Psalm 121 is the sort of psalm we might post on our refrigerators and bulletin boards, right alongside “I know the plans I have for you” and “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.” A personal affirmation of faith, a soaring word of assurance about our great and good God: “Nothing will harm you. God is the maker of heaven and earth, and all is well. You’ll be safe.”
On good days, we rejoice in these assurances. But what about the bad days? Never stumble? Never come to harm? It’s just not true. Maybe it’s not sunstroke or something moon-related or slipping feet, but we have troubles, pain, nightmares, disasters. Look around the world, add your own laments. If this psalm promises perfect safety, it’s a false and cruel promise.
Why put our trust in this God, then? The psalm invites our further reflection on the divine nature. God never slumbers nor sleeps. Unlike the seasonal deities of Israel’s neighbors, who might sleep all winter and awaken in the spring, this God is unlimited, all-powerful. Unlike the seasonal deities of our lives—financial security or achievement or pleasure, whatever we find ourselves serving with our habits and energies—unlike those temperamental deities, this God is not subject to changes of fortune. This God does not wear out or fade away or lose interest. This mighty God is the one who “watches.”
That word is translated into English in three main ways: “keep” or “watch” or “guard.” Our tendency when we encounter this term is to imagine an armed guard on a tower, maybe a figure from Lord of the Rings, equipped with chain mail and a crossbow. Or maybe something from an action movie, a bodyguard with a bulletproof vest and a highly accurate handgun strapped between his iron-hard pecs and his rippling biceps.
But that’s not what the Hebrew word means. The word shomer can mean “guard” in the sense of a lookout on a tower. But the weight of its meaning is not on active protecting. It’s the word used for “keeping the law” and “keeping the sabbath” and “keeping kosher.” It means to watch intently, observe, keep boundaries around, care about, and commit to. It’s even the word used for the best man at a Jewish wedding: he’s a shomer.
This psalm obsesses over that word, using it six times—the highest concentration of shomer anywhere in scripture. So this is where the psalm tells us to put our trust: in the regard of God. After all, isn’t what we fear the most—more than the accidents and the cancers and the failures and the losses— isn’t what we fear most that none of it means anything? That our lives are ultimately useless, without value or enduring significance? Heaven is empty and the whole cosmos is just a collection of vapors. None of it means anything, and we are very small and very shabby and very, very temporary. Isn’t what we fear most that no one is watching, except maybe for a few intermittently attentive fellow humans, who won’t last long in this universe either?
This, then, is the heart of the psalm’s assurance: God is watching. Whatever happens, we remain in the keen regard of God, the maker of heaven and earth. This is the one who attends to us, day and night, all our lives long. God is keeping our life, our nefesh, the essence of our being, the same nefesh that God breathed into the nostrils of the first dust-creature to create a living soul. God does not keep us always in happy fortunes, but God guards our nefesh with a fierce loyalty.
Still, the psalm cannot keep this promise without a gospel fulfillment. In Romans 8, Paul has no trouble listing varieties of suffering. He covers much more than stumbling feet, or robbers, or sunstroke. But none of it, he says, can separate us from the love of Christ. Christ is the shining face of God, the unsleeping, loving image of that divine regard. This is the one who watches us, who keeps our nefesh, who gives meaning to every moment.