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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 120

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


This is the first of fifteen psalms Ps. 120–134 to each of which is prefixed the title “A Song of Degrees.” Four of these psalms are ascribed to David, one of them to Solomon, and the rest are by unknown authors.

There has been a great diversity of opinion as to the meaning of the title, and the reason why it was prefixed to these psalms. Some have supposed that the title, “Song of Degrees,” or “Ascents,” was applied to them as being Psalms which were sung during the periodical journeys or pilgrimages to Jerusalem at the times of the great yearly festivals - the “going up” to Jerusalem. Others have supposed that they were psalms which were composed or sung during the return from the exile - the “going up” again to Jerusalem after their long captivity in Babylon. Some of the Jewish rabbins supposed that they were psalms which were sung as the people ascended the fifteen steps - going up to the temple represented by Ezekiel, seven on one side and eight on the other, Ezekiel 40:22, Ezekiel 40:37. Others have supposed that the title refers to some uniqueness of structure in the psalms - a gradation or elevation of thought - approaching to a climax. Michaelis (Notes on Lowth’s Lectures on Hebrew Poetry, xxv., p. 512) supposes that the title is a musical term, and that the reference is to something special in the rhythm, or what is called by us, “feet” of the psalm, but which in the East would be called “steps” or “ascents.” See DeWette, Einleitung, p. 35.

In this variety of conjecture - for it can be regarded as little more than conjecture - it is impossible now to determine with any degree of certainty what is the true meaning of the title, or why it was given to these psalms. It is evident that, from some cause, there was such a unity in them, either from the nature of the composition, or from the occasion on which they were used, that they could properly have a general title given to them, as indicating what would be well understood among the Hebrews in regard to their design. But I apprehend that the reason for that title cannot now be positively ascertained. Something negative, however, may be determined in regard to this.

(1) It is quite clear that the opinion of the rabbis that they were 15 in number, and named Songs of Degrees, because they were sung on ascending the steps to the temple, is purely fanciful. In the real temple there was no such ascent; and it is only in the visions of Ezekiel that there is any such allusion.

(2) It seems equally clear that they were not so called because they were composed and used for the “going up” from the captivity in Babylon, or to be sung during the march through the desert. Several of them - those of David and Solomon - were composed long before that event, and could have had no allusion to it. Besides, there are but two of them Psalms 122:1-9; Psalms 126:1-6 that have any reference to the return from Babylon, or that would have any applicability to that journey. Moreover, it is extremely improbable that any such selection of psalms should have been used on such a journey, or that any arrangement should have been made for such a purpose.

(3) It seems to me equally improbable that they were called “Songs of Degrees or Ascents,” because they were used by the people when “going up” to Jerusalem to attend on the great festivals. As in the previous specification, it may be remarked that the psalms here referred to had no special applicability to such a use; that there is no evidence that any such practice prevailed; that it is wholly improbable that there would be any such set and fixed arrangement, or that the people in going up to Jerusalem on those occasions would move along to measured music.

The word rendered “degrees” in the title - מעלה mă‛âlâh, in the singular - and מעלות ma‛ălôth, in the plural, the form used here - means properly an “ascent, a going up,” as from a lower to a higher region, Ezra 7:9 (margin); or of the thoughts that ascend in the mind, Ezekiel 11:5. Then it means a “step,” by which one ascends, 1 Kings 10:19; Ezekiel 40:26, Ezekiel 40:31, Ezekiel 40:34. Then it means a degree of a dial, or a dial as divided into degrees, where there is an “ascent” on the dial, 2 Kings 20:9-11. See the notes at Isaiah 38:8. After what has been said above, there seem to be but two suppositions which have probability in regard to its meaning here:

(a) The one is the opinion of Gesenius, that these psalms are called Songs of Degrees, or Ascents, because of a certain “ascent” in the mode of composition, as when the first or last words of a preceding line are repeated at the beginning of a succeeding line, and then some new increase in the sense or idea - or some “ascent” in the meaning - follows by such an addition. The following instances may be referred to as illustrating this view. Psalms 121:1-2 : “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help: My help cometh from the Lord,” etc, Psalms 121:3-4 : He that keepeth thee will not slumber: Behold, he that “keepeth” Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” Psalms 121:7-8 : “the Lord shall “preserve” thee from all evil; he shall “preserve” thy soul: The Lord shall “preserve” thy going out, and thy coming in,” etc. So also Psalms 124:1-2 : “If it had not been the Lord who was “on our side,” now may Israel say: If it had not been the Lord who was “on our side;” when people rose up against us - “then” Psalms 124:3 they had swallowed us up quick; “then” Psalms 124:4 the waters had overwhelmed us; “then” Psalms 124:5 the proud waters had gone over our soul.” See also Psalms 122:2-4; Psalms 123:3-4; Psalms 126:2-3; and Psalms 129:1-2. There is doubtless some foundation for this supposition, but, after all, it seems far-fetched, and though the remark may be true of some of these fifteen psalms, yet it can by no means be made applicable to all of them, nor could it be shown to be so special to them that no others could have been for the same reason included in the number.

