by: Rebecca J. Brimmer, International President and CEO
This is one of my favorite Scriptures, which my husband and I consider a call on our lives. The word “watchmen” is translated from the Hebrew word shamar or shomer. It appears 468 times in the Scripture and is translated “watchman” eight times. Other alternate translations are keep, guard, guardian, keeper, watch, observe, heed, or preserve.
A watchman in biblical times fulfilled a couple of very important functions, which this verse calls to mind. First, in an ancient agrarian society, guarding the crops was of supreme importance. In that time, people by and large grew their own food, and the survival and prosperity of the family or clan depended on having a good harvest. If wild animals ate the crops, people trampled them, or enemy armies ate the grain and fruit, it wasn’t just a financial loss; starvation was a real possibility. It wasn’t like today when you could simply buy every kind of food product at your local supermarket. So, crops were watched over night and day to ensure that they were safely brought to harvest. Watchtowers (migdal shomrim, literally “tower of the watchmen”) were built of stone and can still be seen today in ancient terraced hillsides.
A second type of watchman was the guard who stood on the walls of the city. Their responsibility was to watch for enemies and to cry out an alarm if danger approached. Cities in those times were walled to protect the inhabitants from a variety of dangers including marauders, thieves, and enemy forces. Entry was limited to gates, which were carefully observed and guarded. Openings in the gates allowed for weapons to be unleashed against intruders before they could fully enter the city.
Armed watchmen (guards) would pace the walls and watch alertly for anyone who was out of place or appeared suspicious. If they perceived danger, they would call out the alarm, so the men of the city could protect their families. It was especially important to stay awake in the night hours and ensure the safety of the community. Today in Israel, there is still the need for shomrim (watchmen). Although most of the cities are not walled, many have security fences around the perimeter and guards who monitor everyone who comes and goes.
In Isaiah 62:6–7, the prophet speaks about praying for Jerusalem with the same careful attention as a watchman on the walls of a city. Literally, he holds the security of the people in his hands. God is calling on us to be like those watchmen. We must be constantly alert to the dangers which surround Israel. We must call out to God to keep (shomer) His promises, and we must rally others to the mission.
Because the job of watchman was so critical to the safety and provision of the people, readers of this passage in biblical times would have clearly understood the importance of being a watchman in the spiritual realm. We are called to partner with God in this protection of Israel. In verse eight, He promises that He will “with a strong arm” keep the crops safe from enemies, another clear allusion to “watchman,” which identifies Him as the Watchman of Israel.
The theme of God as the Guardian of Israel (Shomer Israel) is delineated in Psalm 121. In this passage, the noun shomer or the verb form yishmar (he will guard or keep) appears six times in the eight short verses of this psalm, which describes how the Lord takes care of Israel.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps [shomer] you will not slumber. Behold He who keeps [shomer] Israel shall neither slumber or sleep. The Lord is your keeper [shomer] ; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve [yishmar] you from all evil; He shall preserve [yishmar] your soul. The Lord shall preserve [yishmar] your going out and your coming in from this time forth and even forevermore” (NKJV).
In the Artscroll Jewish commentary on the book of Psalms, the word is translated “guardian” (vv. 3–5) and “guard” (vv. 7–8). In a beautifully poetic manner, the psalmist is painting a picture of God for the readers. Readers in ancient times would have immediately pictured the common but vitally important watchmen in his community. The use of this word communicates that God, like a watchman, is steadfastly keeping guard. He doesn’t slumber or sleep, but always keeps a careful watchful eye on Israel and all who “lift their eyes to the hills,”recognizing that He is the One who preserves, keeps, guards, protects, and watches over His beloved children.
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