If you were to search on google earth and zoom in on a specific location, you would travel from far out and then remain in your intended destination. The songs of ascents (Psalm 120-134) take us on a journey and culminate in Jerusalem, where thrice annually a pilgrimage would be made during Pesach, Shavuot and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16). Often reference is made to the fifteen steps leading to the court of Israel in the Temple and that they were sung on these steps.
If someone focussed in on the Psalms, they would discover that it is a collection of 150 songs contained within five books reflecting the Torah. If they narrowed in still further, they would find the songs of ascents in Psalms 120-134. Again, if the enquirer scaled down even further it would become evident that within the songs of ascents there are five collections of three psalms that follow on one from another. Hence in Psalm 120 we have a prayer for deliverance which is followed up in Psalm 121 as the traveller makes their way to Jerusalem and in Psalm 122:2 the psalmist declares that “our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!”
Prayer for Deliverance (verses 1-2)
Unlike most psalms, Psalm 120 does not culminate with an encouraging conclusion at the end but this is because of the structure of the songs of ascent. Psalm 121 explains where help comes from, namely the Lord. Nevertheless from the immediate outset, the writer is assured that in their distress the Lord heard him. This closely parallels Jonah’s experience when he cried out from the belly of the great fish and the Lord answered him (Jonah 2:2). Both the psalmist and Jonah were overwhelmed by their situation and were living in undesirable locations. The psalmist dwelt amongst lying foes who plotted war against him whilst Jonah was caught in the belly of the great fish. The psalmist sought the Lord’s intervention whilst Jonah declared he would look again to the holy temple (Jonah 2:4) and his prayer went up to the holy temple (Jonah 2:7).
Sometimes we retort, “sticks and stones will hurt my bones but unkind words will not hurt me.” This is not the case in this instance since the psalmist is seeking deliverance for his soul from lying lips and a deceitful tongue that cause incalculable damage. In the psalmist’s era, Israel had many opponents who would cause her damage and that is true of her history and is still the case today.
In Daniel’s time, the Chaldeans accused the Jews of not worshipping the image of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3). Strangely the fury of Nebuchadnezzar was such that the furnace was heated seven times more than it was usually heated and the ones who cast them into the furnace were killed by the intense heat, although Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego survived. In the reign of Darius, governors and satraps passed a law to entrap Daniel, although ironically Daniel was spared in the lion’s den and his accusers were thrown into the den themselves, together with their families (Daniel 6). Again, Haman used deception and lying words to pressure and trick Ahasuerus into issuing a decree to destroy all the Jewish people within the Mede-Persian empire. That backfired on both Haman and his family as they were hung on the gallows that they had prepare for Mordecai!
What Shall be Done to You, You False Tongue? (verses 3-4)
A question is asked by the psalmist. It is a plea for deliverance from bitter foes. The question is answered with a robust and telling response “Sharp arrows of the warrior, with coals of the broom tree” (Psalm 120:4). The accusations hurt and cause distress. So much harm is caused through the tongue. James gives us a vivid illustration of the destructive tongue describing it as a little member that is boastful and the tongue is a fire and world of iniquity. Even the animal kingdom can be tamed and is tamed but the tongue sets on fire the course of nature and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-8). How we need to be careful of what we say since words can injure others and cannot be retracted!
Many commentaries and Bible dictionaries note the properties of the broom tree or juniper tree. When used for making a fire this tree emits a fierce heat and keeps burning for a long duration. Its roots make good fuel and charcoal and should not be confused with the coniferous tree genus Juniperus relating to species found in Lebanon, Bashan and Galilee.[i]
Whilst some interpreters compare the lying lips and deceitful tongue with the arrows and the coals, that misses the full meaning. Note that “warrior” can also be denoted “mighty one.” As one commentator explains that the response is “sharp arrows from the bow of the Master Archer.”[ii] Walvoord & Zuck state “the imagery of sharp arrows and coals of fire speaks of retribution against people with deceitful tongues.”[iii]Rashi wrote, “What will He give you? What is the Holy One, blessed be He, destined to decree upon you? Arrows of a mighty man with coals of brooms. His arrows from above and Gehinnom from below.[iv] Similarly one of the Targums states, “Sharp arrows of a warrior, like lightning above, with coals of broom wood that burn in hell below.”[v]Wiersbe adds, “The writer did not need to attack the enemy, because the Lord would do it for him. The arrows would be shot and sharpened at them by a mighty warrior, probably a reference to the Lord Himself (Psalm 24:8; Isaiah 9:6; Mighty God).”[vi]
There is therefore both a warning and an encouragement. Firstly the warning is that we must be incredibly careful of what we say and furthermore be especially careful not to slander the Jewish people who are God’s ancient people as has happened throughout history and still today. It has never bode well for any empire of people group that have set themselves to oppose the Jewish people, Jerusalem, or Israel and those who have tried to do that have had their evil plans backfire on them. The reason is that they are fighting against the God of Israel and His people.
There is an encouragement for those who are believers in Messiah that the Lord will fight our battles and our task is to bring these matters in prayer before Him. Yeshua the Messiah in His famous sermon on the Mount preached, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Also Paul wrote, “ If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18-21; c.f. Proverbs 25:21-22).
I am for Peace but they are for War (verses 5-7)
The psalmist woes dwelling in Meshech and among the tents of Kedar. Meshech was a son of Japheth (Genesis 10:2) and Kedar was a son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:2). The locations of the descendants would be distanced though they represent the ones causing the psalmist distress. Sadly, they hate peace and when he sought peace, they desired war. Of course the same is still today and Jewish people face lies from those who would wish to eradicate them, those misrepresenting her in the media, on university campuses and various demonstrations and propaganda. Talks of peace are often under false pretence and when Israel seeks peace there are many who speak of peace when they are in reality seeking war.
Where then can be find real and lasting peace? Ultimately in the Sar Shalom, the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6). The peace that Messiah brings is different and is not like the peace of this world (John 14:26). Jesus the Messiah gave His peace to His disciples and promised that He was going away but would come back to them.
When He rose from the grave, Jesus stood in the midst of His followers and said “Shalom aleichem,” “Peace to you.” Again, He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit and He said, “peace to you” (John 20:19-22). Shalom Aleichem is a common greeting with deep meaning but when Messiah gives you His peace and you receive the Holy Spirit, His peace surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7). Messiah brings peace with God and the peace of God. For those who have turned to Him, trust in Him and follow Him, Messiah grants forgiveness for sin and peace with God through His blood atonement, also meaning that the God of peace will be with you and keep you.
[i] Merrill Unger Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Moody Press, 1985; Chicago), p1138
[ii] William Macdonald Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1985; Nashville), p748
[iii] Walvoord & Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament (Victor, 1985; USA), P882
[vi] Warren Wiersbe.The Wiersbe Bible Commentary Old Testament (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p1021