Lord of the cloud and fire,
I am a stranger, with a stranger’s indifference;
My hands hold a pilgrim’s staff,
My march is Zionward,
My eyes are towards the coming of the Lord,
My heart is in thy hands without reserve.
Some years ago, I walked with a close friend across the Swiss Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt. By day, we travelled along steep and sometimes dangerous paths with breathtaking views. By night, we enjoyed the hospitality of alpine huts and inns, with excellent food and comfortable beds. Each night, I read from a few pages torn from a scruffy paperback of the Psalms. Those pages consisted of Psalms 120-134, the Psalms of Ascents written for pilgrims on a journey. I still have them, yellowed, dog-eared and covered with almost illegible notes!
Since those unforgettable days of walking and companionship, I have lived with those psalms, praying them, studying them, preaching them and, hopefully, living them. They are psalms for every occasion and every situation. They restore faith, bringing light into dark places, security when fearful, guidance when wandering and a constantly renewed trust in our covenant-making, promise-keeping, never-changing Lord who walks with us every day of our earthly pilgrimage.
I trust that I can communicate my love for these ancient songs in the chapters that follow. First, though, a few words of introduction are necessary!
Introducing the Psalms of Ascents
So many aspects of the struggles and joys of our lives and faith are covered in these psalms.
Psalm 120 is the prayer of an exile, struggling to live in a country and culture far removed from his homeland. Psalm 121 is as if two pilgrims are walking together, encouraging each other to find safety in their Lord in whom they trust as they face dangers and exhaustion on their journey. Psalm 122 is a song of rejoicing as the pilgrims reach Jerusalem, their destination. The city’s virtues are extolled and prayer is made for Jerusalem’s peace.
Five of these psalms (123, 124, 129, 130, 131) face up to the struggles of faith under severe trials and suffering. Three others (127, 128, 133) are about our relationships. They speak of the encouragement and blessings that are to be found in our fellow-pilgrims, vital at every stage of our Christian journeys together. We were never meant to travel or suffer alone through a dangerous and threatening world.
Two other psalms (125, 126) are prayers shot through with hope. The city of God is our ultimate destination and, in spite of the dangers, we are to walk in trust with our eyes set firmly on our destination rather than looking downwards at the difficulty of the terrain we tread.
Psalm 132 is the longest of the Psalms of Ascents, encouraging prayer on a grand scale as we remember, affirm and celebrate the promises and purposes of our Lord in time and eternity!
Finally, Psalm 134 is a psalm of arrival, a song of exultant praise sung in the very presence of the Lord. Pilgrims bless their Lord and receive His blessing.
Jesus and the Psalms
The rationale for these chapters was inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and director of the Confessing Church, who was martyred in 1945 under the regime of Hitler:
It is the Son of God made man, who has borne all our human weakness in his own flesh, who here [in the Psalter] pours out the heart of all mankind before God, who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known pain and anguish, guilt and death more deeply than we have. Thus it is the prayer of that humanity he has assumed that comes before God in the Psalms. It is indeed our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves, since for our sake he became true man, it is also truly his prayer, and it can only become our prayer because it was his.
The book of Psalms formed the hymn book and prayer book that Jesus would have used when He was growing up and in His adult life. When Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve, He may well have known by heart the Psalms of Ascents sung along the way by all those travelling with them. This annual journey was long, arduous and sometimes dangerous, but it was also a time of great celebration and joy. We can imagine the families and community groups singing these psalms together as they walked day by day to Jerusalem.
By the time Jesus started His ministry at the age of thirty, He had a thorough knowledge of all the Jewish sacred scriptures, but it is the Psalms that He quoted in His teaching more than any other Old Testament book. We can quite reasonably infer from the tradition and teaching of His upbringing and the discipline and practice of His daily devotions that the Psalms were uppermost and highly formative in His prayers:
I always tell my classes that the book of Psalms formed the hymn book and prayer book that Jesus would have used when he was growing up and in his adult life. I suggest to them that if the gospels tell us what our Lord said and did, then the Psalms inform us as to what he thought and felt. They are a mirror on his inner spiritual life.
Each chapter starts with a study of the psalm in question followed by a reflection on how Jesus might have read and prayed it in His last days on earth. We move on from there to see how we can use each psalm to help us to follow Him and pray day by day on our own journey. The last section of each chapter encourages our personal response and prayer.
Unless stated otherwise, I have used the New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised) throughout.
1 In my distress I cry to the LORD,
that he may answer me:
2 ‘Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.’
3 What shall be given to you?
And what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
4 A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
5 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
6 Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war.
