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  • Renée Coventry

Let's Start at the Very Beginning - Ps. 120!

The Songs of Ascent, or Songs of Degree, are a grouping of fifteen specific Psalms, 120-134, sung during the beginning of the feasts that detail the journey of the children of Israel as they left home and hearth for Jerusalem to celebrate. According to David Mitchell, who has studied the historical aspects of the Songs of Ascent, fifteen is not a random number but is derived from the name of Yah [God] with the first letter, yodh, having a numerical value of ten, and the second, heh, having the numerical number of five. In addition, Mr. Mitchell also explains that fifteen steps led up from the Court of Women to the Court of Israel on which the singers sang through the evening to the dawn, one song per step, as the singers advanced upward toward the manifest presence of God.[1] For the literary-minded, their name sprang from the step parallelism used in their construction. However, I will leave that for you to discover as we study them. Instead, I will focus on their content and how, by degrees, they ushered the children of Israel into the presence of God. So, let's begin!

Psalm 120

In my trouble I cried to the LORD, and He answered me.

Deliver my soul, 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? Sharp arrows of the warrior, with the burning coals of the broom tree.

Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech, for I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace.

I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.

Psalm 120 begins the journey of ascent, which starts with a cry of deliverance and a plea to disengage from the deceit of the tongue. It assumes that God has already responded to the request. It is a purposeful leaving behind of their circumstances and coming into agreement with God's truth. This makes sense. After all, if we're to enter the presence of the Eternal, Holy God, then we cannot afford to live in our delusions; we must lay down any pretense, deceit, and lie we have given place to and come before Him in truth.

Interestingly, the deceit is compared to sharp arrows and the burning coals of the broom tree. The Apostle Paul tells us our faith quenches such fiery darts, and the enemy's weapons are always rooted in a deception we have swallowed (Eph. 6:16). Sometimes they are subtle lies that cause compromise in small areas that grow into a tree under which we lie down to die.

The broom tree is also thought-provoking imagery. Job equates the tree with waste and desolation (Job 30:3-4). The prophet Elijah sat down under one and prayed for death after his historical encounter with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 19:4), and here the Psalmist compares the deceitfulness of our tongues to it. One of the broom tree's characteristics is that it burns incredibly hot and so was used as charcoal. It is easy to see then where James gets his imagery of the tongue as a "fire, the very world of iniquity…and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell" (James 3:6). In fact, in famine, people ate the broom tree. A popular verse is Proverbs 18:21, which states, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit." But the broom tree doesn't bear fruit – they consumed the wood. There is nothing tasty or enjoyable about eating it. Only desperate people do so.

In this Psalm, the people acknowledge the sojourn in Meshach and dwell in Kedar. The meanings of these two places are specifically drawing out and dark, so there is an understanding among the people that the LORD is drawing them out from the dark places of deception into the light of truth. Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:43). So the Father lovingly draws us out of darkness, and the Son, our High Priest, causes us to ascend and walk boldly into His presence before the throne of grace and find mercy (Heb. 4:15-16).

This beginning Psalm ends with a statement that "too long" I have lived in this place, equating darkness with a hatred of peace, the shalom of God. On the contrary, it is a longing for completeness and tranquility in relationship with both God and man and a rejection of that which has caused them to war. This is precisely what deception does in our lives – it drives us to fight with what we know to be true. However, Christ assures us in John 8:31-32 that, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

If we are to enter the presence of the LORD, then we must exchange our delusions for discipleship. We must decrease, and He must increase. We cannot begin our ascent into His presence without an acknowledgment of our sin and a purposeful walking away from it to Christ, our Redeemer.

[1] David C. Mitchell. The Songs of Ascent (Newton Mearns: Campbell Publications, 2015).

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