Chapter 1. Prerequisites to Your Decision (Psalm 120)
“A SONG OF ASCENTS. In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue? A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree! Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” (Psalm 120 ESV).
The temple pulsated with life during Israel's feasts. When the people ascended to God’s holy house, the electricity was tangible. Worshippers left the quiet of their towns and villages to come together with all the ferocity they could muster. They were a people devoted to God. Each of them shared a passion for His name. When attendance at the feasts was high, when Israel's devotion was rich, the worshippers rejoiced. To hear the bleating of goats, to see the excitement of first-time pilgrims, to feel the temple mount beneath their feet -- it was all so glorious to that ancient congregation.
But that joyous group was comprised of determined individuals. Each one of them had made their own, personal decision to follow hard after God. The group did not and could not, decide together. They made no collective determination. No, each worshipper had to choose for himself or herself, if they would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their worship was corporate and national, but because it was, in the first place, personal.
A personal decision is where pilgrimage begins, and this is where the first Song of Ascents finds its application. The other songs in the collection are for the entire community. This first song, however, is one an individual must sing to embark on pilgrimage in the first place. If the attitudes found in this song were lacking in an individual Hebrew, they would stay home. The journey to Jerusalem was too treacherous for lighthearted conviction. Without the attitudes found in this song, avoidance of God’s house would have been a strong temptation. But to have these attitudes within the heart led to a voyage, to obedient pilgrimage, to a sojourn.
These attitudes must be present for modern believers as well. We have been given the fulfillment of that temple and those feasts in Jesus Christ. He calls us to a sojourn, a pilgrimage. We do not travel to a geographical location three times each year. Instead, we make decisions to launch out into a style of life unfamiliar to the communities in which we live. Christ has called us into a life of discipleship. It is a life of self-denial and sacrifice far different from the course of this age. We wish not to be “conformed to this age, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). We recognize our need to depart from the normal flow of this world into a better life, the faith life, the pilgrim life.
Without the attitudes found in this first song, we cannot know the themes of the next songs. Without this song, we'll never leave this world system and enter into the pilgrim life. The course of this world, the lusts of our flesh, and the spiritual war we are in discourage us from pilgrimage. Our natural man does not want to pursue a life with God at the center, but with God as a bystander. Our flesh wants Him as a tool in the tool chest, useful when called upon, but not as our all-consuming fire. For us to give Him His proper preeminence, there are certain attitudes we must have. They are prerequisites to the true life of faith. We'll never enter the sojourn life without them.
Prerequisite #1 — Distress
"In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue." (Psalm 120:1-2)
The first prerequisite attitude is one of distress. The entire collection of pilgrim songs starts here. The individual called out to God, who answered him, because of this desperation. But why was our pilgrim in distress? His attitude of despair, it seems, was brought on by the presence of lying lips. Somewhere near him there lived a deceitful tongue.
So our pilgrim had fallen prey to that which we have all fallen prey to, the harsh words of those who are heading in the opposite direction of God and His throne. James’ words flash upon our minds: “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” (James 3:6, NASB). We all know the impact lies and deceit have on us; they are irritants at best and destroyers at worst. So our pilgrim does what we might, he cries out to the Lord amid this mess.
We must remember, however, what this distress did to our pilgrim. He did not stop at a simple cry. His pain and distress induced prayer, but more than prayer, pilgrimage. All the hurt and pain they experienced, typified in the lies and deceit all around them, caused them to depart from their everyday flow of life and go up to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This pilgrim was dealing with more than a few rumors or misrepresentations of his motives. No, he was overwhelmed with the sea of deceit, false claims, he was swimming in. This tsunami of deception filled him with despair, and that distress drove him to his sojourn.
Does not a measure of distress cultivate our decision for the counter-cultural brand of discipleship Christ wants for us? Is there not a need for disgust and heartache before we'll depart from the world system and pursue the true Christ-life? Jesus taught, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). But what does this mean? Must we be inwardly depressed, mourning over the details of our own lives?
At times, our distress, our mourning, will come because of our own faults and sinful tendencies. We daily come face to face with our shortcomings, and for those, we rejoice over the mercy and grace of God. He abounds in patience, grace, and mercy. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. For this, we celebrate because His forgiveness is our great need. Like water to dry land, we soak in His grace and blood. We have needed it, and continue to need it, so when in distress brought on by the battle for our own sanctification and growth, pilgrimage is our best option. The sight of our sin should cause desperation which leads to the deeper life of faith.
