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Psalm 120

The Psalms of Ascents begin at a low point, Psalm 120 starts with lament

The Psalms of Ascent begin at a low point. In a sense, this reflects the movement of the Psalter itself: most of the psalms of lament are found in the first half of the book; most of the psalms of praise in the second. You might say that the book itself is a pilgrimage, or an ascent. Here, though, we have a lament​“I call on the LORD in my distress…”

It’s striking that this distress is largely prompted by speech:​“Save me, LORD, from lying lips, and from deceitful tongues.” These psalms were associated with a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for worship. And as in the rest of the Bible, words of worship are a prompt for us to examine our words elsewhere. This is certainly true for Isaiah the prophet, who on seeing the LORD in the Temple says:

Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty. Isaiah 6:5

This warning and lament is continued in the New Testament, with the letter of James: 

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. James 2:9 – 10

This lament may be where we start as well, as this election campaign begins. Many have been deeply troubled at the impact of the Brexit debate on our political language and tone. But just as worship prompts us to reflect on tone and language, so the language around us should drive us to worship and prayer. 

The author of Psalm 120 takes this lament as a reminder of a kind of exile:​“Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!” Again we have here a New Testament theme – as 1 Peter begins with a greeting to​“God’s elect exiles” among the nations. To Peter, however, this is no excuse to withdraw, but instead to engage with one’s neighbours. 

What does this look like? Peter writes that Christians are to live distinctively (1 Peter 2:11 – 12), and honour those in authority (1 Peter 2:13 – 17). They are also to go above and beyond in their speech even as others do not (2:21 – 25). Likewise, we should take opportunities which this election gives to speak for peace — though the psalmist does not give us any illusions about this being easy:​“Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”

Nonetheless, it is what we are called to do, imitating Christ, in whose mouth no deceit was found (1 Peter 2:22 quoting Isaiah 53:9) – the one who pitched his tent among us (John 1:14), and who spoke peace among the tents of Kedar for our sake. 

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