Q. I’m reading Psalm 121 and I’m puzzled that it says, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” I can see the dangers of things like sunstroke and heat exhaustion, but how can the moon hurt us?
As I explain in my study guide to the Psalms, Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents” that were composed to reassure the Israelites of God’s protection as they went up to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage festivals.
One approach to answering your question is to try to argue that the moon actually can hurt us (for example, by observing that there are more car accidents when the moon is full, etc.), on the premise that the Bible’s authority is somehow at risk if it suggests the moon could hurt us when it really can’t.
Another approach is to say that in statements like this, the Bible is preserving a popular belief that has since proved unscientific, but this doesn’t put the Bible’s authority at risk; rather, the preservation of such ancient beliefs is part of the Bible’s human witness to God’s deeds and character.
I personally wouldn’t have a problem with that second approach, but in this case I don’t think it’s necessary, because there’s a third approach that’s actually more in keeping with Hebrew thought and language.
We need to hear the statement that “the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night” in light of the understanding, articulated in the Genesis creation account, that God established the “sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night.” Psalm 121 is saying, “Not even the ruler of the day will hurt you; how much less any of the servants of the ruler of the day (that is, anything else during the day). Not even the ruler of the night will hurt you; how much less anything else during the night.”
In other words, this is one of those marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality that we find so often in the Scriptures (which include others such as “from the least to the greatest,” “from the heaven above to the earth beneath,” etc.). In fact, in Moses’ blessing on the tribe of Joseph at the end of Deuteronomy, there’s a very similar statement to the one in Psalm 121, which illustrates this point: “May the Lord bless his land with . . . the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield.”
Obviously crops grow from the light and warmth of the sun, not from anything that comes from the moon. But this is simply another expression for totality: May God bless you with everything that day and night can yield, that is, everything, all the time.
I hope this perspective helps explain the statement in Psalm 121.
For a discussion of another expression for totality, see this post.