A Series Through Psalms 120–122
“Are we there yet?” Who among us has not either heard or voiced these words on a long family road trip? The trees fly past in the slightly foggy windows, the road signs mark the distance to our destination, and a small voice pipes up from the backseat. Children are generally (and notoriously) impatient. In some ways we never grow out of it. Or at least that has been my experience. No, I am not impatiently waiting to arrive at some far-flung vacation destination where sunshine and fun await me like a dream just out of reach. Instead, I am often impatient in waiting for the New Creation, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. I suspect you are impatient in waiting for these things too (at least sometimes). Impatience cannot exist without desire, of course, and desiring the consummation is certainly a good thing. Yet we must remember that the greatest blessing of the world to come is not the world to come itself, but the Triune God who will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4; Ps 16:1; 73:26). The consummation is great because God will be our God and we will be his people forever.
The Songs of Ascent
With this goal of the Christian life in mind, it is time to consider the Songs of Ascent. This is a collection of inspired songs (Ps 120–134) all beginning with this title. While there have been different interpretations of what this means, a generally accepted view is that these fifteen songs were sung by Israelite pilgrims as they traveled to Jerusalem three times a year for the annual feasts (the feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Booths; Deut 16:16).
As the Israelites traveled to the capital city in obedience to God, there were two senses in which they ascended.1 First, the physical journey involved a gain in elevation—they were literally going up to Jerusalem. Second, and more importantly, they were ascending spiritually to God’s special presence in the midst of his people. What made the journey so rewarding was not the city of Jerusalem itself; rather it was the fact that Yahweh himself dwelt there in the Holy of Holies.
These fifteen songs of ascent can be divided into five cycles of three psalms each.2 In the first psalm of the cycle, the psalmist is generally in some sort of distress. The middle psalm outlines the psalmist’s confidence in the midst of danger or trouble. The final psalm in the cycle is a praise-filled song of arrival at the longed-for destination (whether Jerusalem broadly or the house of the LORD more specifically). If we really think about it, this second going up is a good description of our own experience. After all, our life as Christians is a pilgrimage to the heavenly Zion. In a very real sense, we are pilgrims and sojourners on this earth (1 Pet 2:11). But how do pilgrims live? Put simply, they live as those who are aware of their current surroundings, but who desire the destination. The sojourners traveling from far and wide to Jerusalem for the annual feasts sang these songs all along the road. For them, the dangers and hardships of the journey were a constant reality; yet they were drawn and driven by something other than just the desire to escape danger and hardship. They were drawn by something higher, by God himself. But as Psalm 120 makes clear, even though our destination is sure, the road may be long and hard.
Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. 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! (vv. 2–4)
“Deliver me”—this is a prayer to God from one of his needy children. The pilgrim life is a life of prayer. The prayer offered to God in Psalm 120 is a heartfelt cry in the midst of a troubling situation. Do you ever feel that pain of living in a sinful world? Sometimes life is simply difficult. We can become tired of it and wonder if we have any hope. Sin and deceit are all around us, it seems. Consider 2 Peter 2:7–9:
And if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.
That is our comfort, Christian, even as we are pilgrims on this earth. We are dependent, but we know the One who is independent and needs nothing, and in Christ we have unending access to him.
The specific prayer of the psalmist is a request to be delivered from lies and deceit, which probably includes treachery of all kinds, especially untrue words and accusations. Here we find a helpful pattern for our own prayers. Pray that God would deliver his people from lies and deceit. Pray that God would deliver you from these things in yourself as well. May his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, including in us. Whether at work, school, home, or wherever, go to your God in prayer and know that he hears you.
Psalm 120 also reminds us that vengeance belongs to the LORD (Rom 12:19). The psalmist was surrounded by those who practiced deceit, and the liars’ weapons were destructive. They are nothing compared to God’s judgment, however (v. 4). While the mention of sharp arrows makes sense to us—we understand how a warrior with his bow depicts God’s judgment on deceivers—what does a broom tree have to do with this? Apparently, this was a type of tree that grew in that region. According to Tremper Longman III, the roots of this tree “can be extracted and burned like charcoal.”3 Whether or not these roots were ever used in warfare, the image is still clear: God has arrows and fire prepared for deceitful tongues. Conquest, defeat, and judgment are coming for them. Notice that the psalmist did not commandeer the same lies and deceit his enemies used, thus revealing a resounding answer to the problem. As you live as pilgrims in this world, avoid the temptation to use the sinful weapons of the world. Pray to God, trust in Christ, and seek to be faithful to your Savior in grateful obedience. And know that one day your Savior will return in judgment to rescue his people and right wrongs (Rev 19:11–15).