Perhaps our distress will be brought on by our own faults and foibles, but maybe it will come by seeing the brokenness of the world in which we live. It isn’t all about our own limitations, for in this psalm the pilgrim was inundated with lies from outside himself. It is easy for us to relate.
In our general society, the family is a mess. Fathers have neglected their duty. Mothers have become self-absorbed. Children are left to fend for themselves. Glimmers of hope and grace abound, but the family has come under attack. Educators have attempted to replace the parent. Parents have hesitated to teach, discipline, and train. Insecure parents have clamored for the approval of their children. Men have been boys and have neglected their servant-leadership roles. Marriages are often a disaster of unloving tolerance.
But the family isn’t the only reason we might become fed up with the way things are. Debt suffocates the life out of people. The financial pressures are immense. Sexual content is so prevalent it is hard for a person not to become overexposed and warped by it. Catastrophe sells, so world news is piped in from everywhere 24-7. Schedules are overrun. Gender wars exist as men and women are told they cannot compliment but instead must compete with one another. One must be better than the other, we assume. Racial tensions run high. Nations are at war. The potential pilgrim must first see this and have a level of distress about it which causes a new desire to bloom. It is the spirit of the age which produces all these tensions, so we must depart from the way the age operates. We must live a different brand of life.
I recall the asthma attacks I had as a child. I would stand, sometimes off in the corner, as the oxygen left my lungs. Everyone around me continued as they usually would. They could breathe without a hitch. But as I stood there watching them go about their business, I could no longer take in the air I needed. Eventually, someone would notice me struggling for air. Soon, the ambulance would arrive and all would be well. Perhaps these asthmatic episodes could serve as a metaphor for the distress a pilgrim must first feel. We must come to a place where, though others might be able to breathe and live in the flow of this age, we cannot, for we cannot breathe it in. We must depart. We must exit.
Without this measure of “fed-up-ness,” we will not depart from the way of this world to enter into the world of grace. We won’t discover the massive delights of God and His kingdom without a willingness to exit the previous way of doing things. As long as we find some hope in the world system we will bow out of the life of discipleship and pilgrimage. If the next relationship, political regime, or pay raise is going to be your savior, you won't pursue pilgrimage. The urgency for it won’t exist. You will settle down and disembark from the journey.
Jesus invites us to take His yoke and learn from Him. With Him, we find rest for our souls. His yoke, He claims, is easy, while His burden is light. But then He casts us out into the world as salt and light, missionaries to a lost and dying world. We endure pain and heartache like everyone else, but also experience trials unique to the Christian life — persecution, concern for the church and world, and fatigue wrought from service and sacrifice. So how is His yoke easy? How is His burden light? In contrast to the old life, of course. Before His grand invitation, Jesus gave a prerequisite: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden.” In comparison to the old laborious life, the heavy laden nature of the flow of this age, we have an easy yoke and light burden from Christ. His friendship is ours. He resides within us. Our intuition tells us pilgrimage isn’t easy, but in comparison to the alternative, it is the life of rest.
Let that sense of distress come upon you. Feel the labor and weight of the world system. Feel the pull of its emptiness. Use that sense to pull you into the life of discipleship, a pilgrimage with Christ.
Prerequisite #2 — Foresight
"What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue? A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!” (Psalm 120:3–4 ESV).
The pilgrim continued the song but redirected his voice. He started by crying out to God from his distress, but then he found a new audience. Here, he begins to sing to the very people that had brought him such despair, such pain. He brings their deceitful tongues into the interrogation room. Their tongue has spoken, but now he will talk to their tongues. The pilgrim’s question is straightforward and important. He asks, “What shall become of you, you deceitful tongue?” He wants to think through the end result of those lying lips. What is the final destination of that brand of life? Where will the flow of this age lead you?
Our answer to this question is also vital to our pilgrimage. Since the Christian life is hard, believers must be convinced any other life is harder. We must believe in our very core that the life which follows the flow of this age is a pain-filled life, if not today, then tomorrow. We must ask the same question as our Hebrew pilgrim: where will the flow of this age lead someone? Keeping this answer in our sights steels us for the journey ahead.
Fortunately, our pilgrim sings the answer immediately, for he is sure of it. He knows the end, the result, the finish of that deceitful tongue. He sees a warrior’s sharp arrows and the hot coals of burnt broom tree wood falling down upon the one who persists in the spirit of this age. The lying lips will get theirs — all will come crashing down upon them. The end result is not a happy one.
