K: JNWTS 30/2 (September 2015): 17-24
A Song of Ascents
In my distress I cried to the Lord,
and He heard me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord,
from lying lips
And from a deceitful tongue.
3 What shall be given to you,
Or what shall be done to you,
You false tongue?
4 Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With coals of the broom tree!
Woe is me,
that I dwell
That I dwell
among the tents of Kedar!
6 My soul has dwelt too long
With one who hates peace.
I am for peace;
But when I speak,
they are for war.
The heart of every true believer is drawn to the heavenly Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, Israel was drawn to the city of Jerusalem as the place where God dwelt among his people. Here they worshipped the Lord in the beauty of his temple. Here their souls could find rest and peace with God. And yet even among these Old Testament saints of God there was anticipation for something greater. According to the book of Hebrews, the Israelite believer was longing for a greater city, a heavenly city whose builder and maker is God himself. Believers of every age recognize that here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one which is above—the new and heavenly Jerusalem.
The majesty and glory of this great city is described for us in the book of Revelation, chapter 21. It is a city filled with the glory of God: a city of magnificent beauty; a city of great security and peace; a city of true worship and communion with God; a perfect city unmarred by sin; a place without grief or misery. Here the multitudes of every tribe, nation and tongue gather in white robes to sing the praises of the Lord.
It is upon this city that our hearts are set. Set upon things above where Christ is. We are pilgrims here. Marching on the road to Zion. Longing for our destination. Our current struggles and suffering fill us with eager anticipation for the peace and joy of the New Jerusalem. We are strangers here. Pilgrims through this barren land. The new and heavenly Jerusalem is our home.
In Psalm 120, we see the heart of the psalmist awaken. His eyes are opened to his surroundings. He sees the wickedness of the world around him. He had fallen asleep in the tents of Kedar. He had dwelt too long in Meshech. His heart is filled with longing for peace. He cries out to God. He is drawn to leave his life among the wicked and begin his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
This Psalm is the first of a collection of fifteen psalms that begin with Psalm 120 and continue to Psalm 134. Each of these psalms is labeled in their headings as one of the Psalms of Ascents. Some of these psalms are said to be written by David, one by Solomon, but others of them are by unknown authors and may have been written at different times throughout Israel’s history. A quick glance at these psalms will reveal a fair amount of diversity with regard to the subject of the psalms. So much so, that you may wonder why it is that they are included together under the same heading. Why have they been clustered together in the book of Psalms? What makes them a collection? Why are they called ‘psalms of ascents’?
What is a psalm of ascents? There are a fair amount of different views on this matter. The Hebrew word for ‘ascents’ simply means ‘to go up’. It has been suggested that the heading simply referred to the music itself which was sung in a higher key or was a tune which continued to rise throughout the song. However, there is little evidence for this opinion. Others suggest that the ascent spoken of can be found in the nature of the poetry of the psalms. The repetition of key words in a stair-step pattern. But this is found in other Psalms as well and is not unique to these psalms nor is this pattern found in all the Psalms of this collection. Some suggest that these fifteen Psalms corresponded to the fifteen steps which rose up from the outer courts of the temple to the inner court. Calvin calls this "silly conjecture" and I am inclined to agree.
The most common understanding of the psalms of ascents is that they were used by the people of God as they traveled toward Jerusalem. These are songs of pilgrimage, songs for the journey, songs for the road, traveling songs, songs which reflected the people’s longing for the holy city and its holy temple. Thus the heading of the psalm is indicative of how these psalms were used. They were used as God’s people journeyed toward Zion, the city of God.
It would appear that some of the psalms in this collection (written as they were by David and his son, Solomon) were part of the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem—namely, three times each year for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. But others were likely composed and sung by the returning exiles from Babylon as they journeyed back to Jerusalem. In both cases, one has the sense of the journey or the pilgrimage along with its objective, the city of God and its temple.
