The Song of a Truly Blessed Man (Phil Johnson)

Psalm 120   |   Sunday, April 15, 2012   |   Code: 2012-04-15-PJ

by Phil Johnson

     About three-quarters of the way through the book of psalms, starting with Psalm 120, is an amazing collection of fairly brief psalms, fifteen of them, and all fifteen begin with this superscription: "A Song of Ascents." In the King James Version it's translated "A Song of degrees." The only place in all of Scripture where you will find that superscription is in Psalms 120-134, at the beginning of each of those psalms.

     So this is a collection of psalms, purposely grouped together for us—like a book of choruses bound within the larger Hebrew hymnbook—a compact booklet of short psalms within the full, canonical book of Psalms.

     Four of the fifteen "Psalm[s] of ascents" include bylines that attribute them to David; one has Solomon's byline; and the rest are anonymous. Psalm 132 speaks of David in the third person and may have been written by Solomon. Tradition says the collection of 15 was compiled by Ezra, who also may have written some of the anonymous ones.

     As I said, they are short psalms. The longest is Psalm 132 at 18 verses. The second-longest is only half that long—Psalm 122, at 9 verses. The shortest are only three verses long—Psalms 131, 133, and 134—three 3-verse songs. In fact, the average length of psalms in this collection is 6.7 verses.

     The style of these psalms is distinctive, too. The parallelisms you typically find throughout the book of psalms are mostly absent in this set of psalms. These psalms are all epigrammatic. An epigram is a short poem with a single theme expressed in a witty or poignant way. Most of these psalms end with a singular, memorable statement that sums up the point, or the lesson, or the theme of the psalm. So in most cases, if you want to identify the main point of the psalm, you'll find it highlighted in the final verse. In a few cases, however, the theme is given in the opening verse. Either way, all of these are basically one-subject psalms.

     They are like praise choruses. They are short verses meant to be easily memorized and sung by heart rather than hymns to be read and sung from the hymnbook. And the superscription gives a wonderful clue about how these psalms were employed in the Hebrew culture. The word "Ascents" is the plural form of a Hebrew noun that speaks of an elevation. It signifies movement upward; gaining altitude; "going up." Literally, these are songs about going up.

     Now, beyond that, neither the text nor any reliable Hebrew history records why these 15 psalms were grouped this way. Some commentators suggest this is a notation for the singer about the tunes to which the psalms were sung—that they were set in a higher key, or that the tune starts out low and goes up a higher with each verse. So "Songs of ascents" would be a musical notation.

     Here's some historical trivia for you seminary guys: Calvin held that view. He wrote, "The probable conjecture is, that this title ["A Song of degrees"] was given to these Psalms because they were sung in a higher key than others." He said, "I agree with those who are of opinion that it denotes the different musical notes rising in succession." But then Calvin added that he was not inclined "to make it the subject of elaborate investigation." So I'm going to disagree with Calvin here.

     That interpretation is a minority opinion, and I don't think it's very satisfactory, because it doesn't really explain why these psalms are grouped together in the canon like this. We don't arrange the hymns in our hymnbooks by the tunes or by musical keys. There's no advantage in that, even for musicians. We arrange our hymns topically, and although the psalms in the Hebrew psalter are not organized rigidly into topical categories, there is evidence of order in the arrangement we have. Psalms that go together are frequently grouped together in logical sequence. For example, Psalms 22, 23, and 24 are all messianic psalms. Psalm 22 is about the crucifixion; Psalm 23 is about Christ's present ministry as Shepherd of His flock; and Psalm 24 is a hymn of praise to the Lord with a fairly clear reference to His second coming (Psalm 24:7): "Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in."

     You frequently see evidence that the Psalms have been ordered in a deliberate sequence. There's a thread of continuity, for example, in the theme of praise that runs from the last verse of the seventh through the eighth, to the ninth psalm.

