Psalm 120 begins a collection of fifteen psalms (120–134) known as the Songs of Ascent. There are many different theories as to the purpose of this collection. Perhaps most popularly, it is thought that these fifteen songs were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem for the three annual religious festivals. They were a preparation for worship. If this is the case, the content of Psalm 120 is significant.
The psalmist thought himself under a divine “woe” because “I sojourn in Meshech” and “I dwell among the tents of Kedar” (v. 5). For “too long” he had dwelt “among those who hate peace” (v. 6). This was a source of “distress” to him (v. 1) and he longed for “deliverance” from this situation (v. 2).
Meshech and Kedar were foreign peoples, renowned for war. Since Meshech and Kedar were quite far apart from each other, it is unlikely that the psalmist was physically exiled to these particular regions. It is possible that he was an exile in Babylon, using Meshech and Kedar poetically to describe the bloodthirstiness of the Babylonians. It is possible that he was in Israel recognising the proclivity of his own people to violence rather than peace. Whatever his precise situation, he clearly felt exiled, even if he was not so physically. He longed for peace. He longed for fellowship with those who wanted peace. Instead, he found himself surrounded by those who thirsted for violence.
Living among those who had no thought for peace, the psalmist longed for likeminded brothers and sisters. Circumstances had prevented him from fellowship with those of like mind. He was not content with this situation. He felt distinctly displaced and longed for God to restore him to the fellowship he desired. He recalled how God had kindly answered in the past (v. 1) and allowed past experiences of answered prayer to encourage him to pray for similar deliverance in the present (v. 2).
Do you know the feeling? Do you know what it is like to live your day to day experience in Meshech and Kedar, where people love violence rather than peace? Do you know what it is like to spend all your time among those with a “deceitful tongue” (vv. 2–3) while you long for fellowship with the likeminded? Does it sometimes seem that, while you are for the peace that comes through the gospel, you are surrounded by those who are at war with gospel-minded Christians? Does it trouble you that corporate worship, the very place where you expect to gather with the likeminded, is suspended—and has been suspended for “too long” (v. 6)? How should you respond?
For all the talk over the last year about the “unprecedented” times in which we live, we do well to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic, and its attendant regulations and restrictions, is not as unprecedented as we might be tempted to think. Many comparisons have been drawn between the current pandemic and the 1918 Spanish Flu, which infected some 500 million people in four separate waves between February 1918 and April 1920. It was a time of similar regulation and restriction. Churches were ordered to be closed—predictably, to the same varied responses we see from Christians today. But that things eventually normalised. God answered prayer and churches reopened, worship resumed, and church life continued as it had before the flu struck. The same God who answered those prayers can answer our prayers today.
The writer of Psalm 120 allowed God’s historical answers to prayer (v. 1) to encourage him for future answers to prayer (vv. 2ff). We should do the same. As we find ourselves spiritually displaced, unable (out of genuine health concerns) to gather corporately for worship, let’s be praying fervently that God will bring this time of displacement to an end. It has been “too long” already. Let’s pray that it will not be too much longer before we are able to once again gather with those who are for the peace of the gospel.