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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 120

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-7

Psalms 120:0

A Song of Degrees

          In my distress I cried
Unto the Lord, and he heard me.

2     Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,

And from a deceitful tongue.

3     What shall be given unto thee?

Or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?

4     Sharp arrows of the mighty,

With coals of juniper.

5     Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech,

That I dwell in the tents of Kedar!

6     My soul hath long dwelt

With him that hateth peace.

7     I am for peace: but when I speak,

They are for war.


Contents and Composition.—On the superscription compare Introd. § 6, No. 5. We have but little to add here. Ewald now decides for the reference to the festival journeys to Jerusalem. So also Liebusch in the Ouedlinburg Osterprogramm. 1866, mentions “The pilgrim songs in the Fifth Book of the Psalms.” Delitzsch, on the contrary, now holds to the expression “songs of ascents,” but refers, it, with Gesenius and others, to the artificial climactic form of the rhythm, in which the poem, by the repetition of one of the significant words immediately preceding advances by a gradual ascent. Hitzig traces this obscure and doubtful term, for which none of the explanations proposed are sufficient, (Hupfeld), to a word-play, by the collector and redactor of the fifteen Psalms which are furnished with this title, referring to the steps of the Temple. For the ascent to the outer court was made through each of the three gates by seven steps, and that to the inner court by eight; and in this small collection of songs, which are closely connected by many similarities both of form and contents, the first contains seven, the second eight verses. It is further to be remarked that, in Psalms 121:0. is written exceptionally lammaálôth, which seems to favor the explanation: “for the upward journeys” (Aquila, Symmachus), but may just as well mean: after the manner of steps (Del.); for it is just in that Psalm that the climactic structure, which in others almost disappears, is displayed quite characteristically. This difference is entirely unnoticed by the Sept., Chald., and Jerome, and regarded by Hitzig as a mistake of the copyist.

[Hengstenberg, with whom Alexander and Perowne, as well as most commentators, agree, favors the view first mentioned above. Against the view given in the Syrian translation, and also by Chrysostom and Theodoret, and formerly held by Ewald, that the title refers to those songs which were sung by Israel on the way home from Babylon, he urges the consideration that David and Solomon are mentioned as the composers of some of the Psalms which bear that title. He accounts for the position assigned to those Psalms, and the dissimilarity of style and modes of thought between them and the others, on the hypothesis, that “these five ancient Psalms, sung by the people, as they went up to Jerusalem, before the captivity, were made the basis of a whole series or system, designed for the same use, by an inspired writer, after the restoration, who not only added new Psalms of his own, as appears from the resemblances of tone and diction, but joined them to the old ones in a studied or artificial manner, entirely inconsistent with the supposition of fortuitous or random combination.” On the characteristics of the Psalms bearing the general title, he remarks: “These Psalms have much in common. The tone never rises in any of them above a certain height, and descends very speedily from that height when gained. They all bear the character of simplicity. With the exception of Psalms 132:0. they are all of short compass. In all of them, with the same exception, the parallelism of the clauses is little attended to. No one of them bears an individual character; they all refer to the whole Church of God with the exception, in some measure, of Psalms 127:0., which, without being individual, places before us, in the first instance, the particular members of the Church, but which the collector has applied also to the circumstances of the whole community.”—J. F. M.]

In the Psalm before us is first presented an acknowledgment of prayer heard in former times (Psalms 120:1). There is then offered a prayer for deliverance from the power of a false, warlike, and savage enemy (Psalms 120:2-4). The suppliant longing for peace then complains (Psalms 120:5-7) of that enemy’s implacable hatred, this complaint being the more sorrowful and urgent, as he had already bitterly experienced, dwelling as he did in the midst of such savage foes, the painful contrast, already too much aggravated, to his former condition. Nothing definitely can be said as to the historical situation, not even whether the author had in mind purely personal experiences, or sufferings of his nation shared by him. Nor can we say whether the name of the enemy is to be taken historically or symbolically.

Psalms 120:2-4. The expressions here are so concise and obscure, and it is possible to connect them in so many different ways, that the sense is highly doubtful. It is first most readily suggested to consider Psalms 120:3 as a continuation of the addressto Jehovah, and to take the deceitful tongue as the subject (Mendelssohn, Olshausen). But such a question would afford a sense but little suitable, and would be still less aptly connected with Psalms 120:4. It has therefore been proposed to invert this order, and to regard Jehovah as the subject, and the deceitful tongue as addressed in the vocative (many since Isaaki, also Hengst. and Del.) An allusion is then supposed to exist to the formula usually employed in the announcement of the Divine punishments, (1 Samuel 3:17 and frequently), and Psalms 120:4 is taken as a continuation of the question, and as a figurative description of the tongue (J. D. Mich., Ewald), which is a sharp sword (Psalms 57:5), and a pointed arrow (Jeremiah 9:7), and like the fire of hell (James 3:6); or it is regarded as the answer to the question, and as a sarcastic description of the punishments (comp. Psalms 140:11) according to the law of retribution. But the supposition of a sudden change of subject is very harsh in this connection, nor do adequate reasons for it appear. If, then, we return to the construction, according to which the deceitful tongue is the subject, it would certainly be in the highest degree forced and strange to suppose the possessor of the tongue to be meant, as metonymically implied in Psalms 120:2, and Psalms 120:4 to mention the punishments to be inflicted upon him for his deceitful conduct (Chald., de Dieu) or to describe figuratively the injuries which he causes to others, while he himself gains nothing by them (Aben Ezra, Kimchi, Calvin, and many of the older expositors; also Rosenmüller and De Wette). But, instead of this, there would be an address to the Poet, whether in the form of a question put by himself, or by a third person, in poetical fashion, or whether it is, which however is least probable, referred to an indefinite person, as being a general expression. Psalms 120:4 would then present the conditions which called forth the prayer in Psalms 120:2, expressing figuratively the dangerous effects of the tongue, but in the form of an answer (Hitzig), and not as an explanatory description (Luther, Geier). [Dr. Moll thus translates Psalms 120:3-4 : “What to thee gives, and what to thee brings the tongue of deceit?” (tongue being the subject). Arrows of a strong one, sharpened, along with coals of the broom-tree.” This ingenious mode of viewing the passage appears to present its most natural connection, and, at the same time, to bring out its poetic beauty. The following rendering of Psalms 120:1-4 will exhibit this view, the arrangement of the clauses in the original being in some cases neglected for the sake of perspicuity.

