Psalm 120

In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.

–Psalm 120:1, 2 (ESV)

Immediately following Psalm 119’s repeated praises for God’s truth, Psalm 120 states the case of a righteous man surrounded by wickedness and deceit.  Although the psalmist’s trust in the Lord remains unbroken (v. 1), he mourns that he is surrounded by the belligerent heathen (vv. 5-7), and prays that God would deliver him “from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.”  The situation of the psalmist in Psalm 120 is not unlike that of Lot in Sodom—nor, for that matter, is it far removed from our experiences today.  Indeed, every Christian can in some way echo the earnest lament of Psalm 120.

Psalm 120 begins the Psalter’s collection of fifteen “Songs of Ascents”—psalms whose exact purpose is unknown, but which were probably intended for use during the Israelites’ numerous ascents to the city of Jerusalem.  And today, as is our custom, we’ll take a moment to examine the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of this poignant lament.

258, “I Cried to God in My Distress”

As a blanket statement, the text of number 258 is solid and scripturally accurate.  That said, I’m going to parse this setting with a fine-toothed comb and list a few possible areas for improvement:

  • Stz. 1, “And by the Lord my prayer was heard”: Hearing and answering prayer are two distinct ideas, and this wording muddies the distinction.  Consider instead, “And I was answered by the Lord.”
  • Stz. 2, “The tongue whose speech consumes like fire”: The literal psalm says only, “A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree” (v. 4); it does not specify whether this describes the tongue or the punishment to be inflicted on it.  I’d rather leave the text of the psalm more open for interpretation here.
  • Stz. 4: In this last stanza the text of Psalm 120:7 has been expanded to fill four lines.  This is by no means unbiblical—just slightly redundant.

Mention of a “moderately slow” tune in a minor key from the seventeenth century may raise the hairs on the back of an organist’s neck, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in BABYLON’S STREAMS.  Though unfamiliar, the melody line of this tune is simple enough to be picked up by any congregation almost immediately.  Further, the doleful mode is perfectly suited for the accompanying text.  In summary, I don’t think you can go wrong with this text and tune combination.

How does Psalm 120 relate to the Christian life?  To answer this question, we must merely consider how often believers endure fraud, falsehood, and deceit from unbelieving family, friends, and co-workers.  Surely we’ve been cheated or slandered at some point in our walk with Christ.  In these cases and in many more, Psalm 120 expresses the Christian’s situation perfectly.  Although we may rightfully lament at these evils around us, with the psalmist we can also declare that the Lord will answer our cries.  His everlasting truth and righteousness will prevail; God will certainly deliver us from lying lips and a deceitful tongue.

I cried to God in my distress,
And by the Lord my prayer was heard;
O save me, Lord, from lying lips
And from the false, deceitful word.

–MRK

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