1. Psalm 120. Calling on the Lord for Deliverance

Audio (12:14)

Vincent Van Gogh, 'Trauernder alter Mann' ('Grieving Old Man', 1890), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'Trauernder alter Mann' ('Grieving Old Man', 1890), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Picture with me with a band of pilgrims. They're people from your village, heading up the road that leads to Jerusalem. You're on your way to Passover, or perhaps the Feast of Weeks, or the Feast of Booths. There's excitement in the air -- and joy and anticipation. As you grow nearer to the Holy City, you begin to meet pilgrims from other towns and villages as their paths converge with yours on the road up to Jerusalem. These bands of pilgrims sing as they walk, and you join in -- you, all your friends, and your children on either side of you. As you journey, you sing the fifteen Songs of Ascent, which all seem made for community singing, and everyone joins in.

Psalms 120 through 134 are called the Songs of Ascent because pilgrims would sing them as they traveled the sometimes steep road ascending up to Jerusalem.10

Over the next fifteen days, day by day, we'll be studying each of the fifteen Songs of Ascent. We'll spend some time trying to understand what the psalmist is saying in his inspired poetic psalm. And then we'll consider what it might mean for us today.

Let's begin with Psalm 120. I encourage you to read the psalm of the day aloud, so you can hear yourself saying the words. It will help you to get the feel of the psalm and begin to understand it. For this series, I'm primarily using the English Standard Version as my text.11

"A Song of Ascents.

1  In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me. 
2  Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, 
from a deceitful tongue. 
3  What shall be given to you, 
and what more shall be done to you, 
you deceitful tongue? 
4  A warrior's sharp arrows, 
with glowing coals of the broom tree! 
5  Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, 
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! 
6  Too long have I had my dwelling 
among those who hate peace. 
7  I am for peace, but when I speak, 
they are for war!" (Psalm 120:1-7, ESV)

Distressed (Psalm 120:1)

Many Psalms are happy, uplifting, but this one is not. We don't know the author, but we can picture his situation. He is upset.

"In my distress I called to the LORD, 
and he answered me." (Psalm 120:1)

If we had only joyful psalms, we wouldn't know how to bring our problems to the Lord. We would be afraid to talk to God about deep troubles, because we might feel the need to be upbeat, positive, full of faith. But sometimes that can be a false understanding of faith. We trust God in the ups and the downs of life. Faith continues.

This psalm comes from a frustrated, tormented heart. As mentioned in the Introduction, scholars have classified psalms into types or genres. This is what we would call a psalm of lament. The word "distress" in verse 1 derives from the verb, "bind, be narrow, be in distress."12 It describes the feeling of the walls closing in, narrower and narrower, so you can't seem to move. Your options are increasingly limited. You experience intense inner turmoil and anguish. The key the psalmist offers is prayer.

"I called to the LORD,
and he answered me." (Psalm 120:1)

So often we feel frozen by our circumstances, unable to do anything. Or we complain to anyone who will listen. But the psalmist calls out13 to Yahweh and reports that the Lord answers14 him, responds to him. The lesson is simple: when you are in distress, call out to the Lord!

Prayer for Deliverance (Psalm 120:2)

The psalmist's prayer is simple: Deliver me! Get me out of this situation!15

"Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, 
from a deceitful tongue." (Psalm 120:2)

His problem is a common one. In this case, liars and slanderers are trying to hurt his reputation in the community, turn people against him, diminish his influence, and frustrate his plans.

While we're examining this psalm, let me draw your attention to a very common element of Hebrew poetry that we see in this verse -- indeed, throughout the Psalms.

"Deliver me, O LORD,  from lying lips
from a deceitful tongue.

"Lying lips" and "deceitful tongue" are different ways of saying the same thing. Scholars call this "synonymous parallelism." We'll see it often in the Songs of Ascent. For more on this, see the Introduction.

Though we have no indication that this particular psalm was written by David, you could easily picture him in these situations. For example, when King Saul lies about David's loyalty and sends the entire army out to run him to the ground. Or when David's son Absalom slanders his father in order to undermine loyalty to the current king and gain the throne for himself. Perhaps you have experienced lies and slander designed to discredit you. It is ugly. It is underhanded. It is deceitful -- and it is repugnant to God himself (Proverbs 6:16-19). My parents taught me: If don't have something good to say about someone, don't say anything. Good advice. I wish I had always followed it.

Now, after asking Yahweh for deliverance, the angry psalmist speaks rhetorically to the liars and slanderers.

"3  What shall be given to you, 
and what more shall be done to you, 
you deceitful tongue? 
4  A warrior's sharp arrows, 
with glowing coals of the broom tree!"16 (Psalm 120:3-4)

You lying tongue, you should be shot full of arrows! You should be seared with the glowing coals of a fire made of a broom tree (a common flowering desert shrub in Palestine). You've probably had these sorts of thoughts about people who are trying to harm you and make your life difficult. Verses 3 and 4 are a mild example of calling down a curse on one's enemies, an "imprecation," a subject we'll talk more about on Day 10 (Psalm 129:5-8).

Sojourning in Foreign Lands (Psalm 120:5-7)

Now we get a clue to the psalmist's actual situation. He seems to be geographically removed from the land of Israel.

"Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,17  that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!"18 (Psalm 120:5)

Perhaps he's in exile or maybe he's living as an expatriate, a sojourner in a foreign city.19 He complains that he must live in a foreign land, where sojourners don't experience the same rights as citizens, where people don't worship the true God, where neighbors don't share his values.

"6  Too long have I had my dwelling20
among those who hate peace. 
7  I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war!"21 (Psalm 120:6-7)

The psalmist longs for peace, but he seems to be living  in the midst of a war-obsessed people. Perhaps his emphasis on peace, shalom, is the reason he is slandered and lied about by his neighbors -- we don't know.

