When I was in trouble I called upon the Lord;
and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips
and from a deceitful tongue.
What reward shall be given or done unto thee, thou false tongue:
even mighty and sharp arrows, with hot burning coals.
Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech:
and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar.
My soul hath long dwelt among them
that are enemies unto peace.
I labour for peace, but when I speak unto them thereof,
they make them ready to battle.
Psalm 120 is primarily about two virtues: truth and peace. The trouble is, truth and peace often collide, especially when you live in Mesech and Kedar. In the Psalmist’s day, Mesech was a far-off tribe of people who lived in Southern Russia, and Kedar was a nearby tribe of Bedoins with a reputation for cruelty.
Like the Psalmist, we like in strange and hostile territory. For those of you who are like me, that hostile territory is often your own head: my first thought upon reading this psalm was, “Oh my goodness! It’s about the harpies!” Those nasty voices in your head that say all the things you secretly fear people are whispering behind your back—they’re the “lying lips” and the “false tongue” that the psalmist denounces, from whom he prays for deliverance, and on whom he prays a rain of fire and sharp arrows. And rightly so. The harpies are the enemies of truth and their lies and half-truths rob us of joy and steal our peace. They need to be destroyed.
But it’s also the world outside of us that is strange and hostile. And that’s where it gets trickier. As Andy Le Peau, retiring editor of InterVarsity Press, wrote in a recent email,
“We live in a world awash in conflict. Nations, ethnic groups, religions, political parties, churches, families are all at odds—which the media loves to highlight in its never-ending competition for audiences that have been broken into smaller and smaller groupings.
Too often we as Christians have followed the world’s pattern in expressing more extreme views, less charitable opinions and angrier commentary. We listen to a narrower and narrower range of viewpoints that we find comfortable, that we agree with, that affirm our biases. As a result, we fail to communicate the love, mercy, grace and forgiveness that we say is at the core of our faith. If we are to be representatives of Christ, we need to be willing to engage different people and differing opinions with grace, openness and respect.
When we interact with those who are different we can pretend our differences don’t exist or that they are insignificant. But that doesn’t really take others seriously. Alternately we can simply attempt to defeat others, assuming the worst motives on their part and not seeing them as people, not taking the time to really understand their viewpoint.
But there is another way that both takes differences seriously and takes the humanity of those we differ with seriously. This is the way of Christ who embraces both grace and truth.”
Or peace and truth, as this Psalm has it. And Jesus, who embraces—who incarnates—both, lived as we do in the strange and hostile territories of Mesech and Kedar. He knew this prayer. He lived this prayer. Like the psalmist, he insisted on truth, though lying tongues spoke against Him. And like the psalmist, He labored for peace, while those who lied about Him made them ready to battle.
He could have kept a shallow kind of “peace” by repudiating His claim to be the Son of God. But He didn’t. He insisted on truth. He was, and is, truth! He did not compromise His Godhood in order to make others feel better, in order to preserve “peace.” He did not believe in peace at any price—He knew that was no peace at all. Rather, He labored for true peace, for shalom, which He knew that only He could give. And it made a lot of people furious.
Sometimes truth and peace collide.
Sometimes, here in Mesech and Kedar, the stones of liars get hurled at us, as they got hurled at Jesus. Sometimes the peace we seek is overwhelmed by the sound of clanking armor or the rattling of machine guns or the shrill voice of someone who has to be right. Sometimes that voice is mine.
And so we call upon the Lord in our distress, and He hears us. We cry out for mercy, and He delivers us.
One of the traditional practices of Lent is confession, which means acknowledging the truth about ourselves: we fall short not only of God’s glory but of our own. We live deluded, listening to lying voices—other people’s, the harpies’, our own. Confession and repentance free us to live in truth.
Another traditional Lenten practice is the giving of alms, an old-fashioned phrase that derives from the Greek words for compassion and mercy. To give to others is an act of peace-making, in the shalom sense of the word: giving seeks to redress inequities, to heal, to make right and whole.
These Lenten practices of confession and almsgiving are ways we can practice truth and peace right here in the mess that is life in Mesech and Kedar. And the truly wonderful part is that we know the end of the story: eventually even Mesech and Kedar will be enfolded into the reign of God.
And so we are able to live with hope. For this is a pilgrim song, and we are on a journey—we are going to Jerusalem, the city of God where truth will prevail, and peace will reign—and that vision gives us hope and courage to keep on pursuing truth and peace here among the habitation of Mesech and the tents of Kedar.