(b) The remaining supposition seems to have much more plausibility than anyone here suggested. It is that the term is a musical expression; that there was something special in the “scale” of the music to which these psalms were sung, though that is now lost to us. This is akin to the opinion of John D. Michaelis, as alluded to above. This is, also, referred to by Asseman (Biblioth. Orient., t. i., p. 62), and by Castell (Lex. Syr.) It is impossible, however, now to ascertain “what” there is that would make this appellation especially appropriate to these psalms. All that can be known is, that there was some reason why these psalms were, so to speak, bound up together, and designated by a common title. This does not prevent a special title being prefixed to some of them in regard to their author and design.

The psalm now before us has no other title, and nothing to designate its author. it pertains to a sufferer who calls earnestly upon the Lord for deliverance. The particular form of trial is that caused by the tongue - slander. The author was suffering from some unjust aspersions cast upon him; from some effort to destroy his reputation; from some charge in regard to his character, which made him miserable, as if he sojourned in Mesech and dwelt in the tents of Kedar, Psalms 120:5. He says that it was in vain for him to attempt to live in peace with the men who calumniated him. He was himself disposed to peace. He earnestly desired it. But they were for war, and they kept up the war, Psalms 120:6-7. Among the forms of suffering to which the people of God are exposed, this is not uncommon; and it was proper that it should be referred to in a book designed, as the Book of Psalms was, to be useful in all ages, and in all lands, as a record of religious experience.

Verse 1

In my distress - In my suffering, as arising from slander, Psalms 120:2-3. There are few forms of suffering more keen than those caused by slander:

“Whose edge is sharper than the sword; whose tongue

Outvenoms all the worms of Nile; whose breath

Rides on the posting winds, and doth belie

All corners of the world: kings, queens, and states,

Maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave

This viperous slander enters.”

Cymbeline, iii. 4.

It is one of those things which a man cannot guard against; which he cannot repel by force; whose origin he cannot always trace; which will go where a vindication will not follow; whose effects will live long after the slander is refuted; which will adhere to a man, or leave a trait of suspicion, even after the most successful vindication, for the effect will be to make a second slander more easily credited than the first was.

I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me - I had no other resource. I could not meet the slander. I could not refute it. I could not prevent its effects on my reputation, and all that I could do was to commit the case to the Lord. See the notes at Psalms 37:5-6.

Verse 2

Deliver my soul, O Lord - My soul is harassed and distressed. Perhaps the meaning also may be, My life is in danger. Or, if it refers to the soul as such, then it means that everything pertaining to his soul was deeply affected by the course which was pursued. He was maligned, slandered, misrepresented, deceived, and he had no comfort or peace.

From lying lips - False, deceitful, slanderous. Compare the notes at Psalms 31:18.

And from a deceitful tongue - From a tongue whose statements cannot be relied on; whose words are deceptive; whose promises are false. David was often called to experience troubles of this sort; and this is a kind of trial which may come upon anyone in a form which he can no more anticipate or prevent than he can the coming of a “mist from the ocean.” No man can certainly guard against the influence of falsehood; no man can be sure that all that will be said to him is true; no man can be certain that all the promises made to him - save those made to him by God - will be performed.

Verse 3

What shall be given unto thee? - Margin, “What shall the deceitful tongue give unto thee;” or, “what shall it profit thee?” Luther, “What can the false tongue do?” Others render this, “How will God punish thee?” Others, “What will he (God) give to thee?” That is, What recompence can you expect from God for these malignant calumnies? A literal translation of this verse would be, “What shall the tongue of deceit give to thee, and what shall it add to thee?” - referring to the offender himself. The essential idea is, What will be the result of such conduct? What must be expected to follow from it? That is, either

(a) from the unprofitableness of such a course; or

(b) from the natural consequences to one’s reputation and happiness; or

(c) from the judgment of God.

The answer to these questions is found in Psalms 120:4.

Or what shall be done unto thee? - Margin, as in Hebrew, “added.” What must be the consequence of this? what will follow?

Thou false tongue - This may be either an address to the tongue itself, or, as above, the word “tongue” may be used as the nominative to the verbs in the sentence. The sense is not materially affected either way.

Verse 4

Sharp arrows of the mighty - This is an answer to the question in Psalms 120:3. The consequence - the effect - of such a use of the tongue must be like sharp and piercing arrows, or like intensely burning coals. The “sharp arrows of the mighty” are the arrows of the warrior - as war was conducted mainly by bows and arrows. Those arrows were, of course, sharpened to make them piercing, penetrating, more deadly.

With coals of juniper - On the word here rendered “juniper,” see the notes at Job 30:4. The idea here is, that coals made from that would be intensely hot, and would cause severer pain than if made from other wood. The word refers to a species of broom or shrub growing in the deserts of Arabia, with yellowish flowers and a bitter root. See “Robinson’s Biblical Researches,” vol. i., p. 299. Burchardt says that he found the Bedouin of Sinai burning the roots into coal, and says that they make the best charcoal, and throw out the most intense heat. The shrub sometimes grows so large as to furnish a shade to those exposed to the heat of the sun in the desert, 1 Kings 19:4; “Land and the Book” (Thomson), vol. ii., pp. 438, 439. The cut given below will give an idea of this plant.

