War & Peace – Psalm 120

Psalm 120

A Song of Ascents.

In my trouble I cried to the Lord,

And He answered me.

Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,

From a deceitful tongue.

What shall be given to you, and what

more shall be done to you,

You deceitful tongue?

Sharp arrows of the warrior,

With the burning coals of the broom tree.


Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,

For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

Too long has my soul had its dwelling

With those who hate peace.

I am for peace, but when I speak,

They are for war.

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‘In my trouble…’

Why would the Psalmist begin a series of songs meant to accompany God’s people on their festal journeys with trouble? Could it be that’s the ‘default’ position of all of us? What if, until we see that we are in trouble, we will never even think to make the journey?

In January of 2009 my journey through the valley began. I was thrown there by the exposure of a series of lies told by someone close to me. The lies I had been told shook me right to the core of my faith, even challenging my trust in God. So, for me, this Psalm has particular significance in terms of beginning my walk back into the Father’s presence. The very first step we have to take in God’s direction must be to face the lies in our lives. Some of them come from without and some come from within.

Walking in truth is a prerequisite to any journey towards God.

The Psalmist knew that there is only one solution for a lying tongue: exposure followed by discipline. Arrows pierce and puncture, and maybe it takes a sharp arrow – something able to punch through the smoke and mirrors – to expose a lie. This picture reminds me of Hebrews 4:12 where the writer says that God’s Word is double-edged – cuts both ways – and sharp enough to expose – judge truth from lies. Arrows could also be a reference to where the Psalmist is going in this poem. The end of the matter in Psalm 120 is war. Arrows were the weapon of the day and so we have a picture of what it’s going to take to defeat deception: all out war.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the Psalmist’s reference to “the burning coals of the broom tree.” I recently ran into some interesting thoughts regarding broom trees. “The broom of the wilderness is one of the most common shrubs which characterize desert plant life in the Land of Israel. Due to the scarcity of plant life in the desert it is one of the most important plants in the area as far as man is concerned. It provides shade, food and fuel.”* The broom tree only grows in the wilderness. It was likely the “shrub” that Ishmael was sitting under when Hagar cried to the Lord for help. Elijah rested under a broom tree during his flight from Jezebel. But what I found most compelling was this little tidbit: “In the book of Job (30:4) we are told of impoverished desert-dwellers that make use of: “the roots of broom for warmth.” In fact, many sources indicate the long-burning qualities of coals made from broom (= gechalei retamim – Psalms 120,4): ‘and not like just any coals but like gechalei retamim. Because all other coals become extinguished inside but gechalei retamim even when they are extinguished outside, still burn within‘ (Bereshit Rabbah 35,19).”*

Wow! The broom not only burns long and hot, but when it is extinguished on the outside it is still burning on the inside. Certainly we need the fire of God to expose and burn away the lies that come to us from without. But don’t we need the fire of God’s Spirit to burn away the lies within as well? Lies within can have many sources. They may be little ways we deceive ourselves, or they may be memories we have that are distorted by our own limited perception. Perhaps we have chosen to believe the lies others have told us. The Psalmists ‘cry’ in his time of trouble – the moment when he is seeking God’s presence – is that the sharp arrows of the Lord would pierce through the deceptions in his life; and that the cleansing fire of God would burn away those deceptions, whether the source is himself or others.

Sharp arrows (exposure) and a hot fire (discipline) are the only hope to heal a lying tongue.

I think it’s important here to remember the context of this Psalm. Unlike individualistic Americans, Israel understood itself in terms of community, a people group, so when the Psalmist is talking about bringing judgment on lying lips, he is imagining God’s judgment coming to the whole community – healing and delivering all. Remember, this is the first step in a corporate move towards worship, the first meditation, if you will, for people who are preparing to come into God’s presence not as individuals, but as one body. Over and over again in the Old Testament, when one or a few sinned, the entire community suffered in some way. Every individual traveling to Jerusalem saw themselves as part of a community of pilgrims, worshipers of the One God, scattered, now coming together in one place under one banner. When we think about truth and God’s judgment upon lying lips, we should be careful to realize that His judgments have implications and application to the whole community, from family to city to nation. And that takes us to the Psalmist’s second problem: location, location, location.

Meshech is listed in Genesis 10 as the sixth son of Japheth. According to Strong’s #4902 his name meant ‘price’ or ‘precious’, while root word (4900) meant ‘to draw out by force.’ The majority of online commentaries I read agreed that Meshech here refers to ‘barbaric and remote regions.’ So the Psalmist is lamenting his location – he senses he is in the wilderness while he knows that God’s presence is dwelling in the Tabernacle on Mount Zion.

None of us like ‘the wilderness’, do we? Dry, lonely, and desolate are some of the words that come to mind. In my study of the broom tree I discovered that the olive doesn’t grow in the wilderness. In Scripture, the olive always represents life, the oil of joy, and the Spirit of God. What could be worse (especially for someone whose basic identity is tied up with their participation in community) than living alone (no community) in the wilderness (dry and desolate) among barbarians (deceivers)? To add insult to injury, these barbarians are the sons of Japheth. Strong’s defines Japheth (3315 from a primary root, 6601) as meaning ‘delude, deceive, entice.” Now we see the connection with deception. The Psalmist is surrounded by lying tongues. Ever feel like that? If not, just turn on the television. It shouldn’t take long.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Kedar was a son of Ishmael and the name meant (#6937, by implication) ‘to mourn.’ Deception and grief were this sojourner’s neighbors. He couldn’t be further from the truth and joy found in God. In the end, the Psalmist desires what his neighbors hated: peace. There can be no peace where there is lying because destroyed trust only brings confusion; and when confronted, deceivers will fight back to protect their lies from exposure.

Confronting those who are self-deceived will only start a war.

How I have learned the truth of that fact over the past 24 months! Too long did I live with one who hates peace (truth). And so my journey began, taking me out of a world of deception, mourning, and war across the wilderness into unknown territory. I think sometimes we have to get so fed up with our surroundings that we’re willing to move, even when it’s scary. And the unknown is always scary. Remember, this is just the first step in our journey, an explanation of where we are coming from. Very soon we will begin to see Who we are going to. So leave the lies and mourning and warfare behind and with boldness start walking through your valley to the mountain of God. I promise you will find peace.

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