(The first Psalm in the series of Psalms called the “Songs of Ascent” that deal with the pilgrim journey to God in Jerusalem – God’s dwelling place on earth which for the Christian is the church that one day will manifest itself in heaven. This Psalm starts that pilgrim journey in our dark and hostile world where we need to constantly call on God for help to travel his way or journey through this life to heaven itself.)

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Psalm 120 is the first of 15 Psalms that have the Hebrew heading, the first verse  of each of these Psalms in the ancient Hebrew bible that says, 

“A song of ascent”

To an ancient Hebrew or Jewish person this headings meaning would have been clear and easily defined. However after the Jews were dispersed by the Romans in AD 70 and the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were ejected from the promised land of Israel the meaning of “A song of ascent” was lost.

Most commentators speak of up to six possible meaning for the expression “A song of ascent” and these six meanings have to do with the Hebrew translations of the Hebrew word word for ‘Ascent”. The two main translations of this Hebrew word are “Steps” or “Ascent in the sense of going upwards” and it was H. C. Leopold who helped me understand the meaning of this Hebrew word.

Two of the possible meanings of “Songs of Ascent” draw on the Hebrew meaning for “Ascent” “Steps” and they are:

1.    Songs or Hymns sung by Levite priests as they went up on of the 15 steps in the Jerusalem           Temple that lead to the court of men in that Temple.

2.    Step songs or Psalms that have a internal step like structure.

Appealing as these two interpretations are they both fail to fully capture the scope and meaning of these 15 Psalms and I believe both of these explanations can be explained by the most likely meaning of the term “A song of ascent” which I will discus last.

The other four explanations utilise the other Hebrew meaning for “Ascent” which is “Ascent in the sense of going upwards” and they are:

3.    The gradual songs or Psalms that develop in their structure as movement up to God from the 

        low point of being lost in a dark, hostile, foreign world in Psalm 120 to being in the presence of 

        God in his dwelling place in Psalm 134.

4.   Similar to gradual songs / Psalms is the idea of Progression songs in that even with these 15 

      Psalms there seems to be a upward movement from a low spiritual position to a higher spiritual 

      point. Calvin even suggested that the term could refer to tunes that went from low to high pitch.

5.   The procession from Babylon Songs / Psalms which seem to have been composed sometime 

      after the return from exile in Babylon and sung by the returning Jews. This was an upwards 

      journey from Babylon on sea level and below to Jerusalem which is above sea level.

6.   The Pilgrims Festival songs / or Psalms and this last explanation seems to fit best as

      once it is applied it resonates with the message of each Psalm in this 15 Psalm series.

The idea here is that all Jews travelled up to Jerusalem up to three times a year for three main festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacle”. Our Lord himself is recorded as having made this journey of ascent himself in a number of places in the Gospels like John 5: 1,

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals”.

These journeys of going up to Jerusalem, or ascending up could have taken Jews living in bible times of up to three to five days of hard walking steadily up hill according to where they started from and it is believed that these 15 Psalms were the songs these pilgrim travellers sang as they made this annual journey up to Jerusalem.

Leopold even suggested that these 15 Psalms might have started their life as a little book, scroll in ancient times that was put together for pilgrims to use when travelling up to Jerusalem for these festivals and the editors of the fifth book of Psalms decided to put them into this final collection of Psalms and show their origin by giving them the Hebrew heading of “Songs of Ascent”.

This understanding of the “Songs of Ascent” can also fit the other explanations of the meaning of The Songs of Ascent in my way of thinking.  After the songs were put together for Pilgrims coming up to Jerusalem for one of the three festivals the Levites could have adapted them to use as songs to sing as they ascended the 15 steps into the Temple.

These Psalms were also chosen by the original editors because they had a structure that fitted a pilgrims journey up to Jerusalem with both message and style in which they were written and maybe in the structure of the tunes they were sung by. Also some of these Psalms like Psalm 126 do seem to fit the return from Babylon this could be simply an apt time of a special pilgrimage to Jerusalem that helped inspire these compositions. 

