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290

PSALMS CXX.-CXXXIV.

These fifteen psalms form a short psalter within the Psalter, each having the same title (with a slight grammatical variation in Psalm cxxi.). Its meaning is very doubtful. Many of the older authorities understand it to signify "a song of steps," and explain it by a very uncertain tradition that these psalms were sung on fifteen steps leading from the court of the women to that of the men, each on one step. The R.V.'s rendering, "degrees," uses that word in this sense (like the Latin gradus). But though undoubtedly the word means steps, there is no sufficient support for the tradition in question; and, as Delitzsch well observes, if this were the meaning of the title, "it would be much more external than any of the other inscriptions to the Psalms."

Another explanation fixes on the literal meaning of the word—i.e., "goings up"—and points to its use in the singular for the Return from Babylon (Ezra vii. 9), as supporting the view that these were psalms sung by the returning exiles. There is much in the group of songs to favour this view; but against it is the fact that Psalms cxxii. and cxxxiv. imply the existence of the Temple, and the fully organised ceremonial worship.

A third solution is that the name refers to the structure of these psalms, which have a "step-like, progressive rhythm." This is Gesenius' explanation,291 adopted by Delitzsch. But the peculiar structure in question, though very obvious in several of these psalms, is scarcely perceptible in others, and is entirely absent from Psalm cxxxii.

The remaining explanation of the title is the most probable—that the "goings up" were those of the worshippers travelling to Jerusalem for the feasts. This little collection is, then, "The Song Book of the Pilgrims," a designation to which its contents well correspond.


292

PSALM CXX.

1 To Jehovah in my straits I cried,

And He answered me.

2 Jehovah, deliver my soul from the lying lip,

From the deceitful tongue.

3 What shall He give to thee, and what more shall He give thee,

Deceitful tongue?

4 Arrows of the Mighty, sharpened ones,

With coals of broom.

5 Woe is me that I sojourn in Meshech,

[That] I dwell beside the tents of Kedar!

6 Long has my soul had her dwelling

With him who hates peace.

7 I am—peace; but when I speak,

They are for war.

The collection of pilgrim songs is appropriately introduced by one expressive of the unrest arising from compulsory association with uncongenial and hostile neighbours. The psalmist laments that his sensitive "soul" has been so long obliged to be a "sojourner" where he has heard nothing but lying and strife. Weary of these, his soul stretches her wings towards a land of rest. His feeling ill at ease amidst present surroundings stings him to take the pilgrim's staff. "In" this singer's "heart are the ways."

The simplicity of this little song scarcely admits of separation into parts; but one may note that an introductory293 verse is followed by two groups of three verses each,—the former of which is prayer for deliverance from the "deceitful tongue," and prediction that retribution will fall on it (vv. 2-4); while the latter bemoans the psalmist's uncongenial abode among enemies (vv. 5-7).

The verbs in ver. 1 are most naturally referred to former experiences of the power of prayer, which encourage renewed petition. Devout hearts argue that what Jehovah has done once He will do again. Since His mercy endureth for ever, He will not weary of bestowing, nor will former gifts exhaust His stores. Men say, "I have given so often that I can give no more"; God says, "I have given, therefore I will give." The psalmist was not in need of defence against armed foes, but against false tongues. But it is not plain whether these were slanderous, flattering, or untrustworthy in their promises of friendship. The allusions are too general to admit of certainty. At all events, he was surrounded by a choking atmosphere of falsehood, from which he longed to escape into purer air. Some commentators would refer the allusions to the circumstances of the exiles in Babylon; others to the slanders of the Samaritans and others who tried to hinder the rebuilding of the Temple; others think that his own hostile fellow-countrymen are the psalmist's foes. May we not rather hear in his plaint the voice of the devout heart, which ever painfully feels the dissonance between its deep yearnings and the Babel of vain words which fills every place with jangling and deceit? To one who holds converse with God, there is nothing more appalling or more abhorrent than the flood of empty talk which drowns the world. If there was any specific foe in the psalmist's mind, he294 has not described him so as to enable us to identify him.

Ver. 3 may be taken in several ways, according as "deceitful tongue" is taken as a vocative or as the nominative of the verb "give," and as that verb is taken in a good or a bad sense, and as "thee" is taken to refer to the tongue or to some unnamed person. It is unnecessary to enter here on a discussion of the widely divergent explanations given. They fall principally into two classes. One takes the words "deceitful tongue" as vocative, and regards the question as meaning, "What retribution shall God give to thee, O deceitful tongue?" while the other takes it as asking what the tongue shall give unto an unnamed person designated by "thee." That person is by some considered to be the owner of the tongue, who is asked what profit his falsehood will be to him; while others suppose the "thee" to mean Jehovah, and the question to be like that of Job (x. 3). Baethgen takes this view, and paraphrases, "What increase of Thy riches canst Thou expect therefrom, that Thou dost permit the godless to oppress the righteous?" Grammatically either class of explanation is warranted; and the reader's feeling of which is most appropriate must decide. The present writer inclines to the common interpretation, which takes ver. 3 as addressed to the deceitful tongue, in the sense, "What punishment shall God inflict upon thee?" Ver. 4 is the answer, describing the penal consequences of falsehood, as resembling the crimes which they avenge. Such a tongue is likened to sharp arrows and swords in Psalms lvii. 4, lxiv. 3, etc. The punishment shall be like the crime. For the sentiment compare Psalm cxl. 9, 10. It is not necessary to suppose that the "Mighty" is God, though such295 a reference gives force to the words. "The tongue which shot piercing arrows is pierced by the sharpened arrows of an irresistibly strong One; it, which set its neighbour in a fever of anguish, must endure a lasting heat of broom-coals, which consumes it surely" (Delitzsch).

In the group of vv. 5-7, the psalmist bemoans his compulsory association with hostile companions, and longs to "flee away and be at rest." Meshech was the name of barbarous tribes who, in the times of Sargon and Sennacherib, inhabited the highlands to the east of Cilicia, and in later days retreated northwards to the neighbourhood of the Black Sea (Sayce, "Higher Criticism and Monuments," p. 130). Kedar was one of the Bedawin tribes of the Arabian desert. The long distance between the localities occupied by these two tribes requires an allegorical explanation of their names. They stand as types of barbarous and truculent foes—as we might say, Samoyeds and Patagonians. The psalmist's plaint struck on Cromwell's heart, and is echoed, with another explanation of its meaning which he had, no doubt, learned from some Puritan minister: "I live, you know where, in Meshech, which they say signifies prolonging; in Kedar, which signifies blackness; yet the Lord forsaketh me not" (Carlyle, "Letters and Speeches," i. 127: London, 1846). The peace-loving psalmist describes himself as stunned by the noise and quarrelsomeness of those around him. "I am—peace" (compare Psalm cix. 4). But his gentlest word is like a spark on tinder. If he but speaks, they fly to their weapons, and are ready without provocation to answer with blows.

So the psalm ends as with a long-drawn sigh. It inverts the usual order of similar psalms, in which the296 description of need is wont to precede the prayer for deliverance. It thus sets forth most pathetically the sense of discordance between a man and his environment, which urges the soul that feels it to seek a better home. So this is a true pilgrim psalm.

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