Tom Lowe


Psalm 120: In My Distress, I Cried to the Lord (KJV)

  1. {A Song of degrees.} In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.
  2. Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
  3. What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
  4. Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
  5. Woe is me, that I sojourn in Meshech, thatI dwell in the tents of Kedar!
  6. My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
  7. am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.



There seems to be much uncertainty when it comes to assigning an author to this psalm. Listed below are potential authors that have been proposed to me.

  • David in the time of his persecution by Saul, when he was exposed both to the swords and to the slander and to the lies of his enemies.
  • Although I cannot offer any proof to substantiate it I believe Psalm 120 was written by King Hezekiah.
  • My personal opinion is that it is now impossible to tell who the author is and I will explain myself in a following paragraph.

Psalm 120 is the first in a series of fifteen psalms, all of which have the inscription, “a song of degrees.”1 Bible commentators have been divided over what that expression means, but they have made several suggestions. It may refer to:

  • “A song of the higher choir” or “In a higher Key.”
  • The stages on the journey back to the Promised Land after the Babylonian captivity.
  • A prophetic nature, having to do with the final ingathering in a coming day of the Jewish exiles from their worldwide dispersion.
  • The restoration of the ark to Jerusalem in some way.
  • The fifteen stages in the annual assent to Jerusalem by the tribes in their periodic pilgrimages to the holy city.
  • The title may refer to eminent persons who have been called “men of high degree,” for in them are contained, as educated men have observed, many doctrines and instructions that are of great use and importance.
  • The singing of these psalms on the 15 temple steps or at least on some high place. We do know that there will be fifteen steps in Ezekiel’s future temple, seven in the outer court and eight in the inner court (Ezekiel 40:22, 31). And we do not know if Solomon’s temple had the same number of stairs.
  • Because they were sung by the Jews in a very loud voice when they returned from Babylon and went up to Jerusalem
  • The most common belief is that this group of songs was sung by people making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Three such journeys for the purpose of community-wide religious festivals were required each year (Deut. 16:16-17). (The pilgrims had to ascend to the high altitude of their capital city.) These psalms were probably not written for such a purpose, but were grouped together for such a use. This seems clear from the fact that four are attributed to David, and one to Solomon, while the remaining ten are anonymous.
  • The truth be known, we can no longer ascertain how these 15 psalms came to have the same title, “a song of degrees,” for these things are lost and unknown, not only to Christians, but even to the Jews themselves. We must be content to be ignorant of this as well as the titles of most of the other psalms. But we should not be concerned because that is not necessary to the understanding of them.

Obviously, all of the above views cannot be correct. Naturally, that leads to the question, “What degrees?” Only one set of degrees is mentioned in the Bible; those related to the sundial of Ahaz. When King Hezekiah was deathly ill, his unrelenting prayer was answered and he was given a fifteen year extension to his life. He was also given a sign by the prophet Isaiah as proof that he was going to recover. The shadow on the sundial of Ahaz went back by ten degrees. On recovering from his sickness, the king said: “The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD” (Isaiah 38:20).

Hezekiah wrote ten of the psalms in this group of fifteen; however, he did not give any of them a title. There would be no reason for Hezekiah to affix his name to them because he has already called them “my songs.”

Psalm 120 is a prayer for help combining sorrow and confidence. Verse 1 calls for help because of the distressful circumstances of the Diaspora and the difficulties encountered on the journey to Jerusalem.  Verses 2-4 respond in the only way possible in a culture without internal police forces, by a curse that places the evil situation squarely in God’s hands (Ps. 69). In verses 5-7 the foreign lands stretch as far north as Meshech2 near the Black Sea (Gen. 10:2) to Kedar2 in southern Arabia (Isa. 21:13-17). Despite its dangers the psalmist confesses the need (v. 7) to go on the pilgrimage to pray for peace.


Notes and Scripture pertaining to the introduction.

  1. “A song of degrees” or “of ascents,” as others has rendered it. This title is given to this and to the other 14 psalms which follow.
  2. The two names are probably used as typical examples of the wild and inhospitable peoples among whom many of the Jews were exiled. Meshech was the son of Japheth (Gen. 10:2). Kedar was a son of Ishmael (Ge. 25:13). Though they came from different parents, their descendents seem to have had much the same manner, habits, and dispositions. All of them were fierce and cruel idolaters.


