Today we come back to a weekly series on the Psalms of Ascent, a group of 15 Psalms used as a liturgy for Jews in ancient Israel traveling to Jerusalem for feasts. Last week I wrote: “To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation.” Psalm 119 praises God’s law, but the following Psalms let us know that the law cannot deliver salvation.
The first Psalm of Ascent, Psalm 120, picks up from verse 136 of Psalm 119: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law,” but it also starts where the pilgrimage starts geographically. The full Psalm 120 is:
“A Song of Ascents.
In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!”
Each person traveling to Jerusalem came from a different place. Meshech was in the far north; Kedar in the far southeast. The Psalmist does not live in both places, but picture is that the same problems exist everywhere. Everyone lives among people with lying lips, a deceitful tongue, and who hate peace. Each of us in our own way are such people. In verse 3 the Psalmist is frustrated about what to do about this: “what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?” The next verse says that force or coercion won’t solve the problem. It must be solved internally because mankind is fundamentally broken. Society isn’t the cause of the problem, but an outcome of the problem, and we are frustrated with it.
However, those following the familiar liturgy of these Psalms would know that this frustration is only the beginning of their preparation to worship in Jerusalem. The place we all live – this entire creation – is groaning for a solution, a way out, and struggling to find it. All of mankind is in this boat together, but we’re “gonna need a bigger boat.” The pilgrimage begins with knowing we have a need that we can’t satisfy ourselves.
On their days- or weeks-long journeys to Jerusalem these pilgrims had to bring the baggage from their home lives with them – literally and figuratively. They certainly lied to and fought with each other on the way. The trip lasted too long for them to pretend. Their baggage was visible to all, and they couldn’t make the trip without it. But they went. In today’s church, do we go to a place that is full of “good” people, however we define that? No, we go to a place with people just like us. We begin as sinners among sinners, from Meshech to Kedar, but we long for a better place.
If you are in distress, call out to the LORD for a place of peace, not just for eternity but for your journey to it. The church is “called out” to both places. The journey is worth it.
The title of this post, if you haven’t already guessed, comes from the musical West Side Story. The song is about the love between Tony and Maria, members of rival ethnic groups that insist on fighting even though they aren’t sure why. Therefore, Tony and Maria long for a place where the world’s hate doesn’t tear them apart.
In more ways than one, the sentiments of the song echo the last verses of today’s Psalm:
“Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”
Here is the song from the 1961 West Side Story film: