Psalms Lecture 13: Psalm 120

THE FOLLOWING ARE NOTES FOR LECTURES GIVEN AT NEW COLLEGE, BIRMINGHAM. I AM NOT AN EXPERT AND BOOKS WILL BE CREDITED TO SHOW WHERE MY INFORMATION IS COMING FROM. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, COMMENT ON THIS POST AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER.

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A song of ascents.

I call on the Lord in my distress,
and he answers me.
Save me, Lord,
from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.

What will he do to you,
and what more besides,
you deceitful tongue?
He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows,
with burning coals of the broom bush.

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek,
that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak, they are for war.

A song of ascents, collection 120-134. Most brief and reflect concerns of family and agricultural life, common people. A specific one you have probably heard is 121 “I lift my eyes up to the hills, where does my help come from” and they have often been used as worship music as they have that personal touch which helps us connect to them. They are seen as pilgrimage songs as “a song of ascent” could refer to the ascent of the pilgrim on their way to Jerusalem or to the sanctuary there. These psalms may have even been sung on the journey itself.

This psalm is by an individual asking for help, believing the Lord will help. It has been called at times the psalm of The Outsider, as although this author is surrounded by people, these people are not his own, and in a way he is alone. This fits the view of an outside well because this is of someone who is far away, one who has settled in a foreign land of foreign people, strangers and enemies, and shows a kind of homesickness for the Motherland. This psalm appropriately begins the series, as this pilgrim is far away, but as the psalms progress will travel and bring us to Jerusalem (psalm 122), and in the last psalms (132-134) the ark of the covenant, the priests and temple servants at the House of the Lord. This individual psalm also shows us that although we often imagine pilgrims in groups, families, and tribes, there were often solitary singular pilgrims, and so not all psalms would necessarily be sung as a chorus or congregation. It is likely that these psalms feel more intimate in our alone time rather than our gathered prayer meetings.

It is also relevant to mention a point made by Spurgeon about this psalm: that they may not have always been sung aloud.

Quotation:

“We hope that pious people were not so foolish as to sing about their bad neighbours when they were leaving them for a few days. If they wished to leave their houses in safety, and to come home to kind surroundings, it would have been the height of folly to provoke those whom they were leaving behind by singing aloud a Psalm of complaint against them.” Spurgeon.

This short psalm really one divides into two pieces: God and my neighbour (verses 1-4) and War & Peace (verses 5-7).

Part A: 1-4

The neighbours this author is speaking of seems to have slandered him, lied about him, and he is distressed by this, but in his faith he has turned to the Lord in his distress, cried to Him that might do something and protect His child. Instead of answering the liars back, instead of retaliation the author has looked to a higher power, in a better direction, received an answer. This is past tense, this man is still hurting but he knows the Gods justice is more than he could ask for to deal with those who injure him. Verse 2 is his prayer, but verse 3 it the outcome.
The answer is that the liar, no matter how damaging his words have become, no matter how wounding they are, will be destroyed by something far more powerful than lies: arrows of truth, and coals of judgement.
Psalm 64 has God’s arrows turning the slanderers verbal arrows against them “they sharpen their tongues like swords, and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.”
As a note: the roots of the broom tree (broom bush in some translations) apparently burnt well and provided charcoal, coal being a common image for judgement. Isaiah for example has burning coals placed on his lips to burn away the guilt. We should remember this when tempted to think of coals as just a painful punishment – coals were used not to inflict pain, but to remove guilt/sin.

Part B: 5-7

This is where the idea of the author being an outsider, and a possible reason for the lies and slander aimed at him, come together. The author has one way of life and the foreigners, those around him, have another way of life; bringing these two together has caused friction as its opposite in close proximity. This incompatibility no amount of simple goodwill can resolve especially with two polar opposites of peace and war – they cannot work together. Kidner, who writes on the Psalms, suggests that here is an example of what the New Testament looks at when warning against two different responses: compromise (1 John 2:15) and animosity (Romans 12:14-21). Neither is appropriate. Christians cannot bend to foreign gods and foreign ways as they have been taught and shown the truth, but neither should they mistreat those around them. Here Jesus may well refer to his parable of the good neighbour – the samaritans to instruct how we should treat the other.

Meshech (list in Gen10.2) usually refers to a distant region and its inhabitants in eastern Asia Minor near the Black Sea.

Kedar is a general designation for certain Arab tribes inhabiting the northern regions of the Arabian penisula.

Meschech and Kedar are so far removed from one another that here, they are really only used as generic terms to describe the heathens, symbolically representing the war-like people among whom he is forced to live. If the “I” of this psalm actually speaks as Israel personified, these terms refer to the world Gentile world, in which the people have been scattered amongst. If the “I’ is simply the author, it is a generalised description describing the furthest remote people.

There are, however, two other interesting options:
1. That Meshech is meant to read Massa, which would work with an actual location for the author, and is the difference of only one hebrew consonant.
2. Or to see Meshech as an accidental abbreviation of: ” moseke qeset” which would mean “those that stretch the bow” either in relation to descendents of Ismael in Kedar (where the author is) OR another metaphor in lines with the slanders sharp arrows of deceit.

Discussion questions: What do you think we can learn from this psalm about our lives today?

Despite us living in a multi-cultural society it does not mean we should change our beliefs and way of life to bend to other faiths or none. We can only act as God taught us and that was as true for this pilgrim in a foreign land, as it is now. We can however always look back to God for counsel, guidance, wisdom and help, because we will find opposition and were warned about it. We are just called to shine as a light in the darkness, in order to bring others into the Way Jesus gave us.

As the author of Psalm 120 states, he has not compromised “I am for peace/I am peace”. That is the end, and although he deals with those that hate peace, he will journey to the sanctuary at the Temple as a clear sign of his life and faith.

  • Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Book III, IV and V of the Psalms (Inter-Varsity Press, England, 1973).
  • Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David, Volume III, Psalm CXI to CL (Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts).
    Also found online here!
  • Society of Biblical Literature. The Harper Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).
  • Walton, John H. Chronolgical and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Zondervan, Michigan, 1978).
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