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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 120

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-7



THE next fifteen psalms have a common heading, which is translated "Songs of Degrees," "Songs of Ascents," or "Songs of Steps." They constitute together "a Little Psalter," which contains indications of a formal arrangement. The central psalm—the only one ascribed to Solomon—has on either side of it a group of seven; each such group formed of two psalms ascribed to David, and five anonymous ones. The ascribed psalms are separated one from another by the anonymous ones, in such sort that no two of the former ever come together. This is evidently not the result of chance.

Of the title itself different explanations are given. Some regard the degrees (ma'aloth) as "steps," and accept a rabbinical explanation, that the psalms were written for chanting upon fifteen steps, which led from the Court of the Women in the temple to the Court of the Men. But there is no sufficient evidence of the existence of these steps. Others, translating ma'aloth by "ascents," suggest that they are psalms composed for the Jews to chant on their ascent from Babylon to Jerusalem at the return from the Captivity. But the plural form is thus unaccounted for, while the ascription of five of the fifteen to David and Solomon is contradicted. Under these circumstances, recent critics mostly acquiesce in the view that the psalms were written for the pilgrims, who annually went up to Jerusalem at the three great feasts, to chant upon their journeys. (So Ewald, Thenius, Hengstenberg, Dean Johnson, and Professor Alexander.)

Psalms 120:1

In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me. The particular "distress' intended can only be conjectured. Some suppose it to be the Captivity itself, others the opposition offered by the Samaritans, Ammonites, and others to the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 4:1-24; Ezra 5:1-17.) and restoration of the wails of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:19, Nehemiah 2:20; Nehemiah 4:1-23; Nehemiah 6:2-14). But these guesses are scarcely of much value.

Psalms 120:2

Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips. Such as Sanballat's (—Nehemiah 6:6-8). And from a deceitful tongue; literally, a tongue that is fraud—a mere variant of the expression in the preceding clause.

Psalms 120:3

What shall be given unto thee? rather, what shall he (i.e. God) give to thee? Or, in other words—What punishment will God inflict on thee for thy false speaking? Or what shall be done unto thee? literally, or what shall he add to thee? Compare the common phrase, "God do so unto me, and more also" (1 Samuel 3:17; 1 Samuel 14:44). Thou false tongue. The "false tongue" is apostrophized, as if it were a living person.

Psalms 120:4

Sharp arrows of the mighty. The psalmist answers his own questions. Sharp-pointed arrows of a Mighty One shall be given thee, and added to them shall be coals of juniper. God, i.e; shall punish thee with extreme severity.

Psalms 120:5

Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech. This is scarcely to be understood literally. Israel never "sojourned in Mesech," i.e. among the Moschi, who dwelt in Cappadocia, nor dwelt among the tents of Kedar, a people of Northern Arabia. The writer means that he dwells among hostile and barbarous people, who are to him as Kedar and Mesech. Possibly the Samaritans and Ammonites are intended. That I dwell in the tents of Kedar; rather, among the tents (see the Revised Version).

Psalms 120:6

My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace; i.e. with the tribes symbolized in the preceding verse by the names "Mesech" and "Kedar," the tribes bordering upon Judea. These were from first to last almost always at war with Israel.

Psalms 120:7

I am for peace; literally, I am peace; but the meaning is as given in the Authorized Version. But when I speak (i.e. when I speak to them of peace), they are for war; i.e. they are utterly averse to peace, and are bent on continual hostility. The general history bears out this statement. There is only one apparent exception. When the Jews returned from the Captivity and began to build the temple, the Samaritans offered to join with them (Ezra 4:2). But the Samaritan offer was, perhaps, insincere. At any rate, when it was refused, they became the most bitter opponents of the Jews.


Psalms 120:1-7

The perversion of power, etc.

