INTRODUCTION TO SONGS OF ASCENTS
As Spurgeon put it, "We have left the continent of that vast 119th Psalm for the islands and islets of the Songs of Degrees."F1 However, he reminded us that God is the author of both the great and the small, and that all of the Word of God is precious.
In our version (American Standard Version), the title "A Song of Ascents" appears in the superscription of each of these fifteen psalms. This superscription varies in the versions. "The KJV (King James) has `Song of Degrees'; American Standard Version and RSV have `Song of Ascents'; and some recent translators have `A Pilgrim Song.'F2
"These fifteen psalms constitute a Little Psalter, which contains indications of a formal arrangement. The central psalm in this collection, the only one ascribed to Solomon, has on either side of it a group of seven psalms, each such group having two psalms ascribed to David and five anonymous psalms. The ascribed psalms are separated one from another by the anonymous psalms, in such a sort that no two of the ascribed psalms come together. This is evidently not the result of chance."F3
Several theories of why this group of psalms is so named are available. The Jewish explanation is that there were fifteen steps from the Court of the Women to the Court of the Men in the Temple, and that each of these psalms was sung in succession on those steps. Another view is that these songs were sung in successive phases of the Jews' return from captivity. Apparently the true explanation is that these psalms were written for the pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem for the great annual feasts, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. "It seems most probable that these songs form a collection for the use of pilgrims who came up to Jerusalem at the great feasts."F4
It is of special interest to us, as Dummelow noted, that, "There is an indication in these titles that these Psalms were especially intended for vocal music. Exquisitely beautiful they are, well fitted for pilgrim songs, either for the Jew to Jerusalem, or for the Christian to that heavenly Zion whose builder and maker is God."F5
"Three times yearly all the tribes had to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the great feasts (The set times are given in Lev. 25); and these psalms were probably chanted by godly Israelites as they moved toward their great center of worship in Jerusalem,"F6
PRAYER FOR DELIVERANCE FROM BAD NEIGHBORS
THE TEXT OF THE PSALM
In my distress I cried unto Jehovah,
And he answered me.
Deliver my soul, O Jehovah, from lying lips,
And from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given unto thee, and what shall be done more unto thee?
Thou deceitful tongue.
Sharp arrows of the mighty,
With coals of juniper.
Woe is me that I sojourn in Meshech,
That I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
My soul hath long had her dwelling
With him that hateth peace.
I am for peace;
But when I speak, they are for war."
A PRAYER FOR HELP AGAINST A SLANDERING TONGUE
In my distress I cried unto Jehovah, And he answered me. Deliver my soul, O Jehovah, from lying lips, [And] from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given unto thee, and what shall be done more unto thee, Thou deceitful tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty, With coals of juniper. Woe is me, that I sojourn in Meshech, That I dwell among the tents of Kedar! My soul hath long had her dwelling With him that hateth peace. I am [for] peace: But when I speak, they are for war.
(Psalms 120:2). The tongue is apostrophized here, being addressed with a question of just what should be done to such a tongue, The literature of the ages has often addressed the problem of the slandering tongue. Shakespeare spoke of one:
Whose tongue is sharper than the sword, whose tongue
Out venoms all the worms of Nile, whose breath
Rides on the posting winds.F7
"The tongue is a fire ... a world of iniquity ... is set on fire by hell ... it is a restless evil ... full of deadly poison" (James 3:6-9).
The psalmist's prayer here is to be delivered from such ravages of such slanderous tongues.
Delitzsch pointed out that, "The tongue is feminine as a rule; but, in spite of that, it is a man who is here addressed who has that kind of a tongue!"F8
THE PSALMIST ANTICIPATES RETRIBUTIVE PUNISHMENT OF SUCH A TONGUE
Sharp arrows of the mighty with coals of juniper
(Psalms 120:4). The mighty here, `the mighty man' in the margin, is a reference to God who will punish the wicked tongue. Sharp arrows are an appropriate reference here, because, In Jer. 9:7, the deceitful tongue is compared to a deadly arrow. It is therefore fitting that Jehovah should send sharp arrows against those who slander the righteous.F9
Coals of juniper
(Psalms 120:4). The marginal reference here makes this the broom tree. This is the white broom (Retama roetam), the most popular of the thorny brushwoods in the Near East. It is collected for burning because it insures a long, hot fire.F10 (See The Interpreter's Bible, p. 642).
The last three verses have the quality of a mild lament. The psalmist is displeased with his neighbors. The scene is that of many Jews traveling from distant lands, where Jews were often persecuted. Most scholars agree, however, that Meshech and Kedar here are idiomatic references to "barbarous and hostile people."F11
"Meshech was a nation of Asia Minor, and Kedar was part of the Syrian desert south of Damascus."F12 Despite the general opinion about these names being, "Synonyms of barbarism,"F13 it is easy to imagine that there were actually pilgrims from such places who joined the great annual processions to Jerusalem.
In this connection, Spurgeon, hoped that, "The pious people were not so foolish as to sing about their bad neighbors when they were leaving them for awhile."F14 This struck us as amusing, and we borrowed the idea for a title for this psalm.
Kidner commented on the appropriateness of this psalm's being the first of the fifteen. "It begins the series in a distant land, so that we join the pilgrims as they set out on their journey, which will bring us to Jerusalem in Ps. 122 and to the ark, the priests, and the temple services in the last psalm of the group."F15
Footnotes for Psalms 120
1: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Vol. II, p. 219.
2: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IV, p. 638.
3: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8-C, p. 178.
4: The Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 638.
5: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 273.
6: Arno C. Gaebelein, p. 442.
7: Cymbeline, Act III, Sc. 4, Line 35.
8: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V-C, p. 269.
9: W. E. Addis, p. 393.
10: Grace M. Crowfoot and L. Boldensperger, pp. 49, 50.
11: The Pulpit Commentary, op. cit., p. 179.
12: The Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 643.
14: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Vol. IX, p. 210.
15: Derek Kidner, p. 430.