Psalm 120 (part 1)

SONY DSCA great while ago, I posted a short entry about the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). I thought I might follow this up with some thoughts about some of these psalms, beginning with Psalm 120, which I will break into two posts. The first will discuss vv. 1-2 and use them as a springboard to discuss some larger compositional observations within the Songs of Ascents and the Psalter.

I Call, Yahweh Answers (vv. 1–2)

1 אֶל־יְ֭הוָה בַּצָּרָ֣תָה לִּ֑י קָ֜רָ֗אתִי וַֽיַּעֲנֵֽנִי׃
2 יְֽהוָ֗ה הַצִּ֣ילָה נַ֭פְשִׁי מִשְּׂפַת־שֶׁ֑קֶר מִלָּשׁ֥וֹן רְמִיָּֽה׃

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. (ESV)

The first psalm in the Songs of Ascents opens with a declaration of certainty that Yhwh hears the call of the one who speaks peace (see v. 7) in the midst of a time of distress. The speaker goes nameless, as there is no name given in the title, so the only way to identify this one is to consider the context of the psalm. In this, there are at least two elements at work.

First, by virtue of the context of the psalm within the Psalter, the connection to Ps 119:176 (“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”) identifies the speaker as one who loves the torah of Yhwh and continues to heed it but at the same time is found wandering in a precarious situation and therefore seeks shepherding from Yhwh.[1] As seen in 120:5, the speaker of Psalm 120 sojourns in a most unwelcome place and seeks the help of Yhwh, just like the writer of Psalm 119.[2] Second, considering the structure of the present psalm, in v. 7 the speaker identifies himself as one who speaks peace in the midst of those who hate it. The peace-speaking psalmist contrasts himself sharply with those with whom he dwells, namely, those with a tongue of deception (v. 2) who hate peace (v. 6) and speak of war (v. 7).

Thus, the identity of the speaker as the one who wanders like a lost sheep amidst those who fight against peace highlights the nature of the Songs of Ascents. Throughout these 15 psalms, the speaker(s) long and hope for return to the land (specifically Zion) as part of a fulfillment of the promises made to David. Finding themselves in the midst of unrest, they hope for the peace, blessing, grace, protection, redemption, and security of the kingdom of Yhwh as administered by the son of David (see Psalm 132). With this hope, they often call out to Yhwh with the confidence that he will hear their prayers and grant them deliverance (or salvation). Ps 120:1 is a model of this expectation and sets the stage for the rest.[3] In this light, it is significant that the psalm itself as well as the whole collection begins with the prepositional phrase “to Yhwh,”[4] declaring from the beginning that the prayer of this psalm and the hope of those praying the psalms in this collection are directed toward Yhwh and Yhwh alone. He and He alone has been the God who hears and answers.[5] Psalm 120:1 is the gateway to the collection of Songs of Ascents in much the same way that Psalms 1 and 2 are the gateway to the Psalter.


In 120:1, the psalmist uses an important pattern of verbal tenses to make clear the basis of this hope. Calling out to Yhwh and waiting for his answering is expressed quite a few ways in the Psalter and throughout the poetry of the Old Testament. But the poetry used in 120:1 enhances the certainty of the hope, for here a perfect tense verb (“I called”) is immediately followed by an imperfect consecutive (“and he answered me”).[6] While in English this may not be too elucidating (or exciting), in Hebrew such a pattern highlights how the second action results from the first. In other words, the phrase may be translated, “I called, and as a result (of my calling), he answered me.”[7] So in v. 1 the speaker—an example to those who would hear his words—reminds the reader that Yhwh is one to whom his followers should pray and from whom his followers should expect deliverance and protection (as will become apparent in Psalm 121). For in this case, the psalmist declares that he has experienced the resultant answer of a cry to Yhwh.

Although the details are not specified, the psalmist at some point was found in a personally desperate situation. The speaker brings focus upon the personal distress and upon the personal answer from Yhwh (“my distress … I called … answered me”). Just as the pain hit closely to home, so did the answer from God. In this verse, the speaker makes the observation that from personal experience it can be said about Yhwh that he is a God who hears and answers the prayers of his people (see 81:8; 99:6–8) and the prayers of individuals (as here in this psalm). In his example, the psalmist implies an answer to the question, “Why should a cry for help be directed toward Yhwh? Because when I have cried out to him, he has answered me.”

Thus, the speaker points to a distressing situation of the past, which fittingly has an interesting parallel to a desperate situation of a prophet, namely Jonah, and his plight in the belly of the fish. There are a number of specific details in both 120:1 and Jonah 2:3a (“I called out to Yhwh, out of my distress, and he answered me”) that highlight this relationship:

  • both use a poetic form of expressing “my distress,” which is found only in these two places,[8]
  • both have the prepositional phrase “to Yhwh” specifying to whom the call is addressed,
  • both use the same verbs for calling and answering, and
  • both use the same tenses for those verbs, which highlights the action of calling and the resulting action by Yhwh of answering.

