Psalm 120 is the first of fifteen psalms identified as songs of “ascents” or “degrees.” Interpretations regarding the meanings of those terms vary. A generally discounted Jewish tradition holds that the psalms were sung on each of the fifteen steps separating the women’s court from the men’s court in the Temple. Another view is that the songs were sung by the exiles as they returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. Other views are that the term refers to the literary or musical style of the poems, in which the thought progresses or tone ascends. The editors of The Literary Study Bible: ESV believe “these poems were sung or recited on pilgrimages as people went ‘up’ to Jerusalem to worship in the temple” and note “the range of thoughts and sentiments that passed through the pilgrims’ minds as they recited these psalms, which do not deal single-mindedly with worship but instead cover virtually all of life” (p. 892).
The New Bible Commentary: Revised states, “Whatever the precise meaning of the superscription, one thing is evident; this collection of psalms constitutes a distinctive group, and is, in itself, a miniature Psalter” (p. 529).
The author begins Psalm 120 by relating how he called on God, who heard his prayer:
In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me (verse 1, ESV).
The next verse reflects that prayer:
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue (2, ESV).
Some believe David wrote this psalm and this verse describes the affliction he suffered from lies. Christ himself knew the pain of falsehood and deceit. Believers through all ages will writhe under attacks from the father of lies.
The next two verses (3-4, E SV) directly address the liars:
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!
Lies fly from ungodly mouths like flaming arrows. They pierce the afflicted heart. But in the end, it is the liar that shall suffer eternal pain in flames. The broom (or juniper) tree did not burn quickly, but its coals burned with an intense and long-lasting heat.
According to The New Bible Commentary: Revised, the language of verse three “recalls the oath formula” and implies that the psalmist may have “been involved in legal proceedings in which falsehood had been spoken even under oath by his opponents. He looks therefore for…just retribution” (p. 530).
The psalmist then mourns his exile among the heathen:
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 (5-6, ESV).
The people of Meshech lived between the Black and Caspian Seas while the Kedar were Arabian nomads. The psalmist was unlikely to have actually lived in those areas, but the names are used metaphorically to represent a hostile environment.
In spite of the psalmist’s efforts toward peace, the deceitful press for war (7, ESV):
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
Matthew Henry writes that the psalmist “spoke with all the respect and kindness that could be, proposed methods of accommodation, spoke reason, spoke love; but they would not so much as hear him patiently, but cried out, ‘To arms! To arms!’ so fierce and implacable were they, and so bent to mischief. Such were Christ’s enemies: for his love they were his adversaries, and for his good words, and good works, they stoned him. If we meet with such enemies, we must not think it strange, nor love peace the less for our seeking it in vain. Be not overcome of evil, no, not of such evil as this, but, even when thus tried, still try to overcome evil with good” (p. 593, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume 3, © 1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc).
John Calvin says, “From this it is still more apparent, how savage and brutal was the pride of David’s enemies, since they disdained even to speak with him–to speak with a man who had deserved well at their hands, and who had never in any respect injured them. We are taught by his example, that it is not enough for the faithful to abstain from hurting others: they must, moreover, study to allure them by gentleness, and to bend them to good will. Should their moderation and kindness be rejected, let them wait in patience, until God at length show himself from heaven as their protector” (p. 61, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 6, reprinted 2003 by Baker Books).
If you are for peace, but deceitful liars are for war in your life, may God soon show himself as your protector. May he grant you grace to respond in gentle kindness. May he help you overcome evil with good. May truth triumph!