This psalm, though "a difference of opinion exists respecting the interpretation of almost every verse and word of it," may suggest valuable thoughts upon—

I. THE PERVERSION OF POWER. It speaks of "lying lips," a "deceitful tongue," and of the "false tongue" (Psalms 120:2, Psalms 120:3). We may say that sin is perversion; it is the misdirection and abuse of our various faculties and organs; turning to a bad account all our opportunities of good. The Apostle James gives at some length the perversion of the power of speech (James 3:2-13). Our words may be reverent, true, kind, instructive, considerate, helpful, wise; or they may be profane, false, cruel, communicative of evil, injurious. There is hardly a limit to the possible service we may render our Lord and our kind if we avail ourselves of every opportunity of speaking the wise and gracious word; but it is impossible to estimate the evil which a man may do in a long life by a bitter, a false, an impure, a skeptical tongue. It becomes us to think that the power of speech is a great gift from the hand of God; that it is a talent entrusted tolls by our Divine Father for his glory and for the good of men. Whenever, therefore, we speak that which is hurtful to others or unworthy of ourselves we are guiltily abusing our power; we are turning that which was meant to be, and might constantly be made, a fountain of blessing into a stream of sorrow or even of sin. The same thought (respecting perversion) applies, in less degree, to the hands, the eyes, the feet; it is else, of course, very markedly true of the capacities of the mind.

II. A CHARACTERISTIC OF DIVINE PUNISHMENT. "What shall be given unto thee … thou false tongue?" "Sharp arrows of the mighty, burning coals,' is the reply. The punishment is suited to the offence. The tongue which itself is "a sharp sword" (Psalms 57:4) is to be transfixed by the sharp arrows shot by a strong arm; the tongue which is itself "a fire" (James 3:6) is to be consumed with burning coals. As is the sin, so is the sorrow and the shame. The king that had done grievous domestic wrong was to suffer in his own family (2 Samuel 12:11). The traitor who betrayed his Master was to be deserted and thrown over by his own companions. The pitiless man goes unpitied in the hour of his own desolation. The miser who keeps back the blessings he might confer on others withholds all comforts and delights from his own heart and his own home. He who does not regard the sacredness of his body will live to suffer in the body; he who neglects his mind will pay the penalty in intellectual poverty and feebleness. "Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap"—loss, suffering, death, according to the nature of his sin.

III. THE MISERY OF UNCONGENIAL SURROUNDINGS. (Verses 5-7.) The psalmist bewails his ill fortune in that he has to dwell in places remote from the civilization and the privileges of his home; he is surrounded by ungenial associates whose spirit is hostile, with whom he cannot live on terms of amity and good will. This "Mesech" of his is found in every latitude and longitude. It is the experience of a very large proportion of men and women, especially in the earlier period of life, to find themselves living or laboring with the unsympathetic, and even with the unfriendly; with those whose views on serious and even sacred subjects are dissimilar or opposite. We may have much to do with those whose spirit and whose attitude are positively provocative, who invite and almost compel us to dispute. It is trying in the last degree. But:

1. It is a recognized and accepted part of our earthly lot, and it will not last very long; it will give place, in time, to the holy friendships and blissful intercourse of the heavenly world.

2. It is a necessary part of the discipline through which we pass, attempering and strengthening our character.

3. It provides daily opportunity for self-mastery, for submission to the will of God, for honoring the Name of Christ.

IV. OUR REFUGE IN GOD. (Verses 1, 2.) Assailed by unjust or ungenerous attack, surrounded by uncongenial companions, we can always realize the near presence of one sympathizing Friend, of the all-powerful God, who can extricate us from the worst situation, or sustain us in it, so that our souls will be at rest.


Psalms 120:1-7

In Mesech and Kedar.