So finally the style and message of these Psalms, possibly even in the way they were sung fit a going up or ascending nature and again make them very appropriate for pilgrim journeys up to Jerusalem for one or more of the Jewish festivals celebrated each year in ancient Israel right up to the time of Christ. This means that Jesus himself probably sang these songs as he joined with his family and then his disciples when he went up to Jerusalem to celebrate one or more of the Jewish festivals held their each year.

My structure for the 15 Songs of Ascent Psalms comes from an inspired interpretation I discovered in my research on these Psalms by a man named Paul Faris who called “The Songs of Ascent”, “The Pilgrims Psalter” and he divided these fifteen Psalms into three sections:

  1. Psalms 120 – 124 – Beginning the Journey
  2. Psalms 125 – 129 – Progressing on the Journey
  3. Psalms 130 – 134 – Perfecting the journey

It is said he argued that the Songs of Ascent,

“Captured the three stages of our spiritual journey. We begin our walk with God by leaving evil behind (Beginning), make progress in our faith by working on various areas of our life to bring them in submission to God (progressing) then, as we near our destination, ready ourselves to meet our God (Perfecting).

I have captured this inspired interpretation and adapted it to be my three sections of The Songs of Ascent”, which are:

  1.   Psalms 120 – 124 – The Journey begins – The Way
  2.   Psalms 125 – 129 – The Journey progresses – The Road
  3.   Psalms 130 – 134 – The Journey Ends – The destination

I also need to define what I believe is the meaning of the term “A Christian Pilgrim” and “ A Christian Journey” is. After careful study of these terms I came to this conclusion:

The theme of pilgrimage is developed through many books that make up what we call as Christians, the bible and it is a term that has many aspects to it like being on a journey through life to God, experiencing exile, living as a sojourner in a foreign land and seeking God’s way for our lives and walking in it by faith to God in heaven. Heaven is the final destination of the children of God made possible by the work of The Lord Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection.

I will quote a lot in these Songs of Ascent Psalm Talks the words of Jesus in John 14: 6,

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.


A few years ago I watched a very interesting movie called ‘The Way” which was about a American eye specialist name Dr Thomas Avery played by Martin Sheen who travels to Spain after the death of his grown up son who died in a fierce storm while attempting to walk the pilgrim way in the Pyrenees called Camino de Santiago translated as “The Way of St. James”. This is an ancient Roman Catholic pilgrimage that many people still do today for various reasons.

Dr Thomas, a materialistic, godless man decides in memory of his son to complete this arduous journey to scatter his sons ashes at the end of the pilgrimage. Dr Thomas meets a number of fellow travellers on his long and difficult journey and discovers some of the many reasons why people attempt this famous pilgrimage. He becomes friends with three fellow travellers and as the movie progresses he discovers many things about himself and life he had never really thought about and it appears that he for the first time in his life sees something of a spiritual dimension to his life he never ever thought of before.

This movie is a excellent introduction to the Songs of Ascent and illustrates to me where all of us start our journey to God in heaven from, darkness, despair and hopelessness. We are all spiritually speaking blind to God and need to come out of that darkness to his glorious light to see the way he has made for us to walk or live that leads us eventually to heaven.

This is the central theme of the first Psalm of Ascent and is best illustrated by what verse 5 is actually saying, the verse reads like this,

“Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!”

We will see, when I get to this verse that what the author of Psalm 120 actually saying here is that he is dwelling in a dark and godless place far from Jerusalem and therefore far from the presence of God that Jerusalem represented in the Old Treatment.

Psalm 120 has as it’s main theme  as the “Journeys beginning” or where we all start our true spiritual journey to heaven from, namely from sin and hopelessness.This theme of where we begin our journey or pilgrimage from will also be explored in the next four Psalms before we move to the second section of these Psalms of Ascent, Psalms125 – 129 that deal with progressing on in our journey or travelling the road God has made for us to travel on

With this theme in mind my outline for this first Song of Ascent is:





Lets then look at where all of us begin our journey to God according to this first Psalm of ascent.


Our writer of Psalm 120 starts his short Psalm of Ascent with a desperate prayer in verse 1,

“I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me”.

