This psalm is the first in a series of fifteen psalms, called from ancient times psalms of ascent, or psalms of degree. What this means is frankly lost to us, but there have been reasonable speculations. John Calvin thought it had to do with the musical pitch of the psalm. A medieval rabbi said that the temple had fifteen steps, one psalm per step. I favor the view that argues that these are pilgrim psalms. When Israelites went to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, they were going up (Ex. 34:24; 1 Kings 12:27)
“In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me. Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, Thou false tongue? . . .” (Ps. 120:1–7)
Summary of the Text
When a pilgrim left home to go up to the Temple, he was going to worship the God of truth. He was leaving behind the realm of men, the provenance of liars. One likely occasion for the composition of this psalm is David’s recollection of the lies of Doeg the Edomite. The lies, whatever they were, were distressing, and the psalmist cried out to Jehovah, and Jehovah heard him (v. 1). He cries out for deliverance from the evils that come from a lying tongue (v. 2). The lips are soft, but in the service of the devil they are razor sharp. He then asks what the liar will receive in return for all his labors in lies (v. 3). There is ambiguity in the next verse—is it talking about harm done by the liar, or about the recompence that God pays back to the liar? I take it as the latter (v. 4). David did not physically live in Mesech, or in the tents of Kedar, but it was as though he dwelt among an uncouth, and fierce, and barbaric people (v. 5). Against his basic desire, he dwelt together with someone who hated peace (v. 6). Despite his longing for peace, and his desire for peace, no matter what, they wanted war (v. 7). They insisted on unnecessary conflict.
The Liar Fights Dirty
One of the things that is so exasperating about dealing with slanderers and liars is not the fact of conflict with them. Rather it is that they feel free to use maneuvers that the righteous are prohibited from using. They are far more flexible in their construal of facts because they don’t need to go to the library to check them.
But a true man will not even touch the weapons that the slanderers resort to so readily. A true man will not return that kind of fire, trying to blacken the character of someone who is blackened enough already.
Deception and Lies
Having said all this, we must acknowledge that there is a difference between slander where there ought to be comity, and deception where there is already war.
The Hebrew midwives were blessed by God because they misled Pharaoh in his murderous policy (Ex. 1:19-20). And Jochebed, the mother of Moses, obeyed Pharaoh technically by putting the baby Moses in the Nile. The law didn’t say that the baby couldn’t be given a boat too (Ex. 2:2). And Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go away from Egypt for a three day journey into the wilderness, not forever and ever (Ex. 9:1). And Rahab deceived the agents of Jericho’s defenses by sending the spies out by another way than she said she did (Josh. 2:4; Jas. 2:25). And, moreover, this is what James identifies as the very moment that vindicated the genuineness of her faith. The strategy that Israel used at the second battle of Ai relied on deception (Josh. 8:2), using a tactic God gave them. And the tactic that God gave to David at relied on deception (2 Sam. 5:23). Deception in time of war is to lying what killing in war is to murder.
At the same time, God will pour out all His fury on liars. The lake of fire is reserved for “all liars” (Rev. 21:8). One of the Ten Commandments prohibits perjury against your neighbor (Ex. 20: 16). We must not lie to one another (Lev. 19:11). Lying is included in two of the seven things that God hates (Prov. 6:16-19). Because we have cast off the old man and his ways, we must not lie to one another (Col. 3:9).
We are servants of Christ, who is the Truth incarnate. This means that we must be men and women who speak the truth accurately. We must be boys and girls who do not lie.
The psalm begins with the grateful acknowledgement that God heard the prayer of this man in distress. God heard him (v. 1). This is part of the reason why I take the arrows of v. 4 as the arrows of God’s judgments. The previous verse asked the question, “what shall be done to you, oh, false tongue?” and the following verse answers the question. God will draw one of His mighty arrows out of His quiver—and you don’t want to be one of those condemned individuals that God draws a bead on. The white broom tree of the desert (ratam), rendered by the KJV as juniper, is a wood that burns hot and long.
A Generation of the Lie
We live in time that is dominated by the Lie. The Lie is the coin of the realm. The Lie comes at you from every direction. You are lied to in your Spotify playlist. You are lied to in the movies, in the books you read, and on the Internet. You are lied to by our culture, you are lied to by our political authorities, and you are lied to by the devil.
Keep in mind that it is a sin to believe a lie. That is how our race fell into sin in the first place. God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), and He told Adam to stay away from that tree. The devil wreathes himself in lies, and he is the one who told them to go ahead. The Fall was the result of believing a lie.
And one of the central ways to immunize yourself against believing lies is by resolving, before God, that you will speak the truth.