Learning to Call upon the Lord

Here on earth we're often in places we'd rather not be. Places of stress. Places of hardship and adversity. Places where our resources are drained. Places where those around us are thoughtless. Places where enemies deliberately seek to hurt and destroy us.

It doesn't take long to see just those situations in the lives of men and women of God.

  1. Jacob, who makes an enemy of his brother Esau,
  2. Joseph, whose brothers sell him into slavery where a spiteful mistress has him thrown into prison.
  3. Moses, whom God calls to deliver a rebellious people from the most powerful nation on earth; and who leads them through the desert for forty years.
  4. Deborah the prophetess, who leads a nation attacked by a stronger enemy.
  5. Mary, mother of our Lord, who doubtless bears slander and rejection for being pregnant before marriage to Joseph. How could they understand?
  6. Jesus, of course, who takes up his cross daily to do the Father's will in the midst of enemies who seek his life -- and in so doing redeems us by his death and resurrection!
  7. Paul, who experiences strife, beatings, stonings, imprisonment, and ultimately execution, to complete the mission to which God calls him.

And that list is only a beginning. Throughout the ages men and women of God have learned to handle the stresses and pressures of life by calling upon God, knowing that he hears and will answer.

You may in a period of stress, just like men and women of faith have been for thousands of years. But God is with you. He understands your stresses. He understands your frustration with the godlessness you see around you. And as you call out to him in your pain and frustration, he will hear you. And may soon give you the same testimony that our psalmist has:

"In my distress I called to the LORD,  and he answered me." (Psalm 120:1)


Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

Father, we come to you with our struggles, our stress-points. Sometimes it seems to us that things will never change. Help our hearts. Encourage our faith. Help us to reach out to you in prayer with real faith, and see you make the difference that no person can make. Let your power touch our situations -- and our hearts. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


This series includes meditation questions to help you think more deeply about the implications of each psalm. Don't skip these in a rush to complete your time of devotions. Here is where your heart will grow!

I encourage you to write out your answers, perhaps in a journal. And, if you like, post your answers on the online Joyful Heart Forum that you'll find by clicking on the hyperlink below each question. If you decide to do this, remember:

  1. Loving comments only!
  2. No denomination or church bashing!

You may disagree with others, but only with love.

Day 1 Meditation (Psalm 120). In what ways does stress pull us away from God? In what ways does stress draw us closer to God? Have you given your stress points to God fully? What are you asking him to do about your stresses? https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1900-1-deliverance/


Abbreviations and References

[10] "Ascents" is the plural of maʿalâ, "step, stair," from the verb ʿālâ, "go up, climb, ascend." Used variously of steps or stairs, the "way up" to the throne, the city walls, etc. (G. Lloyd Carr, TWOT #1624m). For more on this, see the Introduction.

[11] For the last several years, I've been using the ESV (English Standard Version) in my devotions -- and increasingly in my in-depth studies. I like the NIV (New International Version) for its great balance between accuracy and readability and have used it for three decades. It's great. The ESV is a bit more literal, following more closely the patterns of the underlying Hebrew and Greek, but also reads well. The ESV is the evangelical offspring of the RSV (Revised Standard Version, 1952) tradition that I grew up on as a boy and used in the early part of my ministry, so it has a familiar sound to me. It is a personal preference.

[12] Sārâ, TWOT #1973c, from the verb ṣārar. See more on this in Psalm 129:1-2 (Day 10).

[13] "Called" is qārāʾ, "call, call out." The root qrʾ denotes primarily the enunciation of a specific vocable or message (Leonard J. Copps, TWOT #2063).

[14] "Answered" is ʿānâ, "to answer, respond, testify, speak, shout." Basically, the root ʿānâ signifies a response (Leonard J. Copps, TWOT #1650).

[15] "Deliver" is nāṣal, which has the idea of "to deliver, rescue, save." This is the Hiphil imperative that carries the causative sense, "make separate" (TWOT #1404).

[16] "Broom Tree" is rōtem, a kind of broom plant. (TWOT #2226a). "Broom" (shrub), Retama raetam (Holladay, p. 348). The White Broom plant grows in sandy areas of the eastern Negeb and Edom, as well as other places in Palestine. It is a small, compact bush with rather sparse foliage and clusters of fragrant white flowers (Ernest W. G. Mastermand and Roland K. Harrison, "Flora," ISBE 2:324).

[17] Meshech is described as a warlike people that terrorizes other nations (Ezekiel 32:26). It is associated with Gog and Magog, nations that will fight against Israel in the End Times (Ezekiel 38-39; Revelation 20:7-8;  Roland K. Harrison, "Meshech," ISBE 3:32).

[18] "Kedar" refers to a people in the East (Song of Solomon 1:5; Isaiah 21:16-17; 42:11; 60:7; Jeremiah 2:10; 49:28). Hebrew qēḏār could also be translated "black," with no specific reference to Kedar (although the Arabs often made tents of black sheep's wool; A. S. Fulton and William S. La Sor, "Kedar," ISBE 3:5).

[19] "Sojourn" (ESV, NASB, KJV), "dwell" (NIV, NRSV), "am an alien" (NRSV) is gûr, "abide, be gathered, be a stranger, dwell (in/with), gather together, remain, sojourn," from a root that means to live among people who are not blood relatives (Harold G. Stigers, TWOT #330).

[20] "Had my dwelling" (ESV, NRSV), "lived" (NIV), "dwelt" (KJV) is shākan, "dwell, tabernacle" (TWOT #2387). It is also found in verse 5. "Shekinah," comes from this verb, describing the glorious presence of God.

[21] "War" is milḥāmâ, "battle, war" from lāham, "fight, do battle."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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