     Also, (and you probably know this already) the whole canonical book of Psalms is subdivided into five smaller books. You'll find headers marking these divisions in most Bibles: Book 1, consists of the first 41 psalms; Book 2 (the next 30 psalms) includes Psalms 42 through 72; Book 3 (just 17 psalms long), Psalms 73 through 89; Book 4 (also just 17 psalms), Psalms 90 through 106; and Book 5 (the longest, with 44 psalms), Psalms 107-150. That final book (book 5 of the Psalms) includes the longest psalm of all—Psalm 119, which weighs in at 176 verses. That one psalm is longer than all 15 of the "Song[s] of Ascents" combined.

     Psalm 119 is immediately preceded by a collection of six Psalms known as the Hallel Psalms—Psalms 113-118. They are songs of praise that were (and still are) recited at joyous occasions. The Hallel Psalms were particularly associated with the three great Jewish pilgrim festivals—Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Those were the most important festivals each year, and for many centuries, starting in Old Testament times, thousands of Jewish pilgrims would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate those three occasions every year. Hallel would be recited during the festivities in Jerusalem. Those six psalms said together in succession constitute Hallel ShalEM, or "complete Hallel."

     You probably recognize the expression hallel from the word hallelujah. It is the Hebrew word for "praise." So by stitching those six psalms together, you have Hallel shalEM, a wonderful prayer of pure praise to God.

     So you have the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118); then Psalm 119 (which is an epic hymn about the Word of God); and then next in order are the "Psalm[s] of Ascents." Three collections of psalms deliberately categorized in groups, all within the fifth of five books of psalms that make up the complete psalter. So these psalms labeled "A Song of Ascents" is a distinct collection, clearly arranged in this order by design. What does it mean?

     As I said, I don't think this is a musical notation. There are other possible explanations. One common Jewish tradition, echoed by many of the older Christian commentators, suggests that these 15 psalms were recited during the Jewish festivals by the priests while they were ascending 15 steps on the way from the court of the women to the court of the Israelites. I think that's the idea reflected in the King James Version translation—"Song[s] of degrees"—a step-by-step ascent to a higher place. The exact same word translated "ascents" or "degrees" here is used in Exodus 20:26: "You shall not go up by steps to my altar." Also you have that word twice in 1 Kings 10:19-20, describing Solomon's great ivory throne: "The throne had six steps [with] twelve lions . . . one on each end of a step on the six steps." That word is translated "steps" or "stairs" more than a dozen times in the Old Testament. And usually, when it's not speaking of stairs, the word refers to the degrees on a sundial. It's used that way also about a dozen or so times in the Hebrew Scriptures.

     So here in the Psalms, these superscriptions might well have been translated "A Psalm of Steps." But the problem with the "fifteen steps" interpretation is that there is no reliable ancient source—no historical or archaeological evidence—of any such steps anywhere in the Temple court. Besides: imagine how long it would take priests to ascend a flight of 15 stairs if they stopped on each step to recite a different psalm. It makes a funny picture in my mind, and Jewish ceremony was more solemn than that. I suppose it could have happened that way, but I doubt it.

     Perhaps the best understanding of what these psalms were grouped together for is really much more obvious than that. This word, which often means "stairs" can be used to refer to any upward journey. It's the same word used, for example, in Ezra 7:9 to describe Ezra's journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. That verse says, "For on the first day of the first month he began to go up [or "make his ascent"] from Babylonia." Another possible literal translation of this word, then, is "a journey to a higher place." And that, I'm convinced, is the sense of this superscription. These are "Psalms for the journey to a higher place."

     The position in the canon is significant, I think. They are grouped with Psalm 119 and the hallel Psalms. Most commentators nowadays believe these 15 psalms were sung by groups of pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for those three pilgrim festivals—the same holy convocations where the Hallel psalms were sung. (Spurgeon questions whether they were group choruses, because the psalmist usually speaks in the voice of first person singular. But our congregational hymns are often like that: "It is well with my soul"; "Be thou my vision"; "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah"; and so on. So despite the first person singular pronouns, these actually work fine as congregational songs.)

