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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Psalms of Degrees--Psalm 120

My first conscious exposure to the Songs of Degrees occurred when I was a college student and new to the world of conscientious Christianity.  A group of us were on a retreat, and one of the songs sung was Psalm 134 set to music.  Pursuing the Scriptural reference on the songsheet, I turned in the Bible to the then mysteriously titled Songs of Degrees, or Ascents as they are called in the Revised Standard Version which I used at the time.

At the time, these Psalms did not make as large an impact on the formation of my beliefs and spirituality as the books of the New Testament and, to a lesser extent, Isaiah and Hosea among the prophets.  Yet with age, and an increasing familiarity with the Bible, including some understanding of the original languages, the Psalms of Degrees have come to mean a great deal more to me, especially as I struggled with how to worship and how to integrate Word, doctrine, ethics, and worship.

Psalms 120-134 are called Psalms of Degrees (AV) or Ascents (ESV) because they describe stages of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  They were probably composed after the time of Solomon, when the Israelite cult had localized in the Temple there.  Originally, they were probably sung by groups of pilgrims or the kohanim leading them at various stages in their progress, ending with a blessing in the sanctuary itself.   The logic of their ascriptions is evident in looking at a relief map of ‘Eretz Yisrael:  Jerusalem sits atop a ridge of mountains, so many traveling their on pilgrimage would ascend as they approached.

So, how are these Psalms relevant to Christians living at a time long after the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the cult of which it was the physical center?  Some of us may have been influenced at one time of another by a strange species of late 19th century theology which relegates all of the Old Testament and much of the New outside a selection of the Pauline epistles to a supposed end-time Jewish church.  Some of us may have had our initial exposure to Christ in churches where too great a familiarity with Scripture was cause for suspicion, especially if it was regarded as a practical guide to faith and morals.  Others may have come from non-Christian traditions.  Some may have lived under the lingering influence of early 20th century European “positive Christianity”, with its disparagement of Judaism  and near-total rejection of the Old Testament.  Hence, the reference to a vanished Temple cult is hard to fathom.  Yet even if we have come up in a Reformed tradition in which continuity between the Testaments is stressed, and the Psalms take up a large part or even the whole of the congregation’s songbook, the Old Testament is somehow strange.  Indeed, even for that vast swath of Christendom for which the Psalms hold a continuing attraction, their practicality may be elusive.

The degrees of these Psalms speak of approaching nearer and nearer to the place where God dwells. Hence, they may also be used as a way of understanding a Christian’s growth in grace, including principles of prayer, repentance, theology, and the common life of the church.

PSALM 120:  Initial Alienation

In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips
            And from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given unto thee?
            Or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
Sharp arrows of the mighty,
            With coals of juniper.
Woe is me that I sojourn in Mesech,
            That I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
            I am for peace;
But when I speak, they are for war.

            Strangely enough, our approach to God begins with acknowledging our distance from him.  The Psalmist speaks of how instead of the God of truth, he faces those of lying lips.  Instead of dwelling in the land which God had promised and delivered to Israel, the Psalmist speaks of dwelling in Mesech and Kedar.  The Psalmist’s initial lot is one of conflict and association with unsympathetic neighbors rather than a life of brotherly love with the like-minded.  To draw near to God, we therefore admit our alienation from the life he would give us—indeed, our alienation from God himself.
            In this regard, mention of Mesech (Meshech elsewhere in Scriputre, and so rendered in the ASV and ESV) and Kedar are instructive.  Mesech (also called Meshech in Ezekiel and elsewhere) refers to an ancient nation in eastern Anatolia or the Caucasus, far to the north of the land of Israel.  Kedar refers to the tribes of the Arabian desert to the south and east, the mention of tents graphically speaking of the nomadic life of that land.  The point, however, is not that the Psalmist is some gigantic Israelite straddling hundreds of miles of territory with one foot in the vicinity of Mount Ararat and the other in that of Riyadh, but that the he feels himself distant from the place where he ought to be.  This is neither something that those in the seat of the scornful (cf. Ps. 1:1) may point to as a warning against a “literal” reading of the Bible, nor something to frighten the Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Assyrians, and Armenians concerning some nefarious Zionist land-grab, but the Pslamist’s metaphor to confess his fundamental alienation and distance from the presence of the Lord. The Psalmist may very well have been physically resident in the Land of Israel (indeed, it would have been a physical impossibility for him to dwell in both Meshech and Kedar at the same time), but metaphorically, is Israel is the land wherein God dwells, the Psalmist might as well be in exile from it among the heathen nations.
            But the Psalmist in not only alienated from God.  His fellow men around him are also a threat rather than a social support. They are people of “lying lips” and “deceitful tongues” who are for war when the Psalmist speaks peace.  And in this, we have the key as to from where this alienation comes: violence and falsehood.
            Falsehood is described as the “lying lips” and “deceitful tongue”. Nothing is so alienating as falsehood.  It undermines all trust between people, and drives the closest of friends and lovers apart. We not only lie to and about others, but also to and about ourselves—and I will leave it to the reader to catalogue his own sins of this sort. But the God of Scripture is the God of truth, so living in falsehood is clearly living away from the presence of the Lord.  The pervasiveness of falsehood is all too clear to us.  Whoever has never been lied to or about is a blessed person indeed—so blessed that not even our Lord Jesus Christ ever enjoyed such a blessing!  He who was Truth itself (John 17:17, cf. John 1:14) was put to death on the testimony of false witnesses (Mk. 14:57 ff.).  If God did not spare his only Son from such treatment, we cannot expect him to so spare us.
            Violence is something which all of us supposedly dislike, yet it is so natural to us, whether we remain “in Adam” or even “in Christ”.  It manifests itself in fierceness of temper, malice towards neighbors, and the deep-seated desire for vengeance when we are wronged.  It tempts us when someone is better favored in any area, and manifested itself in the life of the first human child born—Cain, who murdered his brother, and then was driven out from the presence of the LORD (Gen. 4:16).
            The first of these Psalms of Degrees further underscores our alienation in its ending on a note of despair.  “Woe is me…I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.” When I was in seminary, I was taught to end every sermon on a note of grace. This is not easy to do when the text itself ends on such a “down” note.   However, Psalm 120 is only the first stage of the journey to the Holy City, and thus reveals a profound note of hope:  there is a blessing even for those in despair.
            From our despair, we are forced to look to the Living God who made heaven and earth, rules all things through his decretive will, who became man in Jesus Christ for our salvation, and as the Holy Spirit is ever present to those who will call on him.  Despair—that gnawing fear that all around are full of falsehood and violence—warns us that nothing in this world can ultimately save us.  It is the very thing that launches us on our pilgrimage.

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