Psalm 120 is the first of the Psalms of Ascents. These fifteen psalms from 120 to 134 are one of the many collections found in book five of the Psalms. It is likely that these psalms were sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem and the Temple for the Feast of Tabernacles and/or by Levites as they ministered in the Temple specifically as they would ascend from the Court of Women to the Court of Israelites. These psalms act as a unit to focus their singer on God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of adversity, and progress to praise and blessing.
This particular psalm rightly begins with adversity. It is helpful to remember that this collection was added to the book of psalms as the people were preparing to return to or shortly after they had returned to the promised land. They would have been feeling this distress from those around them. Note also that this psalm doesn’t end with much resolution as these kinds of psalms often do. Instead, the singer should progress to the next psalm in the collection where he is reminded of God’s help.
In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
The author begins with a wise response to distress–calling upon the Lord. He even encourages his singers by telling them that the Lord was faithful to answer. We learn right away that this man has been slandered. It is incredible the harm that can come through verbal means, and it appears that this author has felt this pain as seriously as if were physical.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior's sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
In the first stanza the psalmist addressed the Lord and his audience. He now turns his words to his adversary. He warns this person that his lying will not go unpunished. In a more serious way this echoes the child’s taunting, “Liar, liar! Pants on fire.” Indeed, the author warns this liar that there is burning judgement for those who break God’s law to not bear a false witness. Why should we warn our adversaries of judgement and how does this square with Jesus’ admonition to love those who persecute us? A warning of judgement is hardly an unloving thing to do. To call attention to the seriousness of someone’s sin is one of the most loving things someone can do.
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
After addressing the Lord, the audience, and his adversary, the author now addresses himself. Remember what context this is being written in (the return from the exile). He recognizes that he has been away from his homeland for too long. We must follow Christ’s command to be in the world while remaining not of it, but there are times when we will feel that we have been in the world for too long. We will long for the day when we can be united with Jesus in eternity and be free from the wickedness of the earth.
The psalmist realizes that there is a fundamental difference in his pursuits and that of those around him. He wants to live peaceably, as Jesus would later command His followers to do, but the people he is surrounded by seem to thrive off of conflict. It can be easy to get caught up in the drama and turmoil around us, but we must remember that we are called to be peacemakers and not to stir up strife.
Though this is a short psalm, it provides a good introduction to this collection of the Psalms of Ascents. We are placed in the midst of adversity and are directed to call out to the Lord and remember that He will be just in His dealings with the wicked. Slander is a serious thing, and it can weigh heavy on its victims. If you come up against such an attack, let these words be a reminder that though we look forward to the day when we will be gone from this world of sin, God is faithful to hear our cry now.
All Scripture is quoted from the ESV.