This psalm starts a collection of fifteen (120 to 134) beginning with a similar superscription, namely, a song of ascendance (my translation), or more popularly, a song of ascents. Throughout the ages there has been disagreement as to the likely meaning, intent, or usage of these psalms. Much has been made of the Mishna’s description of the Temple that mentions the fifteen steps (of ascent) situated between the court of the women and the court of the Israelites. Also mentioned is that the Levites stood on these steps singing psalms. Once it was believed that the psalms being sung were these fifteen, but most scholars now discount that theory. Prevalent modern thought is that the ascent relates to the pilgrimage of the returning exiles from Babylon and the songs they chanted. However, judging only from the content of this psalm, I find it hard to believe the pilgrims would have chosen these words to sing along their way.
שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת אֶל־יְהוָה בַּצָּרָתָה לִּי קָרָאתִי וַיַּעֲנֵנִי׃ 120:1
Psal. 120:1 A song of the ascendance:
In my distress I called to the Lord,
and He answered me.
יְהוָה הַצִּילָה נַפְשִׁי מִשְּׂפַת־שֶׁקֶר מִלָּשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה׃ 120:2
Psal. 120:2 Lord, deliver my soul from deceptive language,
from a deceitful tongue.
מַה־יִּתֵּן לְךָ וּמַה־יֹּסִיף לָךְ לָשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה׃ 120:3
Psal. 120:3 What can be given to you,
and what more can be done to you, deceitful tongue?
חִצֵּי גִבּוֹר שְׁנוּנִים עִם גַּחֲלֵי רְתָמִים׃ 120:4
Psal. 120:4 Sharpened arrows of a mighty one,
with hot coals of broom plants!
אוֹיָה־לִי כִּי־גַרְתִּי מֶשֶׁךְ שָׁכַנְתִּי עִם־אָהֳלֵי קֵדָר׃ 120:5
Psal. 120:5 Woe is me!
For I sojourn with Meshech,
I dwell beside the tents of Kedar.
The terms Meshech and Kedar are metaphors. Meshech was one of the sons of Japheth (Gene. 10:2), whose descendants lived north of Israel. Kedar was the second son of Ishmael (Gene. 25:13), who is considered the progenitor of the Bedouin Arabs. It is presumed that the psalmist didn’t actually live there, but had removed himself to a place inhabited by heathens.
רַבַּת שָׁכְנָה־לָּהּ נַפְשִׁי עִם שׂוֹנֵא שָׁלוֹם׃ 120:6
Psal. 120:6 My soul has had enough of its dwelling
with one hating peace.
אֲנִי־שָׁלוֹם וְכִי אֲדַבֵּר הֵמָּה לַמִּלְחָמָה׃ 120:7
Psal. 120:7 I am peaceful,
but whenever I might speak,
they are for war.
The meaning of these last two verses in this context is rather obscure, unless we assume that the psalmist has extended his metaphors from the preceding verse. Might he simply be describing his neighbors not seeing eye to eye with him?
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