Psalm 120 (part 2)

SONY DSCIn a previous post, I discussed how Psalm 120:1-2 lays the theological foundation for this individual psalm as well as the collection of Songs of Ascents. According to v. 1, the speaker has called to Yahweh in the past and received an answer. Thus, he calls once again to Yhwh for deliverance from a specific enemy: deceptive lips (v. 2). The rest of the psalm will show the speaker’s expectation of Yhwh’s response and how the speaker responds from the midst of distress.

Addressing the Tongue of Deceit (vv. 3–4)

3 מַה־יִּתֵּ֣ן לְ֭ךָ וּמַה־יֹּסִ֥יף לָ֗ךְ לָשׁ֥וֹן רְמִיָּֽה׃
4 חִצֵּ֣י גִבּ֣וֹר שְׁנוּנִ֑ים עִ֜֗ם גַּחֲלֵ֥י רְתָמִֽים׃

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! (ESV)

The phrase, “tongue of deceit,” with which v. 2 ends, also is the last phrase in v. 3. However, as the speaker transitions from addressing Yhwh to addressing his enemies, the phrase clarifies to whom the psalmist speaks in v. 3.[1] While v. 2 addresses Yhwh, v. 3 addresses the wicked one directly, raising the specter of what should be done to him. Most English versions follow the LXX and translate the verbs of v. 2 in the passive. However, as an alternative, the Masoretic Text implies Yhwh as the subject of the verbs, as translated by the NIV: “What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue?”[2] Since vv. 2 and 3 are tied closely with their balanced parallelism and the repetition of deceitful tongue, it would seem that the speaker understands the fate of the deceitful speakers comes from Yhwh. Thus, perhaps the active verbs convey this more appropriately.


Either way, v. 4 provides the answer to the question: “A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!” Leaving the difficult details of the broom tree aside, the point seems to be figurative, as Yhwh responds in kind to the deceitful speaker (see Ps 2:5 as a possible background to this). On v. 4, Allen states, “The reference to weapons presupposes their metaphorical usage for slander, as in 52:4 (2); 57:5 (4); Jer 9:2, 7 (3, 8). Cf. especially 64:4, 8 (3, 7) where arrows of divine retribution are promised to arrowlike words.”[3]

Woe to Me (vv. 5–7)

5 אֽוֹיָה־לִ֭י כִּי־גַ֣רְתִּי מֶ֑שֶׁךְ שָׁ֜כַ֗נְתִּי עִֽם־אָהֳלֵ֥י קֵדָֽר׃
6 רַ֭בַּת שָֽׁכְנָה־לָּ֣הּ נַפְשִׁ֑י עִ֜֗ם שׂוֹנֵ֥א שָׁלֽוֹם׃
7 אֲֽנִי־שָׁ֭לוֹם וְכִ֣י אֲדַבֵּ֑ר הֵ֜֗מָּה לַמִּלְחָמָֽה׃

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! (ESV)

In v. 5, the text returns to the first person with the attention getting, “Woe to me!”, which introduces a further description of the psalmist’s plight, echoing the cry with which the psalm begins: “the distress that came to me.” On the one hand, the cry is, “I sojourn in Meshech”; on the other, “I dwell among the tents of Kedar.” The identity of these two references is difficult, not least of which because they are not the same place. It seems to be that the psalmist speaks of two separate places in order to focus attention on the vastness of the suffering. In other words, the point is not so much to describe a literal residence in Meshech and Kedar,[4] but rather to describe how the psalmist has often resided with those who in Scripture are identified as having military prowess.[5] This interpretation fits the military metaphors of vv. 4 and 7 quite well. In addition, reference to Meshech and Kedar identify the psalmist’s residence as outside the land.

Despite the ambiguity that the Meshech and Kedar references raise, the parallelism extending into v. 6 clarifies what the psalmist intends to convey. The picture painted in v. 5 receives a direct explanation in v. 6: “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.”[6] These verses are connected by the verb “dwell” and the preposition “with.” In a sense, the phrase “tents of Kedar” parallels “those who hate peace,” giving the impression that the tents of Kedar were characterized by lack of peace (or perhaps propensity for war). As such, the poetic parallelism brings about the comparison: Like one who dwells outside the land among the tents of my enemies, so I have dwelled too long with those who are against peace. The point is not so much where the one praying is found, but how the one praying is found (see Ps 61:2–3).

