When Peace Fails: Psalm 120
In these troubled times we often look to psalms to express our feelings and to find hope.
Psalm 120 seems especially relevant now. It begins by calling on God for protection from the deceptive speech of the speaker’s enemies:
שיר המעלות קכ:א שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת אֶל יְ־הוָה בַּצָּרָתָה לִּי קָרָאתִי וַיַּעֲנֵנִי. קכ:ב יְ־הוָה הַצִּילָה נַפְשִׁי מִשְּׂפַת שֶׁקֶר מִלָּשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה.
Ps 120:1 A song of ascents. In my distress, I called to YHWH and He answered me. 120:2 O YHWH, save me from treacherous lips, from a deceitful tongue!
Why are treacherous lips and a deceitful tongue so bad? Because words lead to acts. They are as dangerous as weapons. When spoken out loud or taught to children to promote and perpetuate hate, they rally listeners to do harmful acts.
The speaker, in a rhetorical flourish, then asks the deceitful tongue, what is to be gained by such speech:
קכ:ג מַה יִּתֵּן לְךָ וּמַה יֹּסִיף לָךְ לָשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה.
120:3 What can you profit, what can you gain, O deceitful tongue?
The answer, put graphically, is:
קכ:ד חִצֵּי גִבּוֹר שְׁנוּנִים עִם גַּחֲלֵי רְתָמִים.
120:4 A warrior’s sharp arrows, with hot coals of broom-wood.
Comparing lying lips and deceitful tongues to arrows or sharp weapons is found elsewhere in the Bible. For example:
תהלים נב:ד הַוּוֹת תַּחְשֹׁב לְשׁוֹנֶךָ כְּתַעַר מְלֻטָּשׁ עֹשֵׂה רְמִיָּה. נב:ה אָהַבְתָּ רָּע מִטּוֹב שֶׁקֶר מִדַּבֵּר צֶדֶק סֶלָה.
Ps 52:4 Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. 52:5 You prefer evil to good, the lie, to speaking truthfully. Selah
But in our verse, the deceitful tongue will be “rewarded” (that is, punished) with sharpened and heated arrows. Measure for measure: Just as lying speech does as much damage as a sharp weapon, so will it be attacked with sharp weapons. Arrows had metal or flint tips that were heated with hot coals (Ps. 7:14), and the wood of the broom tree retains its heat for a long time (Job 30:4).
The final verses express the speaker’s sense of isolation and alienation, of living among those who have an opposing view of the world, espousing a destructive agenda:
תהלים קכ:ה אוֹיָה לִי כִּי גַרְתִּי מֶשֶׁךְ שָׁכַנְתִּי עִם אָהֳלֵי קֵדָר.
Ps 120:5 Woe is me, that I live with Meshech, that I dwell among the clans of Kedar.
The speaker (metaphorically) lives with Meshech and among the Ishmaelite clan of Kedar. These are two militant peoples who lived on the northwestern and southeastern peripheries of Israel. More pointedly, these opponents are “those who hate peace” and are “for war,” while the speaker is “peace”:
קכ:ו רַבַּת שָׁכְנָה לָּהּ נַפְשִׁי עִם שׂוֹנֵא שָׁלוֹם. קכ:ז אֲנִי שָׁלוֹם וְכִי אֲדַבֵּר הֵמָּה לַמִּלְחָמָה.
120:6 Too long have I dwelt with those who hate peace. 120:7 I am all peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
The psalm ends on a note of hopelessness, and indeed, it is easy to feel that hopelessness now, in the aftermath of October 7th, when our people were struck down by an organization that hates peace, and whose massacre and kidnapping of innocents has gone well beyond words.
But we should cling to the idea that אֲנִי שָׁלוֹם “I am peace,” that we who want to live in peace will triumph. And we should return to the beginning of the psalm, where the speaker tells us that whenever in the past he called upon God in time of trouble, God has protected him, אֶל יְ־הוָה בַּצָּרָתָה לִּי קָרָאתִי וַיַּעֲנֵנִי “In my distress I called to YHWH and He answered me.”
May He do so in this time, too.
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Prof. Adele Berlin is the Robert H. Smith Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department.