Psalm 120: Going down, to go up

Session 2 in the series "Bringing sons to glory"

Psalm 120 is the first of fifteen Psalms of ascent (Psalm 120 to Psalm 134). This teaching examines the original Hebrew text and presents spiritual insights for believers in Jesus.

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Psalm 120

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Psalm 120: Going down, to go up (Session 2)

This is the first of fifteen Psalms of Ascent.

Under the Old Covenant, Jews were told by God that they had to go up to Jerusalem three times a year for the three main feasts.

For Jews living in the Galilee, like Jesus, they would walk down the Jordan Valley, following the Jordan River as it descends to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. There, where the river enters the Dead Sea, at the place where Israel had crossed into the Promised Land after the exodus out of Egypt and after forty years of wandering, there at the lowest place on earth, they would make a right turn and head up to the mountains of Jerusalem. As they walked, they would sing these Psalms of Ascent.

Here is Psalm 120, a translation closely following the Hebrew text.

Song of the Ascents. To the LORD in my trouble I called, and He answered me.
LORD, deliver my soul from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.
What will He give to you, and what will He add to you, deceitful tongue?
Sharp arrows of a strong man with coals of retem plants.
Woe is me because I sojourned in Meshech; I dwelt with the tents of Kedar.
Too long has my soul had its dwelling with haters of peace.
I am at peace. And because I will speak, they are for war.

Here it is in the Hebrew: (Read Psalm 120 in Hebrew.)

The Old Testament has many types and shadows that give hints of the spiritual fulfillment that would come through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and what that would mean in the life of faith for those who would come to believe in Jesus.

Jews going up to Jerusalem would sing these psalms. They were making a physical walk on an actual path to an actual city with an actual Temple. We try to understand the words of the Psalms of Ascent from the point of view of the Jewish pilgrims of Israel, but also to learn the spiritual insights that apply to us as believers in Jesus ... a people who are being joined together as a temple of living stones.

Psalm 120, verse 1. Most, but not all of the Psalms of Ascent start with this phrase, "Shir ha maalot" ... Song of the ascents. "Maale" (singular) means "ascent". An ascent is a slope. If we want to get where we need to go, we have to start climbing. "Maalot" is the plural, "ascents". The destination is Jerusalem. There are a series of ascents, climbs, up a series of rising mountains, before we get there.

"Ha maalot" .. the ascents. These Psalms are not about any climb ... they are about the journey to Jerusalem ... for us, to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Verse 1 continues ... the Psalmist speaks to the LORD, "El Adonai". The word which we say as "Adonai" is spelled in Hebrew YUD HEH VAV HEH. To Jews, YUD HEH VAV HEH is unpronounceable. The word occurs more than 6,800 times in the original Hebrew text of the Bible. When Jews come to this word, they substitute, they say "Adonai", which means "LORD" in Hebrew. Or they say, "Ha Shem" ... "the Name".

YUD HEH VAV HEH is a word that represents the name of the LORD. It is not the name of the LORD. It is a hint of the Name.

In Isaiah, we read that God said: "My people shall know My name." What is implied? They did not have a name to call on ... a personal name for God. They only had a word that represents the name of God. But, one day, it's stated in Isaiah, they will know.

After the resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Peter (a Jew) brought the revelation: "There is salvation in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven that is given among men by which we must be saved."

Salvation is only in the name of Jesus. There is power in the name of Jesus ... Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah ... the One who was crucified and rose from the dead. It is ludicrous to imagine that Jews were incapable of adding made-up vowel sounds, and turning YUD HEH VAV HEH into a word like "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Yahua", and then that would be the name that they, or anyone else, could call on for salvation.

Scripture says there is only one name by which we must be saved. YUD HEH VAV HEH hints at the name of Jesus.

Back to verse 1: "To the LORD in my trouble I called, and He answered me." (Read in Hebrew).

The Psalms of Ascent start with me calling out to God, recognising that I need help. And He answers.

It starts with turning to the LORD ... repenting, a Christian might say. To repent is to turn to God, in Jesus Christ. We have been going our own wilful, selfish way. Now we make a sharp turn to the LORD. Turning off the path that leads to death.

In a literal sense, if the Jewish pilgrims did not turn and head up to Jerusalem at this point, they might end up in the lifeless Dead Sea. They have come down to the lowest place on earth. Now they must turn and go up.

In a spiritual sense, we come to an end of ourselves. Now we can start to grow in God ... to grow in the LORD Jesus.