     So it's my conviction that the "Psalm[s] of Ascents" were songs for the journey. These are songs for pilgrims as they ascend to a higher place. You know that Jerusalem is situated on a high elevation. The Temple was built at the very top of Mount Zion, and the city itself was the highest populated place in Israel. So no matter where you were coming from, it was always up to Jerusalem. Every journey to Jerusalem was a pilgrimage to a higher place—and those annual pilgrimages therefore made a perfect metaphor for spiritual growth. That is the very thing this collection of psalms celebrates: the development of virtues that are produced as the natural fruit of faith.

     By the way, these annual journeys to Jerusalem weren't just family road trips. Pilgrims in Israel typically traveled to the festivals in fairly large companies. You see this in Luke 2, when Jesus' parents brought Him as a twelve-year-old to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When they left at the end of the festival, they didn't realize Jesus was not with their throng of travelers. Luke 2:44 says, "supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances." (And of course they had to return to Jerusalem, where they found Him in the Temple.) But that account gives us an idea what these pilgrimages were like. The whole community—relatives, neighbors, acquaintances from one's village or neighborhood—would go together en masse. Late in his life, Jesus made the ascent from Jericho to Jerusalem for that final Passover, and He and His disciples were accompanied by a large group of followers, both men and women.

     Of course any assembly of pilgrims going up for the feasts would include not only women, but also children, aged people, animals, and ox-carts carrying everything each family group would need for a month-long journey. A group like that can travel only 20 miles per day or less. From Nazareth (where Jesus lived as a child) to Jerusalem was about 95 miles, so it was five days' long journey. If the group sang three of these psalms each day, they would get through all 15 of the Pilgrim Psalms by the time they arrived in Jerusalem.

     And the sequence of themes in the Pilgrim Psalms lent itself to that kind of ordered progression. These psalms would prepare the hearts of beleaguered travelers for worship. The first Psalm in the group, Psalm 120, is a dirgelike elegy about persecution and the pains associated with being a object of contempt for those who are worldly, wicked, scornful, or skeptical. The first five psalms in this collection all make some reference to trouble, persecution, or danger. In the five middle psalms, the main theme is faith, with an emphasis on security, prosperity, and gladness. The five closing psalms focus on praise to God, thankfulness for His blessings, and communion with Him in His holy Temple.

     So the psalms themselves are themed in a way that conveys the sense of "a journey to a higher place"—beginning in a place where persecution and affliction overwhelm the pilgrim's thoughts, and ending with an invocation of praise to God from the very height of Zion. The Pilgrim Psalms convey us from the valley of adversity into the very presence of God.

     We might outline these fifteen psalms according to their key words, beginning with persecution (Psalm 120); hope (121); fellowship (122); supplication (123); thanksgiving (124); confidence (125) patience (126); prosperity (127); peace (128); martyrdom (129); repentance (130); humility (131); expectation (132); unity (133); and praise (134). Those are virtues that in many ways echo or parallel the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.

     So these psalms are a metaphor for the whole life of faith. They describe "a journey to a higher place," starting with persecution, culminating in praise. In other words, these psalms illustrate and celebrate the progression we all make as disciples and pilgrims in this world as we "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

     And by the way, I hope that's how you think of yourself: If you are a believer in Christ, you are a disciple and a pilgrim and an exile. You are a stranger to this world—a citizen of heaven living like a refugee, constantly learning about your homeland as you make your way through this foreign wasteland, and recruiting more pilgrims along the way. These psalms are a kind of spiritual road map for the long journey.

     Now, let this sink in. And I want you to hang onto it over the next few months as we work our way through these psalms: As Christians we are pilgrims, not tourists.  We are exiles and explorers—not day trippers or vacationers. We are ascending like 1st-century pilgrims on the way to a feast in Jerusalem, not wandering like the Israelites in the wilderness.