And with the mention of peace (shalom), the author gets to a vital aspect of the prayer, as the importance of the concept is highlighted by poetic parallelism. Characteristic of the Songs of Ascents is a literary device called step parallelism, in which a word or phrase that concludes one line is taken up at the beginning of the next.[7] Not only does this bring focus upon this word or phrase, but it also functions as a binding element between lines. Here, then, the author uses several poetic features to connect vv. 5–7, which are an extended expression of the speaker’s dire circumstances.

In addition, a greater concern seems to be at play here in the larger context. Peace is one of four words that connect the Songs of Ascents with the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24–26):[8]

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Each of the highlighted words comes to the forefront of the theology of the Songs of Ascents. In this particular case, peace plays an important role (as the parallelism highlights) and will later be connected to the future of Jerusalem.[9] In this way, the Songs of Ascents, beginning with the first one, act as a virtual commentary on what the enacting of this blessing looks like as well as how to pray in light of it.

Brought to the front of v. 7 is the personal pronoun, “I,” giving the literal understanding, “I am (for) peace.” In the second half of v. 7 is the personal pronoun, “they,” with the understanding, “they are for war.” Yet, the phrase, “but when I speak,” falls between these two phrases, causing an issue for translation and interpretation.[10] Whatever the case, v. 7 brings focus on the distinct contrast of the words of the psalmist with that of his enemies, who are personified as “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue” (v. 2).[11] The psalmist, like the priests commissioned to speak a blessing on the people of Yhwh, speaks of and for peace. As such, his words not only reflect the pattern of speaking of peace as a blessing of Yhwh but also as a hope for that blessing. Yhwh desires to bless his people with peace as his name is spoken over them (Numbers 6); the exiled psalmist speaks of that peace as well, longing for the time when such peace would banish ongoing distress.

Thus, the psalm ends with this contrast between speaking peace and speaking war. Despite the peace-speaking of the psalmist, a lack of peace (i.e., the presence of distress) still exists. One cannot help but feel that the psalm is somewhat incomplete. Yes, the psalmist believes that Yhwh hears his call and therefore prays for deliverance. And yes, the psalmist recognizes explicitly the punishment needed upon those who speak falsely. Yet, the psalm never shows the response. Two explanations can elucidate this.

Perhaps, first, as the gateway to the Songs of Ascents, the writer pens a psalm intended to be timeless and always applicable to those who long for and are seeking refuge back in the land. God’s exiled people should always call out to him wherever they find themselves. There is at the beginning, then, a pattern by which all the faithful of subsequent generations might appeal to God’s faithfulness in answering their cry for help until the eschaton.

But perhaps, second, the psalm simply begins a path toward peace subsequently paved by the rest of the Songs of Ascents. In other words, the situation of God’s displaced people, as represented by the individual psalmist (the lost sheep from Psalm 119) who seeks peace, serves as the foundation from which to understand the rest of the Songs. Moreover, the answer to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance from Yhwh finds an answer in lifting one’s eyes to a powerful helper who keeps his people, i.e. the helper described in Psalm 121. If this proves to be the case, then the answer to the psalmist’s prayer would not be found in the person of the suppliant (or in any other human’s efforts for that matter), even if the answer to what will be given to the wicked one is war. Rather, the help needed is not so much from a warrior, as depicted metaphorically (or not?) in Psalm 120, but from Yhwh, the one who secures the psalmist’s (and listeners’) feet.


[1] There is some debate over whether this phrase in v. 3 is a gloss. However, I believe it is a necessary element to show who the “you” of v. 3 actually is. The reason this is needed is because of the change in address from Yhwh to the wicked. So while it certainly lies outside the strict, grammatical parallelism of the rest of v. 3, it certainly applies these phrases to the deceitful one the writer addresses. Moreover, the phrase causes vv. 2 and 3 to be balanced.

[2] Zenger states that Yhwh is the subject of the verb “to give” as in “what more shall he [Yhwh] give” (408–409). In this, he is following the MT, as the NIV does.

[3] Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, 146.

[4] Although there would probably be exiles in both, therefore the statement would be universally applicable. This highlights the conclusion later that this is intended as a timeless prayer for all who find themselves outside the land.

[5] On Meshech, see Ezek 32:26; 38:2–4; 39:1–3. On Kedar, see Isa 21:16, 17. Like those described in the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, the psalmist’s enemies are “for war” (v. 7). Although, see Goldingay, Psalms, 3:452: “These two peoples were not thought of as more warlike or hostile to Judeans than many others. They are simply alien, mysterious, far-off peoples. They might then simply stand for typical places where Judeans might live as a scattered people as a result of ‘the’ exile.”