Back to Psalm 120. After turning to the LORD, I become convicted of the sinful state of my heart. Verses 2 to 6 are my confession of my shame.

Verse 2: (Read in Hebrew) "LORD, deliver my soul ..." You save me, LORD. Do for me what I cannot do for myself.

"LORD deliver my soul from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue." Deliver me from my tongue.

The Bible says that life and death are in the power of the tongue. Jesus said, "Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks."

Each and every one of us is corrupt. Each and every one of us has suffered from the fall. Each and every one of us is so warped by sin that we are capable even of deceiving ourselves. And the trouble with being deceived is that we don't know that we are deceived. The Holy Spirit has to help me with that too. It's not comfortable being convicted of sin but, it's necessary.

So, I call on the LORD for help. I recognise that I have no power to overcome this manifestation of the sinful state of my heart. The deceitful tongue is mine.

Verse 3: "What will He give to you, and what will He add to you deceitful tongue." (Read in Hebrew). In other words, what would it profit me, and what will I gain in this life, by relying on what comes from my lips? On what comes out of my heart and mind? It's a recognition that my life, without the power of the LORD, is marked by vanity and futility.

Verse 4 ... (Read in Hebrew). "Sharp arrows of a strong man, with coals of retem plants."

Here is a description of what my deceitful tongue does. It releases sharp arrows ... it wounds.

A second example: the retem is the broom tree. When burned, the coals stay hot for a long time. They may look like they are burned out, but there is still heat in them. Touch them, and they'll hurt. I could be burned by something that I thought was dormant.

It's a picture which shows exactly what my problem is. Without the LORD, my words may overflow hurtfully at any time.

Verse 5 ... (Read in Hebrew) "Woe is me ..." (Read in Hebrew) "... because I sojourned in Meshech. I dwelt with the tents of Kedar."

"Sojourned" ... the Hebrew word "garti" is past tense ... "I sojourned". It indicates a temporary stay ... someone who was there for a while.

"Shachanti" is also a past tense word ... not "I live", but "I lived, I dwelt, I stayed" ... "with the tents of Kedar" ... among them.

Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Meshech was a descendant of Japheth. Kedar was a descendant of Shem, through the line of Ishmael.

This is simply a recognition that I have been in the world ... among the peoples of the world ... living by the values of a fallen world ... and, it has brought me grief.

In 1 John chapter 2, we read ... "Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not from the Father, but from the world."

The LORD wants me to be separated. In the world, but not of the world. It's my heart that must depart.

The Holy Spirit reveals that things unseen are eternal. There is a life that is truly life. To experience the richness of the life that is truly life, I need to shift my focus away from the life that is not truly life.

Verse 6: (Read Hebrew) "Too long has my soul had its dwelling with haters of peace."

The nature of the world, and the people in the world is selfishness. Everything has to serve their desires. And that's where I have been, for too long.

But, now I come to verse 7. I have confessed, and now I can say, "Ani shalom" ... "I am at peace." (Read whole verse in Hebrew).

I am at peace because I have turned to the LORD, and I have confessed my shame, and the LORD has answered.

Now, "I will speak". (Read in Hebrew) The Hebrew is "adaber" ... it is future tense. And because I will speak, because I will be speaking up for Jesus, I have set myself at odds with the people of the world.

"I am at peace and, because I will speak, they are for war". (In Hebrew) "they are for war". They are for contention, and strife.

I don't think that this is a boastful, "I'm going to be a great witness for You Jesus". If it is, the LORD is going to have to humble me some more, as when Peter said "I will never deny You LORD". But he did. Yes, Jesus restored Peter, but not before he had suffered humiliation.

I think that the statement in verse 7 of this Psalm recognises that there is a spirit in the people of the world that is at odds with the Spirit who is now working in me. The Holy Spirit is going to purify me, and use me but, it's not going to be without opposition.

If you go to our website where these video sessions are embedded, you can download a pdf with the English translation and the Hebrew text of this Psalm of ascent. Included is the numeric value of each word of the Hebrew text.

In Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet has a numeric value. We can work out the value of each word. This is not numerology; this is not something that over-rides the plain text of the Bible. It is simply there. People who grow up with Hebrew as their native language can look at a word and recognise the numeric value of each letter, and quickly calculate the value of the word.

Now, here is something interesting. We have seen in Psalm 120 the first steps in the life of faith:
1) Turn to the LORD
2) Confess my shame, and
3) Receive His peace.