     Furthermore, as disciples we are apprentices, not academics. We are working interns, not merely auditors of a course who are free to skip the exams. We are students who are responsible to put what we learn into practice; we're not reading recreationally for the sake of accumulating hypothetical knowledge. Our discipleship is a vocation, not a hobby.

     Furthermore, as exiles we are servants, not superstars. We're members of the church—and it's a community, not a resort. We're here to serve, not to be served. We're motivated by our concern for God's glory, not our own comfort. Our ministry is for the sake of others, not self. We're ambassadors in a foreign land, bringing a message of good news to the weary, wounded, and guilty souls who live there, offering them refuge on higher ground—inviting them to join us on the journey home.

     And this little songbook tucked away inside the larger psalter is a collection of choruses to instruct and encourage us along the way.


     Our psalm for this morning is Psalm 120, and its theme is persecution. It is not a happy tune. You'd probably sing this one in a minor key. It starts with "distress"; ends with "war!"; and in between it is all about the pains of persecution. In the words of one commentator, it is a poetic expression of "pious resignation under the almost intolerable miseries of heathen rule." I think I already referred to it as a dirge.

     So I probably have you thinking this is going to be a sorrowful song ending with a wail of defeat. Far from it. It's a defiant ballad that begins with a declaration of triumph. It is a psalm of celebration. it starts out with a distinct note of glory, then rehearses the pains of persecution.

     The psalm is anonymous. Some commentators think it may nevertheless be psalm of David because the circumstances described here suit the history of more than one incident in his life. On the other hand, there's an additional inscription in the Syriac version of the Psalms which states that this psalm is a record of how the people detained in Babylon prayed to be delivered. If that were true, this would have to be a much later psalm than any of David's psalms. Either way, it is clearly the cry of an exile longing for relief from the persecution of relentless enemies.

     I'll read the psalm:

A Song of Ascents. In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.

2 Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.

3 What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?

4 A warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!

5 Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

6 Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.

7 I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!

This is the song of a person who has been persecuted. He has been slandered. He has been threatened with physical violence. And he correctly understands that it is a privilege to suffer for righteousness' sake. I can't read this psalm without my thoughts being drawn to the end of the beatitudes.

     In fact, in these seven short verses the psalmist exemplifies all the beatitudes. He is "poor in spirit"—in distress (v. 1) and in exile (v. 5), "sojourn[ing] in Meshech, [and] dwell[ing] among the tents of Kedar!" Poor in spirit. He is "mourn[ing]" (v.5), burdened by woe. He is "meek"; "hunger[ing] and thirst[ing] for righteousness"; "merciful"; and "pure in heart." We see all of that in the way he calls on the Lord, longs for deliverance—not repaying his persecutors with evil for evil. He is fed up with living on the edge of Sodom, and trusting the Lord to see him through. The spirit of the beatitudes resonates through this psalm.

     And in particular, the substance of his psalm reads like a commentary on the last three beatitudes, taken in reverse order. Listen to closing words of the beatitudes, from Matthew 5:9-12: ""Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

     So here are the last three beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the persecuted. And blessed are the reviled. Reverse the order of those three beatitudes, and you have a perfect outline for our psalm. In verses 1-4, he is writing about being reviled and lied about by evil men who hate him because they hate the Lord. In verses 5-6 he is lamenting the persecution he has suffered at the hands of wicked heathen who wage war against him because he is not one of them. And in verse 7, he writes about his love for peace and his failed attempt to be a peacemaker.

     Now, here's the thing: It's clear that the psalmist counts himself blessed to suffer for the Lord's sake. He is not whining here about how hard it is to live the life of faith. One commentator I read called this "a psalm of unbroken complaint." I don't think so. This is not a song of grievance or a murmur of protest. There is certainly a tone of frustration and perhaps weariness as the psalmist rehearses the onslaught of persecution he has endured. But it starts with that triumphant affirmation that I think sums up the true mood of the psalmist. He is a man who knows the God of Scripture answers the cries of His people, and therefore, he understands that it is a privilege to suffer for the Lord's sake. This is the song of a truly blessed man.

