Psalm 120 – Distress
Opening Note: The “Songs of Ascents”
Psalms 120 through 134 are all labeled “Song of (in one case, ‘for’) Ascents,” a title that has fascinated readers across two millennia. It is widely assumed that these titles were added after composition, but there is no agreed implication of the term. I shall comment at greater length after all fifteen interpretations, but I list briefly the range of suggestions (each related to the word ma'alot, "ascents"): psalms of pilgrimage to Jerusalem; psalms written (or chosen) for recitation on the fifteen steps between the Temple courts; a musical indication (incremental or “high” qualities of keys, loudness, or pitch); psalms of praise; psalms of return to Israel from exile; sacrificial psalms; psalms for “bringing up” the subterranean waters (related to an annual water festival); and psalms marked by anadiplosis (step parallelism - see Introduction). Since many theories are based on content, they are best discussed after all the interpretations.
Note before Translation
Psalm 120, a striking portrayal of distress, is subject to widely varying interpretations, and at best one can get a sense of the psalm. The notes reflect many alternative translations, and I begin the Commentary with other phrases that could have multiple meanings. I then proceed to different overviews.
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. A Song of Ascents.
To the LORD I 1-called in my distress and He answered-1 me;
2. O LORD, save my soul from a lying lip,2 from a deceitful tongue.2
3. 3-What does it do for you, what more does it give you, O deceitful tongue?-3
4. A warrior’s sharpened arrows, with broom-wood coals.
5. Woe is me, that I have sojourned in Meshech, that I have dwelt with4 the tents of Kedar.
6. 5-Too long has my soul-5 let itself dwell with4 those6 who hate peace.
7. I am all 7-peace; but when-7 I speak, they are for war.
1. Could be present tense “call… answers.”
2. “Lip” and “tongue” both can mean language, that is, words.
3. Alternatives include: “He” for “it;” “a deceitful tongue” (i.e., not address to tongue but to another party). Verse could be construed as: asking the tongue or evil speaker what advantage he (or it) has, or what God will do to him (it); asking God what good this is (reading "You"); and the speaker addressing himself.
4. That is, near.
5. Alternatively, “But even more than that, my soul has…” (so Malbim).
6. Plural as in Syriac and several manuscripts. The Masoretic text has the singular, “one who.”
7. Alternatively, “peace when” (evidently reflected by the cantillation, and so Dahood)
and Difficult Phrases Readings
Over and above the alternative readings indicated in the notes, I list, in order, phrases which have multiple possible implications.
Most see verse 2 as referring to another person. It could be a reference to the speaker’s own tongue.
I summarize the alternatives in verse 3. It could be: a statement to the lying tongue (either “what use is all this,” or a question of how God punishes you); a statement to a liar (of what use is such a tongue to you, or how will God punish you for having it); the speaker asking himself of what use this is; or even an address to God (an argument against allowing such things to exist). In all cases, it is probably a rhetorical question.
Further, there is probably a play on words in verse 3, which I note even though the implication is unclear. There was a biblical oath formula using identical terms, “May God do thus to me, and further do more,” meaning approximately “May God punish me if [I do not…].” This may be reflected by the verse.
Verse 4 may be the description of a deceitful tongue or the punishment awaiting it. There is evidently a play on words here because pernicious speech is often compared to arrows in the Bible, presumably because both cause harm from afar (e.g., Jer. 9:7; Ps. 64:4; Prov. 25:18). Broom-wood is known as a superior raw material for a hot and long-burning coal. The reference could be either to two kinds of pain or to fire-tipped arrows.
In verse 5, Meshech evidently refers to a barbarous people in Asia Minor (appearing in Gen. 10:2, noted several times as a nation, and noted in extra-biblical sources) and Kedar refers to a violent nomadic tribe in the Arabian desert (Gen. 25:13, and noted several times as a nation). Kedar is connected to archers in Isaiah 21:17 and some emend Isaiah 66:19 to indicate a similar connection to Meshech. If this arrow connection of the two peoples was well known, one can see verse 5 as being tightly bound to the archery metaphor for lies in verses 3–4. As these two nations are so far apart geographically, they indicate either a tremendous amount of moving about, symbolizing
in exile, or are two nations known as archetypical of some quality (such as distance, barbarism, or isolation). By way of modern equivalents, interpreters have suggested “ Israel Siberia or ” (i.e., alien feeling: Alter), Turks and Tartars (i.e., barbarians: Kirkpatrick), “Vandals and Yahoos” (also barbarians: Interpreters’ Bible). Timbuktu
In verse 5, “woe” is a hapax legomenon, an extended format of the usual word for “woe,” possibly indicating greater distress.