Throughout Scripture, the tongue is often pictured as a weapon or a fire (Proverbs 12:18, 16:27). Here, God takes the weaponry and turns it right back upon the user. Like an old cartoon, the barrel of the gun is bent right back towards the one with their finger on the trigger. They had shot their arrows, but God would now shoot His, their own tongues turned against them (Psalm 64:7-8). A false witness — a perfect symbol for the flow fo this age — will not go unpunished (Proverbs 19:5). They had lit their fires, but now God poured out His (Psalm 140:10).
Our pilgrim is convinced of this end. He knows, whether now or later, the lying lips and deceitful tongue of this age will hurt as a result. He knows that old life doesn’t pay. The world’s way of life doesn’t pay, even though it is marketed as if it will. It cannot. The pilgrim believes this.
Do you believe this? Do you share this level of foresight with our pilgrim? The journey up to Jerusalem thrice annually was not always easy. The long days of ascent under that hot sun would have sapped the strength of the sojourning band. Children would complain, women would work, men would grow old. Knees and ankles and hips would hurt under the pressure of the climb. The road up to Jerusalem could become familiar, old, and tired. The threat of robbery and injury loomed. But the pilgrim who continued to go year after year was a human who stood convinced of the fruit of their brand of life -- and the fruit of the other life. They knew that their whole man or woman benefited from placing God as the priority. They believed that to follow the flow of this age would bring nothing but trouble into their hearts, minds, and experiences.
Brother Paul, the great teacher of Christian doctrine, knew this. “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Romans 6:21). It is as if Paul said: “O Roman believer! Are you struggling to adopt the pilgrim life? Do you wonder if it is truly worth it to consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God? You are shuffling your feet, thinking within, ‘Ought I really allow Christ full reign in my life? Perhaps the old life should remain, at least just a little.’ No, O, Romans! There is a better life ahead! Think about it -- how good was that old life? What kind of fruit did you get at that time? Christ came to set you free from that, and free you are!”
The Christian life is one which must see the end. The fruit of following the age is death, while the fruit of following Christ, though counter-intuitive, is life. Jesus said we’d actually find our lives if we lost them, but lose them if we strove to keep them (Matthew 10:39). But in letting go, leaving the house for pilgrimage, the emotions say, “Wait! This isn’t worth it!” The pilgrim, however, believes otherwise. It is worth it. The best life is on that road. The best life is ahead with God.
Prerequisite #3 — Incompatibility
“Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.” (Psalm 120:5–6 ESV).
The next line of the song strikes a deep note of despair. Its authenticity is astounding; the pain of the pilgrim is so real. We cannot look away. In it, our pilgrim pronounces woe upon himself. He is tired, so very tired, of where he has been forced to live. He tells us he’s lived in Meshech and Kedar. The defining feature of those places was that the people there hated peace.
Neither place was where our pilgrim actually lived. He lived in Israel, but Meshech and Kedar were far from Israel. Meshech was the grandson of Noah through Japheth. He established a people far north of Israel. Kedar was a son of Ishmael. He established a nomadic tribe. Meshech, Kedar, Israel -- they were geographically far from one another. But our Israelite is expressing a sentiment. He feels as if he’s lived among people who are foreign to the God of Israel. They way they think and move and operate is inconsistent with the reality of God.
Again I point to Paul’s teachings. To the Corinthians, he explained three types of people (see 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:3). First, there is the spiritual person. The believer was supposed to be this first type, for the spiritual person has the mind of Christ and discerns the things of the Spirit of God. The word becomes known to them because the Spirit lives within -- and they want to know that word of God. Secondly, there is the natural person. The natural person is unconverted and does not accept the things of the Spirit, thinking them foolish. Finally, there is the carnal person. They are carnal, living like the old natural person. They follow the course of this age and are not transformed into Christ's image. Many Corinthians were stuck here, having gotten caught up in jealousies, strife, and the choosing of sides. They were perpetual infants in Christ, and Paul wanted more for them.
Our pilgrim seems to say he feels like he is living amongst the carnal. It’s not that he actually lived in Meshech or Kedar, but the Hebrews in his town had reminded him of the people of Meshech or Kedar. But our pilgrim wanted more. He wanted to be the spiritual man, to know God and the things of God. His mind was set on that pilgrimage.
This sense of incompatibility is a necessary ingredient of the Christian life, for it is a central sense required for the life of faith. Many saints of old felt incompatible with their world, that they were exiles and strangers, sometimes even amongst the people of God. The modern believer must find a Noah-like ability to walk with God during a time when the hearts of humankind are far from Him. We may feel like Jeremiah, who longed for a desert cabin retreat just to get away from the carnality he had experienced in Israel (Jeremiah 9:2). Micah’s sentiment, that “the godly has perished from the earth,” might pulsate through our minds, but we must use this feeling of ostracization for God’s glory (Micah 7:2). If we become embittered, angry at humans whom God loves, we will have lost our way. We must instead embrace the fact we are different, called to a different life. This ongoing sense of incompatibility should be used to launch us into the real Christian life of faith.