This psalm is a piteous declaration of the unhappy lot of him who is surrounded by the false, the treacherous, and the cruel. They of Mesech—the Moschi of Herodotus (see Exposition)—dwelt where now the horribly bloodthirsty Kurds have their habitation, who of late years have horrified all Christendom by their barbarous atrocities inflicted on the Christian Armenians. Amid men of such sort the psalmist is complaining that he has to dwell (Psalms 120:5). It is a tale of treachery and cruelty that he portrays or rather suggests to us in this psalm. Concerning all such men of lying lips, we learn—

I. THEY ARE THE DISTRESS OF THE GODLY. How many a faithful missionary, amid similar hordes, has felt his heart die down in hopeless despair as he witnesses their horrid cruelty and deceit! We at home forget too much this special trial of the missionary. Nothing but the abundant supply of the Spirit of all grace can possibly sustain him amid such sad and revolting circumstances. If he gets used to them, and so indifferent to them, he can no longer be a true missionary; nor either if he fears them or yields to despair about them. And in less unusual form, God's servants may yet have to say, "My soul is among lions" (Psalms 57:4). Many a God-fearing working man amid a crowd of godless mates, many a Christian servant-girl amid companions who have no love for God, many a young disciple of Christ in school or office,—these and others like them know by sad experience the treachery and cruelty of the ungodly.

II. THE AWFUL AND OVERWHELMING WRATH OF GOD AWAITS THESE PERSECUTORS. (Psalms 120:3, Psalms 120:4; see Exposition for meaning.) The false and lying tongue is often likened to fire, fire of hell, to sword and sharp arrow, and now here it is declared that what such tongue hath sown, that shall it also reap (cf. Psalms 57:4; Psalms 64:3; Psalms 55:21; Psalms 59:7; James 3:6; and especially Psalms 140:9, Psalms 140:10). Sometimes even in this world we see the Divine vengeance poured out on those who have played the part of bloody and deceitful men towards the people of God. In the persecuting ages it was not unusual nor unnatural for the persecuted ones to point out, as proofs of the Divine wrath, the fearful deaths which overtook many of their persecutors. True it is today that he who blesses the servants of God is blessed, and he who curses them is cursed.

III. IT MAY NEVERTHELESS BE APPOINTED FOR GOD'S PEOPLE TO DWELL AMID SUCH SURROUNDINGS. The great missionary command involved the possibility of such sojourn. If we are to go into all the world, we must expect to meet with what the world has to offer. And, in God's providence, we often have to go and dwell amid, not the friends but the foes of God. The soldier in the field, the sailor, the boy at school. It may be God's will for us. But—

IV. THEM ENMITY MAY OFTEN SEEM TO BE EXCITED BY THAT WHICH SHOULD MAKE IT ASHAMED. (Psalms 120:7.) Not all at once will the Spirit of peace prevail.

V. BUT NOTHING CAN ROB THE BELIEVING SOUL OF ITS BLESSED RELIEF AND REFUGE IN GOD. (Psalms 120:1.) The first verse relates what really follows on the facts told of in the other verses. Call upon, cry unto the Lord, and he will ever help.—S.C.

Psalms 120:1

A dark fact explained and illuminated.

The dark fact is human distress; the explanation is the prayer it leads to; the illumination, the answer it brings. We have here—

I. A TOO RARE PERSONAGE. "In my distress, I," etc. It is by no means every one who does this.

1. Some blaspheme—curse God in their hearts.

2. Others east off all faith—say, "There is no God." Many have done this.

3. Others harden their hearts, as Pharaoh did.

4. Others plunge deeper into sin. (Isaiah 1:5.) In the distraction which for a while they gain, they drown the sense of their misery.

5. Others turn to human aid for deliverance and solace.

6. Yet others bestir themselves to get by their own effort what help they may. The psalmist's resource does not condemn, but will often include, these two last methods, and will further their usefulness. But to turn to God in distress is as wise as it is too seldom adopted.

II. A REAL REASON FOR DISTRESS. God sends it, or lets it come, that it may lead men to turn to him: that is ever his intent. But for such distress we should scarce turn to him at all.

III. A RIGHT MANNER OF PRAYER. "I cried." It tells of earnestness, of humility, of believing trust, of self-distrust. It has all those elements which go to make up, acceptable and prevailing prayer. How little of our prayer is a crying unto God! It is decorous, reverent, formal, correct, and seeks true and worthy objects, but it lacks fervor, force, and the faith which will not let the Lord go unless he bless. No man ever yet "cried unto the Lord" and failed to find response.