It is this understanding of the headings that makes the most sense for several reasons. If you look at the biblical language you will see that the Scriptures frequently speak of the journey to Jerusalem in terms of going up or ascending. Take Psalm 24 for example, when it says in the third verse, "Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?"; or Isaiah 2:3 which says, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord." Or as one of the psalms in this collection itself states, "Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together, where the tribes go up. The tribes of the LORD, to the testimony of Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD" (Ps. 122:3-4). The journey to Jerusalem involved the physical rise in elevation, as it was a city upon a hill ‘beautiful in elevation’ (Ps. 48:2).
For many of the psalms in this collection of songs, this tie to Jerusalem is obvious. Jerusalem or Zion is directly mentioned in them. The temple, its priests and the worship of God in that city are clearly referenced. Think of Psalm 122: "Let us go to the house of the Lord" (v. 1). Psalm 125: "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion" (v. 1). Psalm 132: "Let us go into His tabernacle; let us worship at His footstool" (v. 7). In a couple of these psalms, this relationship is less obvious but nonetheless certainly there.
Take for example, our passage in Psalm 120 and the allusions to both the journey and the city are less obvious. One might expect that the psalm which begins this collection would be one which would be most explicit in setting forth the overall theme. Yet as you consider this psalm more closely you can see that the psalm speaks of the stirring of the heart which serves to initiate the journey in the first place. The heart is what motivates the psalmist to make the journey.
Look at verse 5 in particular. The psalmist is disturbed. Woe is me, for I have dwelt in Meshech and in the tents of Kedar far too long. Meshech was outside of Israel to the north, in Asia Minor. Kedar was outside of Israel but to the south. His life is lived outside of the land, in the midst of liars and those who hate peace. He has lived among them too long. His heart is stirred up to move. The implication being that if he is to find peace, he must leave his current dwelling outside of Israel and make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He cannot remain where he is. True peace will not be found among the wicked but will be found with the God who answers prayer. The God whose dwelling place is in Jerusalem.
I spend some time on this because this understanding of this collection enables us to appreciate the orientation of these psalms. It is the orientation of the OT believer which is described for us in Hebrews 11:13ff. "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them."
This is also our own orientation as we look at our own life on this earth. We are called "pilgrims of the dispersion" in 1 Peter 1:1. "Strangers and pilgrims" in 1 Peter 2:11. In Colossians 3, we are called to set our minds upon things above where Christ is. According to Hebrews 13:14, here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. This is the goal of our journey. As it says in Hebrews 12:22ff.: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel."
This is the orientation we have. We are pilgrims. We are on a journey. Our objective is the city of God, the new and heavenly Jerusalem. These psalms of ascent are our songs—the songs of our journey, the songs which encourage us upon the way. Our eyes are set upon the heavenly city. Our hearts are set upon Christ who embodies the temple. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the great High Priest. He is the once for all sacrifice who atones for sin. He is the one who frees us from the curse giving us peace with God. He is the King of the everlasting kingdom. This is the orientation of our whole life as believers. We are heading to the city whose builder and maker is God himself. The journey is not always easy, but the objective keeps us moving forward.
But as you look at these Psalms, you must also recognize something else. At the head of this pilgrimage, the person leading us on this journey is none other than Christ himself, the eschatological pilgrim. He has pilgrimmed before us. He leads the way. The trials of the journey were his before they were ours. In the gospels, we see Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. He makes his way to the city and to the temple. He joins the pilgrims at the feast of Passover. But his objective takes him beyond the temporal city to the celestial city. His goal is not merely a temple made by human hands, of rock and wood. His objective is above all that. He will go up, he will ascend the holy mountain into the heavenly city and to the heavenly temple taking with him all who follow him.
In other words, as we look at these psalms, we must look at our earthly journey in light of Christ’s earthly journey. We must consider our ultimate objective in light of Christ’s own ultimate objective. This perspective makes all the difference in the world when we consider our own journey as those who follow Christ.
Christ is at the center of these pilgrimage psalms. He is not merely tacked on. He is the objective. He is the author and finisher of the journey. He is our strength along the way. He has called us to follow him on the narrow and difficult path. He has secured the way. He has thrown open the gates to the heavenly Jerusalem and he has called us to enter in. The psalms of ascent beckon us to follow Christ.
