A Song of Ascents.
1 In my distress I cry to the Lord,
that he may answer me:
2 “Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.”
3 What shall be given to you?
And what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
4 A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
5 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
6 Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war.
There’s a famous saying, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Of course, like most popular sayings in the internet age, this one has spawned some interesting variations, some of them less optimistic (perhaps more realistic?) than the original:
Some are almost comically tragic:
Or this one:
Some target a specific demographic, like fashionistas:
Or history buffs:
Or animal lovers:
Personally, as a parent of three children, this is my favorite:
What do any of these have to do with our Psalm today? Well, the inscription (remember last week I told you that inscriptions are important!) says that this is a “Song of Ascents” (Hebrew: שִׁיר המַעֲלוֹת Shir Hama’aloth) or literally song of upward steps. This is a special category of Psalms–there are 14 of them in the Book of Psalms, and they are all collected together one after the other, beginning with this one, Psalm 120 and all the way through Psalm 134.
Most biblical scholars believe that these were the songs that would have been sung by pilgrims making their way to the city of Jerusalem from the distant parts of Israel for one of the three annual Jewish Holy days. Jerusalem sits on top of Mount Zion, so if you were walking to Jerusalem, no matter where you were coming from, you would be walking up. Hence a song of “ascent” or “upward steps.” One way to look at this collection of Psalms is like your playlist for a road-trip. And this Psalm, 120, is the first on the list.
But there’s a problem. Most of the Psalms of Ascent feature something about the road, the journey, traveling, or climbing, or at least the destination–the temple in Jerusalem. But not this one. No one’s really sure why its included in the roadtrip playlist, let alone the very first song.
The NRSV translation in your pew bibles categorizes it as a “Prayer for deliverance from slanderers.” But if that’s true, it’s not a very good (or consistent) one. It does begin with a request for God to deliver the psalmist from “lying lips and a deceitful tongue.” Then in verses 3 and 4 the psalmist calls down a curse on the slanderers: sharp arrows and hot glowing coals.
But then the prayer ends and the psalmist concludes by complaining about the land he lives in, surrounded by warlike people when all he wants is peace…even though he just wished sharp arrows and hot glowing coals on them. The end. How depressing.
The Psalm right after this one is among the most famous and well-loved Psalms of all–Psalm 121–“I lift my eyes to the hills” and ending with “The Lord will watch your coming and going from this time on and forevermore.” Words like that make sense for a road trip playlist. For obvious reasons, however, Psalm 120 has never been that popular, despite being at the very front of the Psalms of Ascent.
But I think Psalm 120 is a great Psalm, and highly under-rated. I think it’s the perfect song to begin a long journey, and is downright inspirational, too. The problem is, we’ve been reading it wrong all these thousands of years. We’ve been reading it backwards. Sort of.
English, as a language, is read from left to right. Hebrew (like many Middle Eastern languages) is read from right to left. But left to right or right to left, both languages have in common that they are typically read from top to bottom. Typically. But this is poetry, and if you’ve ever read the poetry of ee cummings, or shape poetry that follows a pattern, you know that sometimes poets break the rules! And if you’re writing a poem about climbing from the very bottom all the way up to the very top…is it possible you might not want your readers reading from the top down to the bottom?
So I think the key to understanding Psalm 120, the very first Psalm of Ascent, the first step on a journey of a thousand miles…is to begin with the last verse, and read all the way up to the top!
Read this way, the Psalmist begins (as most good literature does) with a classic problem:
Verse 7: I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
He elaborates in verse 6: Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
Who are these haters of peace, and where is the Psalmist dwelling? Verse 5: Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Then verse 4 in the NRSV reads: A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!
But here it’s important to understand that word order is not as fixed in Hebrew as it is in English, and even less so in poetry. It’s also possible to read verse 4 as: The warrior’s arrows are sharp–they sting like burning sticks of the broom tree.
In other words, he’s continuing to describe the violence of the people around him.
Verse 3, however, is an important shift. The NRSV puts it: What shall be given to you? And what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?
It sounds like the Psalmist is personifying the lying tongue, speaking directly to it. But There’s another possibility here: Several biblical commentaries (including the New Interpreter’s Commentary) have suggested that the repetition of the exact phrase “deceitful tongue” at the end of verse 2 and again at the end of verse 3 is what’s known as a dittographical error.
Basically, that’s when a scribe is copying text by hand from one manuscript to another (this is before the days of photocopiers or cut and paste) and gets distracted or loses his place in the original, copying again something he had previously copied. This actually happens a lot in the bible, and we know because we have several early manuscripts with slight variances of exactly this kind.
One clue that this might be a dittographical error comes from the conventions of Hebrew poetry. In Hebrew poetry, the poet says something and then repeats it a second time, but with a slight variance, using a synonym or a related metaphor. In fact, that’s exactly what happens in the first part of verse three: What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you? That kind of poetic restatement also happens in verse 5. And verse 4. And verse 2. And almost every verse of this Psalm. And that’s what makes the phrase “deceitful tongue” stand out–it’s not a paraphrase, it’s an exact word-for-word repeat, something that would be bad poetry at best, and superfluous at worst, because the poetic repetition has already occurred in both verses.
So if you take that line out of verse 3 altogether, the verse becomes the climactic turning point of the whole Psalm. The Psalmist is not speaking to someone’s tongue. He has just finished lamenting his condition, the people and the land he lives in–and he’s had enough! He says to them: What shall be given to you? And what more shall be done to you?
In other words, “What more can I do with you? I can’t take this anymore! I have nothing left to give you.”
And then he drops to his knees and prays in verse 2: Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.
Ok, what lying lips? What deceitful tongue? The Hebrew word for lying (שֶׁקֶר sheqer) and deceitful (רְמִיָּה remeeyah) are again examples of repetition and variance in Hebrew poetry, but they also have a pretty broad range of meaning. The words here clearly apply to speech, but they can also mean disappointing, wrongful, treacherous, or useless.
Go back to the very first verse (which, since we’re reading backward, is the last) and remember the psalmist’s main problem: I am for peace, but when I speak they are for war.
In other words, the psalmist is praying “Deliver me, O Lord, from their words–their disappointing, wrongful, treacherous, useless words.”
And finally, verse 1: In my distress I cry to the Lord, that he may answer me.
But here again, I think the NRSV gets it completely wrong. The Hebrew in this verse is actually in the past tense: In my distress I cried to the Lord, and he answered me. Of course, if you’re reading from top to bottom, that makes no sense, given that the psalm ends unresolved with the poet stuck in a violent land among warlike people. Clearly the Lord has not answered his prayer. And so the translators of the NRSV fudged a little and tweaked it to sound like he’s saying (present tense) I *am* crying out to the Lord, SO THAT he *may* answer me.
But if you read from the bottom to top, you don’t have to do that–it makes sense exactly the way it’s written: I was sitting in a foreign land, among violent people who said and did violent things. Their words stung like arrows. I had enough, and said, “no more!” I asked to God to deliver me from their wretched words, their wrongheaded ways. In my distress I *cried* to the Lord… and he *answered* me.
Which is why I am now on the road up to Jerusalem, with all those haters in my rear view mirror, and I’m singing my song, the very first song in my playlist of peace.
People of Fist Presbyterian Church, if you are not where you want to be, where you need to be, where God wants you to be; if you are down at the very bottom of the page, stuck among people who don’t love you, people who hate you, people who hold you down… then Look up! Read up! Pray up! And may God grant you the courage to take that first step on the path that leads you ever closer to God’s purposes, God’s people, and God’s peace.