Psalm 120: Woe is Me

Dear Reader,

This is a return to my series on the Psalms. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here

I have been slacking off on my work on the Psalms. In this age of quarantine, it seems like a good time to return to them.  I am inspired and convicted as well by some quotes from a favorite author. Frank Gaebelein [1] writes that “unity — unity of form and structure — is basic to truth in art” (p. 89) and again: “integrity [in art] demands that anything contrived merely for the sake of effect and not organically related to the purpose of the work be ruled out” (p. 91). The Scriptures also are art (p. 70), divinely inspired art at that, and we should expect no less of them. It has been my contention in this series that the form of the Psalms has a meaning to convey to us that we often miss. Though our English translations often obscure this deeper level of meaning and beauty, we do not all need to learn Hebrew to begin to see and appreciate the Psalms on a deeper level. What we need are, first, good translations that take into account the structure of the Hebrew and its word choice, and, second, a few detection skills which can easily be learned.

With this in mind, let’s look at the first of the so-called Songs of Ascent, Psalm 120:

Translation of Psalm 120 [2]

A Song of Ascents

  1. To the LORD in my distress
  2. I called
  3. And He answered me.
  4. LORD, deliver my soul*
  5. From lying lip[s]
  6. From deceitful tongue.
  7. What will be given to you
  8. And what will be added to you, deceitful tongue?
  9. The sharp arrows of the warrior
  10. With the coals of the broom-tree.
  11. Woe is me! for I sojourn in Meshech;
  12. I dwell with the tents of Kedar.
  13. Long enough! my soul* has dwelt
  14. With the hater of peace.**
  15. I [am for]*** peace** 
  16. But when I speak they [are]*** for war. 

Notes on the translation:

*Hebrew nephesh may be translated as “life” or “soul.”

** Hebrew shalom

*** The Hebrew here simply reads “I peace” and “They war.” Hebrew often does not require a verb where English demands one. 

Analysis

As always, I invite you to spend some time with this Psalm before you read my comments. Note which lines seem to go together and which words or ideas recur.

Hebrew poetry is governed by parallelism. Sometimes this parallelism is very pronounced and at other times it is subtle or perhaps the Psalmist intentionally varies traditional patterns. Psalm 120 seems to fall in the latter category. There are units here, but they are not necessarily pairs of exactly parallel lines. The structure I see in this Psalm is as follows:

  • Triad #1: Lines 1 through 3
  • Triad #2: Lines 4 through 6
  • Quatrain consisting of two pairs: Lines 7+8 and Lines 9+10
  • Pair #1: Lines 11 and 12
  • Pair #2: Lines 13 and 14
  • Pair #3: Lines 15 and 16

Within this framework I also see a kind of break between the end of the quatrain (line 10) and what follows (line 11). This division is both structural and thematic. The first 10 lines fall into more tightly connected sets of lines. From line 11 on, the connections between the pairs are looser and the tone of the Psalm also changes a bit.

Though I divide up the Psalm in this way, what strikes me most about it is how its various parts are linked together. The Psalmist uses the repetition of certain key words to tie each section to the next and to link the whole Psalm together. Here is what I see:

  • “LORD” [3] in lines 1 and 4 links the two triads.
  • “Deceitful tongue” in lines 6 and 8 links the second triad with the quatrain.
  • “Dwell” in lines 12 and 13 links the first two pairs of lines.
  • “Peace” in lines 14 and 15 links the second and third pairs.

Note that there is no link between the quatrain and the first pair, a further argument that line 11 begins a new section of the Psalm. Nonetheless, there is a word that links the first half of the Psalm to the second: “my soul” occurs in lines 4 and 13.

If that all seems confusing, here is a visual of how I would mark up the Psalm, showing the sections within it and the repeated words:

IMG_2430

What someone repeats often tells us a lot about them. This is even more true of a person in distress. So here the repeated words by themselves give us an idea of the meaning of the Psalm. LORD, my soul, deceitful tongue, dwell, peace — these are the words that spring to the Psalmist’s lips.

We may note as well the number of times speech is referred to in some way: called (line 2), lips (line 5), tongue (line 6), tongue (line 8), speak (line 16).

Lastly, I’d like to highlight the tone of the second half of the Psalm, beginning in line 11. The first half, as we have said, consists of more tightly linked sets of lines. In the second half, one gets the feeling that the Psalmist’s distress has mounted and that he is a little less coherent. In his distress, his utterances have become ejaculations. This half begins with “Woe is me!” (line 11)  — one (hyphenated) word in Hebrew. Often lost in translation is that the second pair in this section also begins with what sounds like a cry — “Long enough!” (line 13) as I have translated it.  The third and final pair of the Psalm does not have the same kind of exclamation but the words in Hebrew are quick as if the Psalmist is not able to put together full sentences. Most literally we could translate: “I — peace! But when I speak, they — for war!” (see “notes on translation” above).

Conclusions

There is perhaps no huge change in meaning that we miss when we read Psalm 120 in our usual translations, but I hope that you can begin to see that there are other things which a close, structural reading can give us —

  • An appreciation for the artistry of the Psalm, how it divides into parts and how these parts are yet linked together through the Psalmist’s use of repeated words;
  • Some insight into the Psalmist’s mood and mental state, particularly his distress which comes through so poignantly in the second half of the Psalm;
  • And, though we do not know the exact circumstances in which this Psalm was originally written, some idea of those things which are important to the Psalmist: he cries to the LORD; he longs for peace for his soul; he is concerned about his dwelling; and there is an emphasis on speech and particularly those with deceitful tongues.

Note that the Psalm does not end with deliverance. Yet, Psalm 120 has been placed in a literary context within the Sripoutees and so we look forward to next time and to Psalm 121.

Nebby

[1]  Gaebelein, Frank. The Christian, The Arts, And Truth, ed. D. Bruce Lockerbie. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985.

[2] In order to highlight the structure of the Psalms and to accurately portray their word-choices, I always start by making my own translation. Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here which is useful for printing and sharing. If you use it beyond your own home, please credit me.

[3] When rendered in all capitals, “LORD” represents the tetragram, YHWH, the personal divine name of God.

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] study, I have decided to begin with the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). We began last time with Psalm 120 and continue this time with […]

    Reply

  2. […] we looked at Psalm 121 we found lots of nice parallel sets of lines. Even Psalm 120 had fairly good use of parallelism. Psalm 122 takes a different approach. It is best viewed (after […]

    Reply

  3. […] the Psalm we see the same kind of linking through repeated words that we saw in Psalms 120 and121. Line 1 through 5 are a section because they all have the word “eyes” and […]

    Reply

  4. […] different it is from the previous Psalms of Ascent. Those, as we saw, were filled with emotion. Psalm 120 was a lament, Psalm 121 an expression of confidence in the Lord’s deliverance, and Psalm 122 […]

    Reply

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