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I Cried. He Answered

Series: Psalms Book 5

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 20, 2011

Psalm 120:1-7

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 120. Bill Wymond and Josh Rieger and I regularly look for serviceable, metrical psalm versions that would work with tunes that are familiar to it if we don't have one in the Trinity Hymnal. And I believe — Josh, am I right? — that Bill Wymond wrote that text that we just sang tonight. We couldn't find one that really worked with the tunes that you know and so Dr. Wymond provided that. It's an excellent rendering of Psalm 120.

We’re in the psalms of ascent now, those psalms that were sung by the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, and we don't know who wrote this psalm. Some of the psalms of ascent we know who wrote. For instance, if you've already turned to Psalm 120 just look a little bit ahead to Psalm 122 and if you look at the heading of Psalm 122, which is part of the Scripture, that's part of the first verse, you will see that that psalm of ascent was written by David. “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” So some of the ascent psalms we know who wrote them. We don't know who wrote this ascent psalm. This ascent psalm may be talking about the experience of an individual believer in Israel who is far, far away from home or it may be the first personal pronoun, “I” may be personifying all of Israel when dispersed and far away from home. I kind of think it's an individual, but some commentators think that this is a personification of Israel so that this might be a reference to Israel in the time of exile for instance. Whatever the case, this psalmist, who provides for us the first of the psalms of ascent, the psalms that the pilgrims sang as they were ascending to Jerusalem, as they were on their way to Jerusalem for the festival, this psalm is about a believer far, far from home and in great distress.

Let's pray before we read God's Word.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We long, we hunger, we thirst for You and You give Yourself to us in Your Word, by Your Word. So by Your Spirit, open our eyes not simply to behold wonderful things in Your Word but to behold You in Your Word, to fellowship with You by Your Word, to have our hearts and our lives changed and challenged and grown and helped by Your Word. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

This is the Word of God in Psalm 120. Hear it:

“A SONG OF ASCENTS.

In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered me. Deliver me, 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? A warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!

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

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Have you ever been a long, long way from home and under considerable duress? What did your heart want to do? If you’re like me, you wanted to be in the place where you belonged so badly you could taste it. I can remember times as a young man, whether I was twelve hours from home or whether I was an ocean away from home, and I thought, “If I could just cross the border of South Carolina and get into the home with mom and dad, everything will be alright.” That's something of the experience of this psalmist. He's dwelling a long way from Jerusalem, maybe way to the north, maybe way to the south, but somewhere where he's a long way from the people of God and things are very hard there. He is being slandered, he is the victim of character assassination, and even though he wants the wellbeing of the people with whom he lives, they’re not interested in cooperating with him. All his efforts seem to be of no avail. And he begins to think, “If I could just be at worship with the people of God in Jerusalem, maybe I could make it.” And it's appropriate that the songs of ascent begin with this song because this present psalm is sharply personal, and in a pilgrim context it voices very well the homesickness of believers who have settled among strangers and enemies.

And I'd like you to see several things as we look at this psalm. I want us to see what this psalm teaches us about prayer, I want us to see what this psalm teaches us about trials, and especially trials which are brought about by the tongues of others speaking against us wrongly and destructively, I want us to see what this psalm teaches us about God's sovereignty and judgment, and I want us to see what this psalm teaches us about sojourning. There are many great lessons in this psalm.

PRAYING IN THE MIDST OF DISTRESS

Let's begin by looking together at verse 1. “In my distress I called to the LORD.” The psalmist is reminding us here that believers can count on the Lord hearing them when they cry out in times of distress. Though we should not only call out to the Lord in times of distress, yet it is always right to call out to Him in times of distress and the psalmist gives testimony to that. “In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered me. I needed Him, I prayed to Him, I cried out to Him in prayer and He answered me.” Calvin says, “Men, it is true, have need of God's help at every moment, but there is not a more suitable season for seeking Him than when some great danger is immediately menacing us. It is therefore worthy of notice that he was heard when constrained and shut up by tribulation, he betook himself to the protection of God.” So though we ought always to pray, and though we ought not only pray in times of distress, we certainly always ought to pray in times of distress and call out to God and He will hear us in those times of distress. That's the first thing we learn in this psalm about prayer, but there's another thing too.

