January 6, 2019 | “Psalms of Ascents: Repentance” • Psalm 120

Scripture Reading • Psalm 120 (NIV)

I call on the Lord in my distress,
    and he answers me.
Save me, Lord,
    from lying lips
    and from deceitful tongues.

What will he do to you,
    and what more besides,
    you deceitful tongue?
He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows,
    with burning coals of the broom bush.

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek,
    that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived
    among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
    but when I speak, they are for war.


Sarah’s family has a tradition … Sarah’ mom taught her, she taught Liam and Violette … every time a Herzberg crosses a border and sets foot in Iowa they sing a particular song:

Iowa, Iowa, best in all the land 

Joy in every hand,

We’re from Iowa, Iowa, 

That’s where the tall corn grows

Sarah’s parents were born in Iowa … Christmas … family vacations … they usually meant a road trip to Iowa. That song became an important part of the trip. 

Camping or fishing trips with my dad usually meant listening to cassettes of Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds in his old Jeepster. Leonard Cohen songs usually spark memories of cruising up Trout Creek Pass in an old red Jeep.

I would bet most of us have special songs or albums that have become companions on long trips. 

    • Do you all have music that usually accompanies you on long car trips? 


The Psalm Jim read to us is kind of like a road trip song too.

Psalm 120 is one of the fifteen “Psalms of Ascents.” Most bible scholars believe these Psalms were sung by ancient Israelites making their three-times-a-year pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate religious festivals. 

I love the idea that these Psalms are something like an ancient-road-trip-playlist … they were something these travelers could have memorized and sung together as they made a long journey to worship together in Jerusalem. (I also like how it affirms that the journey can be just as significant as the destination.) 

These Psalms are something like worn and beloved traveling companions that helped to prepare people for worship and, I would bet, were even something God used to shape and grow these people in faithfulness. 

I first learned about the Psalms of Ascents when my boss gave me a copy of the Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Petersons’ book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.” At the time it seemed a lot like home work, but I have grown to really love and appreciate the book. 

In “A Long Obedience” Eugene Peterson wrote,

In the pastoral work of training people in discipleship and accompanying them in pilgrimage, I have found, tucked away in the Hebrew Psalter, an old dog-eared songbook. I have used it to provide continuity in guiding others in the Christian way and directing people of faith in the conscious and continuous effort that develops into maturity in Christ. The old songbook is called … [the] Songs of Ascents … These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals.

This picture of the Hebrews singing these fifteen psalms as they left their routines of discipleship and made their way from towns and villages, farms and cities, as pilgrims up to Jerusalem has become embedded in the Christian devotional imagination. It is our best background for understanding life as a faith-journey. There are no better “songs for the road” for those who travel the way of faith in Christ, a way that has so many continuities with the way of Israel. Since many (not all) essential items in Christian discipleship are incorporated in these songs, they provide a way to remember who we are and where we are going (Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, pp. 18-19).

In the Psalms of Ascents we encounter something that encourages us, challenges us, and shapes us as we seek to live as disciples, people who are seeking to respond to the grace God offers us in Christ, living lives that are shaped by and reflect that grace.

The first song in this ancient road trip playlist, Psalm 120, is rough, tired, and even, kind of fed up with what is happening around him. (Maybe a bit of ancient “Punk Rock?”) This person isn’t where they want to be … it seems like they are far away from Jerusalem (“dwelling in Meshek” and “living among the tents of Kedar” is probably best understood as a metaphor for being really far away from home in an unfamiliar and very uncomfortable place) … disconnected from community … longing for support and encouragement, this person has had enough from the people around them. 

They have heard too much. Lying lips. Deceitful tongues. Words that sting and burn. 

They cry out to God for help. 

The singer longs for God’s peace … God’s shalom … all creatures thriving together in God’s justice and righteousness. Completely dissatisfied with the world surrounding him, the Psalmist desires something more. 

He turns away from the pain and strife and lies he sees surrounding him, and convinced God offers the best way forward, he turns toward God and trust’s himself to God’s care.

That turning away from something and turning toward God is an essential part of discipleship.

It is a lot like the message of repentance John the Baptist and Jesus, himself, called people toward. Turn away from the lying and broken ways of the world. Turn toward God. 

These are first steps on our journeys of discipleship.

Eugene Peterson writes,

People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel as if they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God. 

A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquillity, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace (Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 25).

That dissatisfaction … that troubled feeling of what I saw in myself and the world around me, had a lot to do with my personal turning toward God. I hated how poorly I treated my brother … I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to pick on him or egg him on … and there I was, still doing it. I wanted something different … something better … I wanted to turn away from that … One night after youth group, I remember lying in my bed and praying that I wanted God to come into my life to help me be better to my brother. 

“I call on the Lord in my distress” … I turn toward the Lord … “and he answers me.”

Living as disciples, repentance has to do with turning toward God … with embracing and trusting the grace God offers us in Christ … and letting that grace shape us. This repentance is a constant thing … everyday we turn away from the lies our world tells us about who we are, where our value comes from … we turn away from empty promises of fulfillment and purpose … and we turn toward Christ, God’s word of life to us. 

As we repent, we step onto the path of discipleship … we turn toward God, yielding to God’s grace, asking God to shape us more and more as people who reveal Christ’s goodness and love in our lives.

Repentance, turning to God, sets our feet on the path of discipleship … of growing in our understanding and response to God’s love.