Looking specifically now at Psalm 120, we notice that the structure of the psalm is fairly simple. Verse one is the introduction. It speaks of the psalmist’s prayer uttered in distress and the Lord’s subsequent answer to that prayer. The prayer has two concerns. In verses 2-4, the psalmist speaks of those who speak lies and are deceitful. In verses 5-7, the psalmist speaks of those who hate peace and are for war. These two petitions are the substance his prayer. The psalmist seeks deliverance from God from liars and warmongers.
Verse 1 of this psalm is particularly interesting. It may seem like an introductory verse that you quickly pass over to get to the substance of the matter, but there is something very intriguing, even surprising, about the way the psalmist speaks in this opening verse.
It is not a surprise to us to find the psalmist in distress. Certainly we find that this is the case with many psalmists. There are many cries that are made to the Lord in the midst of great trial. There are many struggles in life and on the journey that bring us to our knees seeking God’s deliverance. We can identify with the psalmist’s distress because we have found ourselves in very similar situations—lying lips, trouble makers disturbing our peace. Who has not endured these types of struggles?
Nor is it a surprise to us that we find the psalmist on his knees before God in such a situation. Crying out to God in the midst of struggles, in the middle of conflict and strife. It is what the psalmists do. It is what we do. We appeal to God’s aid because we cannot do it on our own. We are dependent upon the guidance of the Lord. We need his help in times of distress. He is our help and our aid. Our ever present help in trouble. Where else would we turn but to the Lord?
Neither are we surprised to read that God hears the cries of the psalmist. The Lord, after all, hears the cries of the righteous. He answers their prayers. He listens to those who call upon him in truth. We know that he has the power to deliver and indeed he will rise to deliver those who are his. Many of the psalmists speak in similar language.
So what is so intriguing about this opening verse? It is this—the psalmist speaks of his prayer being answered by God even before he embarks on his journey. Even before he takes a step on his journey out of Meshech and Kedar toward Jerusalem, he is confident of God’s answer to his prayer. He knows he has been delivered from lying lips. He knows that God has delivered him from those who hate peace. His vindication and his peace will be found in the courts of the Lord—in Jerusalem.
Certainly we understand that when we say that God hears, it does not simply indicate that the Lord has listened to what was said, but then ignored the content of the psalmist’s petitions. When the psalmist says that the Lord hears, he is indicating that not only had God listened, but that in listening he acted to deliver.
But all we have before us in the psalm is petition. There is no indication of the answer to his prayer. Yet the psalmist is clearly stating in the opening verse that the answer had already been given. God had heard his prayer. Let us be clear also that he does not say that the Lord will hear my prayer as if it were future, but rather he says that God heard, past tense, his prayer.
Notice that the psalmist sees the end of the journey from the beginning. God has established his city. His temple had been built there. All that he needed was already there. There was his peace. There was vindication of the righteous. Those whose hearts were set upon that city could be assured of victory. The psalmist embarks upon his journey certain of its outcome. He leaves Kedar and Meshech, the world behind, with the knowledge that his vindication and peace are found in God who dwells in the midst of his people.
Do we not embark on the journey in the same way? Confident that as citizens of the New Jerusalem our vindication against lying lips is the Lord. Our peace is found in the Lord who dwells there. Are we not encouraged in our journey with this knowledge? Our end is secured even from the beginning. Lying lips cannot hurt us because our lives are lived before the Lord. Lovers of war cannot undo our peace because our dwelling place is with God.
As you continue in this psalm, you see that the psalmist is in distress. His heart is troubled. It is as if he had suddenly come to an awareness of his surroundings. He had awakened to the hostility of those around him. He could see that the life he had been living in this world was not friendly but in opposition to him. His appeal to God in the opening verse is one of great urgency. To be in distress is to recognize that one’s very life is at stake. That his current state is one that cannot be maintained without dire consequence. He needs help. He needs to be delivered by God.
