasuerus, was the chief enemy of the Jewish people.
לולי ה' שהיה לנו יאמר נא ישראל, לולי ה' שהיה לנו בקום עלינו אדם רע.
"Lulei": ("Were it not") (Psalms 124:1-2) "'Lulei ('Were it not') for the L-rd who was with us,' let Israel now say. 'Lulei for the L-rd who was with us when (evil) men assailed us…'"
לוּלֵ֡י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִי֩ אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וּפַ֤חַד יִצְחָק֙ הָ֣יָה לִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה רֵיקָ֣ם שִׁלַּחְתָּ֑נִי אֶת־עָנְיִ֞י וְאֶת־יְגִ֧יעַ כַּפַּ֛י רָאָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַיּ֥וֹכַח אָֽמֶשׁ׃
Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and He gave judgment last night.”
לוּלֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת הוֹתִ֥יר לָ֛נוּ שָׂרִ֖יד כִּמְעָ֑ט כִּסְדֹ֣ם הָיִ֔ינוּ לַעֲמֹרָ֖ה דָּמִֽינוּ׃ (ס)
Had not the LORD of Hosts
Left us some survivors,
We should be like Sodom,
Another Gomorrah.
לוּלֵ֣י יְ֭הוָה עֶזְרָ֣תָה לִּ֑י כִּמְעַ֓ט ׀ שָֽׁכְנָ֖ה דוּמָ֣ה נַפְשִֽׁי׃
Were not the LORD my help,
I should soon dwell in silence.
זֵידוֹן adj. insolent, malicious person (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Ps. 124:5). [From זוד (= to act presumptuously), with adj. suff. ◌וֹן.]

נפשינו כצפור - הטעם שלא היה לנו כח להמלט, כי היינו כצפור רק נמלטנו בשם ה' לבדו שהוא עושה הכל ומי יעמוד לפניו על כן -

Our souls like a bird - the emphasis is not that we didn't have the power to escape, rather it's that we escaped like a bird only because of God, who has the power to free us.

ויראו אחיו כי אותו אהב אביהם מכל אחיו [וישנאו אותו ולא יכלו דברו לשלום], שהיה בא ושואל בשלומם ולא היו משיבים אותו, למה שהיה כך מנהגו שיה שואל בשלומם, יש לך אדם עד שלא נכנס לשררה [הוא שואל בשלום בני אדם, אבל משנכנס לשררה] רוחו גסה עליו ואינו משגיח לשאול לשלום בני העיר, אבל יוסף לא היה כן, אע"פ שנכנס לשררה הו היה מנהגו לשאול בשלום אחיו, שנאמר וישאל להם לשלום (בראשית מג כז), א"ל הקב"ה יוסף אתה היית מתחיל לשאול בשלום אחיך בעולם הה, והם היו שונאים אותך, אבל לעולם הא אני מרצה אתכם ומעביר שנאה מביניכם ומושיב אתכם בשלוה ועושה שלום ביניכם, וכך אמר דוד, הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד (תהלים קלג א).
(Gen. 37:4:) BUT WHEN HIS BROTHERS SAW THAT THEIR FATHER LOVED HIM MORE THAN ANY OF HIS BROTHERS, < THEY HATED HIM SO THAT THEY COULD NOT SPEAK PEACEABLY (shalom) TO HIM >. When he came to ask how they were (shalom), they would not answer him. Why? Because it was his custom to ask how they were. You have the < kind of > person who, before coming to power, [asks people how they are. But, after coming to power], his spirit hardens over him, and he is no longer careful to ask the people of the city how they are. Joseph, however, was not like that. Although he had come to power (in Egypt), it was < still > his custom to ask his brothers how they were. Thus it is stated (in Gen. 43:27): AND HE ASKED THEM HOW THEY WERE. The Holy One said to him: Joseph, you began asking how your brothers were in this world; and they hated you. In the world to come, however, I am pardoning you, removing hate from between you, making you dwell in safety, and making peace between you. So also has David said (in Ps. 133:1): SEE HOW GOOD AND HOW PLEASANT IT IS FOR BROTHERS TO DWELL TOGETHER.
ועל דבר זה דאג משה ואמר שמא מעלתי בשמן המשחה, יצתה בת קול ואמרה כטל חרמון וגו', (תהילים קלג:ב) ועדיין היה אהרן דואג שמא משה לא מעל ואני מעלתי, יצתה בת קול ואמרה וכו'.
"Concerning this matter, Moshe worried and said, 'perhaps I have, G-d forbid, made a profane use of the anointing oil?' A heavenly voice came forth and called out, 'as the precious oil on the head descends on the beard of Aharon.., as the dew of Hermon' (Tehilim 133:2-3), just as the law of profane use of holy objects is not applicable to the dew of Hermon, so also there was no profane use of the anointing oil on the beard of Aharon. Aaron however, was still worried. He said, 'It may be that Moshe did not transgress, but perhaps I have transgressed'. Another heavenly voice came forth and said to him, 'Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together' (Tehilim 133:1) - as Moshe is not guilty of profane use, so are you not guilty of profane use".