Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This is the first of the fifteen “songs of degrees,” as the title appears in our version (“of steps” in the LXX. and Vulg.; literally, of goings up). The probable meaning of this strange inscription is discussed in the General Introduction. That the Psalms so entitled formed a collection made with some definite intention can hardly be questioned. But whatever that intention, the position of this psalm in the collection is unaccountable. Even if the title denotes a rhythmical peculiarity—a kind of climactic progress in the verse—it is only just observable here, while there is not the slightest touch in the poem, which can be brought into peculiar connection or association with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or with the return from the captivity. One thing is clear; we are again, after the long gnomic 119th Psalm, in the region and air of lyric song, this fragment, for it is nothing more, being bright and intense with passion and fire. If the poem is personal, it records an experience which every phase of life in all ages presents, the mischief arising from slander. If—the more probable conjecture—it is national, then we must look for its motive in the complications which would naturally arise when Israel had to struggle amid foreign powers and influences to maintain its religious and national existence. The “enemy to peace” (Psalm 120:6; comp. Psalm 129:5; Ezra 4:1) has been most plausibly identified with the Samaritans. (See 2Kings 17:24 seq., and Josephus, Ant. xi., 2:1.)
Title.—“Song of degrees.” Rather, lyric song of goings up, or ascents.
A Song of degrees. 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.(2) Deliver . . .—This is the cry for help of which mention has just been made. The thought is one we have met frequently. Of all the elements of bitterness which made up the lot of Israel under foreign dominion, taunts and calumnies seem to have made the deepest wound, and left the most lasting scar. This was “the torture prolonged from age to age,” under which we hear psalmist after psalmist raising his cry for deliverance.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?(3) What shall . . .?—Literally, What will he give to thee, and what will he add to thee, deceitful tongue? where it is better, as in the Authorised Version, to take the subject as indefinite, and so render by the passive. Thus we get in substance the following question: “What more can be added to thee (i.e., in the way of epithet), besides lying and false, thou deceitful tongue?” the answer is given by suggesting the usual metaphors of malicious speech, “the warrior’s sharpened arrows” (Jeremiah 9:8; Psalm 57:4); “fire” (James 3:6). Only here both images are elaborated. For the Hebrew word give with the sense of comparison, see 1Samuel 1:16, “Count (Heb., give) not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial.” Gesenius compares the use of the Greek τιθένμι, instead of νομίζειν. So, too, the word “add” has a similar sense (1Kings 10:7; see margin).
Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.(4) Sharp.—Better, sharpened, whetted, as if for a purpose.
Juniper.—Properly, broom. Hebrew, rothem, a plant identical with the Arabian retem and Algerian retama. (See 1Kings 19:4-5.) Doctor Tristram mentions the employment of this bush for fuel. “It is ruthlessly uprooted by the Arabs, wherever it is tolerably abundant, for the manufacture of charcoal, which is considered of the finest quality, and fetches a higher price at Cairo than any other kind. Several travellers have mentioned their meeting with Bedouins employed in conveying retem charcoal to the Egyptian markets” (Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 360; see also Bible Educator, iv. 194). Burckhardt and Robinson also both noticed this trade.
Wonderful stories are told both by Jerome and the rabbis, how travellers, having cooked their food by fires made of the juniper wood, which they suppose to be the wood here meant, and returning a year after to the same spot, still found the embers alive.
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!(5) Mesech.—This name is generally identified with Moschi, mentioned by Herodotus (iii. 94), a tribe on the borders of Colchis and Armenia. It appears again in the prophet Ezekiel 27:13; Ezekiel 38:3; Ezekiel 39:1. The only reason for suspecting the accuracy of this identification is the remoteness from Kedar, who were a nomad tribe of Arabia. (See Genesis 25:13; Song of Solomon 1:5.) But in the absence of any other indication of the motive for the mention of these tribes here, this very remoteness affords a sufficiently plausible one; or they may be types of savage life, selected the one from the north, and the other from the south, as poetry dictated. It is quite possible that the circumstances amid which the poet wrote made it necessary for him to veil in this way his allusion to powerful tribes, from whose violence the nation was suffering. At all events, the two concluding verses leave no doubt that some troubled state of affairs, in which the choice of courses was not easy, and affecting the whole nation. not an individual, is here presented.
I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.(7) I am for peace.—For the pregnant, “I peace,” see Note, Psalm 109:3. Both pronouns, I and they, are emphatic. No doubt these verses are intended to indicate the nature of the malicious speeches mentioned in Psalm 120:2-3. We imagine Israel in peculiarly difficult political relations under the Persians, possibly very soon after the Return, trying to keep in favour and peace with the ruling powers, but continually drawn into trouble by the jealousy and bitterness of other subject tribes. (See Introduction.)