Question: "What does the psalmist mean when he says, "I lift my eyes to the hills" (Psalm 121:1)?"
Answer: The city of Jerusalem—the center of ancient Jewish worship—is perched high upon a hill. As worshipers traveled there for one of the three main yearly Jewish festivals, they traditionally sang “Songs of Ascent” while climbing the road into the city. The Jewish priests may have sung these Songs of Ascent (also called Pilgrim Songs) as they ascended the temple steps in Jerusalem. One such psalm states, “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).
On his approach to Jerusalem, the pilgrim declared, “I lift my eyes to the hills,” the place where God dwells. Just as Isaiah saw the Lord “sitting on a throne, high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1, NKJV), the psalmist looked up to the mountains of Jerusalem and saw God the Creator of heaven and earth, seated on His heavenly throne in Mount Zion.
Scripture frequently refers to the heights of Jerusalem as the holy “Mountain of the Lord” where God dwells (Zechariah 8:3; Isaiah 27:13). One psalmist describes Jerusalem as “the city of our God, which sits on his holy mountain! It is high and magnificent; the whole earth rejoices to see it! Mount Zion, the holy mountain, is the city of the great King!” (Psalm 48:1–2, NLT). In Psalm 87:2, the same writer reports that God “loves the city of Jerusalem more than any other city in Israel.”
“I lift my eyes to the hills” was the worshiper’s declaration of trust and dependence upon God for help. He was going to meet with the Lord and offer sacrifices of praise because the Lord his God, Creator of the universe, was his singular source of help. From the elevated place of His holy presence, God would grant assistance and deliverance: “I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain” (Psalm 3:4; see also Psalm 20:2; 134:3). From His sacred dwelling place, the Lord would offer everlasting security: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore” (Psalm 125:2).
In another song of ascent, the psalmist makes a similar pronouncement of trust and reliance on God for help: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us” (Psalm 123:1–2, ESV). This time God is not perceived as dwelling in the hills of Jerusalem but enthroned in the heavens, and it is His mercy the psalmist seeks.
Directing our eyes toward God symbolizes our complete trust and reliance on Him for help: “But my eyes are toward you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless!” (Psalm 141:8, ESV). “My eyes are always on the Lord, for he rescues me from the traps of my enemies,” acknowledged King David (Psalm 25:15, NLT). The writer of Hebrews taught us to stay the course and finish the race of the Christian life by “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Lifting our eyes toward God is a biblical image of prayer. As a great multitude of enemies came against Jehoshaphat, he prayed to the Lord, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). At his stoning, Stephen prayed and “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Even Jesus Himself “lifted up his eyes to heaven” when He prayed to His Father (John 17:1).
When we say, “I lift my eyes to the hills,” we communicate a trust in God that can sustain us through every danger, hardship, and challenge along life’s journey until we are safely home in God’s eternal kingdom.