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,(Ps. 120:1-7 NIV)
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.
Ps 120-134 form a collection of 15 Psalms known as the Songs of Ascents. It is likely that these songs were sung by the people of God as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the three great festivals Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.NIV Exodus 23:14
Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed:NIV Deuteronomy 16:16
These 15 Psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence by the pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Israel, and so all who travelled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: The trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity.
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.NIV 2 Corinthians 3:18
They can be used to illustrate our own journey along the path of discipleship. The people of God had their salvation accomplished in the exodus, their identity defined at Sinai and their preservation assured in the 40 years of wilderness wandering. This people climbed the road to Jerusalem to worship. They refreshed their memories of God’s saving ways at the feast of Passover in the spring, they renewed their commitments as God’s covenanted people at the Feast of Pentecost in early summer; they responded as a blessed community to the best that God had for them at the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn. Between the feasts the people lived out these realities in daily discipleship.
This picture of the OT people of God singing these 15 Psalms as they left their routines of discipleship and made their way from the towns and villages, farms and cities as pilgrims going up to Jerusalem has become embedded in the Christian devotional imagination. It is our best background for understanding life as a faith journey.
There are great wonders along this road and also fearful challenges to be met. Singing the 15 Psalms is a way both to express the amazing grace and to quiet the anxious fears. Isaiah is probably referring to these psalms in Isaiah 30:
And you will sing as on the night you celebrate a holy festival; your hearts will rejoice as when people go up with flutes to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock of Israel.NIV Isaiah 30:29
In each song the pilgrim reveals their deep yearning and hunger, the sense of alienation they have living in the world. At the same time they show how they have that need met in the Lord. The 15 Psalms of Ascents describe elements common to all those who apprentice themselves as disciples of Christ and who travel in the Christian way.
The meaning and significance of these Psalms deepened as the people of God’s history progressed. Looking at her history from Abraham to David, to the exile, as the years went by they travelled farther and farther from home. Finally, after the exile, they were scattered among pagan peoples over the face of the earth. Many of them never returned to Israel. We can sense their increasing alienation as they are driven farther and farther away from home.
In Psalm 120 the pilgrim is called to live amidst pagan, immoral, godless people, not just temporarily, but as a lifestyle. The pilgrim hungered to have an influence wherever he went. His message was Shalom, peace, which he faithfully proclaimed, yet his message was totally rejected. Even when it seemed that his word was accepted and peace was agreed to, he was a victim of deceit and his life was endangered. In his alienation and distress he was driven to worship, to cry out to the Lord.
The Psalm divides into three parts: petition, confidence, and lament.
He prays to the Lord. Verses 1 and 2:
I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me. Save me, O LORD, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.NIV Psalm 120:1-2
People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel like they are drowning in it. That kind of dissatisfaction with the world is the preparation for travelling in the way of Christian discipleship. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before they acquire an appetite for God.
He expresses his confidence that God is the judge, therefore he himself will not act. Verse 3:
What will he give to you, and what will He add to you, O tongue of deceit?
Arrows of the warrior, Sharp, with coals of the broom tree!
Many scholars take verse 3 to be a form of an oath. When one took an oath in the Ancient Near East, one would say something like, “May the Lord do to me, and more so will he add, if I fail this vow.” So, when the pilgrim undertook a peace treaty with Meshech or Kedar, they vowed, “May the Lord do to me and more so if we don’t uphold our end of the bargain.” The pilgrim was taken in; and his life was endangered. Yet, although this is not his country, and he has no rights there, he still knows that the God who is in heaven sees. The pilgrim knows that when one takes an oath in God’s name and it is violated, that produces immediate guilt, and God moves to set in motion the fine wheels of judgment, and so the pilgrim says, “What will God give, what will he add to you? Sharp arrows of the warrior and coals of the broom tree.” He is saying that the judgment that God will bring is perfectly fitted to the crime. Thus, the pilgrim describes the judgment in the exact terms of his own experience as a victim of deceit. So just as the pilgrim was the victim of words which were like arrows that cut deep into his soul, words which burned like charcoal in an open wound (the root of the broom tree was a very hard wood used for charcoal in the Ancient Near East as it had a very effective heating power), God will bring upon his adversary the misfortune that he had desired to bring upon another. So the pilgrim says, “I’m not going to act. Judgment is the Lord’s.” Knowing that God is the ultimate Judge also gave the pilgrim a great humility. He knew that if he compromised his message of peace and adopted the world’s method of operating, he, too, would become a victim of God’s judgment. This reminder keeps his own life pure. The pilgrim is confident God will bring judgment.
If we want to live as pilgrims, our deepest longings and expectations will never be fulfilled in this world. This pilgrim hungered for peace, but he found war. Yet he does not want to lose his influence, so, in the face of rejection he worships and tells the Lord about his disappointment. He lays it before the Lord, and then asks the Lord to give him life in the midst of his trials so that he might continue to be influential. Then he looks to the sovereign Lord, the Judge of the universe, to judge; he does not act for his own rights.
The pilgrim gives the full atmosphere of what he is experiencing in his hurt and heartache. Verses 5 through
Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech, I dwell with the tents of Kedar!
Too long has my soul dwelt with those hating peace.
I am for peace (And thus I speak) But they are for war.
“Woe is me” is the pilgrim’s impassioned word. He has had it. For too long he has dwelt among this type of people. They are the reason for his woe.
The people of Meshech lived far away in the north. Kedar was Israel’s closer neighbour to the south. The pilgrim couldn’t literally live in both places so I think a metaphorical meaning is required. I suggest that he is referring to all enemies both near and far. They were powerful enemies with wealth and might.
What are the methods and the message of this pilgrim as he endeavours to influence his pagan neighbours? Remember that he regards himself as a pilgrim and stranger. He does not live among these people so that he might build an economic empire and use them to advance that. No, he comes as a pilgrim, without any rights. He comes to be a blessing to them, to serve them. His message is Shalom, peace, well-being, prosperity. He wanted to lead these people to the God of Peace who would give peace to their souls through sacrifice, so that they would worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Creator, who would give them life. Such was his method and his message. In response he was rejected and hated. And it was not a one-time, but a continual rejection. The one time his message was embraced it was only for the purpose of deceit.
What does this pilgrim do in his distress? He brings the issue to the Lord. The pilgrim laments his situation. He does not put a smile on his face and say everything is well because everything is not well. He is genuinely disappointed. He had expectations of being an influence in that nation and he was not, so he laments.
He petitions God – he places his confidence in God and laments about the wickedness that he sees around him. But the key lesson is that he commits the matter to God in prayer.
Lord we become discouraged by the relentless ungodliness that is promoted with such celebration by politicians, columnists and activists. We live so long listening to these people and watching their influence and corrupting messages permeate our schools, television programmes and discussion. We feel helpless before this tide of ungodliness. Lord, how long have we to wait before You arise and bring an end to unrighteousness? Lord prosper us with a great awakening of the people by Your Holy Spirit. May the Gospel bring many to their knees in humble acceptance of Your salvation because we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.