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Psalm 120 … Dwelling Among Those Who Hate Peace

Psalm 120

Dear Christian, if the events of 2020 haven’t caused you to realize this world is not your home, I’m not sure what will. In my own state, the stay at home restriction was at long-last lifted only for a city-wide curfew to be enforced hours later due to potential rioting and looting later that evening. The other morning, I spent some time surveying the downtown damage from the previous night’s protests. Our city is just a microcosm of the disaster that has struck larger metropolitan areas such as Milwaukee or Philadelphia. Even so, the words of the psalmist struck me: “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace” (Psalm 120:6)

Psalm 120: In the Wrong Place

Psalm 120 belongs to that compilation known as the Psalms of Ascent: 15 songs nestled towards the end of the psalter that were sung by Hebrews making their way to Jerusalem for worship. Psalm 120 is actually the first of these songs, and thematically it stands apart from the rest. It’s not so much a stirring anthem for the march onward as it is a cry for help—“in my distress I called to the Lord” (v.1).

What is distressing the psalmist? He tells us in verse 5: “Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!” Meshech and Kedar are two nomadic tribes, both to the east of the Promised Land. Elsewhere in Scripture, Meshech is associated with the sins of Magog and Babylon, and the Kedarenes come from the passed over line of Ishmael. Covenantally-speaking, these aren’t great places to be. They are metaphors for the wickedness of the world. They are stand-ins for any Gentile region that is far from the people and promises and peace of God. That’s where this psalmist feels he has been living. In essence he is crying: “Get me out of here!”

We all need to make that cry. The Christian life needs to begin with that desire to dwell somewhere else. It’s the only thing that will start us on our journey towards God. We should not feel settled here. That’s why Psalm 120 is the only beginning that makes sense for the series of psalms that follows.

Recording artists will tell you about the importance of what is known as “sequencing”—having good songs for an album isn’t the end of the project, putting those songs in the right order is just as important. The art of ordering the songs on a record is called sequencing; it’s what makes sense of the whole, it’s what brings cohesion and narrative to what would otherwise be 10 or 12 disjointed tracks. Note the sequencing of the Psalms of Ascents: for the pilgrimage to make sense, Psalm 120 has to be at the start. We all need to be fed up with this sinful world in order to begin our journey to the celestial one. Eugene Peterson captures it like this: “A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.”[1]

I Aim for Peace

If you want to make the journey to God, you need to at first be thoroughly dissatisfied with the way the world is. In Psalm 120, the psalmist has noted that he is the wrong place, so now he needs to get to the right place. This is the start of the journey! His aim is stated in verse 7: “I am for peace.” Literally in Hebrew it reads: “I peace.” His aim is all-consuming that it becomes his identity. He is for peace, so where is the natural place for him to go? The city of peace—Jerusalem!

The psalmist’s distress is our distress; His aim ought to be our aim as well: we must recognize the emptiness of this world, how it offers nothing to console our hearts, how there is no shalom for our souls, and we must pack our things and head onward. Do you recognize that? Do you recognize that this world doesn’t have what you need? It may have what you want, but it doesn’t have what you need. It doesn’t have God. You must set your aim on Him. We must take the warning of C. S. Lewis, “Aim for heaven, and get earth thrown in. Aim for earth and get neither.”

Do your recognize that you are a pilgrim? We are passing through (1 Peter 2:11). In the words of an old folk hymn: “No tranquil joys on earth I know, No peaceful, shelt’ring dome; This world’s a wilderness of woe, This world is not my home.” There is no peace here, but there is peace in the City of Peace. For the psalmist that was a city in Palestine. For us it’s a city in heaven.

Looking to Jesus

How do we properly orient our maps for Home? How do we ensure our compasses are pointing True North? How can we have the same aim as Psalm 120? If you are anything like me, your aim is regularly off. You aim for earth and miss heaven. You find yourself too comfortable with the things of this world. Or you find yourself hopeless against the harm of injustice, forgetting that there’s something more than what we have here.

The answer is in the aim of Christ. When we look to his life here on earth we see he endured the same troubles as us. He was surrounded by sin (though He never succumbed to it). He knew this world was not His home, and where did He set His aim? Jerusalem. The city of peace, just like the psalmist. But for Him He knew it did not mean peace, but it would mean death. Jesus was heading for the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” When the days drew near for him to die, He headed towards that death. He did not shrink from it. He headed towards destruction and curse to ensure that when we aim for Jerusalem we would have peace.

The cross is God’s answer to a world of violence. A world that hates peace. The cross is God’s answer to a world where injustice seemingly reigns supreme. We see how seriously God takes justice at Calvary. For those who do not repent of the consistent shirking of shalom, for those who are enemies of the church, for those who promote violence and wrongdoing, there will be a day of judgment. But the cross teaches something else: that day of judgment won’t come for me, though I deserve it terribly. For the Christian, our final judgment was brought forward in time and Jesus experienced it all in our place. So that when our aim is off, when we find ourselves forgetting about our true home, when I find myself too comfortable here, when I succumb to sin, I am still safe. Jesus died the death that I deserve for those sins.

And you know what that reality makes me want to do? It makes me want to be with Him. Don’t you feel it? Don’t you want to be with the God who would love you so much that He would make a pilgrimage of death for you? So we respond to that gift by turning, by endeavoring, by journeying, by making our aim our very identity, one with our God: peace.

This article about Psalm 120 originally appeared here.

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JonathanCruse@churchleaders.com'
(MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI. He is the author of The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019), and has written articles for numerous publications (including Modern Reformation, Core Christianity, New Horizons, and The Outlook). Several of his contributions to modern hymnody have also been published, some of which are included in the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (GCP, 2018).