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This Psalm, and all the rest that follow it, to the end of Psalms 134:0, fifteen in number, are called Psalms of Degrees; for thus the Hebrew title המעלות hammaaloth is generally translated, as coming from the root עלה alah, to ascend or mount upwards. Hence מעלות maaloth, steps or stairs for ascending, 1 Kings 10:19-20; 2 Kings 9:13. But as the word may be applied to elevation in general, hence some have thought that it may here signify the elevation of voice; "these Psalms being sung with the highest elevations of voice and music." Others have thought the word expresses rather the matter of these Psalms, as being of peculiar excellence: and hence Junius and Tremellius prefix to each Canticum excellentissimum, "A most excellent ode."
R. D. Kimchi says, "There were fifteen steps by which the priests ascended into the temple, on each of which they sang one of these fifteen Psalms." This opinion I find referred to in the Apocryphal Gospel of the birth of Mary: "Her parents brought her to the temple, and set her upon one of the steps. Now there are fifteen steps about the temple, by which they go up to it, according to the fifteen Psalms of Degrees." But the existence of such steps and practices cannot be proved.
Aben Ezra supposes that the word means some kind of tune sung to these Psalms. It is more likely, if the title be really ancient, that it was affixed to them on account of their being sung on the return from the Babylonish captivity, as the people were going up to Jerusalem; for though some of them are attributed to David, yet it is very probable that they were all made long after his time, and probably during the captivity, or about the end of it. The author of these fifteen Psalms is not known; and most probably they were not the work of one person. They have been attributed to David, to Solomon, to Ezra, to Haggai, to Zechariah, and to Malachi, without any positive evidence. They 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.
Verse Psalms 120:1. In my distress — Through the causes afterwards mentioned.
I cried unto the Lord — Made strong supplication for help.
And he heard one. — Answered my prayer by comforting my soul.
It appears to be a prayer of the captives in Babylon for complete liberty; or perhaps he recites the prayer the Israelites had made previously to their restoration.
Verse Psalms 120:2. Lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue. — From a people without faith, without truth, without religion; who sought by lies and calumnies to destroy them.
Verse Psalms 120:3. What shall be given unto thee? — Thou art worthy of the heaviest punishments.
Verse Psalms 120:4. Sharp arrows — The Chaldee has, "The strong, sharp arrows are like lightning from above, with coals of juniper kindled in hell beneath." On the juniper, Job 30:4, where this passage is explained. Fiery arrows, or arrows wrapped about with inflamed combustibles, were formerly used in sieges to set the places on fire. Ephesians 6:16.
Verse Psalms 120:5. That I sojourn in Mesech — The Chaldee has it, "Wo is me that I am a stranger with the Asiatics, (אוסאי useey,) and that I dwell in the tents of the Arabs." Calmet, who understands the Psalm as speaking of the state of the captives in Babylon and its provinces, says, "Meshec was apparently the father of the Mosquians, who dwelt in the mountains that separate Iberia from Armenia, and both from Colchis. These provinces were subjugated by Nebuchadnezzar; and it is evident from 2 Kings 17:23-24; 2 Kings 18:11; 2 Kings 19:12-13, that many of the Jews were held in captivity in those countries. As to Kedar, it extended into Arabia Petraea, and towards the Euphrates; and is the country afterwards known as the country of the Saracens."
Verse Psalms 120:6. My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. — A restless, barbarous, warlike, and marauding people.
Verse Psalms 120:7. I am for peace — We love to be quiet and peaceable; but they are continually engaged in excursions of rapine and plunder. It is evident that the psalmist refers to a people like the Scenitae or wandering Arabs, who live constantly in tents, and subsist by robbery; plundering and carrying away all that they can seize. The poor captives wished them to cultivate the arts of peace, and live quietly; but they would hear of nothing but their old manner of life.
The psalmist in distress -
I. Flees to God by prayer.
II. Sets forth the miseries of a foul and deceitful tongue.
III. Complains of his banishment.
I. 1. He is in distress, and cries to the Lord; the surest and best way.
2. He tells us of the success of his prayer: "God heard him."
3. Of the matter of it: "Lord, I beseech thee deliver my soul! " 1. "From lying lips." Detractions, calumnies, and defamations. 2. From "a deceitful tongue," which, under the colour of friendship, covers deceit. A detractor does his mischief openly, a flatterer secretly; so that when a deceitful tongue is joined with lying lips, the mischief is intolerable.
II. He sets forth the evil that shall fall on such deceivers and slanderers.
1. Arrows - which wound afar off, suddenly and invisibly.
2. Sharp arrows, well-headed and keen, that can pierce deeply.
3. "Sharp arrows of the mighty," shot by a strong hand, and so much the more dangerous.
4. "With coals - inflamed arrows," such as set all things on fire.
5. "With coals of juniper," which of all coals are the hottest, and keep fire the longest.
III. The psalmist complains of his banishment.
1. He laments his situation on account of the wickedness of the people among whom he sojourned.
2. They were barbarous and inhuman, enemies to piety and civility.
3. His state was the more intolerable, as it had been of long duration: "My soul hath long dwelt," c.
His disposition was quite contrary to theirs.
1. "I am for peace." I wish to live in peace, and cultivate it.
2. But when I speak of peace, they are for war They are fierce and inhuman. It was said of the Macedonians in Philip's time, Illis pacem esse bellum et bellum pacem. "To them peace was war, and war was peace." Such were the people of the provinces, among whom many of the Israelites were in captivity.
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Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Psalms 120". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany