Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Cry of Distress When Surrounded by Contentious Men
This first song of degrees attaches itself to Psa 119:176. The writer of Ps 119, surrounded on all sides by apostasy and persecution, compares himself to a sheep that is easily lost, which the shepherd has to seek and bring home if it is not to perish; and the writer of Psa 120:1-7 is also "as a sheep in the midst of wolves." The period at which he lived is uncertain, and it is consequently also uncertain whether he had to endure such endless malignant attacks from foreign barbarians or from his own worldly-minded fellow-countrymen. E. Tilling has sought to establish a third possible occasion in his Disquisitio de ratione inscript. XV Pss. grad. (1765). He derives this and the following songs of degrees from the time immediately succeeding the Return from the Exile, when the secret and open hostility of the Samaritans and other neighbouring peoples (Neh 2:10, Neh 2:19; Neh 4:17, Neh 6:1) sought to keep down the rise of the young colony.
According to the pointing ויּענני, the poet appears to base his present petition, which from Psa 120:2 onwards is the substance of the whole Psalm, upon the fact of a previous answering of his prayers. For the petition in Psa 120:2 manifestly arises out of his deplorable situation, which is described in Psa 120:5. Nevertheless there are also other instances in which ויענני might have been expected, where the pointing is ויּענני (Psa 3:5; Jon 2:3), so that consequently ויּענני may, without any prejudice to the pointing, be taken as a believing expression of the result (cf. the future of the consequence in Job 9:16) of the present cry for help. צרתה, according to the original signification, is a form of the definition of a state or condition, as in Psa 3:3; 44:27; Psa 63:8, Jon 2:10, Hos 8:7, and בּצּרתה לּי = בּצּר־לּי, Psa 18:7, is based upon the customary expression צר לּי. In Psa 120:2 follows the petition which the poet sends up to Jahve in the certainty of being answered. רמיּה beside לשׁון, although there is no masc. רמי (cf. however the Aramaic רמּי, רמּאי), is taken as an adjective after the form טריּה, עניּה, which it is also perhaps in Mic 6:12. The parallelism would make לשׁון natural, like לשׁון מרמה in Psa 52:6; the pointing, which nevertheless disregarded this, will therefore rest upon tradition. The apostrophe in Psa 120:3 is addressed to the crafty tongue. לשׁון is certainly feminine as a rule; but whilst the tongue as such is feminine, the לשׁון רמיה of the address, as in Psa 52:6, refers to him who has such a kind of tongue (cf. Hitzig on Pro 12:27), and thereby the לך is justified; whereas the rendering, "what does it bring to thee, and what does it profit thee?" or, "of what use to thee and what advancement to thee is the crafty tongue?" is indeed possible so far as concerns the syntax (Ges. 147, e), but is unlikely as being ambiguous and confusing in expression. It is also to be inferred from the correspondence between מה־יּתּן לך וּמה־יּסיף לך and the formula of an oath כּה יעשׂה־לּך אלהים לכה יוסיף, Sa1 3:17; Sa1 20:13; Sa1 25:22; Sa2 3:35; Rut 1:17, that God is to be thought of as the subject of יתן and יסיף: "what will," or rather, in accordance with the otherwise precative use of the formula and with the petition that here precedes: "what shall He (is He to) give to thee (נתן as in Hos 9:14), and what shall He add to thee, thou crafty tongue?" The reciprocal relation of Psa 120:4 to מה־יתן, and of. Psa 120:4 with the superadding עם to מה־יסיף, shows that Psa 120:4 is not now a characterizing of the tongue that continues the apostrophe to it, as Ewald supposes. Consequently Psa 120:4 gives the answer to Psa 120:3 with the twofold punishment which Jahve will cause the false tongue to feel. The question which the poet, sure of the answering of his cry for help, puts to the false tongue is designed to let the person addressed hear by a flight of sarcasm what he has to expect. The evil tongue is a sharp sword (Psa 57:5), a pointed arrow (Jer 9:7), and it is like a fire kindled of hell (Jam 3:6). The punishment, too, corresponds to this its nature and conduct (Psa 64:4). The "mighty one" (lxx δυνατός) is God Himself, as it is observed in B. Erachin 15b with a reference to Isa 42:13 : "There is none mighty by the Holy One, blessed is He." He requites the evil tongue like with like. Arrows and coals (Psa 140:11) appear also in other instances among His means of punishment. It, which shot piercing arrows, is pierced by the sharpened arrows of an irresistibly mighty One; it, which set its neighbour in a fever of anguish, must endure the lasting, sure, and torturingly consuming heat of broom-coals. The lxx renders it in a general sense, σὺν τοῖς ἄνθραξι τοῖς ἐρημικοῖς; Aquila, following Jewish tradition, ἀρκευθίναις; but רתם, Arabic ratam, ratem, is the broom-shrub (e.g., uncommonly frequent in the Belkâ).
Since arrows and broom-fire, with which the evil tongue is requited, even now proceed from the tongue itself, the poet goes on with the deep heaving אויה (only found here). גּוּר with the accusative of that beside which one sojourns, as in Psa 5:5; Isa 33:14; Jdg 5:17. The Moschi (משׁך, the name of which the lxx takes as an appellative in the signification of long continuance; cf. the reverse instance in Isa 66:19 lxx) dwelt between the Black and the Caspian Seas, and it is impossible to dwell among them and the inhabitants of Kedar (vid., Psa 83:7) at one and the same time. Accordingly both these names of peoples are to be understood emblematically, with Saadia, Calvin, Amyraldus, and others, of homines similes ejusmodi barbaris et truculentis nationibus.
(Note: If the Psalm were a Maccabaean Psalm, one might think משׁך, from משׁך, σύρειν, alluded to the Syrians or even to the Jewish apostates with reference to משׁך ערלה, ἐπισπᾶσθαι τὴν ἀκροβυστίαν (Co1 7:18).)
Meshech is reckoned to Magog in Eze 38:2, and the Kedarites are possessed by the lust of possession (Gen 16:12) of the bellum omnium contra omnes. These rough and quarrelsome characters have surrounded the poet (and his fellow-countrymen, with whom he perhaps comprehends himself) too long already. רבּת, abundantly (vid., Psa 65:10), appears, more particularly in Ch2 30:17., as a later prose word. The להּ, which throws the action back upon the subject, gives a pleasant, lively colouring to the declaration, as in Psa 122:3; Psa 123:4. He on his part is peace (cf. Mic 5:5, Psa 119:4; Psa 110:3), inasmuch as the love of peace, willingness to be at peace, and a desire for peace fill his σου; but if he only opens his mouth, they are for war, they are abroad intent on war, their mood and their behaviour become forthwith hostile. Ewald (362, b) construes it (following Saadia): and I - although I speak peace; but if כּי (like עד, Psa 141:10) might even have this position in the clause, yet וכי cannot. שׁלום is not on any account to be supplied in thought to אדבּר, as Hitzig suggests (after Psa 122:8; Psa 28:3; Psa 35:20). With the shrill dissonance of שׁלום and מלחמה the Psalm closes; and the cry for help with which it opens hovers over it, earnestly desiring its removal.