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! (vv. 5–7)
These verses make it clear that even if the psalmist was permanently dwelling in these pagan tents, he was still a sojourner. Who are the most famous sojourners in the Bible? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come to mind. We know that Abraham was waiting, not for an earthly land, but for the heavenly city (Heb 11:8–10). As he is in many ways, Abraham is our pattern as a sojourner. His story helps us make sense of something: you are homesick for a reason. As Hebrews 11:13–16 tells us,
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Desiring a better, heavenly country is part of what it means to be a sojourner, to be a Christian. The psalmist experienced this in his own way, as we see in verses 5–6. But where are Meshech and Kedar? Meshech is far to the north, and Kedar is in the south. You cannot be in both places at once any more than you can be in Mexico and Greenland simultaneously. In this psalm, these two places are functioning as general terms for pagans outside Israel. The emphasis is on the psalmist’s residence: he lives among pagans far from Zion, far from the presence of God. As we consider where we are now in redemptive history, this is our place too. God is with us everywhere, Christ rules all things, and the Holy Spirit has been sent into our hearts (Gal 4:6). Yet we still long for the final day and the heavenly city (Rev 21:1–4), and sometimes it seems far away.
The psalmist longs for something different. He is longing for peace while surrounded by violence and violent desires (vv. 6–7). While this could mean these pagans desire conflict in general, it seems that this is more a problem of persecution. The people of God have been persecuted since the beginning, ever since Cain slew Abel. The severity of these persecutions has ebbed and flowed of course, and many Christians in the world today are experiencing things that American Christians could scarcely imagine. But we all experience this to some degree—mockery, slander, exclusion. We also war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. There is much conflict in our lives as believers. Add to this the fact that we know this is not how things ought to be. We long for the new heavens and earth but live on this fallen earth. But even in our distress, there is still the promise of deliverance.
In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. (v. 1)
Perhaps you wondered what happened to verse 1 of this psalm. Well, here it is. The answer provided by the first verse becomes clearer once you see the problems and supplications in verses 2–7. In the Hebrew of verse 1, “to the LORD” comes first. This seems to be for a reason: the psalmist wants to emphasize these words.4 It seems to indicate sole dependence on God in the midst of the psalmist’s severe distress. Notice how there is no indication that the psalmist’s troubling situation has ended at any point in this psalm. Yet he is still confident. Why? Because his confidence is not based on the shifting sands of his context, but rather he is trusting in the One who never changes. By definition, pilgrim lives are full of change, uncertainty, and danger. That is exactly why we must look outside our constantly changing sojourn to the God who made, sustains, saves, and loves us. Our lives as pilgrims are directed toward our God; we live God-ward in this life. Everything else could only lead to despair (and defeat). So look to your Creator and Redeemer as you sojourn on this fallen earth, and know you are traveling up to Jerusalem.
This means that the Christian sojourner’s life is a life of prayer; and that ought to bring us much comfort. Sometimes I suspect we think too little of prayer, or perhaps we think of prayer too little. We are tempted to either think of prayer as a last resort (the only thing left to do is pray), or we do not consider prayer at all until a situation has already ended. May God use Psalm 120 to correct our sinful prayerlessness. After all, we are praying to the One who loved us enough to save us when we were his enemies (Eph 2:1–3), therefore we can be confident of his ultimate deliverance!
Humanly speaking we are vulnerable sojourners living amongst violent pagans. Not to mention the deceit and warmongering of our remaining sin! Left to ourselves we would be crushed by the world, the flesh, and the devil—but we are not alone. We have Christ. Therefore, cry out to your covenant LORD! No matter how you feel or what you think about your experiences, your LORD hears and will answer. That is certain, Christian. Christ has earned the city for us, a reality far greater than the earthly Jerusalem. There is no gospel without personal salvation, of course, but do not forget the goal: everlasting fellowship with the Triune God. In other words, there are many blessings of the gospel—but the greatest blessing is that we get God himself. So rest in your Savior, even as you feel the tensions of your pilgrim life. The psalmist knows God will answer him, yet he still suffers in the meantime. But the psalmist knows that his unmet desires are fulfilled ultimately only in God’s presence. Pilgrims, gaze at your Savior, and know he is here with you even now. And take heart; you will be in his city soon.
- Tremper Longman III, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 409.
- Rev. William Godfrey first alerted me to this pattern in the Psalms of Ascent during a sermon series at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA.
- Longman, Psalms, 411. See Ps 140:10; Prov 25:22.
- Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 891; Hebrew sentences are usually structured verb-subject-object—there is the same sort of emphasis on the LORD’s name (יהוה), seeming to indicate that it must be he who answers the prayer.
©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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