Psalm 120:1-4

1. I cried1 to Jehovah in my distress, and he answered me. 2. O Jehovah! deliver my soul from the lips2 of falsehood, and from the tongue of deceit.3 3. What shall the tongue of deceit4 give thee, and what shall avail thee? 4. The arrows of a strong man sharpened, with coals of junipers.


1. I cried to Jehovah in my distress. The name of the author of the Psalm is not expressed, but the style of it throughout presents David to our view. Although, therefore, I cannot positively affirm, yet I am rather inclined to think that it was composed by him. Nor will it be improper, in my judgment, to explain it as if his name had been mentioned in the inscription. This, then, being granted, I would observe that although David, when in this verse he affirms that the Lord had heard him, gives thanks to him, yet his chief purpose was to set forth, in the form of complaint, how wickedly and cruelly Saul's flatterers employed all their ingenuity and power to accomplish his destruction. He, however, sets out with an expression of his gratitude to God, telling us that he had not called upon Him in vain; and he does this, that by his own example he might encourage others, especially when oppressed with adversity, to confidence in prayer. Men, it is true, have need of God's help 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.

2. O Jehovah! deliver my soul from the lip of falsehood. David now points out the kind of his affliction, declaring that he was loaded with false accusations. In charging his enemies with lying and falsehood, he asserts his own innocence of the crimes which they slanderously imputed to him. His complaint therefore amounts to this, that as he was conscious of having committed no fault, he was assaulted by the wicked contrary to all law, human and divine, and that they brought him into hatred without his having given them any occasion for such injurious treatment. Deceitful tongues assault good and simple people in two ways' they either circumvent them by wiles and snares, or wound their reputation by calumnies. It is of the second way that the Prophet here complains. Now if David, who was endued with such eminent virtue, and free from every mark of disgrace, and far removed from every wicked action, was yet assailed with contumely, is it to be wondered at if the children of God in the present day labor under false accusations, and that when they have endeavored to conduct themselves uprightly they are yet in reported of? As they have the devil for their enemy, it is indeed impossible for them to escape being loaded with his lies. Yea, we see that slanderous tongues did not spare even 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.

3. What shall the tongue of deceit give thee?5 The Prophet aggravates the malice of his enemies by asserting that they were so wickedly inclined as to be driven to evil speaking when they saw no prospect of deriving any advantage from such a course of conduct. He however seems to express more than this, -- he seems farther to intimate, that after they have poured forth all the venom of their calumnies, their attempts will nevertheless be vain and ineffectual. As God is the maintainer of the innocence of his servants, David, inspired with hope from this truth, rises up against them with heroic courage, as if about to triumph over the whole crowd of his calumniators,6 reproaching them for doing nothing else than betraying an impotent passion for evil speaking, which God at length would cause to recoil upon their own heads. It is a consideration well fitted to assuage the grief of all the godly, when their good name is unrighteously wounded by calumniators, that such malicious characters will gain nothing thereby in the end, because God will disappoint their expectation.

4. The arrows of a strong man sharpened, with coals of juniper. Here the Psalmist amplifies in another way the malice of such as distress the simple and innocent by their calumnies, affirming that they throw out their injurious reports just like a man who should draw an arrow, and with it pierce through the body of his neighbor; and that their calumnies were like coals of juniper,7 which penetrate more effectually, and burn more intensely the substances with which they come in contact than the coals of any other kind of wood. The amount is, that the tongues of these slanderers were inflamed with the burning heat of fire, and, as it were, dipped in deadly poison; and that such persons were the less excusable, from the fact that, without deriving any advantage from it, they were impelled by an unbridled passion to inflict upon others deadly mischief. As the Prophet records nothing here which he did not experience in his own person, it may be inferred that if it behoved him and men of a similar character to be assailed by their enemies with lies, which were to them as arrows to pierce them, or coals to burn them, we need not be surprised at seeing the most eminent servants of God exercised with similar assaults.

1 "ytarq, I have called constantly, attentively, and anxiously, not with violent external gesture, or elevation of voice, but with strong inward emotion." -- Phillips.

2 "Des leures." -- Fr. "From the lips." But in the Hebrew text it is in the singular," from a lip of falsehood," that is, "from a false lip."

3 "hymr Nwsl, the deceitful tongue. We have here two norms, both of which are in the absolute state, so that we must suppose the latter to be put emphatically for an abjective, the force of the expression being the same as that of hymr Nwsl, tongue of deceit, i.e., deceitful tongue, a more frequent construction. So also we have rqs tps, lip of falsehood, for false lip, in the first member of this verse. The literal rendering of the words hymr Nwsl, is tongue, (which is) deceit itself." -- Phillips.

4 "La langue pleine de fraude." -- Fr. "The tongue full of deceit."

5 The Psalmist here addresses himself in particular to his traducers.

6 "Comme s'il avoit desia le triomphe contre toute la bande de scs ennemis." -- Fr. "As if he had already triumphed over the whole host of his enemies."

7 The Hebrew word Mtr, rothem, here rendered "juniper," occurs also in I Kings 19:4, 5, and Job 30:4, in both which places it is'. translated in our English Bible by "juniper-tree." It would appear that this shrub was remarkable for the intense flame with which it burned, and for the length of time during which its embers retained their heat. Several critics, however, think that the Hebrew rothem means the genista or Spanish broom; and in support of this opinion it is said that the genista is much used as fuel by the Arabs, among whom the Psalmist describes himself as then living; and that, as Geierus asserts, it" sparkles, burns, and crackles more vehemently than any other wood." (See Parkhurst on Mtr.) It is somewhat difficult to decide in this matter. As more than thirty different trees are mentioned in the Bible, and as we are but imperfectly acquainted with the natural history of these remote countries, it is no wonder though we find it impossible to identify all these trees. It may be observed that Calvin in his translation brings out that beautiful gradation of sense, terminating in a point of severity, for which the Hebrew text is remarkable, but which does not appear in our English version. Slanderous words are first compared to "arrows," secondly, to "arrows discharged from the bow by a strong man," and in proportion to the strength of a man will be the force with which his weapon strikes; next to "sharp arrows;" and lastly, to "coals of juniper," or some wood used in those days celebrated for burning fiercely and long, (for the particle Me, im translated with, is sometimes one of similitude, as in Psalm 106:6, "We have sinned like as our fathers,") intimating not only that malignant slanders deeply penetrate, but that they inflame and burn for a long time. Hence the Apostle James (James 3:5, 6) compares the tongue of slander to a fire enkindled from hell, and inflaming the course of nature. Some interpreters think that this verse is not to be understood as a description of calumny, but rather as the punishment which God will inflict on the calumniator. They therefore regard it as an answer to the question in the preceding verse, "What shall be given unto thee," etc.; observing that calumny and falsehood being frequently represented by the images of arrows and fire, the same images suitably express the requital which awaits them at the hand of God -- the swift and terrible retributive vengeance of the Almighty, which will overtake all who practice falsehood and slander. See Psalm 57:4; Psalm 64:3, 7, 9; and Job 20:26. "Sharp arrows of the Mighty One, with coals of juniper," await them. This opinion is adopted by Street, Mant, Morison, Paxton, Fry, French and Skinner. Calvin's exposition is embraced by Walford and Phillips. The former, to elicit this meaning the more clearly, uses a supplement:

"Sharp arrows of a warrior,
And burning coals of juniper,
thou resemblest."

He, however, in a footnote requests the reader "to observe, that this is given as what seems to be the most probable interpretation of the passage, though it cannot be regarded as absolutely certain."


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