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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 120

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-7

Psalms 120:1-7

THE collection of pilgrim songs is appropriately introduced by one expressive of the unrest arising from compulsory association with uncongenial and hostile neighbours. The psalmist laments that his sensitive "soul" has been so long obliged to be a "sojourner" where he has heard nothing but lying and strife. Weary of these, his soul stretches her wings towards a land of rest. His feeling ill at ease amidst present surroundings stings him to take the pilgrim’s staff. "In" this singer’s "heart are the ways."

The simplicity of this little song scarcely admits of separation into parts; but one may note that an introductory verse is followed by two groups of three verses each, -the former of which is prayer for deliverance from the "deceitful tongue," and prediction that retribution will fall on it (Psalms 120:2-4); while the latter bemoans the psalmist’s uncongenial abode among enemies (Psalms 120:5-7).

The verbs in Psalms 120:1 are most naturally referred to former experiences of the power of prayer, which encourage renewed petition. Devout hearts argue that what Jehovah has done once He will do again. Since His mercy endureth forever, He will not weary of bestowing, nor will former gifts exhaust His stores. Men say, "I have given so often that I can give no more"; God says, "I have given, therefore I will give." The psalmist was not in need of defence against armed foes, but against false tongues. But it is not plain whether these were slanderous, flattering, or untrustworthy in their promises of friendship. The allusions are too general to admit of certainty. At all events, he was surrounded by a choking atmosphere of falsehood, from which he longed to escape into purer air. Some commentators would refer the allusions to the circumstances of the exiles in Babylon; others to the slanders of the Samaritans and others who tried to hinder the rebuilding of the Temple; others think that his own hostile fellow countrymen are the psalmist’s foes. May we not rather hear in his plaint the voice of the devout heart, which ever painfully feels the dissonance between its deep yearnings and the Babel of vain words which fills every place with jangling and deceit? To one who holds converse with God, there is nothing more appalling or more abhorrent than the flood of empty talk which drowns the world. If there was any specific foe in the psalmist’s mind, he has not described him so as to enable us to identify him. Psalms 120:3 may be taken in several ways, according as "deceitful tongue" is taken as a vocative or as the nominative of the verb "give," and as that verb is taken in a good or a bad sense, and as "thee" is taken to refer to the tongue or to some unnamed person. It is unnecessary to enter here on a discussion of the widely divergent explanations given. They fall principally into two classes. One takes the words "deceitful tongue" as vocative, and regards the question as meaning, "What retribution shall God give to thee, O deceitful tongue?" while the other takes it as asking what the tongue shall give unto an unnamed person designated by "thee." That person is by some considered to be the owner of the tongue, who is asked what profit his falsehood will be to him; while others suppose the "thee" to mean Jehovah, and the question to be like that of Job. {Job 10:3} Baethgen takes this view, and paraphrases, "What increase of Thy riches canst Thou expect therefrom, that Thou dost permit the godless to oppress the righteous?" Grammatically either class of explanation is warranted; and the reader’s feeling of which is most appropriate must decide. The present writer inclines to the common interpretation, which takes Psalms 120:3 as addressed to the deceitful tongue, in the sense, "What punishment shall God inflict upon thee?" Psalms 120:4 is the answer, describing the penal consequences of falsehood, as resembling the crimes which they avenge. Such a tongue is likened to sharp arrows and swords in Psalms 57:4; Psalms 64:3, etc. The punishment shall be like the crime. For the sentiment compare Psalms 140:9-10. It is not necessary to suppose that the "Mighty" is God, though such a reference gives force to the words. "The tongue which shot piercing arrows is pierced by the sharpened arrows of an irresistibly strong One; it, which set its neighbour in a fever of anguish, must endure a lasting heat of broom coals, which consumes it surely" (Delitzsch).

In the group of Psalms 120:5-7, the psalmist bemoans his compulsory association with hostile companions, and longs to "flee away and be at rest." Meshech was the name of barbarous tribes who, in the times of Sargon and Sennacherib inhabited the highlands to the east of Cilicia, and in later days retreated northwards to the neighbourhood of the Black Sea (Sayce, "Higher Criticism and Monuments," p. 130). Kedar was one of the Bedawin tribes of the Arabian desert. The long distance between the localities occupied by these two tribes requires an allegorical explanation of their names. They stand as types of barbarous and truculent foes-as we might say, Samoyeds and Patagonians. The psalmist’s plaint struck on Cromwell’s heart, and is echoed, with another explanation of its meaning which he had, no doubt, learned from some Puritan minister: "I live, you know where, in Meshech, which they say signifies prolonging; in Kedar, which signifies blackness; yet the Lord forsaketh me not" (Carlyle, "Letters and Speeches," 1:127: London, 1846). The peace-loving psalmist describes himself as stunned by the noise and quarrelsomeness of those around him. "I am peace". {compare Psalms 109:4} But his gentlest word is like a spark on tinder. If he but speaks, they fly to their weapons, and are ready without provocation to answer with blows.

So the psalm ends as with a long-drawn sigh. It inverts the usual order of similar psalms, in which the description of need is wont to precede the prayer for deliverance. It thus sets forth most pathetically the sense of discordance between a man and his environment, which urges the soul that feels it to seek a better home. So this is a true pilgrim psalm.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 120". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-120.html.
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