If a Hebrew speaker wants to use Hebrew numerics to record the number 702 … they could use the letter TAV (value 400), the letter SHIN (value 300), and the letter BET (value 2). 400 plus 300 plus 2 equals 702. The Hebrew letters are TAV, SHIN and BET.

It doen't matter what order they're in. The three letters always add up to 702.

The three letters can be organised in different ways. The letters can spell different Hebrew words.

The word for "turn" (as an imperative), in Hebrew, is "Tashuv" (TAV, SHIN, BET). There are our three letters.

The word for "shame" is "Boshet" ... the same three letters, but BET, SHIN, TAV.

And the word for "rest" is "shabbat" ... SHIN, BET, TAV.

Three words, three separate meanings. Numeric value of each of the three words ... 702.

Interestingly, in the Psalms of Ascent, as we get toward the end of the series of Psalms, we find these three words on view.

In Psalm 132 verse 10, we find the word "Tashuv" ... "turn".

A few verses on, at the end of Psalm 132, verse 18, we find the word "Boshet" ... "shame".

And the first verse of the next Psalm, Psalm 133, we find the word "shevet" or "shabbat" ... "rest".

How interesting that these three words would occur close together, toward the end of the Psalms of Ascent, pointing back, I might say, to what we have learned in this first Psalm of Ascent ... God's order for drawing close to Himself: Turn to the LORD (to Jesus) ... Confess my shame ... And receive His peace.

The numeric value of 702 can be expressed as 18 x 13 x 3. Or, it could also be expressed as 26 x 3 x 3 x 3.

Note these two numbers ... 18 and, in particular, 26. We shall see these numbers, linking themes in the Psalms ahead.

There is a watermark of God in Scripture. A seal that proves that the text is from Him. A mathematical design underlying the Scripture. Nothing that changes the plain meaning of Scripture, but a sign for those willing to accept it, that the text is supernatural. It could only have come from God.

Here's one last thing. The Hebrew word Shabbat (meaning rest), occurs twice in the Psalms of Ascent.

We have seen it in Psalm 133 ... as we arrive at our destination. The psalm is about unity. All God's people joined together.

However, there is an occurrence of the word Shabbat before this ... in Psalm 127 ... the middle Psalm of the fifteen Psalms of Ascent. But, the word Shabbat here is joined in the original text with the word "m'acharei" ... "m'acharei shevet" ... meaning "from delayed rest".

Jesus was a Jew. The first to believe in Him were Jews. The writers of the New Testament were Jews.

But, most Jews rejected Jesus. They were looking for a Conquering King, not a Suffering Servant, and they missed their Messiah. They remain under The Law. They are still working toward rest. We, who believe in Jesus, are working from rest. The resurrrection has already occurred ... after shabbat.

But, God has promises for the remnant of Israel. God is going to regather them, and save them ... in the land of Israel.

God is faithful ... faithful to His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is going to regather the Jews and reveal their Messiah to them. Their rest has been delayed but, the remnant will enter.

Did you ever notice? Psalm 113, 114, 115, 116, 117 and 118 (six Psalms) are called the Hallel Psalms (The Praise Psalms). These six Hallel Psalms are sung by Jews at the three main festivals. Jesus sang them at the Last Supper ... a Passover meal.

Why do they appear in this order in the Bible?

The Psalms of Ascent are Psalms 120 through to 134. The Psalms of Ascent come after the Hallel Psalms in the Biblical order. Surely, the Hallel Psalms should have been arranged after the Psalms of Ascent ... when the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem for the feasts?

There is no mistake. There is a hint of what is to come. Most Jews missed that Passover with Jesus. But the LORD is going to do "a great thing" in their soon-coming salvation. In the meantime, they have been "kept" under The Law. And between the Hallel Psalms and the Psalms of Ascent is Psalm 119 ... the longest chapter in the Bible ... the Psalm that exalts The Law.

And The Law is good. The Law reveals God's holiness ... His perfect standard. The problem is not with The Law. The problem is with people (scripture ref from Hebrews)

We can't keep The Law. Jews can't keep all The Law, which is what they have obligated themselves to do. We don't have it in us to keep The Law. A person is setting themselves up to fail if they say that they will keep The Law. And Jews do say that when they reach the age of maturity, at their Bar Mitzvah.

The Law shows our need. The Law points to the Saviour. The Law reveals Jesus. Jesus kept The Law. Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

And, the remnant of Israel is going to find salvation. Israel is going to meet her Saviour. And we are all to be transformed, little by little, into the image of Jesus.