Psalm 120 Translation and Comment

A Song of Ascents or Degrees

This designation is used of Psalms 120-134. There is no certain knowledge of what it means. Maybe it was a sort of music, or poetic structure. Perhaps it referred to occasions or places where they were sung. The most commonly accepted view is that they were pilgrim psalms for people “going up” to Jerusalem.

To Yahweh I yelled out in my anguish:

(And he answered me.)

“Save my life, Yahweh

From lying lips and treacherous tongues!”

What can be added about you, tongue?

What image can be given for you, treacherous tongue?

‘Arrows of a warrior whetted

On the burning wood of the broom.’

Misfortune for me, exiled in the far north,

Or befriending Bedouin in the far south!

For too long my soul has lived

With people who hate peace;

I want peace: but when I propose it,

They want war.

This is a brief and laconic psalm. All sorts of explanation have been given by scholars as to why it is included as a pilgrim psalm, none of which are convincing. Perhaps the rhetoric of dwelling in foreign areas connects with the need to make pilgrimage and find peace.

There is an interpretive difficulty: do the lines about whetted arrows refer literally to the divine punishment of liars, or metaphorically to the treacherous tongues? I find the latter more convincing and have therefore translated the preceding two lines as referring to the search for a metaphor. I think this is coherent, but more experienced translators have done differently.

I consider all the language about distant places as rhetoric designed to describe the foreigners of the enemies and the loneliness of the psalmist. Probably he actually lives in Israel. The psalm does express a longing to live in a community that respects the Torah.

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