     Let's look at the logical progression of this psalm as an expression in reverse of the same truths embodied in those last three beatitudes. First then, we see how—


1. Blessed are the reviled

     Notice the expression in verse 2: "lying lips, [and] a deceitful tongue." The psalmist is a victim of slander, defamation, and vilification. His enemies have perjured themselves in order to ruin his reputation. They have accused him falsely; they have assaulted his character with everything from lies to ridicule to fawning flattery—and their motive is to ruin him.

     This is one reason lots of commentators think this may be a Davidic psalm. He frequently mentions the problem of enemies who told lies about him. Psalm 35:11: "Malicious witnesses rise up [against me]." In Psalm 52:2-4 David addresses Doeg, the Edomite who betrayed him to Saul and killed 85 faithful priests. And David decries him for his unrighteous tongue: "Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue." That's exactly the same expression in our psalm: "deceitful tongue." The beginning of our psalm also echoes the start of Psalm 140: "A Psalm of David. Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent's, and under their lips is the venom of asps."

     Here's something I think will convict you: Paul quotes that psalm and in Romans 3:13 he applies it to you and me: "The venom of asps is under their lips." Paul's point is that sin is a universal problem, and all of us are guilty of a deceitful tongue.

     So at first glance it may seem there's a little bit of ambiguity in verse 2, with the expression "lying lips, [and] a deceitful tongue." A few commentators have suggested that the psalmist was praying to be delivered from guilt he has acquired through the sinful misuse of his own tongue lest that be the cause of his downfall. They suggest this could be a confession of the psalmist's own unbridled tongue and a plea for the Lord to intervene to deliver him from such sins.

     Another commentary I read suggested that the lies and deceit mentioned in verse 2 are lies told by educators, advertisers, pop psychologists, politicians, entertainers, and other voices that contribute to the relentless lies secular culture feeds us. Those are both interesting ways to contextualize Psalm 120, but I don't think the psalmist had either of those things in mind. He wasn't praying to be delivered from a false heathen worldview, and he wasn't asking for grace to overcome an evil tendency he had discovered in his own heart. He was asking God to deliver him from falsehoods his enemies were spreading about him.

     Remember, these are epigrammatic psalms. In other words, they have a single theme delivered in a pithy punch-line, and in this one, the theme is persecution. The "lying lips [and] deceitful tongue" that concern him here are defamatory rumors about him, false accusations, bogus criticisms, cruel reproaches, vicious slurs against his character, and treacherous threats that were being deliberately disseminated by his enemies. They relentlessly hounded him with these falsehoods, and he cried to the Lord for relief.

     Verse 1: "In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me." There's that opening note of triumph. So far, the attacks of his enemies had failed to destroy him. He properly credits the Lord with answering his prayers for deliverance. And yet the attacks of the enemy clearly had not yet ceased. So he is still praying.

     This is reminiscent of Jonah's prayer. Jonah 2:2: "I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice." That's how Jonah began his prayer while he was still in the belly of the fish. It is an expression of a godly man's unshakable confidence, based on past experience with God. We can all pray like that—and we ought to pray like that, even at the beginning of our troubles, and in the midst of the trial. "In my distress I called to the LORD."

     Spurgeon says this is—

The wisest course that he could follow. It is of little use to appeal to our fellows on the matter of slander, for the more we stir in it the more it spreads; it is of no avail to appeal to the honour of the slanderers, for they have none, and the most piteous demands for justice will only increase their malignity and encourage them to fresh insult. As well plead with panthers and wolves as with black hearted traducers. However, when cries to man would be our weakness, cries to God will be our strength. To whom should children cry but to their father? Does not some good come even out of that vile thing, falsehood, when it drives us to our knees and to our God?