This man reveals where a true spiritual journey to God begins in the opening words of his Psalm, namely a prayer of faith made in the heat of problems and difficulties. I have heard many people in my past testify that they came to the Lord not initially willingly but God had to put them in a very difficult situation to wake them up spiritually. This is what the film “The Way” reveals as Dr Thomas Avery was so caught up in making money and pursuing his career he had no time for not only God but other people including his son who died on his spiritual pilgrimage in Spain.

Our writer found himself in some kind of distress, which we are not told what it  actually was but later in the Psalm it does seem to be connected with living in a godless and dark world that sought to pursue war not peace and these people who sought war not peace used as a weapon against him their, vs. 2,

“Lying lips and deceitful tongues”

The New Testament makes it clear that without God people are living in a dark hopeless world that is full of deception and conflict as John tells us plainly in John 3: 19 – 20,

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed”.

However the message of The Gospel is clear that we come out of this darkness through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the light and love of God who has come into this world to save us as John 3: 16 says plainly,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.

And John 3: 19 goes on to further explain,

“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God”.

Our writer might have started his journey up to Jerusalem in a dark place in difficult circumstances but in that dark place he called on the Lord and he knew from previous experience of God in his life that God answered his prayers of faith just as Jesus assures anyone else who prays prayers of faith that he will answer them as he indicates in Mathew 7: 7,

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”

Our writer continues his prayer of faith to ask in verse 2,

“Save me , Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues”.

Our writer wants to be saved from the dark world he lived in to be in a place of peace as he indicates in verse 7, the final verse of his Psalm. The darkness he faced came in the form of slander and lies and Allan Harman in his commentary says that this fits well with the problems Ezra (Ezra 4: 1 – 24) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 4: 1 – 14, 6: 5 -14) faced after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon to re-build the Temple and walls of Jerusalem. Here Samaritans and Arabs now living also in Jerusalem and Israel used false accusations against the Jews in an attempt to stop them rebuilding God’s Temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Even today opponents of Christians and the Gospel message use false accusations against them to seek to put them down and destroy their effectiveness. 

Because of this I cautiously view news of Christians being reported to have done the wrong thing although if they have I know this is just evidence of Paul’s teaching on how we are all sinners, Romans 3: 23,

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

The writer of Psalm 120 called on God to,

“Save him”

This call to God for him to save us is the very first act we must all take to begin the spiritual journey that will lead us ultimately to God in heaven. Jesus said in John 14: 6 that he has made the way back to God in heaven,

‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.

To go to heaven we need to be saved from our sins and Peter, speaking about Jesus says this in Acts 4: 12,

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Once we are saved we are ready to begin the journey to God and heaven. When Jesus said he is “The Way”, he literally was saying he is “The Road” and so he is telling us that by calling on him to be saved he will set us on a new path or road in life that will lead us to his father in heaven.


The writer of Psalm 120 in the next two verses, verses 3 and 4 then expresses in a strange way to our ears or eyes a message of the judgement of God. It was Allan Harman who helped me understand what the writer is actually saying in these verses, he writes,

“This is an indirect appeal to God to bring judgment on the slanderer”.

He goes on to explain,

“It is phrased in terms similar to oaths such as ‘May God do to you, and more also’ (1 Samuel 3: 17)”.

So with this in mind verse 3 reads like this,

“What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue?”

The modern paraphrase version of the bible, The MSG version puts it this way,

“Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming, all you barefaced liars?”

The writer of Psalm 120 goes on to make it clear he is calling for God’s judgment to come on his enemies when he writes in verse 4,

“He will punish you with a warriors sharp arrow, with burning coals of the broom bush”.

This praying for God’s judgment to come on their enemies called theologically a imprecatory prayer which is very common in the book of Psalms and I have said many times before that Jesus does not want us as his followers to pray like this as he tells us in verses like Matthew 5: 43 – 44,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

However I have also said many times before when I read these imprecatory prayers in the book of Psalms I always think of how God’s Judgment is coming and how everyone one day will stand before the judgment seat of God and again we need to be saved from judgment. As Paul declares in Acts 17: 31,

For he (God) has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Paul makes that clear what this judgment of God leads to and offers the solution and hope in one short verse, Romans 6: 23,

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

Our writer speaks of the judgment of God coming on those who rebel against God and show this in their opposition to God and his faithful followers in ancient images of warfare,

“A warriors sharp arrow”.