Meshech, the sixth son of Japheth (Genesis 10:2) was the founder of a tribe (1 Chronicles 1:5; Ezek. 27:13; 38:2, 3). They were in all probability the Moschi, a people inhabiting the Moschian Mountains, between the Black and the Caspian Seas. In Psalm 120:5 the name occurs as simply a synonym for foreigners or barbarians. "During the ascendency of the Babylonians and Persians in Western Asia, the Moschi were subdued; but it seems probable that a large number of them crossed the Caucasus range and spread over the northern steppes, mingling with the Scythians. There they became known as Muscovs, and gave that name to the Russian nation and its ancient capital by which they are still generally known throughout the East"

Kedar (dark-skinned), the second in order of the sons of Ishmael, (Ge. 25:13; 1 Chron. 1:29) and the name of a great tribe of Arabs settled on the northwest of the peninsula and on the confines of Palestine. The "glory of Kedar" is recorded by the prophet Isaiah, (Isa. 21:13-17) in the burden upon Arabia; and its importance may also be inferred from the "princes of Kedar" mentioned by Ezekiel, (Eze. 27:21) as well as the pastoral character of the tribe. They appear also to have been, like the wandering tribes of the present day, "archers" and "mighty men." (Isa. 21:17) comp. Ps. 120:5 That they also settled in villages or towns we find from Isaiah. (Isa. 42:11) The tribe seems to have been one of the most conspicuous of all the Ishmaelite tribes, and hence the rabbis call the Arabians universally by this name.


Psalms 120:1-7 (KJV)


1. {A Song of degrees.} In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.

The psalmist is far away from his home living among the Bedouins of the northern edge of the Syrian Arabian desert. The psalmist has just experienced the reality of God’s hearing and answering prayer. If this was Hezekiah speaking, and the scene and setting of this psalm are the Syrian invasion, then the psalmist had just had a very recent and remarkable experience of God answering prayer.

If this psalm was written during the time of the Assyrian invasion Hezekiah could well state, “In my distress I cried unto the LORD [If you cannot pray, cry.], and he heard me.” He had cried out to God during his sickness. He had been delivered from death, the king of terrors. Now he wanted to be delivered from the king of Assyria. God’s help in the past encourages prayer and faith for the future

 2. Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.

There can be little doubt that this is a reference to Rabshakeh, a golden-tongued orator who was being paid by the Assyrian king. He was history’s first propagandist. Rabshakeh assured the Hebrews that Egypt, one of the countries that some in Judah were looking to for aid, was a broken reed. He told the Jews that God had deserted them because Hezekiah’s reforms had insulted the gods. As for Jehovah, he was just a tribal deity; Assyria made short work of the god’s of other nations, and Judah’s God would be no exception.

Like all successful propaganda, it was a clever mixture of truth and lies, promises and threats. When Hezekiah asked Rabshakeh to speak in the Assyrian tongue, which only encouraged the propagandist to speak even more loudly in Hebrew―so that the rank and file defenders on the walls could hear. The psalmist wanted to be delivered from this lying tongue, this tongue that was anxious to weaken and destabilize the defense of Jerusalem. False and slanderous accusations are always very difficult to endure and even harder to counter. Slander is a vile sin; but even Christian people are not as watchful against it as they should be (James 3).

 3. What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?

The real problem was how to extinguish not only the fires set ablaze by the falsehoods and insinuations of the enemy, but the lying tongue itself. Hezekiah commanded the citizens of Jerusalem to make no reply to Rabshakeh. Silence was the only answer he could conceive. To deny or argue would only strengthen the force of the enemies’ claims.

Similarly for us, when we are attacked verbally, silence is often the only answer, but so often that seems too passive a solution. Retribution, however, is the prerogative of God; it is He who must pay back the deceitful person. The psalmist wondered how he would do it, but he had no doubt he would.

The question the psalmist asks is “What shall be given to you since you are guilty of these foul practices?” He may be addressing Doeg or some other wicked person in Saul’s court, who is well-known for his wickedness. The sense may be this, it is true that you do me harm, but what do you get out of it? For although you may attain some favor and advantage from Saul, you will surely bring upon yourself the curse and vengeance of God; you have nothing to gain from all your foul acts. And to do harm to another without benefiting yourself is an inhuman and diabolical wickedness.

The question is more than an inquiry; it is a preface to the warning in verse 4. God’s judgment is coming and the wicked will be punished.

4. Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.

This is his answer to the question he asked in the previous verse. As they have done, may it be done to them. May an enemy tribe with the sharp arrows [or, fiery arrows] of warriors come against them.