[6] Regarding poetic parallelism, v. 6 demonstrates how the poet writes about similar (synonymous?) thoughts using a variety of expressions. In this case, the writer could have simply continued the verbal forms from v. 5 (“I sojourn” and “I dwell”). Yet, instead v. 6 begins with an adverbial modifier and expresses “I dwell” with the more literal and complex “my soul makes its dwelling.” On the one hand, this breaks what could be redundancy from v. 5; on the other hand, it begs the question of why this occurs. From a poetic side, by using this phrase, the poetry seems to make even more clear that the phrases “with the tents of Kedar” and “with those who hate peace” should be read in parallel, because v. 6a balances the verse (see the Hebrew text and accenting) with the expression “for I sojourn in Meshech.” As such, it sets v. 6 in a position as dependent (or following from) the introductory phrase “woe to me” of v. 5. Could be set in parallel like this:

Woe to me,
that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell      among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling                among those who hate peace.

So, whereas “I sojourn” and “I dwell” are clearly the same tense and therefore call for asking why they are put in parallel, the author seems to have done more by using a more complex parallelism across vv. 5–6. This is also highlighted by the similarity in the sounds in Hebrew of “tents of” and “who hate.” And this extends via step parallelism into v. 7. It is fascinating, the way that poetry allows the writer to make such intricate and subtle expressions.

[7] Another example is the use of “help” in 121:1, 2.

[8] See Liebreich, “The Songs of Ascents and the Priestly Blessing,” JBL, 33.

My thought: The Songs of Ascents are an eschatological (or royal?) interpretation/application of the Priestly Blessing based upon the psalmists’ hope in Yhwh’s faithfulness to fulfill the promises of the Davidic Covenant. Building off of Zenger’s notion of the purpose of the first 5 Songs of Ascents, this group would contribute to this larger purpose by connecting lament and cry for help from their souls with the trusting search for “blessing” (cf. 124:6; 134:1). Psalm 121 certainly helps cement the relationship to the Priestly Blessing with the use of “keep.”

Question to ask, Where is the eschatological emphasis in these first 5 psalms? See 121:8; 125:2; 131:3, where in each case the phrase “from now to forever” occurs. Cf. also 2Chr 36:23 (go up, house for Yhwh, Yhwh with him) as a parallel passage speaking of an eschatological return from exile.

This quote from Hutchinson makes a good point regarding the whole Psalter: “[T]here is an eschatological or teleological thrust to the book of Psalms, as signaled right from the start by the introductory and programmatic Ps. 2. The community of Israelites into whose hands the Psalter first came may have been back in the land, but they were still liable to be bewildered by Yahweh’s apparent cancellation of his promises to David. The Psalter insists that the king of Ps. 2 will appear – an absolutely supreme righteous ruler who will be greater than Solomon (Pss. 45; 72), in whom the Abrahamic promises will find fulfilment (72:17b), a ‘horn . . . for David’ (132:17) whose coming will prove that Yahweh has not renounced his commitment to the Davidic covenant. Book V couches this glorious prospect in the imagery of a return from exile (Ps. 107), a new exodus (Pss. 114; 135–136) and a journey to Zion (Pss. 120–134); yet post-exilic worshippers, despite being physically present in Jerusalem, must await the fulfilment of these realities.” (97–98) In James Hely Hutchinson, “The Psalms and Praise,” Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches.

Thus, adding these thoughts to my thesis above, the eschatological fulfillment of the Davidic covenant provides the basis for understanding the journey to Zion that is painted in these psalms not as a simple, historical pilgrimage theme but as a journey toward an idealized Zion in the eschaton (consider the relationship with Isaiah 2). Some points of emphasis about this: (1) 124:8, (2) Psalm 126 and the desire for Yhwh to do what he did when he brought them back to Zion before [thus the return from exile is still future], and (3) 131:3; 133:3.

[9] Consider 122:6–9; 125:2, 5; 128:5–6.

[10] Most English versions simply take it as a contrast with v. 7b: “But when I speak, they are for war.” Michel’s translation would be represented by the English translation, “When I begin to speak peace, they are for war.”

[11] Also, as Zenger (411) notes, v. 7 is a tricolon (unique within the psalm), which lends particular weight to the verse. He also makes the point that the psalm would have 15 colons, which would mirror the 15 psalms of the collection. Is this something to consider significant?


Author: Randy McKinion

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

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