I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. (v.1)
So went this line in that dusty old King James Version on the top shelf somewhere. This is the second of the songs of ascent (120 to 134). Originating perhaps as pilgrimage songs, the psalms of ascent depict the journey figuratively, a rising access to a higher plane.
This rising ground is reminiscent of Psalm 15: “Who may abide on the holy hill?” The answer in verse 2 “My help comes from God, maker of heaven and earth” prepares the ground for an assurance of protection in the last four verses of the song: “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (6)
The moon? Remember that in ancient times the physical arrangement of the heavens was little understood and subject to much speculative superstition by commentators more attuned to alchemy and magic than the much more recent developments in modern science.
The innovation prize goes to Isaac Everett who suggests using Help! by John Lennon of The Beatles. From experience, the author can say that it works well as an antiphon. Definitely not in the King James tradition, but a great idea if you are feeling brave – and have your own in-house rockers who can still sing it sensitively. For the less adventurous:
- TEP also provides a refrain by Lacey Brown that looks quite tricky to learn but would settle into a groove. Unusually, the text is not actually taken from the psalm but the theme is certainly there, depicting the singer looking around for help.
- TiS 77, the second of two settings of Psalm 121 found in TiS (the first, 76 is a Ravenscroft hymn from the Scottish Psalter, 1615), offers other attractions. Responsive participation by both the lead voice(s) and people are neatly woven into a paraphrase and music setting by John Bell. Cantors may lift their eyes to the beauty of hills seen and unseen by singing the first two lines, the people responding accordingly. That theme of protection and safety permeates this song.
- PFAS 121D, amongst the nine choices for 121 in this excellent psalter, is a good responsorial setting. The refrain music, with attractive harmony changes (Dm C Eb7#11 D7#9 Gm G Bb7 … sumptuous harmony shifts and chord extensions), is well worth a look.
- NCH has a simple refrain: “My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”
- Michael Card has also written a nice anthem on this text, words in Hebrew with phonetic transliteration, and also in English.1
Felix Mendelssohn included two movements from this psalm into his oratorio Elias (Elijah): Lift thine eyes to the mountains, a sweet trio for SSA; and He watching over Israel, originally in German of course, drawing on Psalms 121:4 and 138:7.