Bible Commentary: Psalm 120

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Psalm 120

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As the first song of ascents in the first set of three (of the five sets of three), Psalm 120 is a lament while in "distress" (verse 1). However, if the latter part of verse 1 is translated as in the NKJV, "and He [God] heard me," then the distress mentioned in this verse would seem to be a former one--forming the basis for the appeal for help in the present distress. Yet it may be that the latter part of the verse should be rendered, "and He has heard me"--in which case the present distress is the one intended, the poet merely expressing his confidence in God to help him or perhaps having received some actual assurance. Still, not knowing exactly how and when matters will be resolved, he continues to pray for deliverance (verse 2).

The deliverance he seeks is from lying deceivers (same verse). And he considers that consequences will eventually befall them--apparently expecting God to judge them accordingly (verse 3). Verse 4 mentions sharp arrows and burning coals from a broom tree, a large desert shrub with roots that can be made into charcoal. It is not clear if this is referring to the lying words of the enemies here and the damage they do (compare Psalm 57:4; Psalm 64:3; Proverbs 25:18; Proverbs 16:27; Jeremiah 9:3, Jeremiah 9:8) or to the just judgment in kind that God will bring on them for it, as the NIV translates it to mean.

Verse 5 of Psalm 120 mentions dwelling among "Meshech" and the "tents of Kedar"--equating this with dwelling too long "with one who hates peace" (verse 6) or "among those who hate peace" (NIV), the plural meaning supported by the "they" in the next verse. Meshech was a gentile nation (Genesis 10:2), which was in Old Testament times located near the Black Sea. The descendants of Meshech later migrated north and may be found today among the people of Russia, the name Moscow helping to provide this identification (see the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Ezekiel 38). Kedar was the second son of Abraham's son Ishmael (Genesis 25:13), from whom sprang "a great tribe of Arabs settled on the northwest of the [Arabian] peninsula and on the confines of Palestine…. The tribe seems to have been one of the most conspicuous of all the Ishmaelite tribes, and hence the rabbins call the Arabians universally by this name" (Smith's Bible Dictionary, "Kedar").

As the nomads of Kedar lived southeast of the land of Israel and the people of Meshech were far to the north, we are left to ponder why the psalmist says he dwells among both (Psalm 120:5). It may be that he has gone from living with one to the other. Some see a prophetic association--as a large portion of the Jewish people in recent centuries have lived in Russia and among Arab nations (the state of Israel itself being in the midst of Arab enemies). On the other hand, many believe the psalmist to be speaking metaphorically of other Israelites--that is, in their dishonesty and mistreatment of him they were behaving not as God's covenant people but like these other far-off foreigners. Alternatively, some have postulated this translation of the verse: "Woe is me, whether I dwell in Meshech, or I dwell among the tents of Kedar!" In context, the meaning would then seem to be that no matter where he lives in this world, the psalmist remains in hostile territory-facing lying enemies who don't want peace.

Interestingly, two different words are used for "dwell" in verse 5: garti ("sojourn") and shakanti ("tabernacle"). "These verbs," says The Expositor's Bible Commentary, "are significantly chosen. Even though the psalmist may have enjoyed a permanent residence, he felt as if he was no more than a sojourner among his contemporaries. He did not feel at home among an ungodly people" (note on verse 5). Indeed, God's people are to be temporary dwellers in this world--looking for the future homeland of the Kingdom of God (Leviticus 25:23; 1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13-16).

In this light, we should note verse 7. The beginning of the verse, though translated as "I am for peace," is literally "I peace." The poet's whole being is consumed with the desire for peace--to make peace as he is able and desiring the peace that God's Kingdom will ultimately bring. Yet the antagonists have no interest in peace. They are for war (compare Isaiah 59:8). This psalm, then, is one of crying out to God for relief from the circumstances of dwelling in a hostile world. "This may have set the stage for believers to make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In Zion they would be among the people of God. In Jerusalem they would hear the words of truth. In the temple they could pray for the peace of God (Psalm 122:6; Psalm 125:5; Psalm 128:6)" ( Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 120:5-7).

Moreover, the annual festivals themselves portray God's plan for the salvation of mankind. The joyous Feast of Tabernacles provides a small foretaste of the peace and happiness that will at last envelop the world under the reign of the Messiah--when the sojourn of God's people in this wicked world at last comes to an end.