Psalm 121

A Prayer For The Road

A Song of Ascents.

1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills.
Where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from YHWH ,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not allow your foot to be moved.
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 YHWH  is your keeper.
YHWH  is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 YHWH  will keep you from all evil.
He will keep your soul.
8 YHWH  will keep your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth, and forevermore.

World English Version

Do you pray while you travel in your car or on a plane? What prayers do you pray on a journey?

For many Catholics, a car must have a religious icon as a dashboard decoration. Statues of St. Christopher were popular fifty years ago, when he was patron saint of travelers (he was demoted). Statues of Jesus or Mary are popular now. Some people hang a rosary from their rear view mirror. Why do these religious items occupy car space? For some, it is cultural tradition or habit or, even, superstition (heaven, forbid!). For others, it is a reminder to pray.

In the three great Western religions, prayer and travel are intricately connected in the notion of pilgrimage. Islam has the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca a believer is expected to make once in a lifetime. Many Christians visit shrines, cathedrals, monasteries, even the Holy Land, for inspiration. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., Jews flocked to Jerusalem for Passover and other holy days. Indeed, the spirituality of the feasts began with the first steps of the pilgrimage.

Many scholars interpret Psalm 121 as a blessing for a pilgrimage. The psalm can be divided into two parts: 1) a dialogue between the leader and the lay person (121:1-4) and 2) the blessing for the journey. In the dialogue, the lay person initiated the conversation with a formal question about the source of help (121:1); the leader responded with an answer of YHWH's assistance (121:2). Notice the description of the divine as the dialogue continued. The lay person affirmed the Lord's power as the One who guards the journey day and night (will not let the foot of the traveler be moved during the day nor slumber at night while the traveler rested; 121:3). The response of the leader reaffirmed God as ever-vigilant, the night watchman who always stands guard at the gate (121:4). The psalmist equated the all-powerful attribute to a God who never slept.

With this description clear, the leader could now bless the traveler. The name YHWH was invoked four times in the psalm: twice in 121:5 and twice in 121:7-8; these invocations demarcated the blessing. YHWH would be the night keeper and intimate day shade (121:5); YHWH would keep the traveler from evil and guide the travel itself. The bridge between the two invocations (121:6) connected the cycle of day-night with evil. In desert travel, evil was manifest in heat stroke, so divine protection meant shading from the intense sun (121:6a). At night, camp was established to protect travelers during slumber. In a desert environment, however, night was the time for nocturne predators and poisonous animals to appear; night also gave bandits cover to mount attacks against travelers. The night presented danger even to the largest of caravans; many ancient travelers believed moon rays themselves had an evil influence (121:6b). To echo 121:5, God would save by standing guard at night over the traveler and accompanying the traveler during the day as a best friend (at your right hand) and as a shield from the sun. YHWH helped the pilgrim day and night.

Do we ask God to be with us when we travel? Do we ask him to guide our ways and keep us safe in strange environments? Or do we just assume our safety without a thought? While travel is safer than at any time in human history, it has it's challenges and short-comings. We should use travel as an opportunity for prayer. We should pray for guidance, not only in a spiritual sense, but in a geographic sense, as well.

Read Psalm 121 the next time you travel overnight.