Connections 03.08.2020: A Wide-Awake God

Psalm 121

My daughter, who turns thirteen this month, has slept poorly for a few nights in a row. She says she has a hard time getting to sleep, and then she tends to sleep restlessly and wake up sometime after midnight. When she was younger, she always woke me up when she experienced this problem, but fortunately she’s developed some coping mechanisms. She keeps a novel by her bed. Her light is easily reachable. She has music available. She even has a weighted blanket if she feels especially restless.

I’ve asked her if anything specific is bothering her and keeping her from sleeping. She says her brain just won’t relax sometimes. I know the feeling! I have a “busy brain” too, and no more so than at night when it’s supposed to relax along with the rest of my body.

What are my daughter and I fearful of missing if we fall asleep? What keeps our brains on alert, preventing us from entering the deep, healing sleep that all of us need for optimal health? I’m sure my worries are different from hers. She thinks about school projects, friendships, and tests. I think about potential illnesses, accidents, loved ones who are hurting, and the ups and downs of our world. Maybe sometimes—even subconsciously—we both feel that someone needs to stay awake to keep watch.

What a comfort today’s Scripture offers to restless sleepers like my daughter and me! What a sense of peace it brings to a world riddled with uncertainty and divisiveness. What an assurance it gives of God’s constant care that never sleeps.

But we must interpret this psalm carefully. God doesn’t actually keep us in a little box where troubles will never touch us (vv. 7-8). Sometimes we are indeed struck by life’s trials (v. 6). So what does the writer mean when he says God is our keeper (v. 5)?

I think the writer means that our ultimate hope lies in God, who loves us and “will neither slumber nor sleep” (v. 4). No matter what we encounter in this life, we can rest in the assurance of God’s constant love and care. Even in the most desperate situation, there is still light. There is still hope. God is still awake and will be found.

Discussion

• When have you had trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep? If this happens to you, how do you cope?

• What might keep our brains from being able to rest at night? Are there steps we can take during the day to make restful sleep more likely?

• How has God “kept” you throughout your life? Do you think this means you will be protected from all harm? If not, what does it mean?

• What does it mean to you that God “will neither slumber nor sleep”? Is it comforting? If so, why?

• How can you cling to the psalmist’s assurances about God even when you are facing the darkest time of your life?

Reference Shelf

Psalm 121

The change of speaker in v. 3 of this short psalm is an interesting point in its interpretation. There is some sort of dialogue in the psalm, but the identity of the speakers is not clear. Perhaps the speaker is communing with himself on a journey toward Jerusalem and the hills of Zion in a manner similar to the monologues in Ps 42 43. However, it may be best to postulate two speakers, possibly a priest (vv. 3-8) and a pilgrim (vv. 1-2) or possibly two pilgrims. If this is the case, the setting may belong to the departure of a pilgrim from a home community for a pilgrimage to Zion, or a departure from Jerusalem for home at the end of a festival. It has been suggested that the dialogue is between a father and his son, which is quite possible and cannot be entirely ruled out.

The hills of v. 1 can refer either to the hills of Jerusalem or hills on the pilgrim’s journey. Yahweh is the source of help and strength in any case. The KJV prejudices the case for the hills or mountains as the source of help by following the LXX and translating: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” However, it is better to read as (1) “I lift up my eyes…[to see] where my help is to come from” (Allen 1983, 150), which leaves the matter open [that] my help may come from the mountains of heaven where Yahweh dwells (Ps 123:1) or from his dwelling on Zion (cf. Ps 20:2-3); or (2) “I lift up my eyes…from where will my help come?” (author trans.), [and] in this case the hills are hostile and full of danger, and the question is answered by v. 2. However we read, the source of help is not the hills, but Yahweh.

Verses 3-8 respond to the pilgrims’ affirmation of faith in v. 2. The message of vv. 3-8 can be summarized around these statements: (1) the creator is able to protect and is available for the pilgrim. (2) Yahweh is the nonslumbering keeper of Israel. Unlike the gods found in a high place (see 1 Kgs 18:27), Yahweh is never absent or sleeping when his people are in trouble. The pilgrim can entrust the keeping of his going out and…coming in (v. 8) to him.

For discussion of divine sleeping, see commentary on Ps 44. In the case of v. 4 the converse of the sovereign sleep of deity is presupposed, that is, in some circumstances the ability to conquer sleep (considered to be a form of death) was a mark of divine power. In the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh is unable to attain immortality by remaining awake for six days and seven nights, a confirmation of his mortal and human status.

Marvin E. Tate, “Psalms,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills and Richard F. Wilson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995).

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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