The two verses vary only in their ordering, in the preposition used on the noun for “distress,” and in the form of the noun that Ps 120:1 uses.[9] It could be reasonably concluded that Jonah’s difficulty gives a narrative example of what calling/answering looks like. In the very least, Jonah’s prayer provides further content prayers of desperation by the readers.

mt-arbel-108.jpgSo the psalm begins with a recollection: “I have called out to Yhwh in the midst of my desperate situation in the past and he answered me.” Thus, the speaker turns in v. 2 to make a plea based upon that foundation. Because Yhwh has answered in the past, perhaps he might (or perhaps more confidently, “will”[10]) provide salvation from the present distress. So the psalm turns from recollection about speaking to Yhwh to actually addressing Yhwh directly. The psalmist calls out, “Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.” Using a figure of speech called a synecdoche in which a smaller part is used for the whole, the speaker calls out to Yhwh for deliverance from the one who speaks lies. The description of the wicked in v. 2 as those who sin with their lips enhances the contrast made at the end of the psalm where the peaceful speech of the psalmist is contrasted sharply with those of war (v. 7).

[to be continued]


[1] This assumption is based on the hermeneutical principle that the psalm as well as the Songs of Ascents have been purposely placed after Psalm 119, and that this is not just a result of coincidence. See the Introduction to the Songs of Ascents (to be written).

[2] Zenger (422) comments on the connection between Psalm 119 and the Songs of Ascents: “Beide entwerfen Modelle jüdischer Identität, zum einen mit der Tora als dem entscheidenden Medium der Begegnung mit JHWH and zum anderen mit dem Tempel als dem Ort der Gottespräsenz.” Both outline models of Jewish identity, on the one hand with the Torah as the distinct medium of the encounter with Yhwh and on the other hand with the temple as the place of the presence of God. As such, there is a coming together of Torah theology and Temple theology. See K. Nielsen, 57, 66.

Zenger, 423: “Am naheliegendsten ist allerdings die Nebeneinanderstellung von Ps 119 und Ps 120–134 im Horizont der von der Redaktion in Ps 107–136 gezeichneten Wiederherstellung und Erneuerung Israels als die Betonung komplementärer Lebensweisen zu begreifen (Tora und Zion).”

On connections between Psalm 119 and 120, see 119:145 and 120:1; 119:170, 175 and 120:2. Consider also the description of enemies (Ps 119:29, 86, 104, 118, 128). Also, “help” from Yhwh (119:173, 175 and 121:1f.; 124:8).

[3] Zenger (410) states: “Da V 1 der Anfang der Sammlung Ps 120–134 ist, entwirft der Vers so zugleich einen hermeneutischen Horizont, der für die in Ps 120–134 vollzogene Gebetsbewegung insgesamt bedeutsam ist.” Since v. 1 is the beginning of the collection of Ps 120–134, the verse thus outlines at the same time a hermeneutical horizon, which is altogether significant for the progression of prayer carried out in Pss 120–134.

[4] Despite the fact that this is not reflected in the English translations.

[5] See Zenger, 414. He makes the connection here to Ps 115:4–7 and the post-exilic theological statements regarding this. He also points to the example of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. This is also quite explicit in the Davidic psalms of the first book of the Psalter (e.g., Pss 3:5; 4:2; 17:6; 18:7f.; 20:2, 10; 22:3, 22; 23:7).

Zenger, 415, states, “Dass JHWH der Gott ist, der antwortet, wenn er gerufen wird, ist das Thema des ‘Heilsorakels’, das in Ps 91,14–16 im tempeltheologischen (!) Kontext entfalten wird.” That Yhwh is the God who answers when he is called on, is the thema of the “salvation oracle,” which is developed in Ps 91:14–16 in the temple-theology (!) context.

And again, “Dieses Vertrauensbekenntnis proklamiert die Erhörungsgewissheit, auf der Ps 120 aufruht und die zugleich der hermeneutische Horizont der Sammlung Ps 120–134 überhaupt ist.” Of this confession of trust it proclaims the certainty of hearing, on which Psalm 120 rests and which is in general at the same time the hermeneutical horizon of the collection of Pss 120–134.

[6] The fact that a perfect occurs here is not too elucidating. There is much disagreement regarding this translation or sense of this formation (perfect – imperfect consecutive). While there are some (e.g., Duhm and Gunkel) who would adjust the imperfect consecutive into a simple imperfect form, it seems best to leave the text as it remains and determine how to translate the perfect (see Michel for reasons). Two options exist: (1) present translation and (2) past translation. Michel prefers a present translation; Zenger (408) a past translation. Interestingly, Zenger has missed (or at least not supported) Michel’s point about the wayyiqtol following a perfect as a result. I have tried to reflect this in my comments.

[7] There is some precedent for translating these verbs in the present tense in English (see the NIV and NRSV), which would highlight even more the certainty of the speaker. However, I have chosen to follow other English versions in understanding v. 1 as reflecting on the past as the basis for the hope that Yhwh will respond to the imperative (“deliver my soul”) of v. 2. [On understanding the tenses in this way, namely that a an imperfect consecutive following a perfect shows results/consequence, see Diethelm Michel, Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen, § 1.]

[8] Specifically, they use the noun followed by the prepositional phrase “to/for me” to express possession. This is in contrast to other places where the psalmist simply uses the pronominal suffix on the noun (e.g. Ps 142:3).

[9] Ps 120:1 uses a unique form of the noun “distress, need.”

[10] even though Psalm 120 does not resolve the present situation


Author: Randy McKinion

Besides being a husband and father, I teach at Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH.

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