Psalm 120 – Praying in Times of Trouble

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The Psalms of Ascent | Stepping Stones to God’s Heart

“Praying in Times of Trouble” (Psalm 120)

“I call on the Lord in my distress.” (Psalm 120:1)

INTRODUCTION: Today is the first day of the New Year and between now and Easter we will be studying a special group of psalms in the Bible called the Psalms of Ascent. There’s fifteen of them, Psalms 120-134, and if you look in your Bible, you will notice that they all share this common inscription: “A song of ascents.” The word “ascents there is a word that means “steps” or “going up.”

One of the reasons they are called Psalms of Ascent is because these are psalms that were sung by Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the three annual feasts. There were three main feasts in Jerusalem each year: the Feast of Passover in the spring; the Feast of Pentecost in the summer; and the Feast of Tabernacles which took place at harvest time in the fall. Yom Kippur (also known as the Day of Atonement) and Rosh Hashanah (also known as the Feast of Trumpets or the Jewish New Year) both took place five and ten days before the fall feast, and so some people would travel early to celebrate these as well. (see Exodus 3:14-16; Deuteronomy 16:16 for descriptions of the three feasts)

Of course, the big one of all these feasts was the Passover. The whole family would come for Passover while only the men were required to go up for the other two feasts. Jesus would have sung these songs with his family as they made their way up to Jerusalem each year for the Passover. We read in Luke 2:41-42: “Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.” (Luke 2:41-42)

Jerusalem is located at about 2800 feet above sea level, and so no matter what direction you approach the city from, you are always going “up” to Jerusalem. So they are called Psalms of Ascent first of all because they were sung by people literally going “up” to Jerusalem.

But they are also called Psalms of Ascent because the psalms themselves have an upward motion. They begin with the believer crying out to God in trouble far away from Jerusalem, and they end with believers offering up praise to God in his temple courts. And so these are travel songs – full of beautiful imagery, meaningful expression and divine wisdom for the journey.

Have you ever gone on a road trip and put together a play list or mix of songs for the journey? That’s what the Psalms of Ascent are. They are short, easy to memorize, and meant to be sung in praise and worship to God. God’s people have always been a singing people and a worshiping people, and God gave us these psalms to help us give expression to the feelings in our heart as we worship him in prayer and song.

Jerusalem in the Bible represents the city of God, the place of the temple, the place where God chose to dwell and to meet with his people. And so as we read the Psalms of Ascent today, they hold great meaning for us as well. Because as Christians we also are on a journey – not on a literal journey to Jerusalem, of course, but rather a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage of the heart.

We read in Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:1-2) This is what you were made for. This is what you have been looking for all your life. This is what you truly desire in your heart of hearts – to meet with God and to know the beauty of his presence.

As we work our way through these psalms and all that they teach us about our relationship with God, you will see that the Psalms of Ascent really serve as stepping stones along the way. These are stepping stones to God’s heart, and so we don’t just want to study them, but we want to learn them and then pray them back to God as he intended.

Psalm 120 is the first of these Psalms and it is a psalm about praying in times of trouble. So let’s read this psalm together as we get started. (Read Psalm 120:1-7 and pray.)

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This is a psalm about trouble. The singer is far from Jerusalem, distant from God in a far away land. And you might wonder why the Psalms of Ascent would begin with a song about trouble. Why not start the journey with a happy song?

Nobody likes trouble, but God can use trouble to draw you closer to him. In fact the starting point for our journey to God is always discontent with this world and what it has to offer.

As Christians we don’t belong here. Our home is in another place. And although we should enjoy the good gifts God gives us in this life, we can never be fully comfortable living in a world that is opposed to God and God’s ways. So Psalm 120 starts our journey by teaching us about how we should respond to God in times of trouble.

I. Call on the Lord in times of trouble (1-2)

First of all, we learn that we should call on the Lord in times of trouble. Look at verses 1-2: “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.” (Psalm 120:1-2)

And so the Psalms of Ascent begin with a call to prayer. And really, what could be more appropriate? There is no way to meet with God apart from prayer. If you are going to make this life journey with God, prayer will need to be front and center. And not just prayer during the good times. Psalm 120 especially focuses on prayer during the bad times.

What do you do when you are in trouble? Do you worry? Do you complain? Do you take it out on others? Or do you pray? Psalm 120 shows us the best way. When in trouble, pray.

   A. God hears you when you pray
      – John 16:23-24; James 5:13

And the reason why is simple and yet at the same time so remarkable. God hears you when you pray. That’s what the psalmist says in verse 1: “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.” (Psalm 120:1) That is astonishing. When you pray, the God who created all things, the God who is bigger than the universe, hears you. He pays attention to you. He hears your every word. Never take that for granted. God hears you when you pray.

