PSALM 120

Keith Ruckhaus © 2013

In my distress I cried unto the Lord, that he may answer me.

In the Hebrew text, the phrase “to the Lord” begins the verse.   This is more accurately portrayed in the lamplighting Psalms of vespers where first the Lord’s name is invoked, “Lord,” followed by a call for help, “I call upon you, hear me.”  It is here where the journey, regardless of its lowly beginnings firmly places its goal, its target.  None other than a meeting with “The Lord” will due.  As complex, varied, and nuanced as religious faith and practice can be, we need be reminded that the height of our efforts and anguish is none other than a communion with God.

To call on the name of a god or goddess was of course common place in the ancient world.  There were lots of gods, usually dependent on location.  One could readily pick from a smorgasbord of divine aids each with a particular talent or knack. 

The name Yahweh or some variation of Yah was particularly located in the southern Levant and was not restricted to the Israelites.  Yah was a popular mountain god who was especially called upon to aid in reproduction of crops or herds. He was a rural, not a city god.

The ancient Hebrews understood their god in such a way, but they insisted even more so that God had revealed himself in a dramatic and unique way, a way contrary to any other notion of gods in the ancient world.  The name revealed to Moses in the desert, “I am” (a word play on the word yah) came at a time of deep crisis for the Hebrews.  Thus “I am” is especially the one who rescues, who saves, who brings out of the land of slavery. 

Yahweh is the most common reference in the Hebrew Bible for the god of the Israelites.  But in order to avoid using the Lord’s name in vain, the ancient Jewish practice avoided saying the name altogether.  When reading the Scriptures out loud then, the written word, Yahweh, was spoken as adonai, Lord.  Thus, “the Lord” in our English bibles is the substitute name for Yahweh.

For the ancient Israelites and for us today, the Name mostly invokes the sense of a God driven to interaction and communion with humans.  His desire is to draw near and even live among us. Even more so, He works unceasingly to “draw all men to Him.” To call on the Lord (Yahweh) means to call on a one of kind god who wants communion over conscription, covenant over contract, liberation over slavery.

In my distress, I cried

In the Hebrew, the word tzarar has a general sense of distress by being bound, restricted, cramped, squeezed, tightened, swallowed, overwhelmed, or closed in on.  It does not carry a mild sense of anxiety or stress, but of being in dire straits.  One can easily get the sense of being smothered or suffocated, like a boa constrictor who raps its coils around a victim and patiently waits for each exhale to gently tighten its hold, making the next breath shorter than the one before. 

As a child, I was clausterphobic.  I vividly remember the sweeping sense of panic when confined to a small dark place.  Particularly, I felt like I could not breathe, that I would suffocate.

The prayer of Jonah amply portrays the sense.  He not only was engulfed by the sea, but even more so, he was swallowed by a great fish.  Even ancient peoples understood that a person does not survive in a fish that is underwater.  This is double-death, an imminent and certain extinguishing of life with no possible way of escape.

In my distress I called to the Lord,
   and he answered me.
 From the midst of the nether world I cried for help,
   and you heard my voice. 
For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea,
   and the flood enveloped me;
   all your breakers and your billows passed over me. 
Then I said, “I am banished from your sight!
Yet would I again look upon your holy temple.   
  The waters swirled about me,
   threatening my life.  
The abyss enveloped me;
   seaweed clung about my head.  
Down I went to the roots of the mountains;
       the bars of the nether world were closing behind me forever
(Jonah 2:3-7)

This kind of distress is used to describe Joseph’s “anguish” as he was lowered into the well by his conniving brothers (Gen. 42:21).  It is not a quiet annoyance or nuisance—it is compared to the kind of tormented anguish of a woman in the pangs of child birth (Gen. 4:19, Jer. 49:24).

Tzarar can speak of all kinds of “difficulties” or hard times as it were, but in the case of David, it is mainly speaking of men who seek his life.  Certainly, this is a major theme in the Psalms, especially the ones attributed to David.  Thus, it is not difficulties brought on by natural or incidental causes, but ones brought on by other human beings.  It is the hostility, harassment, abuse and violence experienced by other humans, especially those who are closest to us, the ones who should be our friend, colleague, neighbor, or loved one that is the worst and most intensive kind of distress.  This is indeed the complaint of the song here.

It is the sweeping sense of shame that overtakes the one whom the crowd or gang has converged upon.   It is that choked feeling of shame as the many single out the one who is unsuspectingly smothered by the newly formed league as they hurl and heap fatal accusations upon their target like stones on a pile. 

The psalm attributed to David vivifies this best.  It is ultimately the suffocating humiliation of being completely overtaken, defeated, and overpowered by one’s enemies to the extent that even God has abandoned the “loser.”