1. (The Poet.) I called to Jehovah in my distress, and He answered me.

2. Jehovah, deliver me from lips of lying, from the tongue of deceit.
3. (A third person is represented as addressing the Poet). What does the tongue of deceit give thee and bring to thee?

4. (The Poet). Arrows of a mighty man, sharpened, with coals of the broom-tree.

The opinion mentioned above, as that of Hengstenberg and Delitzsch, is favored by Alexander and Perowne.—J. F. M.]
The roots of the rethem, that is, of the broom-tree (Gesen.), not of the juniper (Jerome, the Rabbins, and the older expositors), furnish the best wood-coals in the opinion of the Arabs (Burckhardt, Reisen in Syrien II., 791, 1073. Robinson, Palestine, I., 336). They retain the glow longest, and, therefore, along with sharp arrows, are a suitable figure in the present connection. It is not said that the arrows were sharpened with broom-tree coals, or hardened, pointed in them (older expositors cited in De Wette), or that they were burning (Knapp). The particular term is perhaps chosen in allusion to the mention made in the following verse of an abode in the tents of Kedar, a predatory Arab tribe (Genesis 10:2; Isaiah 42:11; Isaiah 60:7; Sol. Song of Solomon 1:5). But it does not follow from this, any more than it does from the cry of woe, (Calv., J. H. Mich.), that Psalms 120:4 should be severed from the preceding verse.

Psalms 120:5-6. Neither can Psalms 120:4 be combined with the following verse, as though it represented the same historical situation. For we cannot justify the ingenious change of the reading גַחֲלֵי into אָהֳלֵי (Hupfeld), in order to gain the meaning: the arrows of a warrior are sharp in the tents of Rethamim, according to the analogy of Psalms 120:5, and the similar proper name in Numbers 33:18. Moreover Mesech is named besides, along with Kedar, as a place of residence. This name points to a region between the Caspian and Black Seas in the far North near Magog (Ezekiel 38:2). The attempts which have been made to bring it into connection with Damascus (Hitzig), or to refer it to another Ishmaelitish tribe elsewhere unmentioned (Olshausen), or to explain it appellatively of the long duration of the abode in a strange land (Sept. et al.) and thus to do away with the proper name, have arisen from the difficulty of assigning to the author a residence among two tribes so far apart, especially when such residence is also described as still continuing. Most expositors, therefore, since Saadias and Calvin, regard both names as figurative designations of rude and hostile companions. These are supposed by some to have been the nations among whom the Jews lived in the Exile; by others, the Samaritans, who retarded the re-building of the city; by others still, the tribes among whom the people of God dwelt during the dispersion.

[Psalms 120:7. Delitzsch: “He, for his part is peace, (comp. Micah 9:4; Psalms 109:4; Psalms 110:3), inasmuch as love of peace, readiness for peace, and longing for peace fills his soul: yet, if he does but open his mouth, they are for war, their voice and conduct become hostile at once. . . . The Psalm ends with the shrill dissonance of שׁלום and מלחמה. The cry for help, with which it begins, lingers hovering over that discord, longing for its removal.”—J. F. M.]


To him who seeks peace, it is not always granted, in this world, to live in peace with those about him. He must often, and sometimes for a long period, have the bitterest experiences of their quarrelsome and hostile dispositions, and suffer much pain from their sore and malicious attacks by word and act. But the living God remains ever his Refuge, and the blessed experience of prayers, heard in times past, strengthens and encourages his faith in the coming of a like blessing in the troubled present, and his hopes of deliverance after renewed supplication.


The pious have no peace in the world, but they can rest in God.—Wounds, inflicted by a sharp and malicious tongue, burn more severely than fire does, but God has a balm for them.—Blessed is he, who, though experiencing suffering in this evil world, experiences deliverance too, from answers to prayer.

Starke: Liars and calumniators are the most injurious people in the world, and yet they injure none as much as they do themselves; for they are accursed, and an abomination unto God.—The kingdom of the devil is a kingdom of lies, and will in all likelihood, continue so, but Christ’s kingdom is one of eternal truth, whose fruit is peace and love.—The true Church has ever to dwell among the most cruel enemies, and under oppression. Frisch: It is much easier to heal a severe wound, than to repair the effects of a calumny circulated by lying tongues.—Guenther: The troubled, filthy spring of evil speaking is selfishness, envy, hatred of brethren, departure from God. If therefore, it is a sure mark of godlessness, and of a carnal disposition, to slander one’s brother, it is not to be wondered at, if the children of light have to suffer most from such poisonous arrows.—Taube: He who has entered into communion with the God of peace, through the blood of reconciliation, is a child of peace (Matthew 5:9), while the wicked are like the troubled sea, which can never rest. (Isaiah 57:20 f.).

[Bp. Horne: Marvel not, O disciple of Jesus! if the world hate and oppose thee, but pray only that, when thou shalt be used as He was, thou mayest be enabled to bear that usage as He did.

Barnes: I cried unto the Lord, etc,. 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.—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.—J. F. M.].

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 120". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/psalms-120.html. 1857-84.
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