When I moved across the country in 2012, I took several road-trip essentials with me, beginning with my sister Suzy, easily the world’s best moving buddy. I also took an array of maps, a bag of groceries, a stocked cooler, and my emergency cell phone—the one pictured here. My parents had given me the phone because I had been living on my own out of state; they wanted me to have easy access to help if I ended up on the side of the road.

Suzy and I cruised across Wisconsin and Minnesota; when we hit South Dakota, we discovered that my cell service stopped. For the next 1,168 miles, the only thing my phone could do was search for a signal. If I had found myself in roadside distress, my phone would not have helped.

Psalm 120 is about being in distress—and what to do when you find yourself there.

The lyrics of the song are dissonant, opening with distress and continuing with lying lips, deceitful tongues, sharp arrows, glowing coals, and haters, until it finally ends with warmongers. This psalm reads like bad news, from start to finish. But I assure you there is comfort and hope to be found.

Remember the four basic kinds of psalms? Lament, thanksgiving, hymn of praise, and royal psalms. Where might Psalm 120 fit?

Well, it’s like a lament, but not exactly. It has the required distress, but it doesn’t neatly fit the genre. The issue comes out of the first two verses. A quick comparison of versions shows the problem:

  • I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me. (2) Save me, LORD, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.(NIV; see also NRSV). Dust off your English grammar, and you can see that all the verbs are in present tense—the psalmist is in trouble and needs help now! This is the classic beginning of a psalm of lament.
  • In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. (2) Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (ESV; see also NASB). Here,  the verbs of verse 1 are in the past tense, but verse 2 is in present tense. That is, the psalmist remembers a time in the past when God came to the rescue, and so he[1] calls out for deliverance in a present situation. The first verse, at least, sets us up for a psalm of thanksgiving—remembering and thanking God for coming to the rescue. 

So, which translation is better? Is this psalm a lament or thanksgiving? I’ll spare you the scholarly kerfuffle over these questions and simply tell you that the second version more accurately reflects the original Hebrew. In verse 1, the psalmist refers to a past event. He called to the LORD when he was in trouble, and the LORD answered him.

Who do we ask for help when we need it? Someone we know can help. How do we know God can help? Because he’s done it in the past.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the best label for this psalm’s genre is lament. Sure, the psalmist sort of thanks God for past deliverance—he at least says God answered. But everything after verse 1 indicates that there’s trouble in the present for the psalmist—and he needs help!

So why doesn’t he start there—as most lament psalms do? Why begin this cry for help with the statement that God answered in the past? Well, I actually think it’s one of the best places to begin lament. Who do we ask for help when we need it? Someone we know can help. How do we know God can help? Because he’s done it in the past.

And that’s good news. We will have distress, but we also have Someone who can rescue. Thanks be to God!

[1] I use “he/him/his” when speaking of the psalmist because almost certainly its human author was a man—as is true of most of the Bible.

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