Be not far from me, for I am in distress; (tzarar)
   be near, for I have no one to help me.
Many bullocks surround me;
  the strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
They open their mouths against me
    like ravening and roaring lions.
I am like water poured out;
   all my bones are racked.
May heart has become like wax
   melting away within my bosom.
My throat is dried up like baked clay,
   my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
To the dust of death you have brought me down.
    indeed, many dogs surround me,
A pack of evildoers closes in upon me
(Ps. 22:12-17)

The distress most often brought up in desperate prayer in the Psalms is inevitably from other humans and mostly humans acting in a kind of conspiring collective sense.  The enemy is addressed as simply “they,” and by a variety of other terms that we will encounter.  Most importantly, of all the people who will accompany those on expedition, the enemy is ever present and ever pressing.  They vigilantly lurk, seeking the prime opportunity to devour. 

Climbers know of such an enemy.  He is called “weather.”  It is ever present, often benevolent.  Good weather can make for an ascent of shear beauty, majesty and exhilaration.  When the weather is clear and mild, one can have a “hills are alive with the sound of music” experience of harmony with nature.  But always lurking, brooding, congealing is weather’s bipolar unpredictability.  Especially in high mountains, weather goes from beauty to devouring beast within a matter of minutes. 

Need we be reminded that Jesus also knew of such enemies.


That he may answer me

In the second part of this opening verse we are reminded of the double-play or ambiguity of prayer, for the petitioner declares in the midst of such impending doom that He answered me.  Some have attempted to avoid the difficulty with this statement by making it a subordinate clause—“that he may answer me,” but most versions read it straightforward from the Hebrew—“and he answered me.”[1]

The term invariably appeals to someone who has some power or authority to reverse a bad situation.  First and fundamental, an answer is given simply because the superior one grants a hearing.  He responds by listening.  The word carries strong overtones of a court case where someone is on trial.  Job, for instance speaks frequently of “answering” his accusers.  If one is surrounded by an avalanche of accusation, the presence of an impartial judge generates a tremendous hope.  The accused is vindicated simply in being given a fair hearing.

Sometimes, as is the case of Elijah (1 Kings 18:3), the answer comes as a favorable gesture or sign.  It is a positive indication that acquittal is forthcoming.

Nehemiah’s (Neh 1:1-11) situation aptly depicts the tension of answered prayer. Upon hearing of the dreadful conditions in Jerusalem, Nehemiah is inconsolably vexed.  He mournfully prays to God, and the answer comes in the form of the King of Persia granting him leave to return to Jerusalem.  The “answer” for Nehemiah was to begin the arduous exodus or expedition back to Jerusalem.  Before he can go up to the holy mountain, he will first have to go down to Jerusalem.  Just as Abraham had to leave his father and engage in the dangerous migration (descent) in order to engage the promise, so too Nehemiah.  Thus, God answered Nehemiah, but as the opening verse of the Songs of Ascents immediately indicate, this “answer” would lead Nehemiah into even greater perils and trials.  Indeed, Nehemiah’s hope mission is perceived by others as an act of war (Ps 120:7).

We must never forget that Israel’s (and our) cry for deliverance in the Roman occupation of first century Palestine meant the deadly descent of the Son of God.  

Nehemiah relies on God’s past “answers” to prayer as the foundation for future help.  The prayer of Jonah is a prime model of the dynamics of prayer, and it helps us grasp the tension between a request heard and a request acted upon.  In the case of Gideon (Ju 8:8), there is just a negative response to a request or petition.  The answer can simply be no, access denied.  In the case of Jonah, we are asked to imagine Jonah saying this prayer in the belly of a fish. This prayer gurgles to the surface from the deep as Jonah’s last breath.  Jonah goes so far as to admit that God had brought the disaster upon him.  But ironically, it is where the bars of the nether world were closing behind me forever that Jonah proclaims that God heard his voice.

And here is the mystery beyond words about this kind of desperate, last ditch cry for help.  Somehow and in some way, Jonah sees a vision, a foretaste, of being in the Presence of the Lord again.  He sees himself back in the Temple. He sees himself, as we see ourselves in the singing of the antiphons in Pre-sanctified Liturgy, approaching the Temple, ascending to the Holy Mountain.

My father was an avid mountain climber who took his children on many a climb. The anxious anticipation over the plans and preparation for a big climb come to a swell as one first lays eyes on the mountain.  Its towering presence looms as both challenge and threat.  One is irresistibly beckoned into its magnetic sphere.  It must be approached.  It must be ascended, for if one makes its summit, great rewards are received.  It is not the feeling of having beat the mountain as much as being received as a cohabitant and correspondent to its majestic presence.  Certainly, something of this feeling is envisioned in Jonah’s impossible assurance of resurrection in the very heart of death.

The spiritual tradition of the Christian East has long held the insight that to be drawn close to God in Christ, one must imitate Christ in that he descended before he ascended.  In the death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus all prayers have already been answered.  In the second coming of Christ all of our current and future prayers are answered.