IV. A READY AND REALIZED RESPONSE. "He heard me." How promptly this confession comes after the statement, "I cried"! (Cf. Caesar's "Veni, vidi, vici.") It is like that. And the psalmist knew that he was heard. The outward circumstances may not have much changed, but in his heart the light had risen, the Lord had come.

CONCLUSION. Distress of one kind or another we all must know. Let us adopt this manner of prayer, and we shall surely find the ready response.—S.C.


Psalms 120:1, Psalms 120:2

The misery made by the untruthful.

This is the first of fifteen psalms that are called "Songs of Degrees;" Revised Version, "Songs of Ascent;" literally, "Songs of Going up." The association of them with the journeying of country pilgrims to the feasts at Jerusalem is somewhat fanciful. These psalms are naturally explained as "Songs of Heart-uplifting." The key-note of them all is looking up out of some present distress, and seeking the help of God. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills;" "Unto thee lift I up mine eyes;" "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord." Two things are necessary to a "song of ascent:" some special form of present distress; a looking to God for help out of that distress. It is possible effectively to illustrate these psalms from the experiences of the returned exiles.

I. THE PSALMIST'S DISTRESS. It may be regarded as personal, and then we notice that it is a mental anxiety rather than a set of difficult circumstances. And though mental anxieties may seem to be unreal, and often are, they are our most serious and overwhelming distresses; the ones we can least effectively deal with ourselves; the ones in which God's help is most especially needed, and least frequently sought. Or the psalmist may be regarded as personifying the nation, and speaking in its name. The restored exiles were much distressed by the malicious slanders of the surrounding nationalities, whom the psalmist likens to the barbarous tribes of the Moschi, and the nomad hordes of Kedar. Here also the distress is mental; it was not outward injury, but worry caused by the slanders spread abroad concerning them. We love to be thought well of, and are distressed when reputation is damaged.

II. THE CAUSE OF THE PSALMIST'S DISTRUST. Men did not speak the truth about him. Slander has a mysterious power of growth and enlargement; and no man's reputation is safe when the gossip, the tale-bearer, and the slanderer attempt to deal with it. A man may never be afraid of the truth, nor need he fear the final triumph of his slanderers, but for a time the "lying lips" may cause him infinite misery.

III. THE RELIEF OF THE PSALMIST'S DISTRESS. He can turn to God, sure that he knows of his trouble—knows the untruthfulness of the accusations made; is more jealous of his reputation than he can be of his own; could stop the lying lips at once, if he thought it best to do so; and permits them to keep on only because thus he can work out some higher good.—R.T.

Psalms 120:3

Sins of the tongue.

"Thou deceitful tongue." Describing this tongue, the psalmist adds, "It is as the sharp arrows of the mighty man, as coals of broom." The sin specially in the view of the psalmist is that of the slanderer. What shall be done to him? "The law of retaliation can hardly meet the case, since none can slander the slanderer, he is too black to be blackened; neither would any of us blacken him if we could. Wretched being! He fights with weapons which true men cannot touch. Like the cuttlefish, he surrounds himself with an inky blackness into which honest men cannot penetrate. Like the foul skunk, he emits an odor of falsehood which cannot be endured by the true; and therefore he often escapes unchastised by those whom he has most injured. His crime, in a certain sense, becomes his shield; men do not care to encounter so base a foe. But what will God do with lying tongues? He has uttered his most terrible threats against them, and he will terribly execute them in due time" (Spurgeon). "From gossips, tale-bearers, writers of anonymous letters, forgers of newspaper paragraphs, and all liemongers, good Lord, deliver us!"

(1) A man may sin with his tongue against himself, and seriously injure his own success in life.

(2) A man may sin with his tongue against God, misrepresenting him, his truth, his working, or his people. Or

(3) a man may sin with his tongue against his neighbor. Then his wrong doings and sayings may be classed under the term slander, the peculiarity of which is that it has enough truth in it to carry it, and enough lie in it to make it mischievous.

