Psalm 120 – The Prayer and Journey of the Outsider
Psalm 120 is the first of a series of 15 psalms each with the title, A Song of Ascents. The reason for this collection and arrangement is not precisely stated. Many different explanations have been given for these “degrees” or “steps” or “ascents”:
· The Stairs of the Temple Songs.
· The Step Songs.
· The Gradual Songs.
· The Progression Songs.
· The Procession from Babylon Songs.
· The Pilgrim Festival Songs.
James Montgomery Boice explained the first suggestion: “The Talmud says that the fifteen songs correspond to the fifteen steps between these courtyards (Middoth ii. 5; Succa 51b). Some have even supposed that the songs were sung by the Levites from these steps, though this is pure speculation.”
Probably the best explanation is the last one listed, that these were songs for the people of God as they made the pilgrim journey to Jerusalem and the temple at the three appointed feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles).
1 Chronicles 13:6 uses this phrase to describe the bringing of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem: to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD. According to Charles Spurgeon (and many others), the word we translate ascents shares the same root with to bring up in 1 Chronicles 13:6. The same root word is used in the same context in 1 Chronicles 15:15.
“We shall consider them as songs sung by those pilgrims who went up to Jerusalem to worship…. These songs of desire, and hope, and approach are appropriate for the pilgrims’ use as they go up to worship.” (G. Campbell Morgan) This being likely so, then Jesus would have sung these songs on His many journeys to Jerusalem from Galilee.
“The author of these fifteen Psalms is not known; and most probably they were not the work of one person. They have been attributed to David, to Solomon, to Ezra, to Haggai, to Zechariah, and to Malachi, without any positive evidence. They are, however, excellent in their kind, and written with much elegance; containing strong and nervous sentiments of the most exalted piety, expressed with great felicity of language in a few words.” (Adam Clarke)
A. The distress and destiny of liars who oppose.
1. (1-2) Distress and deliverance from deceitful tongues.
In my distress I cried to the LORD,
And He heard me.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips
And from a deceitful tongue.
a. In my distress I cried to the LORD: The people of God often find themselves in distress. They have a refuge in their distress; they can do as the psalmist did when he cried to the LORD. They can share the singer’s testimony, and He heard me.
i. In my distress: “Distress addeth wings to our devotions. Our Saviour, being in agony, prayed more earnestly, Luke 22:44. So do all his members, and especially when they lie under the lash of a lying tongue, as here.” (Trapp)
ii. I cried to the LORD: “It is of little use to appeal to our fellows on the matter of slander, for the more we stir in it the more it spreads; it is of no avail to appeal to the honour of the slanderers, for they have none, and the most piteous demands for justice will only increase their malignity and encourage them to fresh insult.” (Spurgeon)
iii. And He heard me: The psalmist remembered God’s past faithfulness in his present need. “Devout hearts argue that what Jehovah has done once He will do again. Since His mercy endureth forever, He will not weary of bestowing, nor will former gifts exhaust His stores. Men say, ‘I have given so often that I can give no more’; God says, ‘I have given, therefore I will give.’” (Maclaren)
iv. “When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness. He will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie.” (Spurgeon)
b. Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips: The psalmist described the nature of his distress – evil words spoken against him from lying lips and a deceitful tongue.
i. There was some comfort in this cry, knowing that the evil that was spoken against the singer was not true. It was spoken with lying lips and with a deceitful tongue.
ii. The lies our soul needs deliverance from are not only the lies said about us, but also the lies said to us – lies about God, lies about man, lies about ourself, lies about life, identity, purpose, and happiness. From these lies, deliver my soul, O LORD.
2. (3-4) The destiny of the deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
Or what shall be done to you,
You false tongue?
Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With coals of the broom tree!
a. What shall be given to you: The psalmist shifted from his prayer to God to speak to the false tongue of those who caused him distress. He warned those lying lips of their destiny, of what shall be done to you.
i. In light of the judgment described in these verses, it is worth remembering that “…a false tongue is likened to a sharp razor, Psalm 52:2-4; to a sharp sword, Psalm 57:4; to sharp arrows, Proverbs 26:18-19.” (Trapp)
b. Sharp arrows of the warrior: The false tongue of the singer’s enemies would soon know sharp arrows. They had cast out lies like dangerous missiles, and now the sharp arrows of judgment would come against them.
i. These are “…punishments justly inflicted on a tongue, the words of which have been keen and killing as arrows, and which, by its lies and calumnies, hath contributed to set the world on fire.” (Horne)
ii. Clarke suggested that the picture here is of flaming arrows or fiery darts (Ephesians 6:16): “Fiery arrows, or arrows wrapped about with inflamed combustibles, were formerly used in sieges to set the places on fire.”
iii. “The liar, wounding though his weapons are, will be destroyed with far more potent shafts than lies: God’s arrows of truth and coals of judgment.” (Kidner)
B. Living in a troubled place, longing for God’s peace.
1. (5-6) The weariness of living with those who hate God’s shalom.
Woe is me, that I dwell in Meshech,
That I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
My soul has dwelt too long
With one who hates peace.
a. Woe is me, that I dwell in Meshech: Meshech was a distant place, far from the land of Israel (Ezekiel 27:13, 32:26, 39:1). Kedar was a place associated with the nomadic tribes in the lands surrounding Israel (Isaiah 21:16-17, Jeremiah 49:28).
i. “Meshech was the name of [a group of] barbarous tribes who, in the times of Sargon and Sennacherib inhabited the highlands to the east of Cilicia, and in later days retreated northwards to the neighbourhood of the Black Sea…. Kedar was one of the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian desert.” (Maclaren)
ii. “These two peoples were located so far apart geographically that they can only be taken here as ‘a general term for the heathen.’ No one person could have lived among both. They are examples of warlike tribes, among whom the singers of Psalm 120 had no true home.” (Boice)
iii. “The verbs ‘dwell’ (garti, ‘sojourn’) and ‘live’ (sakanti, ‘tabernacle,’ ‘dwell’) are significantly chosen. Even though the psalmist may have enjoyed a permanent residence, he felt as if he was no more than a sojourner among his contemporaries. He did not feel at home among an ungodly people.” (VanGemeren)
b. My soul has dwelt too long with one who hates peace: The psalmist ached because he lived among the ungodly and was distant from Israel and its people. He longed for God’s shalom (peace); his enemies, who had lying lips, hated God’s shalom.
i. This was a good discontentment. “Contentment in the place where deceit is practiced, and strife is loved, is base contentment. Men of faith must there find the distress which inspires the cry to God.” (Morgan)
ii. “The very society of such (be they ever so tame and civil) is tedious and unsavoury to a good soul; like the slime and filth that is congealed when many toads and other vermin join together.” (Trapp)
iii. God can work good even in the troubles of difficult company. “And remember, there is a compensation, in that the strict scrutiny of thy foes makes thee ever so much more watchful and prayerful, and drives thee oftener to the bosom of God.” (Meyer)
iv. This makes Psalm 120 a fitting start to the Songs of Ascents. As the pilgrim journey to Jerusalem began, the author was mindful of the weariness endured living apart from the supportive community of God’s people. The psalmist needed this trip to Jerusalem at feast time and needed the larger community of the people of God.
2. (7) The contrast between the singer and the community where he lives.
I am for peace;
But when I speak, they are for war.
a. I am for peace: He loved and longed for God’s peace, His shalom.
i. I am for peace: “Properly, ‘I am peace’; desirous of peace, peaceful, forbearing, in fact, peace itself.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “The clause ‘I am a man of peace’ translates a nominal phrase: ‘I peace.’ In his whole being the psalmist longs for the establishment of peace.” (VanGemeren)
iii. “Jesus was a man of peace…he lived to make peace ‘by the blood of his cross;’ he died to complete it.” (Pierce, cited in Spurgeon)
b. When I speak, they are for war: The psalmist sought to speak words of peace and goodness, to represent and promote those values in our own community. Yet every time he did, the response was hostile, characteristic of those who are for war.
i. At least for a while, he needed better company – and he would find it among the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem and who shared in these Songs of Ascents.
ii. “So the psalm ends as with a long-drawn sigh. It inverts the usual order of similar psalms, in which the description of need is wont to precede the prayer for deliverance. It thus sets forth most pathetically the sense of discordance between a man and his environment, which urges the soul that feels it to seek a better home. So this is a true pilgrim psalm.” (Maclaren)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org