Introducing Psalm 120
This psalm is a cry from the heart of a pilgrim in great distress. Home seems far away and there is a deep longing to be where safety and truth rule the day rather than experiencing the constant buffeting of conflict and lies. It is an uncomfortable psalm; it might seem a strange song to open this pilgrims’ songbook.
The first two verses set the scene. The pilgrim’s distress is threatening to destroy trust in the Lord, and there is a wrenching cry from the heart as he realises that he is surrounded by untruthful people who offer advice that is twisted and leads only to trouble. Whispering lips speak words that pierce the pilgrim’s heart, causing pain and anguish as faith is questioned and mocked. It almost seems as if the destination on which the heart has been set is far too distant and the journey much too arduous.
It happens so often in the psalms that in naming and addressing a problem before the Lord, faith that was weak and failing is transformed into faith that is strong and persevering, as described in verses 3-4. Now there is a tone of defiance rather than distress. The psalmist poses a question to those who have deceived and mocked him, which he can now answer for himself: ‘Do you really think your deceit can rule the day? God, the warrior, has arrows of truth which are far sharper and more potent than the weapons you threaten me with!’ Other psalms speak of arrows of cruelty which are countered by God’s all-powerful arrows, or of the Lord’s intervention from heaven by shooting arrows to rout the enemy to reverse a situation of grave danger.
This exiled pilgrim now realises that the Lord has even more weapons in His armoury. As if the sharp arrows of a warrior were not enough, He lets it be known that He has burning coals of the broom tree to defend His besieged servant.
An ancient Jewish commentary on this psalm tells a story:
Two men going through the wilderness sat down under a broom shrub, gathered some fallen twigs of the broom … and ate their victuals. A year later when they came back into the wilderness to the place of the broom shrub and found the ashes of the fire which they had kindled, they said, It is now twelve months since we came through here and ate in this place. Thereupon, they raked up the ashes and as they walked over them, their feet were burnt by the coals under the ashes, for they were still unextinguished.
The coals of fire that the psalmist speaks of were made from the wood of the broom tree and shot on the arrows of warriors in order to set fire to a city under siege. These glowing embers of broom, which burned slow and long, are added to the Lord’s arrows fired against the deceit and lies of the pilgrim’s adversary. His actions are completely effective against those who were attacking and conspiring against the psalmist.
Living in a country where exiles are unsafe and under attack, far from the place where God dwells, the psalmist repeats in verses 5-7 his distress in a different form. ‘It is,’ he declares, ‘as if I lived among the people of Meshech or Kedar.’ The people of Meshech were a barbaric and remote tribe from Turkey; the desert people of Kedar were nomadic Arabian shepherds living between Egypt and southern Judah. Both tribes had reputations for fierce cruelty. ‘I feel so far from home both geographically and spiritually; it is as if I were actually living with these two tribes,’ declares the pilgrim. But in spite of all this, his final statement is one of triumph! In the hostility he is experiencing, he is able to speak peace. Revenge and bitterness are not part of his armoury; judgement has been left to the Lord (vv3-4). The psalmist lives for peace and speaks words of peace even though he is surrounded by lies and deceit. He knows that as one of the Lord’s people among those who do not know Him, he must live a life that portrays the peace and favour which is the Lord’s gift to His people.
The psalmist’s prayers of distress have been heard. At the outset, he addressed God by His covenant name, Yahweh, crying out to the Lord of faithful, covenant love, always present to help, protect and rescue:
In the case of the divine covenant … mutuality disappears: the relationship between the sovereign, transcendent God and those on whom he wills to bestow his promises is totally asymmetrical. It comes about without discussion or negotiation; it is an imposition of grace.
The One to whom he prayed was the personal God of unchanging nature, whose promises stood for eternity, and who would always be to His people the covenant and faithful God of steadfast love. A quiet acceptance of his exile and alienation is now possible. Prayer to his Lord brought the assurance of safety and the ability to speak words of peace in a distant and dangerous country.
Jesus and Psalm 120
Shortly before His final Passover, Jesus was summoned to the home of Mary and Martha because His close friend Lazarus was ill. When Jesus eventually arrived at their home in Bethany on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, it seemed that He was too late. Lazarus had died and had been buried in a nearby tomb for four days.
