Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The Psalmist, to encourage true believers confidently to trust in the aid of God, and to teach them to betake themselves to his protection, first, affirms that, to whatever quarter we turn our eyes it is impossible to find salvation anywhere else; and, in the second place, extols in lofty terms the fatherly care of God in defending his faithful ones.
Song of Degrees.
1. I will lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence my help will come 62 2. My help is from Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.
l I will lift up my eyes to the mountains. The inspired writer, whoever he was, seems, in the opening of the Psalm, to speak in the person of an unbelieving man. As God prevents his believing people with his blessings, and meets them of his own accord, so they, on their part, immediately east their eyes directly upon him. What then is the meaning of this unsettled looking of the Prophet, who casts his eyes now on this side and now on that, as if faith directed him not to God? I answer, that the thoughts of the godly are never so stayed upon the word of God as not to be carried away at the first impulse to some allurements; and especially when dangers disquiet us, or when we are assailed with sore temptations, it is scarcely possible for us, from our being so inclined to the earth, not to be moved by the enticements presented to us, until our minds put a bridle upon themselves, and turn them back to God. The sentence, however, may be explained as if expressed in a conditional form. Whatever we may think, would the Prophet say, all the hopes which draw us away from God are vain and delusive. If we take it in this sense, he is not to be understood as relating how he reasoned with himself, or what he intended to do, but only as declaring, that those lose their pains who, disregarding God, gaze to a distance all around them, and make long and devious circuits in quest of remedies to their troubles. It is indeed certain, that in thus speaking of himself, he exhibits to us a malady with which all mankind are afflicted; but still, it will not be unsuitable to suppose, that he was prompted to speak in this manner from his own experience; for such is the inconstancy natural to us, that so soon as we are smitten with any fear, we turn our eyes in every direction, until faith, drawing us back from all these erratic wanderings, direct us exclusively to God. All the difference between believers and unbelievers in this respect is, that although all are prone to be deceived, and easily cheated by impostures, yet Satan bewitches unbelievers by his enchantments; whereas, in regard to believers, God corrects the vice of their nature, and does not permit them to persevere in going astray. The meaning of the Prophet is abundantly obvious, which is, that although all the helps of the world, even the mightiest, should offer themselves to us, yet we ought not to seek safety anywhere but in God; yea, rather, that when men shall have long wearied themselves in hunting after remedies, now in one quarter and now in another, they will at length find. from experience, that there is no assured help but in God alone. By the mountains, the Prophet means whatever is great or excellent in the world; and the lesson he teaches is, that we ought to account all such favor as nothing.
Farther, these two verses ought to be read connectedly, bringing out this sense: When I shall have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, then I will at length experience that I have fallen into a rash and unprofitable mistake, until I direct them to God alone, and keep them fixed upon him. It is at the same time to be observed, that God in this place is not in vain honored with the title of Creator of heaven and earth; it being intended hereby tacitly to rebuke the ingratitude of men, when they cannot rest contented with his power. Did they in good earnest acknowledge him as Creator, they would also be persuaded, that as he holds the whole world in his hand, and governs it as seemeth good in his sight, he is possessed of infinite power. But when, hurried away by the blind impetuosity of their passions, they have recourse to other objects besides him, they defraud him of his right and empire. In this way ought we to apply this title of God to the case in hand. The amount is, that whilst we are naturally more anxious than is needful in seeking alleviation and redress to our calamities, especially when any imminent danger threatens us, yet we act a foolish and mistaken part in running up and down through tortuous mazes: and that therefore we ought to impose a restraint upon our understandings, that they may not apply themselves to any other but God alone. Nor is the opinion of those unsuitable, who think that the Hebrew word אל, el, which we translate to, namely, to the mountains, is put for על, al, which signifies above, giving this sense, That men, however high they may look, will find no true salvation except hi God.