As is quite possible in the case here, the initial answer has jettisoned the petitioner into a new and even more threatening crisis.  From the salt-misted shores of the Reed Sea to the river banks of the Jordan is a vast and life-threatening desert.   


Woe is me that I sojourn in Meshech,
            That I dwell among the tents of Kedar


Once more, the prayer switches directions.  Now the petitioner descends even deeper in despair, crying out a woe!  Most often a woe is a curse upon the enemy.  Appealing to the gods to bring down destruction on one’s enemies was what most ancient peoples thought of as personal prayer.  Indeed, one can find woes being uttered in both the Old and New Testaments—“woe to you who . . .”   Here, however, it is the last ditch cry of one who has come to wits end.  It is the final hope against hope, a gasp of exasperation.

The expression “woe to me” is limited to the anguish of the prophet, mainly Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Their anguish echoes the complaint found here.  The treacherous words of a brother now turned adversary threaten to devour all.

           But I said, “I am wasted, wasted away.
                Woe is me!  The traitors betray:
                With treachery have the traitors betrayed.” (Isa 24:16-20)

A critical characteristic is noticed when the prophet speaks a woe to himself.  In particular, it is an enemy from within whose venomous words cut so deep.  The prophets consistently conjure up the same images to depict the feeling.  The one desiring to be faithful to his God should find himself among like-minded brethren, colleagues and countrymen who together strive toward goodness, righteousness, and faithfulness. Instead, it is like being an immigrant in a foreign land, living in a culture with no rights and vulnerable to unceasing injustice and scornful taunts.

Meshech and Kedar are obscure places outside of Israel’s boundaries.  Kedar was more a transmigrating shepherd tribe in Arabia than it was a settlement.  Both could possibly have been stopping stations for exiles on their “trail of tears” to Babylon (Isa 21:13-16) and for those returning from the exile.  Like the petitioner in the psalm, Isaiah feels like a stranger even in his own country when he is confronted with a vision of God in the Temple.

“Woe is me.  I am doomed.  For I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips.” (Isa 6:5) 

Jeremiah expresses that same dilemma as the petitioner of Psalm 120.  The accusing tongue is a contagion that infects all alike.  Who can avoid its indiscriminate drive?  It is a wild fire consuming everything in its path. 

          Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth,
                a man of strife and contention to all the land. (Jer 15:10)

 Both Isaiah and Jeremiah express terror where accusation and counter-accusation swirl to an explosive pitch.  The prophet understands that he is as culpable as his enemy/brother and needs a radical cleansing from the Lord.  He does not presume to be more righteous than his enemy and therefore the Lord should be on his side.  He understands more clearly than his rival that the destruction of all is at stake, not just him or his enemy. Thus he prays despairingly that if God does not intervene, all is lost.

        Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace
               I am for peace; but they are for war.

Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem conjures up the haunting cry of prophets past.  He has returned to the charred rumble of the once glorious abode of his God.  He is here on a peace mission, but he lives among a people who only conspire war.  They mock with scornful threat, and they devise plans of destruction.  (Neh 2:19-29, 4:1–4)

 To thrive on constant contention is to hate peace, and the petitioner of the psalm continues his lament that he lives in such a place.  Yet there is no cursing of enemy here, just the self-talk of one on the brink.  I am for peace, but they are for war.

To call a woe upon oneself is to bewail the ruinous nature of our humanity.  In a discussion about faith, religion and atheism, Terry Eagleton explains how genuine faith must “go all the way down.”  By this, he means that faith must include reason, but it must go beyond reason to a gut level notion of love.  “Faith is a kind of love, a commitment,” he says:

“A tenacious commitment when one is at the end of his tether, in darkness and in pain and fear, not knowing what the hell was going on, but refusing to give up on what he saw as the source of his life and love.”

For Eagleton, atheists commit a fundamental “category mistake” when they start with a positive view of human history.  This inevitably leads to starting at the top and descending into human despair.  Faith on the other hand starts at the bottom, with a tragic view of history.  It starts in the tragedy of the exile and a prophet cruelly hung on a cross.  It starts with lamentation not congratulations.  Genuine faith must at some point cry out: “Woe is me!”  “Woe to us!”  As Eagleton says, faith is the ability to “start at the very worst and still have some vestige of hope.”

A season of repentance is much more than just a personal inventory of sins, vices, and bad thoughts.  It bewails the violence that to this very day we humans rely on to get along.  It may be disingenuous for us to pick and choose our penance.  This is why we as the Church take the journey of repentance.  Why we revisit the exile and the cross. This is why Mary of Egypt is one of the key icons of the Fast.

This is why Jesus taught us: 
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”


[1] The Septuagint, however, may lend itself to such an interpretation; pothen—from hence, where.