I. THE GENESIS OF SLANDER. As a fixed disposition. It comes out of failing to teach the child always strictly to match statement with fact. It comes out of failing to gain full self-control. It comes from letting feeling rule language. It comes from the disposition which finds pleasure in the suffering of others (see cruelty of children to animals). It comes from envy at the success of others.

II. THE OCCASIONS OF SLANDER. These are often merely times of idle gossip. They may be times of jealousy or revenge. They may be only the delight a man has in mischief-making.

III. THE PUNISHMENT OF SLANDER. It comes in the deterioration of the slanderer's own character; in the lost confidence and love of his neighbor; and in the just judgment of God.—R.T.

Psalms 120:3

The deceitful tongue.

"Lips are soft; but when they are lying lips they suck away the life of character, and are as murderous as razors. Lips should never be red with the blood of honest men's reputes, nor salved with malicious falsehoods. Some seem to lie for lying's sake, it is their sport and spirit. The faculty of speech becomes a curse when it is degraded into a mean weapon for smiting men behind their backs. Those who fawn and flatter, and all the while have enmity in their hearts, are wicked beings; they are the seed of the devil, and he worketh in them after his own deceptive nature." "Ungodly men will do mischief to other men purely for mischief's sake; yet when once mischief is done it proves most mischievous to the doers of it; and while they hold their brethren's heaviness a profit, though they are never the Better, they shall feel and find themselves in a short time much the worse" (Caryl).


1. It is shot in private.

2. It is tipped with poison.

3. It is polished with seeming kindness.

4. It is aimed at the tenderest part.


1. Its scandals spread with greater rapidity.

2. They consume that which other fires cannot touch.

3. They are less easily quenched.

"The tongue," says an apostle, "is a fire … and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell." A fiery dart of the wicked one. (Outline by George Rogers.)—R.T.

Psalms 120:4

Coals of juniper,

This verse, and its connection with the preceding one, may be explained in two ways. Psalms 120:4 may describe the "deceitful tongue," likening it to the sharp arrow of a mighty man, or to the fierce coals of the broom, which long keep their heat. Or it may indicate the swift and sure and overwhelming judgments of God, which are sharp and piercing as an arrow, fierce and burning as a fire. "Wickedness shall be returned on the head of the wicked; for the lying tongue is itself a sword or arrow (Psalms 3:3; Psalms 57:5), and burns like a fire (see Psalms 140:10, Psalms 140:11)." Burckhardt found the Bedouin of Sinai burning the roots of the juniper (desert broom, rithm, ritem, or genista) into coal; and says that they make the best charcoal, and throw out the most intense heat, and hold the heat for an almost indefinite time.

I. THE DECEITFUL TONGUE IS LIKE ARROWS AND COALS. This explanation falls in with the general idea of the psalm. The writer complains that, loving peace himself, he meets with nothing but hostility and treachery (see Psalms 64:3; Psalms 55:21; Psalms 59:7). Both sharpened arrows are used, which pierce deeply; and envenomed arrows, which leave a sting behind. Unkind words both pierce and sting. Similar ideas attach to the other figure. Coals of fire burn at once, and give smarting pain at once, but they also leave misery and suffering behind; and so does slanderous speech.

II. THE PUNISHMENT OF THE DECEITFUL TONGUE IS LIKE ARROWS AND COALS. On the whole, this idea is to be preferred. It is in the manner of the psalms to burst forth with an imprecation of God's judgments on the head of such treacherous and slanderous neighbors. Swift, sure, and sharp shall be the judgment of slanderers. Their punish-melt is comparable to an arrow keen in itself, and driven home with all the force with which a mighty man shoots it from his bow of steel. The woes that come on the slanderer shall be like "coals of juniper," which are "quick in flaming, fierce in blazing, and long in burning." "It is better to be the victim of slander than to be the author of it. The shafts of calumny will miss the mark, but not so the arrows of God; the coals of malice will cool, but not the fire of justice.—R.T.

Psalms 120:5

Our uncomfortable surroundings.

"Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech!" These names Mesech and Kedar are not to be regarded as literally descriptive. They poetically represent the very trying circumstances and associations in which at the lime the psalmist was placed. The Mesech are only known as a half-barbarous people living towards the north, on the mountains south of Caucasus (Ezekiel 38:9,Ezekiel 38:15, Ezekiel 38:16). Kedar is a term representing the warrior-tribes of Arabia far to the south-east (Genesis 25:13; Isaiah 21:17; Ezekiel 27:21). There can be little question that the names are here used typically, because it was not wise to fix in a poem or psalm the actual names of the uncomfortable neighbors.

I. WE CANNOT HELP HAVING UNCOMFORTABLE SURROUNDINGS. It is only in a very small sense that a man can be said to choose his own lot. He cannot choose his parents, brothers and sisters, early home, schooling, and many other things. We speak of his making his way in life, but Providence is always overruling things, and putting men in unexpected places. Most men have to say, in looking back over life, "I never could have dreamed of being where I have been, or of doing what I have done." Our culture largely comes through our life-associations, and we cannot help their sometimes being not at all "according to our mind."

II. WE CANNOT HELP FEELING OUR UNCOMFORTABLE SURROUNDINGS. It is indeed essential to discipline through them that we should feel them. The misery of trying, unlovely, mischievous neighbors is but like the pain of the surgeon who would heal. God wants us to feel, because he wants to use the feeling. Indeed, keenness to feel may help him to do his gracious work.

III. WE CAN HELP BEING MASTERED BY UNCOMFORTABLE SURROUNDINGS. They cannot hurt us unless we allow them to. If feeling is allowed to rule the will, they are sure to master us. If the will be made to rule feeling, they cannot. Just what God's grace does for us is so to strengthen the will that nothing can unduly or unworthily influence us.

IV. WE CAN WIN THE TRIUMPH OF THE GODLY LIFE EVEN AMIDST UNCOMFORTABLE SURROUNDINGS. We can, on the principle of the psalmist, who, out of his distress, persisted in "looking up," crying unto God for help, singing "songs of ascent."—R.T.

Psalms 120:7

The misery of the war-spirit to peace-lovers.

"I am for peace," is literally, "I am peace." This is my very nature; so I instinctively revolt from all this slander and quarrelling and contention. Associating the passage with the restored exiles, it may be noticed that the one thing absolutely essential to their well-being was a state of quietness and peace. They had plenty to do. Jerusalem, its houses, walls, anti temple, to rebuild. Civil and ecclesiastical order to re-establish, and a national character to gain. External peace, as well as internal peace, were absolutely essential to the complete reoccupation of their land. So we too often think that peace is the one condition on which our spiritual culture depends, and God shows us, as he showed the restored exiles, that, spite of the misery it may bring us, it is better for us to be in the midst of contentions, conflicts, and perils. But, like the psalmist, we may freely speak to God about this our trouble, and we need not change our spirit of peace-loving and peace-seeking under any external pressure. Distinguish between war and the war-spirit. It is the latter which the peace-loving man finds so trying. He can deal with actual war upon its merits, and he may be able to recognize its necessity and its beneficent mission; but the litigious, contentious, quarrelsome spirit, that is always inventing or manufacturing some occasion of difficulty, always disturbing the peace, is a painful distress to all peace-lovers.

I. MISERY COMES FROM EFFORTS TO KEEP THE PEACE BEING MISAPPREHENDED. The Prayer-book Version has, "I labor for peace, but when I speak unto them thereof, they make ready to battle." Thinking he meant to start a fight.

II. MISERY COMES FROM EFFORTS TO KEEP THE PEACE BEING DEFEATED. We never like to fail in things we set our hearts upon.

III. MISERY COMES FROM THE MORAL ATMOSPHERE WHICH THE WAR-SPIRIT ENGENDERS. Nothing morally beautiful can flourish in that atmosphere.

IV. MISERY COMES FROM THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF DOING THE THINGS WHICH REQUIRE PEACEFUL SURROUNDINGS. This is illustrated in the ease of the restored exiles, who wanted to get on with their national reconstruction work.—R.T.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 120". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/psalms-120.html. 1897.
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