Notice again, the words of verse 1. “In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered me.” You know, the Lord often puts us in circumstances where the only thing we can do is pray. Sometimes He puts us in circumstances where there are things that we know He would have us do to respond to those circumstances, but sometimes He puts us in situations where the only thing left for us to do is to pray because we know that we're so powerless in those circumstances and when He puts us there He has us exactly where He wants us to teach us a mighty lesson. Our hope is not in our activity, but in His sovereignty. Our hope is not in our doing, but in His doing. We are always dependent upon Him, but especially when He kicks the legs out from under the stool that we are sitting on we are especially aware of our dependency upon Him and all we can do is cry out to the Lord. These two great messages about prayer we meet in the very first words of this psalm.

PRAYER IS AN ANCHOR IN THE MIDST OF TRIALS

But this psalm also teaches us about trials. And Luther, in his commentary on this psalm, points out that the trial that the psalmist is facing in Psalm 120 is not the trial of torment, it is not that he is, as it were, being physically persecuted by those who surround him, but it is a trial of the tongue and it is a trial of treachery. It is what is being said about the psalmist that is causing him this particular trial. And he cries out — look at verse 2 — “Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips and the deceitful tongue.” You know, one of the greatest trials that we can undergo as believers is the trial of character assassination and the trial of false accusation. And the psalmist here is speaking about trouble that he has had from treachery in the company of pagans. And it reminds us that the person of the purest character is not immune from slander. In fact, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as Brad reminded the children tonight, was slandered, though He was of the purest character and of unimpeachable integrity. Yet He was slandered. And the psalmist is experiencing something like that. He cries out, “O LORD, deliver me from lying lips and a deceitful tongue.” And again, Calvin comments on this very point. “Slanderous tongues,” he says, “did not even spare the Son of God, a consideration which should induce us to bear the more patiently our condition when the wicked traduce us undeservedly since it is certain that we have here described the common lot of the whole church.”

You know, I think if you had told me that I would have the privilege of coming alongside of many of you in exactly this circumstance when I first became the pastor here in 1996 I would have thought, “Surely this situation isn't going to come up that often.” It is amazing how often, in our very congregation, believers have experienced character assassination and false accusations when in their own personal conduct in that particular instance they have acted in integrity. And yet, their character, their integrity, their life, their sincerity has been called into question. Well the psalmist is crying out to God in precisely that circumstance and asking Him to aid him in his trial.

TRUSTING IN GOD’S RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT IN THE MIDST OF TRIALS

But as he faces this trial, he doesn't just have prayer as his anchor. He also has another anchor and that anchor is the sovereign providence and justice of God. And look how he goes to it in the next two verses. Look at verses 3 and 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 coal of the broom tree! That's an interesting progression and it could be interpreted different ways, couldn't it? In fact, some interpreters will take verse 4 as if it were describing the words of the deceitful one or the words of the one who is falsely making accusations against the believer and describing them as sharp arrows or as glowing coals of the broom tree. But if you look at Dr. Wymond's translation, I actually think he gets is right. Look at the second stanza that you sang tonight. “What will He do to you O men who speak deceitfully? He’ll punish you with arrows sharp, hot coals from the broom tree.” In other words, the psalmist is describing what the one who has been treacherous with his tongue in speaking against the believer is going to get from God. His tongue may shoot arrows that hurt, but God's arrows of judgment are going to be much, much sharper than the arrows of the one who has been falsely accusing God's children.

And so what do we learn here? The psalmist, as he's thinking about this trial, starts meditating on God's sovereignty and he starts meditating on God's judgment and he reminds us that the judgment of the liar, the deceiver, and the slanderer will be greater than the pain that that lair or deceiver or slanderer causes by his wicked words. Derek Kidner says, “God's coals are hotter and God's arrows are sharper than those of they who afflict God's people with the sins of their tongue.” And he goes on to say, “The lair, wounding though his weapons are, will be destroyed with far more potent shafts than lies - God's arrows of truth and His coals of judgment.” And so the psalmist begins to meditate about the fact that the one who is speaking treacherously against him will in fact incur a greater judgment than the pains that he is causing by the wrong that he is doing. And so the psalmist meets this trial not only with prayer, not only with a recognition that this can and does happen to believers, but also with an appeal to God's sovereign providence and judgment.