3. He will not suffer thy foot to stumble: he who keepeth thee will not slumber. 4. Behold! he who keepeth Israel will not slumber nor sleep. 5. Jehovah is thy keeper; Jehovah is thy defence 63 on thy right hand.
3 He will not suffer thy foot to stumble. Here the Prophet, in order to recall the faithful to the right path, and to defeat the influence of all the allurements which are wont to distract their minds, affirms that whatever advantages worldly men are accustomed to desire or hope for from the world, true believers will find abundantly and at hand in God alone. He not only attributes power to God, but also teaches that He is so affectioned towards us, that he will preserve us in all respects in perfect safety. As often as the power of God is extolled, there are many who immediately reply, It is very true that he can do such and such things if he is so inclined, but we do not certainly know what is his intention. In this passage, therefore, God is exhibited to the faithful as their guardian, that they may rest with assured confidence on his providence. As the Epicureans, in imagining that God has no care whatever about the ‘world, extinguish all piety, so those who think that the world is governed by God only in a general and confused manner, and believe not that he cherishes with special care each of his believing people, leave men’s minds in suspense, and are themselves kept in a state of constant fluctuation and anxiety. In short, never will the hearts of men be led in good earnest to call upon God, until a persuasion of the truth of this guardianship is deeply fixed in their minds. The Psalmist declares that the purpose for which God is our keeper, is, that he may hold us up. The Hebrew word, מוט, mot, which is here used, signifies both a sliding or falling, and a trembling or staggering. Now, although it often happens that the faithful stagger, yea, are even ready to fall altogether, yet as God sustains them by his power, they are said to stand upright. And as amidst the many dangers which every moment threaten us, it is difficult for us to get rid of all anxiety and fear, the Prophet at the same time testifies, that God keeps watch unceasingly over our safety.
4. Behold! he who keepeth Israel will not slumber nor sleep. 64 To recall each individual to the consideration of the common covenant, he represents the Divine providence as extending to the whole body of the Church. In order that each of us for himself may be assured that God will be gracious to him, it behoves us always to begin with the general promise made to all God’s people,. This form of expression, he will not slumber nor sleep, would be improper in other languages, according to the idiom of which it should rather be, He will not sleep, yea, he will not slumber: but when the Hebrews invert this order, they argue from the greater to the less. The sense then is, that as God never slumbers even in the smallest degree, we need not be afraid of any ham befalling us while he is asleep. The design of the Prophet is now obvious. To persuade true believers that God has a special care of each of them in particular, he brings forward the promise which God made to the whole people, and declares God to be the guardian. of his Church, that from this general principle, as from a fountain, each might convey streams to himself. Accordingly immediately after, (Ps 121:5,) addressing himself to each in particular, he repeats, Jehovah is thy keeper, that no person might hesitate to apply to himself that which belonged to the whole community of Israel. Besides, God is called a defense at the right hand, to teach us that it is not necessary for us to go far in seeking him, but that he is at hand, or rather stands at our side to defend us.
6. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. 65 7. Jehovah shall keep thee from all evil; he will keep thy soul. 8. Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in, henceforth and for ever.
6. The sun shall not smite thee by day. By these forms of expression the Psalmist magnifies the advantages which result to us from our having God present with us; and, by the figure synecdoche, under one particular, he declares in general that the faithful shall be safe from all adversities, defended as they are by Divine power. The language is metaphorical, the cold of night and the heat of day denoting all kind of inconveniences. The sense then is, that although God’s people may be subject in common with others to the miseries of human life, yet his shadow is always at their side to shield them from thereby receiving any harm. The Prophet does not, however, promise the faithful a condition of such felicity and comfort as implies an exemption from all trouble; he only, for the purpose of assuaging their sorrows, sets before them this consolation — that being interested in the Divine layout, they shall be secure from all deadly harm; a point which he unfolds more distinctly in the following verses, where he tells us that God will so keep his own people from all evils, as to maintain their life in safety. The statement in the text before us is indeed general, but he afterwards specifies the chief parts of human life.
8. Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in. The sense is, Whatever thou shalt undertake or engage in during thy life shall come to a happy and successful termination. God no doubt directs by his Holy Spirit the, deliberations of his servants; but it appears to me, that this passage is rather to be referred to prosperous issues. If, however, any one would give it a more extended meaning I have no objection. It is enough for me to embrace that sense which is indisputably certain and solid, That God will be the continual guide of his people, so that stretching out his hand to them he will conduct them according to their hearts’ desire from the beginning even to the end. Farther, it is of importance to mark the reason why the Prophet repeats so often what he had briefly and in one word expressed with sufficient plainness. Such repetition seems at first sight superfluous; but when we consider how difficult it is to correct our distrust, it will be easily perceived that he does not improperly dwell upon the commendation of the divine providence. How few are to be found who yield to God the honor of being a keeper, in order to their being thence assured of their safety, and led to call upon him in the midst of their perils! On the contrary, even when we seem to have largely experienced what this protection of God implies, we yet instantly tremble at the noise of a leaf falling from a tree, as if God had quite forgotten us. Being then entangled in so many unholy misgivings, and so much inclined to distrust, we are taught from the passage that if a sentence couched in a few words does not suffice us, we should gather together whatever may be found throughout the whole Scriptures concerning the providence of God, until this doctrine-” That God always keeps watch for us” — is deeply rooted in our hearts; so that depending upon his guardianship alone we may bid adieu to all the vain confidences of the world.
Phillips, who thinks it “probable that that Psalm was written just as the Israelites were about to commence their journey to their native land,” gives this explanation of the verse: “I will l lift up eyes to the mountains, viz., Zion, Tabor, Carmel, etc.; but especially to the first, as being the place of the ark, and consequently the place to which the Israelites directed their eyes, as to a fountain of all good. There they looked for help as often as circumstances rendered expected assistance requisite, as we learn from several passages in the Psalms. See Ps 14:7; Ps 20:3.” In returning from Babylon, how many a longing and anxious look would the Jews east to the hills of Palestine, and with how many stirring and sacred emotions would the sight of them fill their minds!
The Hebrew word is צל, tsel, “a shadow;” and hence it has been supposed that the words, “thy shadow at thy right hand.,” are a figurative expression, referring to the protection afforded by the shade of a tree against the scorching rays of the sun, or to the custom which prevails in tropical climates especially, of keeping off the intense heat of the sun by a portable screen, such as an umbrella or parasol. The word is often put for defense in general. Compare Nu 14:9; Isa 30:2; Jer 48:45
A notion was prevalent among the heathen, that their gods sometimes slept, and were not then conscious of the wants of their worshippers. Elijah thus addressed in irony the followers of Baal, 1Ki 18:27:
“Cry aloud; for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing,
or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth,
and must be waked.”
Very different was the character of the guardian of Israel. He relaxed not his watchful care over his people by indulging in light slumbers during the day, nor even by sleeping in the night, when the tired frame of man seeks and demands repose.
There seems to be an allusion in the first member to sun-strokes, which are very fatal in hot countries, sometimes inflicting instant death, or being soon followed by death, while at other times, when the person lives, he continues through the remainder of his days in a state of idiocy. Comparatively few survive and perfectly recover the effects of such a visitation. What the Psalmist means by the smiting of the moon is at first sight not so obvious. Some suppose that he speaks in conformity with a popular belief, which it is supposed prevailed in the East in his time, just as it does in the present day, respecting the deleterious influence of the moonbeams on the human body, although there is no ground for such a belief, the moon no doubt getting the blame of the injury done by the cold and dampness of the night. But the probability is, that by the striking of the moon he simply alludes to the cold of the night, which has very baneful effects on the human frame, particularly in such oriental countries as Palestine, where there is a sudden change from extreme heat in the day to extreme cold in the night.