The ancient archer found his target in the body of his opponent just as God will punish the unforgiven with his clear and decisive judgment.

Then in a common household product,

“With burning coals of the broom bush”.

The broom bush is a tree common to the Near East which is very hard wood so it burns very hot. So this is the image of a deadly consequence of sin and rebellion to God much worse than the effects of his enemies slanderous words. 

So as we all are under God’s judgment without the saving grace of God in Christ and so we all start our long road back to God in heaven from a realisation we are under the judgment of God and therefore must have the saving love of God to travel the way or road of God that leads to our heavenly home with God forever.

Jesus is the only way or road back to God in heaven because he alone provides the forgiveness we must have through his death and resurrection. As John makes clear from John 3: 36,

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them”.


The final three verses do not seem to have an obvious meaning but once some of the key words of these verses are explained then we see where all people start their journey of salvation and future glory from which is the dark and lost world of sin and godlessness.

The first of these last three verses reads like this,

“Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!”

So were is Meshek and Kedar and what is their significance?

Allan Harman explains Meshek this way,

“Mecheck was named after a son of Jephath (Gen. 10:2) and refers to Eastern Anatolia, now modern Turkey”.

While his explanation of Kedar is,

“Kedar was one of Ishmael’s sons and father of the tribe that bore his name (Gen. 25: 13)

Harmon explains that these people the writer is referring to are actually Bedouin Arabs who lived southeast of Damascus”.

So these two groups of people lived geographically poles apart so what is he saying by using these two different peoples names?

It seems according to most commentators he is describing living in a world totally alien from God, a world of barbarians or total non – believers in the God of the bible. I like Temper Longman 111 way of describing this, he writes,

“In other words a modern equivalent might be, ‘I am as far away as Timbuktu’ 

And goes on to explain,

“Even though Timbuktu is a real place, the expression indicates being anywhere that is incredibly distant and foreign”.

Spiritually that is a good description of where we start our pilgrimage or journey with God from as non – believers. We are in the dark and godless world that once we leave it Peter calls us in 1 Peter 2: 11,

“Foreigners and exiles”

In the world we now live in because in a previous verse in that same chapter, verse 9, he says God,

“Called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”.

And remember here the earlier verses in Johns Gospel I quoted that speak of how those not living in the light of God, The Lord Jesus Christ are living in darkness, John 3: 19 – 20,

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed”.

So the dark world we live in could cause us to cry out to God like the writer of Psalm 120,

“Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!”

Then in the last two verses of this Psalm our writer speaks of peace and war and living among people who hate peace and love war instead, verse 6 and 7,

“Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war”.

These two verses reveal to me three things about where our writer is starting his pilgrimage from:

  1. A hostile dangerous place
  2. A Frustrating war torn place
  3. A dark godless place

Let me explain how I came to these three descriptions of the place our writer starts his pilgrimage to God from and its significance to our spiritual journey as Christians living in a dark Godless world.

  1. A hostile dangerous place

The first of these last two verses, verse 6 says,

“Too long have I lived among those who hate peace”.

If the people around you actually hate peace then that would make the world you live in a very hostile and dangerous place. Most modern popular movies and TV shows feature war or conflict and the general plot of their story lines is murder, revenge and bloodshed. This is because we too live in a world of danger and hostility. 

Some places in our world are worse than others as they seem even further away from God, the God of the bible than other places but once we look away from God to go our own way in life Paul says in Romans 1: 28 – 32,

“Just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them”.

Call me cynical and negative but Paul has just described the world I live in and Australia and the part I live in is considered reasonably safe and civilised with so called peace loving people yet our nightly news is full of murders, family breakdowns and all sorts of other things Paul catalogued in the previous bible quote.

We hear of course in our nightly news of wars and rumours of wars and war is just human conflict on a national scale. People without the love of God do not love peace and I am often disappointed when I hear of Christians advocating war or conflict as the answer to problems in our world. 