The psalmist wanted to see the enemy repaid in kind and in full―it was not, of course, a Christian prayer, but one appropriate for his day and age. The psalmist here gives a figurative intimation of the punishment reserved for slanderers. As sure as the poison arrow shot by an expert hits its mark and takes the life of the victim, revenge shall overtake an offender against God and man.

The word translated “juniper” is the Hebrew word for broom, a plant from which even today the Arabs make charcoal of the finest quality (charcoal that makes the hottest fire and retains its heat for the longest time). That was what the psalmist wished: he wished he could take those arrows of the enemy, affix them to red hot charcoal, and shoot them back at him.

 5. Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, thatI dwell in the tents of Kedar!

The psalmist is speaking metaphorically here for Israel never sojourned in “Mesech” or dwelt in the tents of “Kedar.” He is simply indicating that this would be a cruel fate indeed, for my soul has long dwelt with him that hateth peace. The psalmist did nothing to elicit the slanderous remarks of his neighbors. “am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.” The centuries have not changed the situation, for the Middle East is today as volatile as it was in the day of the psalmist.

He expresses his profound discontent with three words, “Woe is me”; a well-known allusion to an outcast life. Denied the joys of home and friendship, and participation in the ordinances of God’s house, the believer may become very much like a wanderer among barbarians.

Meshech is mentioned in Genesis 10:2 as a son of Japheth. In the psalmist’s time the people of Meshech lived between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and Meshech probably refers to the Moschi of whom the Greek historian Herodotus speaks. Kedar is mentioned in Genesis 25:13 as the second son of Ishmael. The name stands for one of the wild Arab tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert (Kedar is the general rabbinic name for Arabia). The names Meshech and Kedar cannot be taken literally here; the psalmist could not possibly have been living at the same time in places so far apart. Rather, the names are used symbolically for a merciless people.

The psalmist felt that his enemies were ruthless like the people of Meshech, and untamed, like the people of Kedar. The Greeks would have called them “barbarians;” we might call them “hooligans, ruffians, or thugs.” Perhaps members of these remote tribes were mustered in the Assyrian army which was at that time encamped around Jerusalem.

Whatever the reality was, the psalmist felt he was dwelling among such people. Perhaps he was referring not only to the enemy outside the nation but also to the enemy inside. Again we need to pause and recall the situation. Hezekiah had instituted widespread reforms and had cleansed the nation of its abounding idolatries. His father, a weak man and a dedicated pagan, had given royal support to the apostasies, but Hezekiah, tutored and helped by his friend Isaiah, had put an end to all that. Holiness, however, cannot be legislated, even though idolatress practices can be made illegal, and it is evident that Hezekiah’s reforms had not converted everybody. Many only feigned obedience to the new laws and in enforcing them Hezekiah had many enemies, not a few of them had considerable power. How greatly Hezekiah’s efforts to bring about a revival failed are seen in the swift way court and country reverted back to idolatry after his death.

6. My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.

The psalmist wanted peace more than anything else; but there was no peace. How could there be peace in the world as long as Assyria brooded up there in the north, determined to expand its empire, determined to rule the world? There could be appeasement, but there could be no peace. Plenty of people were willing to march for peace in Jerusalem; let them try that in Nineveh! How up-to-date this sounds―people making peace for appeasement.

Hezekiah had tried appeasement, his father Ahaz had tried appeasement, but appeasement never works. Hezekiah had beggared the kingdom, hoping to buy off Assyria. But he soon found out that appeasement only encourages the enemy to ask for more and more and in the end to demand unconditional surrender.

The psalmist wanted peace; the enemy wanted the world. “My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace,” he complains. No terms were possible, except abject surrender, and then the process of becoming a pawn in the enemy’s plans for further expansion.

My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace,” might well be the language of many western statesmen today.

7.I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.

War was the ultimate instrument of Assyrian foreign policy; peace was the ultimate objective of Hezekiah. Despite all the discouragements, despite the seemingly impossible international situation, he was still for peace. The fact that the enemy was for war did not alter his own fundamental desire for peace―not peace at any price (he was ready to fight the Assyrians to the last man) but true peace. That is why this psalm is really a prayer. How can you have peace with a power that makes war the basic instrument of its policy? All you can do in a case like that is to prepare to defend yourself the best way you can and trust in God to do the rest.

History has shown how God dealt with the Assyrians.  This psalm simply assumes that God is still on the throne, that there is a higher power in the world than a superpower, and that ultimately God does vindicate those who stand for what’s right. God was not intimidated by the size of the Assyrian army, nor the number of chariots they could put in the field, nor was He intimidated by their experience and superior weapons.