In what follows I cite a number of overviews of Psalm 120 in an order that reflects my feeling of what would strike the reader first.
Some interpreters see Psalm 120 as a one-line citation of past salvation followed by a reflection of present troubles that is partially a request but mostly a complaint. Within this group of interpreters, some suggest that verses 2–4 indicate a separate problem from that described in verses 5–7, whereas others think that both represent one problematic situation. In either case, the psalm ends strikingly, without resolution (as do several other psalms—see, e.g., Psalm 12).
Weiser, Kraus, and others have suggested that Psalm 120 is not a complaint, a request, or a lament at all, but a thanksgiving, verse 1 being read in the present tense, and the request simply a retelling of distress from which the speaker has been saved.
An even more radical reading (reflected in the exposition of the Interpreters Bible) has the speaker reflecting only on himself, his evil speech, his chosen environment, and his inability to speak up against evil.
Some simply abandon the attempt to choose, as Meltzer: “the distress… is unclear; …we cannot know who is calling out… one cannot know what tragedy is caused by the deceiving tongue…; it is unclear whether we see here a desire for war or an actual war…; we cannot know if Meshech and Kedar are places or symbols…: and it is unclear to whom verse 4 is directed.”
However, along with Meir Weiss (The Bible and Modern Literary Theory, Jerusalem, Bialik Institute, 1967, pp. 142–144), I accept that the overwhelmingly negative tone of verses 2–7 does not befit a psalm of thanksgiving, and that the dominant tone of the psalm is past salvation set against present distress (first group of interpretations above).
One should also note the leitmotif of the psalm, in any of the overviews. Psalm 120 ends with speak, suddenly recalling the variety of terms in the first verses; call, answer, lips, and tongue (twice), plus the possibility that all of verse 3 refers to speech. The ending contrast between him and those with whom he lives probably tips the balance of interpretation of the opening away from his own speech as flawed, toward theirs. This is less a poem about the ambiguity of speech (as Pss. 5, 12) and more about its power and misuse.
Finally, one must ask to what degree the psalmist meant to include these ambiguities and elements of multivalence. The question is moot, but given the poetic skills of the psalmists, it is generally better to assume (or err on the side of) awareness. If he meant them all, the speaker manages to challenge himself, his enemies, and God all at the same time. As such, it is possibly an accurate portrait of many in distress.
However many alternative readings one finds in the psalm, one should also note a number of secondary themes worth reconsidering, scarcely unique to this psalm, but very prominent here. As so often in Psalms, God appears less as the one Who prevents difficulties than He Who is to solve dilemmas. We also find here a bit of poetic justice—flaming arrows for the arrows of poisonous speech. There is also much to consider concerning life lived in a foreign environment, particularly one that exhibits an alien ethos. Finally, as so often in Psalms, once again the speaker is the individual who turns to God out of the distress of facing forces that are far more powerful than he.
One should also take note of fine turns of phrase. Verses 1, 2, 6, and 7 could also be read as vital and relevant statements in other situations.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
א) שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת אֶל יְהֹוָה בַּצָּרָתָה לִּי קָרָאתִי וַיַּעֲנֵנִי:
(ב) יְהֹוָה הַצִּילָה נַפְשִׁי מִשְׂפַת שֶׁקֶר מִלָּשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה:
(ג) מַה יִּתֵּן לְךָ וּמַה יֹּסִיף לָךְ לָשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה:
(ד) חִצֵּי גִבּוֹר שְׁנוּנִים עִם גַּחֲלֵי רְתָמִים:
(ה) אוֹיָה לִי כִּי גַרְתִּי מֶשֶׁךְ שָׁכַנְתִּי עִם אָהֳלֵי קֵדָר:
(ו) רַבַּת שָׁכְנָה לָּהּ נַפְשִׁי עִם שׂוֹנֵא שָׁלוֹם:
(ז) אַנִי שָׁלוֹם וְכִי אֲדַבֵּר הֵמָּה לַמִּלְחָמָה: