We recently planted a tree near our deck in hopes of having shade in twenty years. That’s called taking the long view. There aren’t many good alternatives to this long view—so the best we can do is enjoy watching our little tree grow and hope we live to enjoy its shade.

The psalmist of Psalm 120 also takes the long view—but it’s a much longer view than “just” twenty years. In verses 3–4, he shifts from his present distress—that is, being surrounded by liars—and he looks to the future, specifically, what’s going to happen to those who tell lies.

And that brings us to the most confusing lines in the whole psalm: “What shall be given to you, and what shall be added to you, O tongue of deceit? Arrows of a warrior sharpened with coals of the broom tree” (vv. 3–4).

Let’s start with the broom tree, a tree that grows in desert regions. Its super-hard wood can be used as charcoal. It burns for a long time, making it ideal for a number of things—like forging arrowheads.[1]

The language in the first part of the verse—“What shall be given to you, and what shall be added to you, tongue of deceit”—is known as a curse formula. Such language appears other places in the Old Testament—for example, in Ruth’s famous promise to her mother-in-law, Naomi:

“Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried,” and—here’s the curse formula—“May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:17).

In this kind of formula, the actual curse isn’t expressed because, presumably, it was unspeakably awful. It’s understood that the speakers are inviting God’s judgment if they don’t keep their word. Ruth agreed that, if she was not faithful to her promise, she deserved divine judgment.

In Psalm 120, the psalmist varies this curse formula; rather than implicating himself, he calls for God’s judgment on the “tongue of deceit”—the liars all around—asserting his confidence that God will punish the psalmist’s enemies. The judgment he calls for is arrows and burning coals. This may seem an odd judgment, but we don’t have to look far to figure out why the psalmist picks this punishment. Listen to what the Old Testament says elsewhere about wicked speech:

  • “They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth; . . . Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceit” (Jer. 9:3, 8).
  • “Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, . . . who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows, shooting from ambush at the blameless; they shoot suddenly and without fear. . . . But God will shoot his arrow at them. . . . Because of their tongue he will bring them to ruin” (Ps. 64:2–4, 7–8).[2]

The psalmist calls on God to inflict a punishment that fits the crime.

In these verses of Psalm 120, the psalmist finds comfort and reassurance looking to the future. He takes the long view, knowing that one day God will do away with the lies and deceit that dominate our world—from within and without. He will punish the wicked and make everything right, eventually. Every knee will bow, and Christ—the Truth!—will reign victoriously forever. That’s a day worth waiting for!

[1] Verse 4 may also refer to “fire arrows,” that is, arrowheads fitted with fiery hot coals.

[2] These verses are NRSV.

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