SOJOURNING IN A FOREIGN LAND

And then in verses 5 to 7 the psalmist meditates on sojourning, dwelling in a land that is not your own. And he says two things about it. First of all in verse 5 notice what he says. “Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!” Now these two places refer to peoples that lived in the far north above Israel or way down in the Arabian Peninsula. Interestingly, Meshech is called by the Greek, Mitar, and King Midas was from the tribe of Meshech if you remember those Greek stories about King Midas and his golden touch. Kedar is one of the sons of Ishmael, and so they are the Arabian cousins of Israel down in the deep south. So it may be that the psalmist is describing two foreign people groups, one blood relative but at enmity with Israel, the other, complete Gentile pagans, and he's describing having to live outside of the context of the people of God, maybe even outside of the context of the nation-state of Israel, far, far away from the land. And he says, “Woe to me, that I sojourned here.” He's lamenting the burden of dwelling among pagans.

And specifically he says this, look at verses 6 and 7. “Too long have I had my dwelling place among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” The psalmist, in other words, is saying, “It's not just that I dwell apart from God's people and in the midst of a predominantly pagan culture, it is that even though I am for peace” — and what does that remind you of? It reminds you of Jeremiah exhorting the exiles that when they were in Babylon they should work for the shalom of Babylon. “When you’re there, when you’re in exile, make sure that you work for the wellbeing of the pagan people among whom you live.” And the psalmist is saying here, “That's my attitude! I want the wellbeing of the pagans among whom I live. I want to be a good witness to my God. I want to work for their best interest and I want them to see a testimony that I love and serve the God of Israel, but they are adversarial. They are contrarian. I say up, they say down. I say peace, they say war. I'm at odds with them and I feel so alone and weary.” It can be a weariness of the soul, can't it, to dwell amongst antagonistic unbelievers.

My friends, this is something that we must prepare ourselves for in our own culture in our own time in the days ahead because our culture, once deeply under the impress and influence of the Bible and Christianity, is now more and more antagonistic towards those very things. We may well find ourselves feeling like we are strangers in a strange land in our own hometowns, but it's important for us to remember what the Bible counsels us to do in that setting. What are the temptations when you’re in that setting? The temptations are either to compromise, to go along so as to get along, and actually to be co-opted by the mindset of our culture, or the temptation is to be antagonistic, wholly negative towards that culture. The New Testament reminds us that neither of those things is the right posture of the believer. The believer is to be salt and light in a dying culture. Salt is preservative; light refers to a moral quality that distinguishes us from the culture around us, but both those functions, salt and light, indicate that we are still working — what? For the shalom, for the wellbeing, for the peace of those among whom we live. So we love the world without loving the world. That is, we work for the world's wellbeing without being without being co-opted by the world's agenda, by the world's priorities, by the world's outlook on life, by the world's love of things as opposed to the things that last forever.

So this believer cries out, finding himself completely at odds where he lives, finding it a weariness of soul to dwell amongst antagonistic unbelievers. And where does he find a relief? He can't wait to get up to Jerusalem to worship God. Now my friends, that ought to be our attitude Lord's Day after Lord's Day. Where the Lord has us planted in our neighborhoods and our community, we are working for its wellbeing, we are working to bear witness to the Gospel, to be good neighbors to our neighbors, to be good witnesses to Jesus Christ in our community, to serve in our vocations with all our hearts and all our might, to give glory to God in everything we do, and yet we can find it to be a weariness of soul. Where do we find refreshment? In the house of the Lord with the people of God worshiping the Lord! Oh, the minor prophets have a lot more to say to us about how to live in a strange land, how to sojourn as an alien and a stranger, but boy, this first psalm of ascents has much to teach us as well. May the Lord bless His word to us all. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for how You manage to speak utterly relevantly and practically to us right where we are in this very moment in our own lives, in our own city, state, and culture, even though You wrote these words thousands of year ago. Your Word is indeed a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. Your Word is indeed truth, so sanctify us with Your truth and work this truth deep into our hearts for Christ's sake. Amen.

Would you stand and receive the Lord's blessing? Peace be to the brethren and love with faith from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, until the daybreak and the shadows flee away. Amen.

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