Three Greek words in John’s narrative describe the intensity of Jesus’ feelings as He came face to face with the death of Lazarus, the grief of Mary and Martha and the deafening noise of the professional wailers. Jesus was ‘greatly disturbed in spirit’ (John 11:33), groaning audibly with indignation as He confronted the devastation of death. He was ‘deeply moved’ (John 11:33) at the ugly intrusion of death into the perfect and beautiful creation which He had spoken into being. He was surrounded by fearful disciples and a grieving family and community. He entered into all this pain as if it were His own and He ‘began to weep’ (John 11:35). It was not the same as Mary’s loud and unrestrained wailing. The incarnate Creator stood in front of the tomb of Lazarus with the bereaved family and their friends and He shed quiet tears. Far from home, He wept in a country where death reigned.
Few passages in the Gospels describe Jesus’ feelings with such depth. The whole situation emphasised the pain and loneliness of His exile from the Father’s side, especially as the cross came more closely into view.
Behind death, he saw him who has the power of death and that sin which constitutes the sting of death. His whole being revolted from that final and deepest humiliation, in which the powers of evil were to inflict on him the precise penalty of human sin.
Knowing all that lay ahead of Him, but with a perfect trust in His Father’s purposes to bring Him through death, Jesus approached the tomb where Lazarus had been laid. After praying to His Father, He spoke three words calling Lazarus back from death: ‘Lazarus, come out’ (John 11:43), and Lazarus walked from the tomb alive!
This was the last sign recounted by John before the events leading up to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and it became a hugely divisive issue. Mary, Martha and their friends were overjoyed. No words could express their joy. Many others who were visiting Mary and Martha put their faith in Jesus. Some, however, disappeared quietly back over the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem and told the Pharisees what Jesus had done. A meeting of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish judicial council, was summoned. Their intent for many months had been to arrest Jesus, and they seemed to be getting nowhere. Now they were even more determined. Fearful of an uprising centred on Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, they resolved that He should be killed.
Hearing of this, Jesus slipped away from Bethany, travelling with His disciples some fifteen miles north to an isolated village called Ephraim in the rocky Judaean hills. Here, for a while, He felt safe. Here He could take stock and pray.
Jesus remained there, in hiding from the crowds and the searching eyes of the Jewish authorities, until the time of the Passover drew near. Perhaps the days were spent teaching and reassuring His disciples, but His thoughts and intentions must have been centred on Jerusalem where He was to suffer and die. He would have sensed the impending conflict of Gethsemane, the mockery of the night trial and the agony of crucifixion. He was only too aware of the hatred and trickery of the authorities who were out to catch Him with the smallest slip of the tongue. Every stranger in the village might have been one of their spies, ready to betray Him and lead Him back to Jerusalem for trial.
Ephraim was a lonely village, hidden away in the Judaean hills, surely the last place Jesus wanted to be. Knowing all that was to happen in Jerusalem, there must have been a longing in His heart to be reunited with His Father from whom He had come and to whom He would return. As the time approached to leave Ephraim for the Passover Festival, the words of this first pilgrim psalm which He would have recited on the journey to Jerusalem every year from the age of twelve might well have become His prayer.
Looking around at all that was happening, Jesus was acutely aware that He did not belong to this world. ‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him’ (John 1:10). There was no place for Jesus, no understanding of who He was, no opening of the door to receive Him. The world was a place of hatred where He was constantly hounded by the Jewish authorities who were determined to arrest Him and put Him to death. Betrayal awaited Him by Judas Iscariot, one of His own disciples. Even His close friend Simon Peter would later deny Him. The lonely weeks in Ephraim emphasised even more strongly than ever before that the world was a place of ‘distress’ for the One who had come to bring peace and reconciliation. Psalm 120 described His situation so accurately. Opposition, lies and confrontation surrounded Him (vv1-2), and He knew only too well the intensity of the battle that lay ahead (vv6-7). He was an exile in a foreign land far from home (v5), tired and homesick in a broken world that He Himself had spoken into being. His exile would end, but only after He had waged war and defeated the forces of sin and death on the cross. Only this way would the Man ‘for peace’ (v7) bring forgiveness and reconciliation to men and women.
The time in Ephraim drew to a close. Pilgrims were beginning to gather in readiness for their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus would soon be joining them, descending to Jericho, and then beginning the dangerous, steep ascent to the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem.
Reading Psalm 120 as a follower of Jesus
We have seen that as we use the psalms to pray, we pray them with Christ. Such prayer rests completely on who He is and on all that He has done and won for us.
The journey from Ephraim took Jesus to the cross, where He endured appalling suffering, carrying the crippling weight of the world’s sin and guilt and receiving from His Father the judgement due to us.