Verse 5

Woe is me - My lot is a sad and pitiable one, that I am compelled to live in this manner, and to be exposed thus to malignant reproaches. It is like living in Mesech or in Kedar.

That I sojourn - The word used here does not denote a permanent abode, but it usually refers to a temporary lodging, as when one is a traveler, a pilgrim, a stranger, and is under a necessity of passing a night in a strange land on his way to the place of his destination. The trouble or discomfort here referred to is not that which would result from having his home there, or abiding there permanently, but of feeling that he was a stranger, and would be exposed to all the evils and inconveniences of a stranger among such a people. A man who resided in a place permanently might be subject to fewer inconveniences than if he were merely a temporary lodger among strangers.

In Mesech - The Septuagint and Vulgate render this, “that my sojourning is protracted.” The Hebrew word - משׁך meshek - means, properly “drawing,” as of seed “scattered regularly along the furrows” Psalms 126:6; and then possession, Job 28:18. The people of Meshech or the Moschi, were a barbarous race inhabiting the Moschian regions between Iberia, Armenia, and Colchis. Meshech was a son of Japheth, Genesis 10:2; 1 Chronicles 1:5. The name is connected commonly with “Tubal,” Ezekiel 27:13 : “Tubal and Meshech they were thy merchants.” Ezekiel 39:1 : “I am against ... the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal,” Herodotus (iii. 94; vii. 78) connects them with the Tibarenes. The idea here is, that they were a barbarous, savage, uncivilized people. They dwelt outside of Palestine, beyond what were regarded as the borders of civilization; and the word seems to have had a signification similar to the names Goths, Vandals, Turks, Tartars, Cossacks, in later times. It is not known that they were particularly remarkable for slander or calumny; but the meaning is that they were barbarous and savage - and to dwell among slanderers and revilers seemed to the psalmist to be like dwelling among a people who were strangers to all the rules and principles of civilized society.

That I dwell in the tents of Kedar - The word Kedar means properly dark skin, a darkskinned man. Kedar was a son of Ishmael Genesis 25:13, and hence, the name was given to an Arabian tribe descended from him, Isaiah 42:11; Isaiah 60:7; Jeremiah 49:28. The idea here also is, that to dwell among slanderers was like dwelling among barbarians and savages.

Verse 6

My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace - This trouble is no new thing. It has been long continued, and has become intolerable. Who this was that thus gave him trouble is, of course, now unknown. It is only necessary to remark that there can scarcely be any source of trouble more bitter than that of sustaining such relations to others either in business, or in office, or by family-ties - whether by marriage or by blood - in school, in college, or in corporate bodies - as to expose us always to a quarrel: to be compelled to have constant contact with people of sour, perverse, crooked tempers, who are satisfied with nothing; who are suspicious or envious; who pervert our motives and our conduct; who misrepresent our words; who demand more than is due to them; who refuse to perform what may reasonably be expected of them; and who make use of every opportunity to involve us in difficulties with others. There are many trials in human life, but there are few which are more galling, or more hard to bear than this. The literal rendering of the passage would be, “Long for her has my soul dwelt,” etc. That is, long (or too long) for her good - for the welfare of my soul. It has been an injury to me; to my piety, to my comfort, to my salvation. it has vexed me, tried me, hindered me in my progress in the divine life. Nothing would have a greater tendency of this kind than to be compelled to live in the manner indicated above.

Verse 7

I am for peace - Margin, “A man of peace.” Literally, “I (am) peace.” It is my nature. I desire to live in peace. I strive to do so. I do nothing to provoke a quarrel. I would do anything which would be right to pacify others. I would make any sacrifices, yield to any, demands, consent to any arrangements which would promise peace.

But when I speak - When I say anything on the subject, when I propose any new arrangements, when I suggest any changes, when I give utterance to my painful feelings, and express a desire to live differently - they will listen to nothing; they will be satisfied with nothing.

They are for war - For discord, variance, strife. All my efforts to live in peace are vain. They are determined to quarrel, and I cannot prevent it.

(a) A man in such a case should separate from such a person, if possible, as the only way of peace.

(b) If his position and relations are such that that cannot be done, then he should be careful that he does nothing himself to irritate and to keep up the strife.

(c) If all that he does or can do for peace is vain, and if his relations and position are such that he cannot separate, then he should bear it patiently - as coming from God, and as the discipline of his life. God has many ways of testing the patience and faith of his people, and there are few things which will do so more effectually than this; few situations where piety will shine more beautifully than in such a trial;

(d) He who is thus tried should look with the more earnestness of desire to another world. There is a world of peace; and the peace of heaven will be all the more grateful and blessed when we go up to it from such a scene of conflict and war.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 120". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/psalms-120.html. 1870.
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