In the original Hebrew the words “on the Lord” come first in this verse and thus are emphasized. Everyone cries out when they are in trouble. But what matters is to whom do you cry out? The psalmist cries out to the Lord, and the Lord answers him. In the New Testament we get a fuller revelation of who the Lord is. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so we learn that all prayer must go through Jesus the Son of God. That’s why Jesus said in John 16: “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:23-24)

The word translated “distress” in Psalm 120:1 is a word that means “trouble, distress, or anguish, being closed in or confined.” In other words, trouble is closing in all around you. You are in great anguish because you don’t see any way out. And apart from God there may be no way out. But that’s where prayer comes in.

James 5:13 tells us plainly: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.” (James 5:13) But what James 5:13 tells us by way of instruction, Psalm 120 tells us by way of testimony. “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.” (Psalm 120:1) God hears you when you pray.

   B. Cry out for him to save you (ex. lies and deceit)
      – John 4:24

And therefore when you are in trouble, you should cry out for God to save you. Which is exactly what the psalmist does in verse 2: “Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.” (Psalm 120:2) The psalmist began by stating a general fact – he calls on the Lord in times of trouble, and the Lord answers him. He then asks God to deliver him from the specific trouble that he faces, which in his case is lying lips and deceitful tongues.

The word “save” here means “to deliver or rescue, to snatch away.” The psalmist is surrounded by liars and he asks God to deliver him.

Have you ever been lied to? Have you ever been lied about? It hurts, doesn’t it? It’s very painful. No one ever tells any good lies about you, do they? It’s never that you’re a terrible person and they go around telling everyone how good you are, right? No, when they lie about you it’s meant to hurt you. It’s meant to drag you down.

The word translated “deceitful” here in verse two is a word that means “treacherous.” It is related to the word that means “to shoot an arrow.” These are nasty, cutting, wounding lies that damage your reputation and pierce like sharp arrows. Deceit implies intent, and so these lies are not innocent mistakes but they are meant to hurt.

The Psalms of Ascent are all about going to meet with God, to worship him in the beauty of his presence. Jesus said in John 4:24: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24) These deceitful lies are the exact opposite of the atmosphere of truthful worship that God calls us to and the psalmist so desires.

And so that’s our first application from this Psalm. Call on the Lord in times of trouble. God hears you when you pray, so cry out for him to save you.

II. Know that God will judge the wicked (3-4)

The second application is this: know that God will judge the wicked. Look at verses 3-4 where we read: “What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue? He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.” (Psalm 120:3-4) These verses tell us several things about God’s judgment.

   A. God’s judgment is appropriate and just
      – Proverbs 26:27; Jeremiah 9:8; James 3:6

First of all God’s judgment is appropriate and just. God’s punishments are never too light, and they are never too harsh. They are always appropriate to the offense and perfectly just.

We read in Jeremiah 9:8: “Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks with deceit.” (Jeremiah 9:8) And we read in James 3:6: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” (James 3:6) And so we see that the tongue in Scripture is compared negatively to both arrows and fire. And according to Psalm 120 what is the punishment for a deceitful tongue? Arrows and fire: a warrior’s sharp arrows and the burning coals of the broom tree.

And so the tongue that is deceitful and has hurt others will itself be hurt. Remember we said earlier that the word for deceit is related to the word for shooting an arrow? Well, that’s what the deceitful tongue gets in return.

Proverbs 26:27 says: “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him.” (Proverbs 26:27) In other words, a man reaps what he sows. We might call it poetic justice. But what it means here in Psalm 120 is that God’s judgment is appropriate to the offense and perfectly just.

   B. God’s judgment is certain and severe
      – Exodus 34:7; Psalm 64:3-8; 140:9-10; Romans 12:19

God’s judgment is appropriate and just. It is also certain and severe. We learn from Psalm 120 that the appropriate judgment for sin is very severe, as pictured by a warrior’s sharp arrows and the burning coals of the broom tree.

The arrows here speak of the suddenness of God’s judgment coming upon the wicked. And the fact that they are a warrior’s sharp arrows speaks of the skill and the accuracy of the one who draws the bow. You can be certain that he will not miss. We read a similar word of judgment in Psalm 64: “They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows. They shoot from ambush at the innocent man; they shoot at him suddenly, without fear…. But God will shoot them with arrows; suddenly they will be struck down. He will turn their own tongues against them and bring them to ruin.” (Psalm 64:3-8)

We are told that the coals in Psalm 120 are the coals of the broom tree. The broom tree is a tree about twelve-feet in height. It was known for its exceptionally hard wood that produced extremely hot charcoal that retained its heat for a long time.

And so if the arrows in Psalm 120 speak of the suddenness of the judgment, the coals speak of the duration of the judgment. Coals burn slowly and point to a judgment that lasts a long time. When God’s judgment comes, it comes suddenly, but it will not end quickly. As we read in Psalm 140: “Let the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused. Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise.” (Psalm 140:9–10) Hell is forever, and those who die outside of Christ will face God’s severe judgment for sin for all of eternity.

These verses in Psalm 120 are both a warning to the wicked and a reassurance to the righteous that God is just and that he will punish every sin. Exodus 34:7 says: “God does not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exodus 34:7) And that means when you are attacked by others, you do not need to attack back. That’s why we read in Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) It’s not your place to judge the sins of others. So when people attack you, love them and forgive them. Pray for those who persecute you. Take it to the cross of Jesus and leave it up to God to handle.

