Too Long In The Wrong Place
In my trouble I cried to the Lord,And He answered me. Rescue my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,And from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you,You deceitful tongue?— Sharp arrows of the warrior,With the burning coals of the broom tree. Woe to me, for I sojourn in Meshech,and I live among the tents of Kedar [among hostile people]! Too long my soul has had its dwellingWith those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak,They are for war.
A young couple, fresh in ministry, sat at their piano and composed the melody and words to this well-known and loved invitational hymn, “Room At the Cross.”
The husband, Ira Stanfield, went on to write many gospel songs, but, the bride who sat with him that day, Zelma-herself a preacher’s daughter- soon began frequenting nightclubs. Five years after leaving Ira, driving with her manager after a late nightclub singing engagement, she was killed in an automobile accident.
We don’t know if, in her dying moments, she made it back to the Cross, the place “where there’s still room for one.” From all appearances, she stayed too long in the wrong location.
Psalm 120 is the first of fifteen psalms of assent- the songs the pilgrims sang during festival seasons as they made the steep climb up the Jericho road from 1200 feet below sea level to the 2400 foot-high city of Jerusalem.
These ascent psalms begin with the words of one who decided he had stayed too long in the wrong place, and the time had come for him to embark on the journey back to God.
The psalmist tells us what triggered his decision to begin the pilgrimage home.
Someone has said that change only comes when the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of making a change. How wonderfully blessed we are when God allows our place to become so uncomfortable that we’re ready to decide to make a change. In the story of the prodigal son, we find the son never started back home to the father until his pain of staying away exceeded his pain of going home(Luke 15: 17-20).
Martin Luther reminds us that this is the central mission of Christ to help us at such moments. He says, “Jesus never gave Himself for our righteousness, but He did give Himself for our sins.” Our first link between our souls and Christ isn’t our goodness but our sinfulness, not our merits but our miseries, not our standing but our failures, and not our riches but our need. Christ comes to visit His people, not to admire their beauty but to transform their deformities and not to reward their virtues but to forgive their sins.
The second thing that can move us to make the journey home is disappointment with others. What about you and I? Whom did we place our confidence in only to discover later that it was all a set-up? Are we those whose lives have been messed up because someone we trusted lied to us and for a good while pulled the wool over our eyes? We never spotted their deceit for we were so naive.
Psalm 120 says that the path back to spiritual health comes when we ask God for help.(verse 2). Rarely does a victim get to “unload” on the one who wounded them, so the only alternative is to engage in an imaginary conversation with the victimizer.(verse 3). In our anger, we might even ask God to stick and burn our adversary. We will do better, however, if we turn our anger to forgiveness(Matthew 6: 14-15).
We are taught by Christ that we can’t serve two masters(Matthew 6:24). We can’t alternate between our old life one moment and the new one the next. In this psalm, the writer expresses sorrow over the length of time he lived with a split-personality: “Woe to me that I dwell in Meschech, that I live among the tents of Kedar(verse 5).
These two geographical points represent the polarities in the dispersion of the Jews. Meschech is to the far north and Kedar is the second born of Ishmael who settled in the south near the border of Egypt- described as a clan that “lived in hostility toward all their brothers.”(Genesis 25: 13, 18). The psalmist wanted to let go of his Ishmael split-personality which had placed him in a location half-way between the Egypt of bondage and the Jerusalem of promise.
Perhaps you are having a difficult time “unifying” your life. The world is pulling one direction and the Holy Spirit is tugging you another. It’s our choice which one prevails.
The natural Jerusalem sat on top of a hill and either way it was approached, whether from the far north or the far south, it was a climb up. Whether we are at a place of intense pain or in the false comfort of compromise, we have to leave and begin the climb.
We may be in the “valley low” when we begin and we may wonder if we will ever get up the hill, but we can follow the example provided by Psalm 120. We begin by letting God know we want out. We put our hearts in the right direction even before our feet start to take the first step upward. The Chinese proverb says that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Take the step and do it today!
Dr. John Thompson