Prerequisite #4 — Peacemaking
“I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” (Psalm 120:7 ESV).
The first song ends with a line so vital to our decision for discipleship, the pursuit of pilgrimage. This last lyric is filled with a sentiment strong and important and critical to our decision. Without this final conviction, we might initiate pilgrimage, but we won't last long. We will only endure for a time, before giving up and turning back, if this next thought isn’t embedded into our hearts.
The pilgrim declares himself as “for peace.” His position is one of a peacemaker; he longs for peace, wants peace, and celebrates peace. But he has been sent out like a sheep among wolves, so when he speaks his words of peace, the enemy fires back with war. “When I speak, they are for war!” he laments.
Does not the true pilgrim for Christ experience this quandary often? We know we are for peace, gospel peace, real peace. But when we speak those beautiful gospel words of peace, they are misconstrued, turned into war words. We are accused of divisiveness, judgmentalism, and hate. We preach God’s love in the face of our sin and God’s forgiveness in the face of our guilt. But all the world hears is us declaring people guilty and sinful. Though true, culture hates the doctrine of sin and guilt, and our peace words instigate war words.
The believer might be tempted to believe the deceitful tongues and the lying lips. The big lie is that the gospel is unloving and unpeaceful and that themes like judgment, sin, God’s wrath, and hell are all void of love. We might begin to think the world’s declaration to let humanity be, to embrace everyone without ever addressing themes such as these is true love. We are told that real peace is to embrace anything and everything. We are made to feel that preaching forgiveness of sin through the blood of the cross is a cutting, divisive, and angry message. And, of course, the cross does divide. Jesus came with a sword (Matthew 10:34). However, the pilgrim must stand convinced: they are for peace.
Yes, the believer must know they are for the truest and purest peace imaginable. While the world roots for unity amongst the races and cultures, the church has a vision for a multicultural unity far beyond anything the world could contrive. While the world preaches acceptance, the church has a vision for a level of acceptance which goes far beyond, into God's heaven. While the world struggles, studies, and medicates to gain mental health, the church has a vision for internal peace made available through the remedy of Jesus’ blood. While the world sees an end to war, the church sees a true end to all hostilities under the rule of Christ.
We see something internal, something in the heart. The gospel provides real, genuine peace. Jesus “Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). But when a believer loses sight of this, their steps falter. If a believer begins to agree that they are actually speaking war words, not peace words, they will disengage from the pilgrimage. To see the gospel as the most hope, grace, and love filled message humankind will ever know is vital to pilgrimage. You won’t engage in the true Christian life of faith and discipleship without a rock solid belief that the cross is the most peace-filled message of all time.
Pilgrim, what you want for the world is peace. You see it through the lens of the gospel. You realize God so loved the world He sent His only Son. You have ingested this good message. Do not let go. Do not believe for a moment your peace words are war words, for they aren’t. It may take some repentance, some self-realization of sin, some feelings of guilt for a person to receive Christ, but when they get through that unrest, they will find the most profound rest, peace with God.
So the lines are drawn. Our pilgrim has made his decision. They are determined to make the climb. But will you? Every believer must make his own decision to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Each one of us must decide, daily, to make the climb of pilgrimage, to place God as first in our lives. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (Matthew 22:37). Now is the time. For a great multitude of worshippers to ascend to Jerusalem, individual Hebrews had to make their decision. For a great crowd of Christians to embrace the life of discipleship, individual believers must make their decision.
Let the distress brought on by the floods of life find redemption in Christ. May each hardship, weakness, and dilemma be used to drive you forward towards the life of the cross. Have the foresight to know the end result of the life following the course of this age. We think that course normal, for we find a multitude living in it, but it is not God’s best. There is another way. Understanding the end of the way of carnality is helpful in deciding for Christ. Feel the incompatibility you have with this world. You are to be in it, not of it, and as much as you love all the people and some of the cultural creations of humanity, you cannot embrace the age. You know there is much from which you must withdraw. Let that incompatibility work wonderfully in you, not to destroy or sour you, but to increase your longing for God and His ways. Finally, realize you are rooting for true peace to come into the lives of all humanity and work toward that end. Embracing the peacemaker role will brace you for the voices yelling you are preaching war words. Head out, pilgrim. Get on that road and don't turn back.
The next installment will be released on 6/13/19.