His distress is caused by several things. First of all, he is distressed by the lying lips of those around him. He may have been the victim of slander personally, but his distress is related to the fact that he is dwelling among those who can be characterized as deceitful. He lives among those who are liars—among those who speak falsely, whose lips are filled with deceit. Deceitfulness marks the core of their being. It is who they are. They are of their father, the devil, the chief deceiver. They reflect his character. These are those who practice deceit. It flows out of their heart. Throughout the Scriptures, the life of the wicked is characterized by deceit—deceit which is primarily directed against God and his people.
Second, the psalmist is distressed by the fact that those around him are haters of peace. They are lovers of war. Again, the psalmist is not speaking simply of the fact that the unbelievers around him enjoy mounting their horses and going off to fight in battle. He is speaking of the fabric of their character. It is as James 4 states: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war" (vv. 1-2). They fight because they are consumed with self. In big skirmishes and small, they fight for their own glory, their own selfish ends, at the expense of others. But ultimately, they are at enmity with God. That enmity spills over to the people of God.
Finally, the psalmist is distressed that he has spent too long among these people—Meshech by the Black Sea, way to the north; Kedar to the southeast, both far apart. In Genesis 25:13-14, we read these are the sons of Ishmael. In Ezekiel 32:26, along with other passages, Meshech is mentioned as one nation at war with the kingdom of God.
This is where the psalmist lived. Among those hostile to God and his people. He had spent "too long" there. These are those outside. As it says in Rev 22:14: "Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie."
What is his concern? Certainly, he is concerned about his own safety among them. Hence his desire to be delivered from them. But the concern runs deeper than that. The longer he remains, he will become as one of them. If he does not return, he will become one of them. He lives in their tents. He fellowships with them. And as one of them, he will become subject also to God’s ultimate judgment against the wicked. He is compelled to leave.
The judgment is coming as indicated in verse 4. God will direct his arrows at the deceivers. Coals of the broom tree burn hot and long. There will be justice. God will defeat the wicked. The psalmist does not want to remain among them. There is real danger in remaining. As Psalm 5:6 says, "You shall destroy those who speak falsehood; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man."
The psalmist is giving us a portrayal of life in this world. A life among those who are in rebellion against God. We are called out of this life—called to Jerusalem from out of the nations. Children of the diaspora are called home, to leave their place of exile and to pilgrim to the city of God. We were among them, but we must not remain there. We must come to the Lord.
The psalmist’s experience among the liars and haters of peace is ultimately that of Christ. He comes to earth and dwells among those in rebellion against God. He lives among those who are outside the kingdom. He faces their lies and slander. This is especially so in the trial of Christ. False witnesses presented against him. He comes in peace, but they are for war. They despise and reject him to the point of death, the death of the cross.
But Jesus is the answer to the psalmist’s prayer. He comes into the world to call his people out of it. He calls us to follow him. Through his death and resurrection and subsequent ascension into heaven, we are delivered from the world and brought to the heavenly Jerusalem.
While we are called out and delivered by God, we are still on the journey. We are subject to the abuse of the world—its hostility, even as Christ was. World full of lies—lies about Christianity, lies about Scripture, lies which attack our integrity. We also live in a world which is at war against God and his anointed. There is much enmity against the Christian faith. We are for peace, but they are for war. This is what Jesus says about the church in the beatitudes. We are peace makers and yet we are also told in Matthew 5:11-12: "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Our hope is for ultimate vindication. Vindication by God. God will justly punish lying lips. He knows the truth. There will be justice against liars, deceivers and slanderers. Many might lie and cheat us, but God knows the heart, will reveal it to be true in the end. This is the hope of a life united to Christ. People spoke lies against him. They reviled him. He suffers and dies at their hands. But he is vindicated. The lies are exposed. The truth revealed. He enters the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. Such is the case with all those who follow Jesus. Our hope is for this heavenly city. In this city there is no sin, no misery, no war, no deceit. It is the perfect city. The city upon a hill. The city of every believer’s longing heart. Listen to what Jesus says in John 16:33: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
Leave Meshech. Forsake the tents of Kedar—the liars and the warmongers. Rather follow in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ. Set your heart on things above. Join the eschatological pilgrim on the narrow path toward the celestial city.