I would go even further than that. In this case, what we have is not merely a desperate prayer for relief, but a song of triumph from a man who is feeling the pains of persecution and turning his grief into a song—in absolute defiance of his tormenters and to the praise of his God.

     "In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me." That is a statement of faith; an expression of praise; and a declaration of triumph based not only on past deliverances but also on the fact that the psalmist has not been destroyed yet. His enemies had not even managed to diminish his faith in God. That steadfast perseverance in the faith—energized by divine grace—is the best of all answers to a prayer like this.

     It's a simple plea: "Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue." And the prayer request is prefaced by that expression of confidence that God had always heard him and therefore was surely delivering him even now.

     The psalmist then turns to his accusers and (addressing them directly) he reminds them that judgment is coming. Verses 3-4: "What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue? A warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!"

     Now if you aren't paying close attention when you read this psalm, you might think "sharp arrows" and "coals of the broom tree" are poetic ways of describing the lies that proceed from the deceitful tongue. That would be consistent with some of the imagery Scripture uses to describe lies. Psalm 11:2 says, "Behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart." And the "glowing coals of the broom tree" refers to a desert plant that burns especially hot, and then continues to smolder with white-hot coals for a long time. That evokes the imagery of James 3:6: "The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell." So a deceitful tongue does indeed produce sharp arrows and burning coals.

     However, verse 4 is the psalmist's answer to the question in verse 3: "What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?" This is speaking of the liars' judgment that will surely come. They will reap exactly the same kind of devastation they have sown—sharp arrows and burning coals.

     This is no idle threat. And the Psalmist is not taunting his enemies. He is admonishing them—giving them a warning the way you would warn someone asleep in a burning house. Job 27:8: "What is the hope of the godless when God cuts him off, when God takes away his life?" That's a concern that should motivate us all to be zealous evangelists.

     Jesus said, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). We're not to wish for their destruction. Three times Scripture commands us not to "repay anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone." Our example is Christ, who "when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly." So I don't believe the Psalmist is taunting his enemies here or taking delight in the thought of their eternal destruction. He is warning them, pleading the utter illogic of their attack on him. Their slander will gain them nothing but their own destruction.

     Meanwhile, those who are the targets of these God-hating revilers will be rewarded for their earthly distress with heavenly blessings. That, again, is the promise of the last beatitude: "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

     Now look at the next two verses of this psalm. This reminds me of the promise of the second-to-last of the beatitudes:


2. Blessed are the persecuted

     The psalmist's distress was not caused solely by the lies these tormenters told about him behind his back. His enemies also oppressed and abused him with physical force. Second Timothy 3:12: "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." John 15:19-20: "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.'"

     Then in the very next verse, Jesus goes on to say, "All these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me." The heathen rage; but it's God whom they hate, not merely you and me, and not mainly the psalmist. They hate our heavenly Father. They hate his Son. And they take that hatred out on His people.

     But again, we are exiles and foreigners as far as this world is concerned. Our citizenship is in heaven. Our treasure is in heaven. Heaven is our true home. Everything we righteously love pertains to heaven and the world to come—not this evil present age. In fact, as far as this world is concerned, according to James 4:4, "friendship with the world is enmity with God [and] whoever [even] wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." That is definitely a word in season. I fear that the visible church today is fairly full of people who wish to make friends with the world.

     That was not the psalmist's perspective. In verse 5, he takes stock of the relentless persecution he has suffered for the Lord's sake and compares it to being exiled to some remote, violent, heathen territory. Verses 5-6: "Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace."

     "Meshech" refers to the region between the Black and Caspian Seas, north of the Caucasus mountains, above Armenia and Azerbaijan. Today it's part of Russia; in biblical times it was symbolic of the most remote, pagan, barbaric culture known to exist north of Israel. "Kedar" refers to an area south of Israel inhabited by marauding desert tribes. Kedar was one of the sons of Ishmael named in Genesis 25:13. His offspring were nomadic warriors who lived in Bedouin tents.