Breaking free from the tomb three days later, He declared that sins could be forgiven, death was defeated. His followers, forgiven and at peace with the Father, have been rescued from the power of darkness and established in the kingdom of God’s ‘beloved Son’, Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:13). His disciples still have their residence permits in this world but they have received new passports and identities as citizens of the kingdom of God. Exiles and strangers in this world on a journey to the New Jerusalem, they have no lasting home here. Followers of Jesus are one with Him, unsettled in this world and longing to be at home with Him in His New Creation.
He completely understands our present weaknesses, failures and temptations. He knows every experience of our lives because He has shared in them Himself. He wept when He shared with Mary and Martha in their uncontrolled grief and He was angry at the devastation wrought by death. He wailed over Jerusalem, its refusal to believe in Him and the judgement that would follow. During His hours of prayer in the Garden, He was ‘appalled and profoundly troubled’, experiencing there ‘a mental pain, a distress, which hems in from every side … and leaves no place for defence’.
Psalm 120 challenges us in two areas. First, we learn from the psalmist’s honesty in prayer. We can bring to our Lord the utter reality of our lives, the painful struggles and the intensity of our failures. The One who prayed this psalm Himself has become one with us in all our difficulties and troubles. Unlike us, He came through that depth of suffering and pain without sin and has therefore become for all exiled pilgrims the source of eternal salvation. He stands by us and strengthens us as we cry out to Him for mercy and grace when we are weak and suffering.
Faced with the suffering from which none of us is immune, we can go straight to Jesus, seated and praying for us at the right hand of the Father. We can unburden ourselves of the pain of living in exile: the lying lips, deceitful tongues and the hostilities and conflicts that we experience on differing levels. We can cry out to Him about the heartbreaking agony of broken relationships because He has known this. He is present with us when we face the shock of a serious accident or terminal illness or struggle in the darkness of grief. He understands our wordless groans when we find prayer impossible.
Second, the psalmist’s closing words challenge us to live in peace, even though we are living in a world of lies and deceit. Our natural reactions of revenge and unforgiveness cannot be part of our lives. The readiness to respond in anger must be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift breathed by Jesus on His disciples when they met Him on the evening of the resurrection.
Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’ … When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ’Receive the Holy Spirit.’
(John 20:19, 22)
Then we can begin to be those who are for peace, even though all we receive back are words of conflict. As the apostle John put it, living in the love of God with faith in Jesus, the Son of God, is the victory that conquers the world.
When difficulties seem unending, we remind ourselves as we pray that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a home with Him in the heavenly places; we have a citizenship in heaven. In Hebrews 12:22, the writer encourages his readers not to give up on their journey to Mount Zion, and he ‘uses a classic travel agent’s strategy: get them to imagine that they are already there’,telling them that they have already ‘come to Mount Zion’. Even from afar, the journey’s destination is secure because they are travelling with Jesus Christ who has already walked this route. There is a security tag firmly attached to every pilgrim walking with Jesus, which is no more and no less than the gift and inner presence of the Holy Spirit of God. That gift, coupled with the assured promises of God and the presence of Jesus ascended at the Father’s right hand, guarantees our safe arrival at our destination more certainly than anything else. It is safe to set out on the journey and it is safe to travel!
When things are hard and the going is tough, do you think that your distress can sometimes seem greater than the Lord you trust?
Why is it so easy to forget that we are exiles in this world rather than remembering that our real identity is as citizens of the kingdom of God?
Are there situations around you where you could be a person for peace rather than for conflict?
 Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision: a collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p108.
 Psalm 123 is about ridicule and contempt; Psalm 124 is about situations of fear and danger; Psalm 129 deals with the pain of physical suffering; Psalm 130 describes the dark times we suffer and Psalm 131 will help when we doubt the goodness of God.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford, SLG Press, 1989), p6.
 Quotation from a personal email from Dr Richard S Hess, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Denver Seminary, Colorado, USA. Used with permission.
 Psalm 64; Psalm 144:6.
 www.matsati.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Midrash-Tehillim-Psalms-120.pdf (accessed 18th May 2020).
 The translators of most English versions of the Bible adopt the device of translating the divine name YHWH as ‘Lord’ in capital letters to distinguish it from Adonai, another Hebrew word rendered ‘Lord’, for which lower-case letters are used.
 Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp42-43.
 Benjamin Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1950), p129.
 John 11:45-57.
 John 11:54. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p569.
 John 13:1.
 William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p516.
 Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, p131.
 Hebrews 4:15-16.
 1 John 5:1-4.
 Philippians 3:20.
 Thomas G Long, Hebrews (Interpretation Bible Commentary) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), p137.
 Ephesians 1:13-14.