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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 120

A Song of degrees.

The present psalm, and the fourteen immediately following, are grouped under one title, termed, in the common English version, “Songs of degrees.” See note on title. The group is characterized by simplicity, national character, brevity, (except Psalms 132:0,) variety of sad and joyful tone, as indicating the changeful fortunes of the nation, a medium grade of poetic merit, and adaptation to popular use. Six were written by David, (Psalms 120, 122, 124, 131, 132, 133;) two by Solomon, (Psalms 127, 128;) and the remainder belong evidently to the period of the captivity and restoration. Ezra probably completed the group already begun by David. They cover the civic, domestic, and devotional spheres, and manifestly grew out of the experience of the nation. For reasons given in the notes, we shall adopt the hypothesis that they were designated and used as “pilgrim songs,” to be used especially by those going up to Jerusalem to the national feasts, though they have separate historic occasions.

Psalms 120:0 is a strain of unbroken complaint, caused by the falsehood, deceit, and implacable temper of the author’s enemies, to escape whom he had fled into exile, and was temporarily doomed to live among hostile barbarians. In Psalms 120:1-2, he records his prayer in distress; Psalms 120:3-4, are a denunciation upon the false tongue; Psalms 120:5-7, his lament over his sojourn with hostile tribes. The whole belongs to David during his abode in Arabia Petrea. The allusions point thither, and the circumstances suit the history of 1 Samuel 25:0.TITLE:

A Song of degrees Hebrew, Song of the goings up, or, of the ascents, מעלות , ( ma’aloth,) translated “degrees,” simply means steps, ascents, goings up; and is here manifestly used as the standing form of expressing a journey to Jerusalem, as being situated on a mountain. Thus Ezra 7:9, “Began he to go up.” The radical verb ‘alah, to go up, often expresses the act of going to Jerusalem, without mentioning the city. See Ezra 1:3; Ezra 1:5; Ezra 1:11; Ezra 2:1; Ezra 7:6-7; Ezra 7:9; Ezra 7:28; Ezra 8:1; 2 Kings 24:1; 2 Kings 24:10. From the days of David and Solomon the people were accustomed, especially under the reign of their pious kings, to go up to Jerusalem in great numbers to the annual festivals. Thus Psalms 122:4. “Whither the tribes go up,” etc.

See also Psalms 24:3. The custom, couched in the same form of speaking, is well brought out 1 Kings 12:27-28. In the New Testament the same usage obtains, (John 7:8; John 7:10; John 12:20; Acts 18:22; Acts 24:11,) where αναβαινω , is the Septuagint for עלה , ( ‘alah,) in the above passages. It is clear, therefore, that the word in question was popularly used to denote a pilgrim journey to Jerusalem. It is probable that these fifteen psalms were collected, or the collection completed, by Ezra for the special use of the pilgrims, for psalms for such public use should represent all the varied forms of the Church’s experience, whether of joy or sorrow.

Verse 1

1. Distress… cried… heard This serial form trouble, prayer, and answer was common for David, and his faith in God touching the answer, gathered from past experience, was the ground of all his hope.

Verse 2

2. Lying lips… deceitful tongue The source of his present trouble, and more terrible than weapons of war.

Verse 3

3. What shall be given… thee It is more natural and consistent to take this grammatically obscure verse as an address to the tongue of guile: “What shall be given thee?” or rather, “What shall he [God] give to thee?” that is, as a punishment. The question is put sarcastically, and the anticipated answer is brought out in the next verse.

Verse 4

4. Sharp arrows of the mighty The retributions of God shall pierce the soul as the sharpened arrows of the warrior penetrate the flesh.

Coals of juniper The רתם , ( rothem,) answering to the Arabic retem, improperly translated “juniper,” is the broom tree, a notable shrub in Arabia Petrea. Thus Robinson: “One of the principal shrubs we met with is the retem, a species of broom plant, Genista roetam of Forskal. This is the largest and most conspicuous shrub of these deserts, growing thickly in the water courses and valleys.” So Burckhardt: “We here [in the peninsula of Mount Sinai] found several Bedouins occupied in collecting brushwood, which they burn into charcoal for the Cairo market. They prefer for this the thick roots of the shrub rothem, which grows here in abundance.” “The roots,” says Robinson, “are very bitter, and are regarded by the Arabs as yielding the best charcoal.” See Job 30:4, where, instead of meat, read sustenance, support. They followed charting the rothem as a livelihood referred to as a poor business. This shrub also is used by the Arabs as a shelter by day and night, though a frail one. 1 Kings 19:4-5. The intense heat of this charcoal, and the proverbial length of time that it holds fire, render it a fit emblem of severe punishment.

Verse 5

5. Mesech… Kedar The Septuagint and Vulgate, following the radical sense of the word, render “Mesech” by prolonged: “Woe is me that my sojourning is prolonged.” But the word is to be taken as a proper name, the patronymic of a people descended from Meshech, son of Japheth, (Genesis 10:2,) and known in history as the Moschi, dwelling near the southeastern shore of the Black Sea, north of Armenia. Later, they penetrated southward into Cappadocia, ( Jos. Ant. b. i, c. 6, § 1,) and northward beyond the Caucasian mountains, and probably reappear in Europe under the name of Muscovites. They commonly stand associated with the Tibareni, (from Tubal, Genesis 10:2,) as in Ezekiel 27:13; Ezekiel 32:26; Ezekiel 38:2-3. ( Herod., b. vii, c. 78.) In our psalm the name “Mesech,” or Meshech, is a synonyme for northern barbarians, as “Kedar,” (son of Ishmael, Genesis 25:13,) was for Ishmaelites, or southern barbarians. On “Kedar,” as the common title for northern Arabians, see Song of Solomon 1:5; Isaiah 21:13; Isaiah 21:16-17; Ezekiel 27:21. Meshech and Magog had to the Hebrews the same proverbial sense of unsubdued barbarians that Scythian had to the Greeks; and it was but a natural association with “Kedar” in the mind of David, dwelling, as he now was, among these wild desert robbers. See, on his place of abode, 1 Samuel 25:1

Verse 6

6. My soul hath long dwelt Literally, Much has dwelt my soul with herself, with, or near, him that hateth peace. The want of companionship congeniality with those about him compelled the psalmist inwardly to a life of introspection, self-communion, and solitude.

Verse 7

7. I am for peace Hebrew, I peace. I am all peace. See this same form Psalms 109:4.

When I speak, they are for war My pacific words are construed into strategic decoys. They are so full of war and treachery that they are wholly incapable of friendly conference. The contrast between the psalmist and his enemies is only an example of the eternal dissonance between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of the world. It is worthy of remark that lying, deceit, robbery, and hostility to strangers are characteristic vices of the Arabs to this day. It may further be noticed, that David’s residence in Paran closes the bitterest part of his wandering life during the persecutions of King Saul. Thenceforward a milder light beamed on his fortunes.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 120". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/psalms-120.html. 1874-1909.