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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 120

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


Psalms 120

May the Lord, who has recently delivered Israel out of great trouble, Psalms 120:1, now also deliver him out of the oppression in which he finds himself involved in consequence of slandering wickedness, Psalms 120:2; he will do it, and will recompense on the slanderers their wickedness on their own head, Psalms 120:3-4. In order that he may be the more inclined to do this, the church raises, Psalms 120:5-7, a soft lamentation over the suffering which had been prepared for her, while at peace, by these peace-hating slanderers.

The formal arrangement is very simple. The seven is divided by the four and the three.

The situation is exactly indicated: after the deliverance out of great misery, and in a new suffering brought on by slander, which proceeds from those with whom the Psalmist must dwell. That this is Israel is clear from the analogy of the other Psalms of this collection, not one of which bears a purely individual character, from Psalms 120:5, where the dwelling by (not in) the tents of Kedar is most naturally referred to the relation of one nation to another, from the parallel passage, Psalms 123:4, where the language refers to the people. From these firm positions it will not be difficult to ascertain the historical occasion which has been quite correctly fixed by several, and in the best way by Tiling, disquis. de cant. Adscensionum, Bremen 1765, p. 66 ss. The church of the Lord, besides open and decided enemies, has to suffer also from false brethren, who, because their pretensions cannot be fully acknowledged to their satisfaction, are embittered and enraged, and seek revenge by all means, but especially by the weapons of lies and slanders. Israel learned this, after the return from captivity, from the painful conduct of the Samaritans. These, heathens by extraction, and still continuing, to all intents and purposes, heathens at heart, supposed that a half acknowledgment of Israel’s God, an acknowledgment not at all proceeding from the deep root of faith, a God who had not made himself known to them, and whom they served at their own hand, would give them a claim to be participators with Israel in the kingdom of God. When Israel began to build the new temple, they came forward to them, according to Ezra 4, with the proposal, ‘‘We will build with you, for we seek your God as well as you.” And when Israel met their ungrounded claims in an humble, quiet, but decided manner, and said: It is not becoming that you and we build the house of our God, but we alone will build the house of the Lord the God of Israel, “then the people in the land hindered the hand of the people of Judah, and terrified them in building; and hired counsellors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” Exasperated, they endeavoured, by lying accusations, particularly as to the desire for dominion, and the rebellious purposes of the Israelites, to stir up the open heathen, under whose power the Israelites then were living; and they succeeded in this for a considerable time. Still the God of Israel helped them; and in spite of all opposition, the temple and city, as recorded at length in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, were brought to a prosperous termination.

Verses 1-4

Ver. 1-4.

A Song of the Pilgrimages.

Ver. 1. I cried to the Lord in my trouble, and he heard me. Ver. 2. O Lord, deliver my soul from the lips of lies, from the tongue of deceit. Ver. 3. What shall he give to thee, and what shall he add to thee, thou tongue of deceit. Ver. 4. Sharp arrows of the mighty with genista-fuel.

In Psalms 120:1, it is obvious, on comparing Psalms 119:26; Psalms 118:5; Psalms 116:1-2, Psalms 116:4-5, Psalms 115:12, that we cannot translate “I call and he hears,” but, as is also most correct in point of grammar, “I called and he heard me,” and that the Psalmist places his allusion to answers which he had formerly obtained before his prayer for further deliverance, for the purpose of quickening his hope and enabling him to pray rightly in faith, James 1:6. The answers already obtained refer, according to the above passages, chiefly to the deliverance from captivity. The צרתה is the more full, sonorous form, as at Psalms 44:26

My soul, Psalms 120:2,—because the deceitful tongue had exposed his life to danger, comp. the constantly occurring expression in Psalms 119, “quicken me,” for example, Psalms 119:88, and “deliver my soul,” Psalms 116:4. The Samaritans aimed at destroying the national existence of the Israelites, the centre-point of which was the temple. A “deceit-tongue” is a tongue which is wholly deceit, comp. “I am peace,” Psalms 120:7, and in reference to the connection of both verses in the stat. absol. at Psalms 60:3. The רמיה is never an adject.; and the corresponding word שקר is against the idea that it is. That we are not to think of “hypocritical promises to keep peace,” but of wicked slandering, is obvious from the parallel passage, Psalms 119:69; Psalms 119:78, Psalms 31:18. The recompense also of Psalms 120:4 belongs to the same region.

The prayer is followed by confidence in Psalms 120:3-4. This is expressed with lively feeling in the form of an address to the slanderers. The subject to both verbs in ver. 3 is the Lord, who had been addressed in the preceding verse; this is all the more obvious, as allusion is made to the usual form of swearing, “God do to thee and more also,” 1 Samuel 3:17, 1 Samuel 14:44, which denotes some very severe and permanent evil, with the change of the “do” into the “give,” used ironically, a use of the word intended to point to the good results of their wickedness which the slanderers had hoped for. The deceitful tongue of the slanderer is the object to which the address is directed. Psalms 120:4 contains the answer to the question in Psalms 120:3: “He shall give thee,” &c. The “arrows of the warrior” corresponds to the “give,” and the “genista fuel” to the “add,” next to them. On “sharp warrior-arrows,” comp. Psalms 45:5, where it is said of the God-warrior: “Thine arrows are sharp, nations fall under thee, they pierce the heart of the enemies of the king.” In reference to the genista (Luther falsely: juniper), Robinson, P. 1st, p. 336, says, “The Arabians suppose it furnishes the best wood-fuel.” That the term is stronger than the preceding one is evident from the two portions of the first clause, the latter of which is stronger than the former. The dealings of God are regulated by the law of retaliation. Slanders had wounded like sharp arrows, and had burned like genista-fuel.

The two verses have been misunderstood in various ways. Luther, who is generally followed, translates: “what can the false tongue do to thee, and what can it effect? It is like a sharp arrow of a strong one, like fire in junipers.” He supposes the question to be directed to the calumniated person. “David’s design in it is to the stir himself up to take occasion to bring an accusation against the cunning, tongue.” But in this case there seems to be no reason for putting the question, as no doubt could exist as to the ruinous effects of the slandering; the undeniable allusion to the common form of swearing is lost; the comparison with sharp arrows of a warrior (and גבור can only be translated in this way) is too noble a one for slander; and, finally, the analogy of Psalms 52 is in favour of the address being directed to these slanderers. De Wette translates Psalms 120:3, “What does the tongue of deceit give you, and what does it do for you (the give in a good sense), and considers Psalms 120:4 as descriptive of the ruinous effects of slander. It does no good to you, and it does much injury to others. But the distinction between the deceitful tongue and the slanderer is contrary to Psalms 120:2, and if it existed, the לשון would not be construed with the masculine which can be accounted for only by supposing that the deceitful tongue stands for the slanderers. Then, according to this translation, the allusion to the usual form of swearing is lost; and the גבור also occasions difficulty. Ewald translates: “How shall he punish thee, and how shall he chastise thee, thou deceitful tongue, ye sharp murderer-arrows, with glowing genista-fuel?” But in order to favour this translation it is necessary for us arbitrarily to substitute murderer-arrows for warrior-arrows; arrows and fuel also can scarcely be used as the object of punishment, when they are so frequently seen as the instruments of punishment; comp. in reference to the arrows for example Psalms 7:13, and to fuel, Psalms 140:10, Psalms 18:12-13. Psalms 120:3-4 form the highest prophetical point of the Psalm to which the Psalmist had ascended by the two preliminary steps, realization of a former deliverance, and prayer for deliverance from present distress. A popular song cannot long maintain such a height. The Psalmist therefore descends in the second part, and concludes with a simple description of his mournful condition in a soft elegaic tone.

Verses 5-7

Ver. 5. Wo is me, that I tarry under Mesech, dwell by the tents of Kedar. Ver. 6. It is wearisome to my soul to dwell by those who hate peace. Ver. 7. I am peace, but when I speak they begin war.

The literal view of Psalms 120:5 is impossible, as Israel never had anything to do with Mesech, the Moschi who dwelt in the remotest parts of the world, and as mention is made of two countries most remote from each other in which the Psalmist could not possibly dwell at the same time. Psalms 120:6 gives the key. According to it Mesech and Kedar are both figurative expressions for such as hate peace. Mesech appears in Ezekiel 38:2 as the chief vassel of Gog, the representative of the heathen barbarian world. Even here the ground of the choice is that so little is known about him: the more distant, the more fierce. Love of fighting was peculiar to the Arabians, of whom the Kedarenes formed a part. This had been already mentioned in Genesis 16:4 as a characteristic feature of the Ishmaelites. On the connection of גור with the accus. comp. at Psalms 5:4.

In reference to the רבת in Psalms 120:6, comp. at Psalms 65:9. The soul is named because the suffering deeply affected the Psalmist’s heart.

Peace, in Psalms 120:7,—entirely peaceful. When I speak,

I need only to open my mouth, and they seek to find in the most harmless words an occasion for new hostilities.

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 120". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-120.html.
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