Following their captivity in Babylon, God provided the means and motivation for the Jews to rebuild the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Ezra and reinstitute temple worship in accordance with the Law once they completed their mission. Nehemiah, who served the king in Persia, ultimately returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and reinvigorate Jewish society and spiritual commitment. However, this, along with the prophecy of Zechariah, demonstrates how slowly the Jews returned from exile, many choosing to remain behind rather than relocate to their homeland. This diaspora created its own challenges, leaving God’s people in the midst of a foreign and ungodly culture to face the constant barrage of immorality, ridicule, and opposition that their neighbors inflicted upon them. Regardless, their captivity had taught them greater piety, and so many would journey to Jerusalem for the commanded feasts. Their longer journey to their homeland presented an opportunity for them to refocus and remember why they were making the trip. During this time, an author or authors penned a series of psalms known collectively as “songs of ascents,” psalms written for the journey home. In Psalm 120 we find the first in this series, and its content very naturally focuses on the author’s feelings at the beginning of the journey.
This psalm has a personal tone to it more than a collective national feeling, and yet its content quite naturally reflects the people as a whole. The psalm opens with a hint of their former captivity. A people in distress cried out to the Lord for relief, and He answered (Psa. 120:1), an acknowledgement that the opportunity to return to Jerusalem existed due to God’s deliverance. However, the reality of life among ungodly people and their regular words of mockery—an ever present problem throughout captivity—now receive a response. For decades they had listened while pagan lips ridiculed their God and their faith as insufficient to deliver them from their hand, but in the end they could point to His lovingkindness and mercy to prove that their faith had not been unfounded (Psa. 120:2-3). Therefore, in a sense, they could point out to those in Babylon that they too now felt the sting of Jehovah’s judgment (Psa. 120:4). However, this opportunity to return home had another effect. The faithful child of God now felt isolated from home as never before, as though living in the distant lands to the north or as nomads in the south (Psa. 120:5). The burden of living long with those opposed to God no longer appeared as merely a physical distance from home but also a moral chasm as well, for while seeking God’s will and peace with others through it, the surrounding world yet resists (Psa. 120:6-7).
Such a perspective should feel more than natural to the child of God. We also live in a world that promotes immorality and ungodliness. With increasing frequency we hear attacks on our faith and attempts to silence the Bible’s message. Many Christians work in an environment hostile to faith in general and Christianity specifically. The Supreme Court has stripped as many references to God as possible out of the public schools. Political correctness has reached the point where a basic statement of reality receives death threats in response in social media. And with so much out of our control, we should appreciate even more the focus of the psalmist and long for those times when we can gather together as God’s people, proclaim our faith, encourage one another, and build our courage to face the onslaught of Satan’s minions. It took the Jews decades to realize how much they should value worship and spiritual fellowship. God’s people today need to learn from Israel’s failure AND from the psalmist’s revival of hope—and learn quickly.