Psalm 120: Yearning for Peace

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

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Psalm 120

The lunchtime news announced the death of the prominent Irish politician John Hume. Hume had been leader of the SDLP and was a key figure in the Peace Process that resulted in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and which put an end to most to the violence that had blighted Ireland and the British mainland since the late 1960s.

I remember reading an interview with John Hume some years ago and he came across as a man of deep Christian convictions. He was committed to resolving the Troubles through non-violence, he dreamt of an end to the injustices and inequalities experienced by the Catholic/Republic minority and of a united Ireland where people from whatever background could flourish and live in peace.  Others in the Republican community favoured the approach of the bomb and the bullet advocated by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. To John Hume’s credit he may have been as innocent as a dove but he was as wise as a serpent and took the opportunity, with the help of the Church, to formulate a joint Nationalist strategy with Sinn Fein who at the time were looking for an alternative to the violence which was increasingly getting nobody anywhere.

When I read verses 6 and 7, I thought of John Hume. He was ‘for peace’ but others around him were ‘for war’, for giving the Brits a taste of their own medicine. I thought how depressing it must have been for him to learn of yet another murder carried out by Loyalist paramilitaries or the inevitable Republican retaliation.

Psalm 120 is the first of the so-called Songs of Ascent. These were songs that were sung by worshippers as they journeyed up to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimages of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost (Exodus 23:14–17, Deuteronomy 16:1, 9–10, 13, 16–17). The first of these Psalms begins with the pilgrim far from where he wants to be, not just geographically but socially, the pilgrim is a stranger in a strange land. He yearns for peace but is surrounded by contrary voices. Again, there may be a parallel with John Hume. To employ that overused phrase, he was on a journey and the destiny was an Ireland free from sectarian violence, not Jerusalem but Belfast and Stroke City (ask me if you need an explanation) as cities enjoying God’s peace.

I wouldn’t want to impugn John Hume’s character by attributing to him the sentiments of verses 3 and 4, it may be that he was more patient than most. However, it is true that those who have pursued a peace built on justice have frequently faced slander and accusations. Martin Luther King was far too subversive for the conservatives in American society, but not militant enough for others involved in the Civil Rights struggle who advocated violence as the only way to bring about the change they desired. Similar things could be said about Archbishop Desmond Tutu who became the international figurehead of the anti-Apartheid movement following Mandela’s imprisonment. Some wanted to dismantle the racist system by any means necessary, that was the position of the African National Congress and its armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’). Others condemned Tutu as a rabble-rouser who was disturbing the peace, though the ‘peace’ that they wanted to maintain was, in reality, nothing more than upholding their status quo and their white privilege. When both ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ seek to discredit you, it is only human to express a desire that God will deal with those who are slandering you and denigrating your motives. 

The Psalmist wishes that his accusers would get a taste of their own medicine, even those who work tirelessly for peace can still lose their rag. This Psalm says it’s okay to feel that way but leave the punishment to God. It’s also a reminder that the peacemakers aren’t super saints but have the same feelings as the rest of us, so we have no excuse for not joining them in their efforts. Taking our frustrations to God means we don’t have to take them out on other people (vv. 1, 2).