Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Psalmist begins by recalling his past experience of answered prayer (1): he prays that he may be delivered from the intrigues of unscrupulous enemies and that just retribution may be meted out to them (Psalm 120:2-4): and laments that his lot is cast among men who are no better than rude barbarians (Psalm 120:5-7).
It is impossible to determine with any certainty the circumstances which called forth the Psalm. Some commentators have thought that the Psalmist speaks on behalf of Israel, and refers to the misrepresentations by which the Samaritans stopped the building of the Temple (Ezra 4:1-6), or to one of the subsequent occasions upon which they sent false accusations to the Persian court to hinder the rebuilding of the walls (Ezra 4:7 ff.), or to the opposition to Nehemiah which was headed by Sanballat and Tobiah (Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1; Nehemiah 4:7 ff.; Nehemiah 6:1 ff.). But the hostility from which the Psalmist is suffering seems rather to be of a personal nature; and like the author of Psalms 119 he may have been a godly Israelite who (with those likeminded) was persecuted and calumniated by the godless party in the community. We may compare the thanksgiving of the son of Sirach for his deliverance “from the snare of a slanderous tongue” which had almost proved his ruin (Sir 51:1 ff.), and Baethgen refers to Psalms 12 of the “Psalms of Solomon,” which closely resembles this Psalm, and, though belonging to a later time, may have sprung out of similar circumstances. Ryle and James suppose that the accuser against whom that Psalm is directed was a Sadducee, who had brought ruin and perhaps death on some prominent Pharisee by laying information against him at the court. A part of the Psalm may be quoted for illustration:
“O Lord, deliver my soul from the lawless and evil man,
From a lawless and whispering tongue, that speaketh false and crafty words with a froward intent.
The words of the evil man’s tongue are like fire in a threshing floor kindling the straw thereof.
He sojourneth (?) among men to set houses aflame with a false tongue,
To hew down trees of gladness … and lawlessly with whispering lips to confound houses with strife.”
Though our Psalm appears primarily to refer to the sufferings of a pious Israelite among unsympathetic and hostile countrymen, it may easily, as a Pilgrim Psalm, have received a national application to the circumstances of Israel in the Dispersion.
On the title, A song of ascents (R.V.), or A song for the goings up, prefixed to this and the next fourteen Psalms, see Introd. p. xxviii. They are probably taken from a collection of the songs sung by pilgrims as they went up to the Feasts at Jerusalem.
A Song of degrees. In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.1. In my distress I called unto Jehovah,
And he answered me.
The Psalmist calls to mind past answers to prayer as an encouragement to fresh prayer in his present distress. Cp. Psalm 3:4. This is a simpler and more natural explanation of the verse than to take it as a confident anticipation of a favourable answer, I call … and he will surely answer me; or to suppose that the Psalmist is looking back upon trouble in the past, and that Psalm 120:2-4 are the prayer to which he refers in Psalm 120:1.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.2. Cp. Psalm 52:1-4; Micah 6:12.
2–4. The earnestness of the prayer and the severity of the condemnation point to a person or a party, fomenting feud and strife in the community by calumny and false accusations, and resolutely refusing all attempts to promote harmony.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?3, 4. What should he give thee, and what should he add to thee, thou deceitful tongue? Arrows of a warrior sharpened, with glowing coals of broom. The tongue, or rather its owner, is addressed. God is the subject of the verbs, and the form of expression is suggested by the familiar formula, “So God do to thee and more also” (1 Samuel 3:17), lit. “So shall God do to thee and so shall he add.” Psalm 120:4 is the answer to the question. The just retribution which is to overtake the deceitful man is described in terms suggested by his offence (cp. Psalm 7:12 ff.). He has shot his arrows of slander or false accusation at the innocent, but a mightier than he, even God Himself, will pierce him with the arrows of His judgement: he has kindled the fire of strife by his falsehoods, but the lightnings of Divine wrath will consume him. For the comparison of the evil tongue to a bow which shoots arrows of falsehood see Jeremiah 9:3; Proverbs 26:18 f.; cp. too Jeremiah 9:8, “Their tongue is a murderous arrow”: its power of mischief is described as fire in Proverbs 16:27 (cp. James 3:6). Glowing coals are a metaphor for Divine judgements in Psalm 140:10.
This is the simplest and most natural explanation. Several other explanations have however been proposed, e.g. (1) “What profit will thy false tongue bring thee, O slanderer? It is as sharp arrows” &c., but this seems to lack point. (2) Others suppose that God is addressed and that the tongue is the subject of the sentence: “What profit can the deceitful tongue bring to Thee?”—a sarcastic question, like that in Job 10:3 ff. Can it be that Jehovah tolerates the deceitful man, because thereby He gains some advantage? Psalm 120:4 will then be an equally sarcastic answer. The gain that accrues from his existence is mischief and strife. But apart from grammatical difficulties, such an idea is unsuited to the context.
coals of juniper] Heb. rôthem, broom, from which the Arabs still manufacture charcoal of the finest quality, which makes the hottest fire and retains heat for the longest time.
Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!5. I sojourn … I dwell] The perfect tenses of the Heb. are rightly translated by the present. The experience is not a thing of the past. He has long dwelt and still must dwell among these uncongenial neighbours. P.B.V. (= Great Bible of 1539) Woe is me that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar is from Münster, Heu mihi quod cum Maesech peregrinari cogor, et habitare cum tabernaculis Kedar. Coverdale’s earlier version was, Wo is me, yt my banishmçt endureth so lôge: I dwell in the tabernacles of the soroufull; derived from the Zürich: “Ach dass mein ellend so lang wäret, ich wonen in den hütten der traurigen.”
Meshech, mentioned in Genesis 10:2 as a son of Japheth, was a barbarous people living between the Black Sea and the Caspian, probably the Moschi of Herodotus (iii. 94), and Mushki of the Assyrian inscriptions: Kedar, mentioned in Genesis 25:13 as the second son of Ishmael, was one of the wild tribes which roamed through the Arabian desert, “whose hand was against every man” (Genesis 16:12). Obviously the Psalmist cannot mean to describe himself as actually living among peoples so remote from one another, but applies these typical names of barbarian tribes to his own compatriots, as we might speak of Turks and Tartars.
in the tents] R.V. among the tents.
5–7. The Psalmist laments that he is compelled to live among neighbours who are as hostile as rude barbarians.
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.6. Too long hath my soul had her dwelling
With the haters of peace.
The sensitive ‘soul’ feels the inhumanity of their conduct.
I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.7. Lit. I am peace: cp. Psalm 109:4, “I am prayer.”
but when I speak &c.] If I so much as speak to them, or perhaps, as P.B.V., “speak unto them thereof,” make overtures of friendship, they threaten fiercer hostility.