George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 120

1. Historical reference

In my distress I cried unto the Lord. The first inclination, to see here an allusion to Hezekiah’s sickness, is vetoed by the rest of the psalm, which is all about the Assyrian threat (2 Kings 19:3,4,14-19; Isa. 37:3,15-20). However, the two calamities did happen at the same time (Isa. 38:5,6).

And he heard me. Because of the distress? Or because of the cry?
Deliver my soul, or “snatch my life” (2 Kings 18:30,32).

From lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue. That is, from secret lies and from open flattery. Lies and taunts and false promises were the tools of the Assyrian emissary Rabshakeh (Isa. 36:4-20; 37:8-13).
What shall be given unto thee? “Given” could mean “given in tribute” — for this had been tried (by Hezekiah’s counsellors while he lay sick?), but all to no benefit (2 Kings 18:13-16). Alternatively, the meaning is “appointed for thee (by God)”; the word often carries this kind of meaning.

What shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue? There is a suggestion here of bewilderment as to how best to counter this barrage of propaganda; hence the “Answer him not” of 2 Kings 18:36. “False tongue” is an especially apt description, for Rabshakeh was a renegade Jew (Psalms Studies, Psa. 66, Par. 4).
Sharp arrows of the mighty. The false tongue, which is likened in the Bible to a sharp arrow (Psa. 57:4; Jer. 9:8), will be rewarded in like kind.

With coals of juniper. The false tongue is “a fire, a world of iniquity”; in fitting retribution it is destined to be consumed by fire in “Gehenna” (James 3:6). The divine fire of judgment is here termed coals of “broom” (RSV, NIV). Travelers in the Middle East have found the Bedouin of Sinai producing from the roots of these tall shrubs charcoal of the highest quality (W.M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, p. 611).
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech. Israel laments its wandering condition, in contrast to the stability and permanence of mount Zion, where it longs to abide (Psa. 122:2; 125:1).

“Mesech”, or Meshech (s.w.), was a son of Japheth (Gen. 10:2; 1 Chron. 1:5); he became the father of the “Moschi”, a tribe that in Old Testament times inhabited Armenia, between the Black and Caspian Seas. This area is currently on the border of Turkey and Russia. These people were traders with Tyre (Ezek. 27:13). In the most well-known passages involving “Meshech”, it is listed as an ally or tributary of “Gog of the land of Magog” (Ezek. 38:2,3; 39:1).

A part of the captives from the Northern Kingdom were resettled in Halah and Habor by the river Gozan (2 Kings 17:6; 18:11). This region is well on the way toward Armenia, so that the exiles of Israel might with some justification lament their “sojourn in Mesech”. It is not fanciful to suggest that disruptions of government, slackening of authority, and superstitious fear of the God of Israel would follow the great destruction of 185,000 Assyrian and allied troops in Judah. The eager remnant among the exiles would seize the opportunity to return to their homeland and thence to Jerusalem, as indicated in Psa. 121:8; 122:1,4.

That I dwell in the tents of Kedar! Kedar was a son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13). His descendants were an Arabian tribe, dwelling in black tents (Song 1:5) and possessing flocks (Isa. 60:7; Jer. 49:28,29). These nomads frequented the desert areas to the east of Gilead. Just as those Israelites carried away by the Assyrians sojourned in Mesech, so those who were left in the land must have shared their erstwhile inheritance with the opportunistic tribesmen of Kedar, who would promptly lead their flocks into the newly-opened areas of Israel. Other Jews would flee their land at the first approach of the Assyrian army, to dwell among the Arab tribes to the south and east.
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. Hezekiah and Sennacherib, of course (2 Kings 18:14,19; 2 Chron. 32:1-3; Isa. 36:3,5; 38:17). Emissaries were sent from Judah to parley with the brutal overlord, but all in vain.

2. Messiah

Certain features suggest the ordeal of Jesus in Gethsemane:

In my distress I cried unto the Lord. This is Matt. 26:37-39; Mark 14:32-36; and Luke 22:41-44.

And he heard me, as Luke 22:43 very plainly shows.
Lying lips = the false witnesses (Mark 14:55-59).

And a deceitful tongue = Judas the traitor.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue? It was already appointed for him, in such Scriptures as Psa. 55:13-15,23; 69:22-28; and 109:7-19.
The Arab reference to Kedar is appropriate to Herod the Edomite.
I am for peace. The sufferings of Christ are the means by which all the faithful in him will at last experience the true peace of God (Eph. 2:14,15,17).

But other features suggest a latter-day face-off between Jews (whether in the Land or in exile) and Arabs:

In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me. It is when Israel in true and abject repentance turns to their God, and only then, that He will send His Son to deliver them.
Deliver my soul... from lying lips, and from a deceitful (and) false tongue. The Arab confederacy is a boastful band of liars who profess in the world’s theater that they only want peace; all the while war is in their hearts! Their single-minded purpose is nothing less than the annihilation of the Jews (Psa. 83:2-5), and any means to this end (including the coarsest propaganda) is lawful in their eyes.
Sharp arrows... with coals. Their false tongue (Psa. 64:1-4) and their cruel threats will be rewarded in like kind, and worse, at the hand of Gibbor, the Mighty One (a title of Christ: Isa. 9:6; cp. Psa. 127:4). His arrows will be sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies (Psa. 45:5; Isa. 49:1,2; Deut. 32:42).
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech. Russia (Meshech?) and Eastern Europe have been the homes in dispersion of great numbers of Jews. In these areas “pogroms” (organized persecutions) became common in the late nineteenth century, giving rise to the Zionist movement. The evolution of Communism in Russia threatened all religions — Judaism especially — and anti-Semitism has never really disappeared there. Currently Jewish emigration to Israel and elsewhere is tightly restricted, though there are signs that this might change. In our day the cry of exiled Israel might still be: ‘Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech’. Two to three million Jews today unknowingly await God’s resolution of their crisis:

“I will say to the north, Give up... Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth” (Isa. 43:6; Jer. 3:12,18; 16:14,15).

That I dwell in the tents of Kedar! The modern-day counterpart must of course be the millions of Arabs, massed on Israel’s borders, living for the day when all of Palestine will be theirs. The many Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank continue to present a special problem to the peace of Israel.
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. Never has the world seen a more restless, warlike, barbarous people than the sons of Ishmael. Their long history of internal warfare illustrates the description of their father: “a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). Mutual hatred of other peoples, especially now Israel, has been the only unifying factor in the Arab people’s bloody history. It is the same hatred of Israel which has drawn them into the Russian sphere.
I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war. When the Messiah comes, he will come as a man of peace, to speak “peace” to the nations (Zech. 9:10) and to still the troubled waters (Mark 4:39). But even as he opens his mouth, his enemies will declare for war. And so it will be; those who choose to remain in their wickedness, like the troubled sea which cannot rest (Isa. 57:20,21), will feel the wrath of Christ. But one way or another, through surrender or through total victory, peace will come!

And this man Christ, like Hezekiah, will be the means of peace, when the “Assyrian” shall come into the land. With his symbolic shepherd-princes he will devastate the persecutors of Israel and deliver his flock. And the remnant of Jacob, snatched from the jaws of the enemy, shall be as dew from the Lord, the dew of blessing and unity and peace (Mic. 5:5-7; Psa. 133:3).
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