As a young Christian I was a out and out pacifist but after many theological discussions and arguments I changed my views to say that Christians have the right to defend themselves and their country but this is a last resort strategy as Jesus said in Matthew 5: 9,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.

So our writer of Psalm 120 is telling us in verse 6 that he wants to no longer be in a world that hates peace. So from this dangerous hostile world he lives in he wants to journey to Jerusalem where he would be out of danger and hostility and in the presence of God. As the writer of Psalm 84 says,

“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! 2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. 3 Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God. 4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever

praising you. 5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. 6 

As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. 8 

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty,  listen to me, God of Jacob. 9 Look on our shield, O God look with favour on your anointed one. 10 Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. 11 

For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless’.

This Psalm expresses the yearnings of all true believers that they would be able to travel to the place that God dwells in and we know that this is heaven which is described this way in Revelation 21: 1 – 4,

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

  1. A frustrating war torn place

In the last verse of this Psalm verse 7 our writer describes the place from which he started his pilgrimage to Jerusalem from this way,

“I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war”.

Our writer sought to promote peace and harmony but those around him would have non of it as they only wanted war. This is a simple description of a frustrating war torn place in which our writer has been living in. 

He does not speak of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem directly in this Psalm but he has been inferring to it by speaking of being in a hostile, frustrating place where peace is hated and war is promoted. For him he wants to go to a place of peace and in Old Testament terms that place is Zion, or Jerusalem or God’s Temple which we heard the writer of Psalm 84 describe in his beautiful Psalm about Jerusalem and the house of the Lord that sat on top of Mount Zion.

For us as Christians we must continue to live in a frustrating often war torn world but we must always keep our eye’s on the ultimate destination of being with God in heaven which the writer to the Hebrews speaks of in Hebrews 12: 1 – 2,

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”.

  1. A dark godless place

So in conclusion then the place he now finds himself in is nothing more than a dark godless place as revealed by these last two verses and it is a place where war reigns and there is no peace.

From the rest of the Psalm he is also speaking of the place from where he is starting his journey or pilgrimage from as a dark and godless place by speaking of it as place of;

  • Lying lips
  • Deceitful tongues (vs. 2)
  • A place under God’s judgment (vs. 4)
  • A place far from the presence of God (vs. 5)

We also live in a dark godless world as,

“Foreigners and exiles”

Which we learnt from 1 Peter 2: 11 and this Peter explains in verse 9 is because God has.

“Called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”.

So we start our pilgrim journey from the dark world of sin and rebellion like Dr Thomas Avery the central character of the Hollywood movie, “The Way” he started his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain as a selfish, materialistic Godless man but as he journeyed on that difficult trail he discovered a new spiritual dimension to his life that changed him completely.

As Christians we have come out of the darkness of this world to start our walk on the way or the road to God following the Lord Jesus Christ who made that way back to God possible through his death on the cross for our sins.

I close with my own original poem inspired by what I have learn in my study of Psalm 120 and a final prayer.


(based on Psalm 120 and the tune of Wayfaring Stranger)

I call to God in my distress

Save me O Lord from this dark place.

And set my feet on your road O Lord

That will bring me to see your face.



God’s road to him

Was made by Jesus

When he died to forgive my sins

He made the way back to his father

So that in him new life begins.



Called out from this world under wrath

For it is hostile to God’s word.

He set my feet upon his road

Guiding my life by his word.



I live in a world from you Lord

I live in a world thats gone astray.

So set my feet on your road Lord

And show me how to live each day.


I long to live with you O Lord

Where peace does reign supreme always.

O set my feet on your road O Lord

To the place of true peace and praise.



God’s road to him

Was made by Jesus

When he died to forgive my sins

He made the way back to his father

So that in him new life begins.

By: Jim Wenman


I ask you Father in heaven above to help me as I face the pain and difficulty of living in this dark world of sin. I know your Son made a way for me back to you Father in heaven by dying for my sins on the cross so I thank you for your way and I pray that you will help me walk in your way in my life today. I commit my life to you Lord and I look forward to one day being with you in heaven where there will be no more pain, strife and tears, in Jesus powerful name I pray, Amen.


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