God’s judgment is appropriate and just. God’s judgment is certain and severe. And so that’s the second application we learn from this Psalm. Know that God will punish the wicked.

III. Know that you do not belong to the world (5-7)

1) Call on the Lord in times of trouble. 2) Know that God will punish the wicked. And then finally, 3) Know that you do not belong to the world. Look at verses 5-7 where the psalmist writes: “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:5-7) And there are a number of things we can learn from these verses as believers in Christ.

   A. The Christian is uncomfortable living in the world
      – John 15:19, 17:14-16

First of all, the Christian is uncomfortable living in the world. As a Christian you are called to be different from the world. The world has no place for God or Christ, and therefore as a follower of Christ you are going to feel out of place in this world.

Meshech and Kedar in Psalm 120 refer to peoples rather than places. The people of Meshech lived to the north by the Black Sea. The people of Kedar lived to the south in the Arabian Desert. And so the psalmist is surrounded by people who do not care about God or God’s ways. And this causes him distress, discomfort. “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar!” (Psalm 120:5)

It’s the same way for Christians living in the world. It’s uncomfortable for us. We don’t always feel at home here. We don’t always fit. We are pilgrims on a journey, strangers in a strange land. As the old hymn puts it:

This world is not my home; I’m just a passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Jesus said in John 15:19: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19)

And even though we may not feel comfortable living in the world, this is exactly the place where God has chosen for us to live out our Christian faith in obedience to him and as a witness to others. We are to be in the world, but not of the world. As Jesus prayed in John 17: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17:14-16)

   B. The Christian gets tired of living in the world
      – Psalm 42:2; Philippians 3:20

The Christian is not only uncomfortable living in the world. The Christian also gets tired of living in the world. Can’t you just hear it in Psalm 120? “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.” (Psalm 120:5-6)

We often see the phrase “how long” in the Psalms but this is the only time we see the phrase “too long.” The psalmist says it’s been too long! He is tired of it all. No more! He is ready to begin his journey to go and meet with God. His attitude is the same as that of the psalmist in Psalm 42: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2)

The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) This world is not our home. We may be living on earth, but our citizenship is in heaven. As Christians we are homesick for heaven. We long to be with Christ. And if you’re not homesick for heaven, then perhaps you need to consider whether heaven is truly your home.

How about you? Can you relate to these verses in Psalm 120? Have you been too long apart from God? If so, that’s what these Psalms of Ascent are all about. They begin with dissatisfaction and discontent. We get tired of this world and living in the ways of the world, and so we begin our journey of drawing closer to God and his ways.

   C. The Christian longs for peace in the midst of a hostile world
      – Matthew 5:9; John 14:27, 16:33; Romans 12:18

The Christian is uncomfortable living in the world. The Christian gets tired of living in the world. And then finally, the Christian longs for peace in the midst of a hostile world. Look at Psalm 120:6-7: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:6-7)

The world is a hostile place. It is hostile to believers, and its people are hostile to each other. The history of the world can be told with its wars, and it is a long, sad history of fightings and conflict. And in the midst of a hostile world, the Christian longs for peace.

The word for “peace” in Psalm 120 is the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is a beautiful word signifying not merely the absence of conflict but the presence of health and wholeness. The psalmist is a person of peace, longing for peace, living among those who hate peace.

Do you long for peace in the midst of this world? The Bible urges you as a Christian to pursue peace in every aspect of your life. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Romans 12:18 tells you: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

Do you long for true peace in your life? It is only found in Jesus Christ. Jesus said in John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Yes, in this world you will have trouble, but remember Psalm 120 teaches you to call on the Lord in times of trouble.

This world is a hostile place full of lies and war. But Christ brings truth and peace. As Jesus said in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

CONCLUSION: Psalm 120 is the psalm that starts us on our journey in the Psalms of Ascent. And we have learned three important applications from it this morning: 1) Call on the Lord in times of trouble. 2) Know that God will punish the wicked. 3) Know that you do not belong to the world.

What does Psalm 120 mean? It means that as followers of Christ we are in the world but not of the world. The world is opposed to God and his ways. The world is opposed to God’s truth. The world is opposed to God’s people. The world hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their evil deeds will be exposed. God will judge the wicked but save his people.

What does Psalm 120 mean? It means that we are pilgrims on a journey. God has changed our hearts in Christ, and so we no longer desire the things of the world. We desire first and foremost to be with God and to meet with him. This is a journey that begins with our conversion, that ends with heaven, and that we follow every day and every week of our lives.

It is also a journey that begins and ends with prayer. And so I want you to know as we enter this New Year that whatever your trouble, God is there for you. Talk to him. Cry out to him. “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.” (Psalm 120:1)

(Prayer by Samuel Cox: “God of peace, grant me Thy peace as I worship in Thy presence; and let me find a bettered world when I come back to it, or, at least, bring a bettered and more patient heart to its duties and strifes.”)

© Ray Fowler

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