Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

–Psalm 121:1,2 (ESV)

Like many other songs in the Psalter, Psalm 121 is a powerful expression of the believer’s confidence in God.  This is conveyed most pointedly in the psalmist’s self-directed rhetorical question: “From where does my help come?”—and his immediate answer: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  The rest of this short psalm goes on to enumerate the scope of God’s care for his people.

As modern readers of this Song of Ascents, we might rightly ask, “What hills?”  Indeed, even Bible commentators disagree on the significance of the psalm’s opening statement.  According to the ESV Study Bible, this could either refer to hills “as a place to be feared, or else to the hills around Jerusalem.”  In either case, though, the significance is the same: God is the psalmist’s ultimate refuge.

Today we continue our “Thoughts” series with a synopsis of the Psalter Hymnal’s three renditions of Psalm 121.

259, “Unto the Hills I Lift Mine Eyes”

While this Dewey Westra setting of Psalm 121 has a definitely poetic twist to it, number 259 is nonetheless a solid and serviceable rendering of this Scripture.  What’s more likely to encumber the soul of the church musician is its Genevan tune, which has been incarnated in a dizzying array of arrangements and adaptations.  Although my experience with the Genevan Psalter is sadly limited, the part-writing in both editions of the Psalter Hymnal seems decidedly stilted; I much prefer the original harmonization used in the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise (available online from GenevanPsalter.com).  Nevertheless, I should make clear that this is just my personal preference.

260, “To the Hills I Lift Mine Eyes”

By far the simplest of the arrangements of Psalm 121 in the Psalter Hymnal, “To the Hills I Lift Mine Eyes” has all the characteristics of an excellent setting from the 1912 Psalter.  Its text is free yet accurate, eloquent yet intelligible—well-suited to any application, from a children’s song to a full-scale choir piece.

The tune of number 260 is so fitting, one would almost think it was specifically composed for Psalm 121—especially with a name like GUIDE.  Although that isn’t exactly the case, the creators of the 1912 Psalter did have an excellent reason to pick this melody.  In 1858, a New York farmer named Marcus Wells composed a hymn entitled “Holy Spirit, Faithful Guide,” and created the tune GUIDE to accompany it.  In part, Wells’s hymn reads,

Holy Spirit, faithful Guide,
Ever near the Christian’s side;
Gently lead us by the hand,
Pilgrims in a desert land;
Weary souls fore’er rejoice,
While they hear that sweetest voice,
Whispering softly, ‘Wanderer, come!
Follow Me, I’ll guide thee home.’

–from Hymnary.org

How relevant to Psalm 121’s focus on God’s watchful care over his people! It’s clear that the creators of “To the Hills I Lift Mine Eyes” certainly did their homework in the thoughtful pairing of this text and tune.

261, “I Lift Up Mine Eyes to the Mountains”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

With two solid renditions of Psalm 121 already included in the Psalter Hymnal, one might wonder why space is devoted to yet another versification.  But “I Lift Up Mine Eyes to the Mountains” has a few attributes that make it stand out from its counterparts.

First, as Hymnary.org informs us, this setting is a rare example of “amphibrachic meter.”  That’s a fancy name for a meter in which the emphases fall on every third beat instead of every second (“I LIFT up mine EYES to the MOUN-tains,/I LOOK to Je-HO-vah for AID”), and it’s important merely because the only other examples of amphibrachic meter in the Psalter Hymnal are numbers 244 and 281.  (Just a bit of poetry trivia for you there.)

Second, and more significantly, both the text and the tune of this song were composed by members of the CRC Psalter Hymnal Committee for specific use in the 1959 edition of the Psalter Hymnal—that’s an honor shared by relatively few selections in the songbook.  And third, the Psalter Hymnal Handbook relates that Dick Van Halsema and Henry Zylstra “also served together as United States servicemen stationed on the Philippine island of Luzon at the end of World War II (hence the name of this tune).  At that time both men experienced the truth of Psalm 121 in their lives.”

What a comfort it is to rest with the creators of this versification in the assurance that “he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

Jehovah will keep thee from evil,
Thy coming and going He knows;
Thy soul He preserves unimperiled;
Look thou to the hills for repose.

–MRK

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