     The Psalmist is under attack, and he is praying for deliverance from enemies who have behaved in the way you would expect heathens and hoodlums to behave. They have threatened and pursued and attacked him. They love the conflict and they love to cause him hurt without any provocation on his part—and he is tired of life in their midst. He is weary of the constant conflict (verse 6): "Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace." I think any faithful Christian who has suffered for righteousness' sake can appreciate those words of lament.

     He longs for peace—and that brings us to the final verse of this psalm, which I find reminiscent of the third-to-last of the beatitudes:


3. Blessed are the peacemakers

     Verse 7: "I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!"

     Speaking as someone whose ministry occasionally has brought me into conflict, including (from time to time) heated controversy in various public arenas, let me say this clearly: Anyone who loves conflict is a fool. Anyone who deliberately seeks to stir up strife because he enjoys a good fight is motivated by ungodly passion.

     Scripture is clear (Romans 12:18): "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Psalm 34:14: "Seek peace and pursue it." That proverb is quoted and reaffirmed in 1 Peter 3:11. Romans 14:17 says the hallmarks of God's kingdom are "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. [verse 19:] So then let us pursue what makes for peace." Proverbs 12:20: "Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy." "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control." Hebrews 12:14: "Strive for peace with everyone."

     I'm intrigued by that expression: "strive for peace." Sometimes conflict is the necessary prelude to real peace. Peace is something worth fighting for. And sometimes the fight is unavoidable. Here the Psalmist is "for peace, but when [He] speak[s, his enemies] are for war." Sometimes simply speaking the truth provokes conflict. There are people (in fact, they are the self-appointed guardians of political correctness today) who are provoked even by a simple expression of praise to God. A prayer, or the reading of Scripture, can earn you a censure or even a lawsuit in today's society. And yet—let's be honest—we have it much easier than many generations of our spiritual ancestors. They often had to pay for their faith with their lives. In the words of Hebrews 11:35-38: "Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth."

     I already quoted Romans 12:18: "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably." But Scripture recognizes that sometimes it is not possible. In fact, it is never always possible for a righteous person to live in perfect harmony with the unbelievers of this world. "Yea . . . all [who] live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." Seek peace, but don't back away from the truth, don't back down from your testimony, and (above all) don't be tempted to abandon the faith when some adversary assaults you for Christ's sake.

     That's what the psalmist is expressing in this psalm. Again, it is as much a declaration of triumph as it is a lament over the condition of an unbelieving world.


     I can't close this message without asking which side of the divide you are on. Are you one of those who loves God and pursues peace—someone whose heart has truly been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, whose hope is in the Lord, and whose trust is in Christ alone as Savior? Are you willing (like the psalmist) to suffer for righteousness' sake? Or are you a person who becomes provoked by the faith of a true worshiper? Are you someone who becomes is angry when unvarnished truth is spoken? Are you someone who simply tunes out and turns away when the Word of God is proclaimed?

     I can't assume that you're a genuine believer just because you come to church, even if you are a regular attender. One of the key truths that we learn from the life and ministry of Christ is that wicked hearts often conceal their shame with sanctimony. Some of the most unrighteous people on earth are religious people. Jesus' most determined enemies were all religious people who professed to believe the Word of God.

     The only authentic evidence of true faith is the fruit of the Spirit, which (as we have seen) is characterized by peace and an enduring love for holiness.

     If you find yourself on the wrong side of the divide between scoffers and believers, I want to invite you—in fact, I want to plead with you—to join this pilgrim band on the journey upward. It is a narrow way accessible only by a very small gate—quite different from the broad road that leads to destruction. The only way through that tiny gateway is repentant faith in Christ. But "everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened." Jesus said, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved." Renounce your sin and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior, and He will deliver your soul. Three times—in Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; and Romans 10:13, Scripture says, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

     If you trust in the Lord and cling to that hope, you can start every prayer just the way the Psalmist does here: "In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me."

     The first two verses Psalm 40 expand on that: "He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock."