Psalm 120 – Distress Call To Jesus
Psalm 120:1-7 NIV
A song of ascents.
I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.
Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.
What will He do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue?
He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom bush.
Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
This is a song of Ascent, which is sung by Israelites on their way up to Jerusalem for worship. “A song of ascent” was the beginning of this Psalm in the original Hebrews text, and this is very important for us to note. Reading without it will not give you the full understanding of the psalm.
Psalm 120 is the first of 15 Psalms that starts with "A song of ascents" in the original Hebrew scripture, and they were sung by Jewish pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem for their festive celebrations and worships. It shares the same root word with to ‘bring up’ in 1 Chronicles 13:6, “David and all Israel went to Baalah of Judah (Kiriath Jearim) to bring up from there the ark of God the Lord, who is enthroned between the cherubim – the ark that is called by the Name.”
“They (songs of Ascents) are, however, excellent in their kind, and written with much elegance; containing strong and nervous sentiments of the most exalted piety, expressed with great felicity of language in a few words.” (Adam Clarke)
What was the distress the Psalmist referred to when he said, “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me”? Was it stress from work, financial troubles or family challenges? How did God answer when he called on the Lord? Did God resolve the troubles that were causing him distress and how did God answer him? And what was the answer?
In the second verse, the Psalmist asked God to save him from “deceitful tongues”. Again, what were they, that he needed God to save him?
The Psalmist turned really violent!
Who was he cursing, the person who had cheated him?
He prayed for God to kill with the “warrior’s sharp arrows” and “burning coals”? We know how hot a burning coal is and how long it burns. So the intention of the Psalmist was not to bring immediate death to his enemy but to torture his enemy over a period!
“MESECH (Meshek) was the son of Japheth, from whom, according to history, were descended the men who inhabited that most barbarous of all regions, according to the opinion of the ancients, the northern parts of Muscovy or Moscow, and Russia. The inhabitants of the tents of Kedar were the descendants of one of the sons of Abraham, who had taken to nomadic habits, and were continually wandering about over the deserts; and were, besides, thought, and doubtless were, guilty of plundering travelers, and were by no means the most respectable of mankind.” (C. H. Spurgeon Collection)
Meshek and Kedar were two different locations far apart and far away from Israel. The Psalmist was describing the place that he had dwelt in, together with godless people. If living amongst these people was so unbearable that the Psalmist said, “woe to me”, meaning, he felt he was doomed to be living with these people, why couldn’t he just leave? It doesn’t make sense, right? Why would the Psalmist want to continue living with godless people?
The answers to my above questions are answered here, where the Psalmist said, “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”
The word “peace” here does not refer to the no stress feeling or emotion that we want for ourselves. It referred to ‘Shalom’, the peace with God that comes from our reconciliation with God.
Now let’s revisit all the questions we had asked earlier.
The Psalmist had been in distress over his own sins of deceit in his relationship with God. As he realised that his deceitful tongue separated him from God, a state that would be eternal if he didn’t repent, it made sense that he felt distressed. Thus he turned to God and asked God, “Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.” How have our faith been? Have we been living in a lie like the Psalmist, telling ourselves that we are fine with God? If we do not have a good relationship with God and are not distressed about it, then it is time to do a spiritual health check.
For an example of what distress looked like in the Bible, we only need to turn to our Lord, Jesus when he was at Gethsemane.
They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” (Mark 14:32-34 NIV)
Jesus, who is perfect, was in distress because of our sins, and because we rejected Him, the one and only Son of God whom the Father had sent to the world to save us.
The Psalmist was distressed because of his own spiritual war with God and asked God to save him. He was also in distress because of his spiritual war with his loved ones and friends who were trapped by their own deceitful lies in their relationship with God. God answered the Psalmist as he called God in his distress. The answer God gave him was to come back to Him and totally annihilate the sins of deceit till the day he sees God. God also told him to speak up to his friends and loved ones so they could wake up from their sleep and come back to God.
Because of the weakness of our own flesh, we constantly live in a lie, thinking that we are doing fine in our relationship with God. It does not matter how long we have been in church or whether we are holding leadership positions church, we should be spending time daily, thinking about being right with God and working our salvation in trembling and fear,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)
Religious deceit is the illusion that we are doing fine with God when we are not. The Psalmist asked for this sin of lying tongues to be constantly watched over and burnt. The Psalmist also prophesied about Jesus who would be ‘arrowed with burning coals’ on the cross hundreds of years later.
Do you feel like you are living far away from God like the Psalmist (in Mesech and Kedar) and desire to come back to Jesus? Say, “Song of ascent”, which means, ‘bring up’; bring up our heart to God and come to Jesus.
Like Jesus, the Psalmist was also deeply in distressed at the stubborn hearts of his friends and loved ones.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 3:5 NIV)
Do we have people around us who are stubborn and refuse to come to real peace with God? Are we distressed by them like Jesus was?
We have to realise how woeful it is to be faithless. The Psalmist said “woe to me”, so he was including himself in the midst with everyone. What should we do when we realise our faithlessness? We need to take action! He spoke up and engaged in a spiritual warfare with his friends and loved ones! Show them what relationship with God should be like. Once they realise that they too have been victims of their own deceitful tongues, they will fight the spiritual war together. We, as Christians, should be like spiritual beggars, helping one another to beg from God.
As the Psalmist spoke up to his friends to repent and be reconciled with God, his friends rejected him, “they are for war”. Haven’t we felt like we were at war when we tried to correct a friend? The war will continue, but let's not give up. Jesus didn’t give up and that was why he was distressed. If Jesus had been distressed because of you, let’s not give up on others. How long have we been living among the faithless? In church, we may be in small groups that are struggling in faith and living in false peace, and we are part of this faithlessness. How would you want to help them to connect to God despite their stubborn hearts?
What stops us from reconciling with God is Satan’s deceitfulness. I have been a disciple for almost 30 years. I had genuinely believed that I was doing fine in my walk with God. We have all had those “I am ok” moments when we’re actually not. Do we build a strong front to show others that we are alright? That’s an illusion. The Psalmist hated the lies he bombarded himself daily. Don’t believe in these lies, we need God’s daily renewal of our faith for we are weak in the flesh.
Go to God daily in spirit and in truth (John 15); meditate on His words and pray. We are still in distress but God answers our calls.
For some reason, Psalm 120 is the first in a series of 15 songs that begins with "A song of ascents". They are what the Jews would sing on their journey to Jerusalem for their worship. Let’s make our distress call to Jesus everyday. The next 14 songs of ascents can help us to get our hearts right with God when we come to Jesus.
Andy is the head of compliance for an international bank and is happily married, with three daughters. He became a disciple of Christ three decades ago, and studies God's Word passionately. He desires to be constantly led by the Spirit.