Psalm 120: Just Starting Out
Reading the Psalms can be or should I say ought to be existential. In other words, we should be able to experience through the Psalmist. We ought to be able to read a Psalm and say, “That describes where I am!” The Psalms, unlike other portions of Scripture, are supposed to function in that way. They actually invite us in. Yes, it is true that all of the Psalms are historical but not all of the Psalms supply the reader with that geographical and temporal context. For example, Psalm 3 is written by David when he fled from Absalom but Psalm 112 has no such context. Psalm 120 is like that.
However, Psalm 120 does have a function in the life of ancient Israel. It was one of the fifteen psalms titled the Psalms of Ascent. These were Psalms taken by the pilgrim on their journey to Jerusalem. What is more, this collection of Psalms does provide us with a sense of movement. For instance, in Psalm 120 the Psalmist starts his journey far away. In fact, he speaks of sojourning in Meshech and Kedar. Now, those two locations are entirely separated! It would be impossible to be in both at the same time. Yet, the Psalmist is merely stressing that he is far away from Jerusalem. However, by the time we get to the final psalm of the collection, Psalm 134, the Psalmist is inviting all of the Lord’s servants to “stand by night in the house of the Lord.” He has finally arrived!
But the Psalmist also builds into the collection the Aaronic benediction on Numbers 6:24-26, which reads, “The Lord Bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” The ideas found in this benediction are built into the following Psalms beginning with Psalm 120. For example, the idea of peace comes at the end of the Psalm. The Psalmist says, “I am for peace.” In Psalm 121 we read multiple times that the Lord keeps the psalmist, which reminds us of the phrase, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” I’ll leave the rest of the benediction for you to discover. But you get the idea. The Psalmist is suggesting that the benediction is true! As they go the Lord keeps them and blesses them and gives them peace.
But there is something else about this Psalm that we should not miss, and it is true of every Psalm. It is the word of Christ (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), which means, at the very least, the words are about him. For example, Psalm 2 is about Jesus’ baptism, Psalm 16 is about His resurrection, and Psalm 40 is about the incarnation. We might argue that these Psalms are for Jesus as He made His pilgrimage throughout this life. Thus, as he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) He was for our peace, He was kept, and He was blessed. These words take us ultimately to Jesus so that we see our pilgrimage through the veil of tears that is this life, not as a lonely journey through which we must grit out teeth, but as the path of our Master. And as we walk this path, our lives are increasingly conformed to His image. That is just a taste of this little Psalm that begins the journey through the Psalms of Ascent. May our eyes increasing be lifted to Jesus as we ascend this path.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.