Praying for Peace (amidst Strife)

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 18, 2022.

            In my distress I called to the LORD,

                        and he answered me.

            Deliver me, O LORD,

                        from lying lips,

                        from a deceitful tongue.

            What shall be given to you,

                        and what more shall be done to you,

                        you deceitful tongue?

            A warrior’s sharp arrows,

                        with glowing coals of the broom tree!

            Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,

                        that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

            Too long have I had my dwelling

                        among those who hate peace.

            I am for peace,

                        but when I speak, they are for war! (Psalm 120).[1]

Ironically, a psalm in which the psalmist declares, “I am for peace,” begins with “distress” and ends with “war.” How can someone be for peace and live with those for war? Doesn’t peacemaking foster peaceful living? And yet, he’s surrounded by those who “hate peace.” Why dwell there? Who wants to be neighbors with haters? Where in the world does this man live? He lives right here, where you and I live, not in a progressively improving world, evolving upward toward peace, but a fallen world plagued with Adam’s curse and resulting strife.

This is where the psalmist lives, and he is telling it like it is, a realist describing the reality of what he sees and experiences. For this reason, this psalm can sound harsh, discordant, even pessimistic. I wonder: How did they sing this song while marching upward to Zion? Like a dirge? Maybe. But behind its seemingly rough veneer, we find a refreshingly real description of what it feels like to be inundated with deceit, the victim of lies, living amidst strife, crying out, “Woe to me,” and praying “Deliver me, O LORD.” But what we also hear is the confession of a faithful saint who embraces neither a victim mentality nor deterministic fatalism but takes his distress and woes to the Lord in prayer.

A Blaze of Deceit

Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” lied. Words can hurt, especially those of “lying lips” and a “deceitful tongue,” and their consequences can be more than verbal. Potiphar’s wife maligned Joseph, and he was imprisoned. Jezebel slandered Naboth, and he was stoned to death. The Jews lied about Paul defiling the temple, and he was arrested. First century Christians called one another brother and sister and were falsely accused of incest. They referred to the Lord’s Supper as the body and blood of Christ and were falsely accused of cannibalism.[2] If you are a Christian and have not been maligned for your faith in some way, then you are probably a child (or don’t get out much).

Lies and deceit are common to the fallen human condition, and the primary means of lies and deceit are through communication, the “tongue.” James concludes, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. …It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:5b-6, 8b). While every mouth is capable of such venom, consider the lying lips and deceitful tongue of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world lies to us and about us, our flesh tempts us to lie and deceive others, and the devil, “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44), seeks to deceive us with lies and then tempts us to do the same.

The world, as it were, thrives on lies, exchanging the truth about God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). So convincing is this worldly misrepresentation that the historical fact of the Fall in Genesis sounds foreign to many, even offensive. As one pastor puts it,

We have been told the lie ever since we can remember: human beings are basically nice and good. Everyone is born equal and innocent and self-sufficient. The world is a pleasant, harmless place. We are born free. If we are in chains now, it is someone’s fault, and we can correct it with just a little more intelligence or effort or time.[3]

What continues to surprise me is how many intelligent people believe this lie, even when the historical evidence is to the contrary. If history proves anything, it’s that as a species we are an ongoing mess! But on goes the hope of self-improvement without the gospel, and the mantra of the good life apart from the cross of Christ. We hear it from our advertisers and entertainers, from our media and academia, from our politicians and even so-called Christians.

And for those who don’t buy the lie, for those who in response speak the truth, the world retaliates. The psalmist’s prayer for deliverance is likely deliverance from the slander of those who oppose his faith, obedience, and witness. But if we are maligned or slandered for following the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn. 14:6), should come as no surprise. As our Lord said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:18-19). And if the world hates us, we should not be surprised when lying lips and a deceitful tongue are heard.

The temptation for many of us, however, is to retaliate lex talionis, retaliating with the deadly poison of our own lips and tongue. The sinful flesh remains in every Christian on this side of the grave and is often on full display in the words we say (or today, it’s through the posts we post, the tweets we tweet, the messages we send). With our tongues, James observes, “we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers [and sisters], these things ought not to be so” (Jas. 3:9-10). Indeed, it should never be so in the one named Christian, for “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).

What does life with a crucified flesh look like when we face slander and strife. It looks like our Lord who was crucified: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). Rather than unleashing the restless evil of our tongue, we would do well to bite it and remember our Lord’s command: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28). When we allow our flesh to have its way, striking with the venom of the tongue, what we forget is just as we have enemies, so we were once enemies of God (Rom. 5:10). And just as God’s kindness led us to repentance, so God can use conquered lips and a Spirit-filled tongue to point other enemies to Christ.

Ultimately though, our chief adversary is the devil, the “father of lies” (Jn. 8:44), as Jesus called him. He is the embodiment of lying lips and a deceitful tongue. One commentator notes, “When the world isn’t lying to you or about you, you can be certain that Satan is.”[4] Disguised as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), his malevolent work is on full display in this present darkness and visible to those with eyes to see. The apostle Peter says that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8), and his primary method of prowling is deceiving, finding plenty of gullible prey. What lies is he telling? His quiver is full but a few of his favorites are: God neither made you nor loves you. Look out for yourself and leave your neighbor alone. God is neither sovereign nor caring. What the world needs, humankind can achieve. I am the captain of my soul! Sound familiar?

Of course, we know the devil is a liar, and we hear his lies all the time, but how should we respond? We respond to lies with the truth, specifically the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The truth is that God made you and loves you. The truth is that God made your neighbor and calls you to love your neighbor like he does. The truth is he is indeed sovereign over his creation and provides for it, down to the most minute detail. The truth is we are all sinners and unable to save ourselves from ultimate destruction. The truth is you were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever which is possible only through faith in Jesus Christ. All of these truths come from the Word of Truth, but you must know it to use it.

The world, the flesh, and the devil may lie to us and about us, but God’s truth will prevail, as will his justice. And the psalmist states this very truth:

            What shall be given to you,

                        and what more shall be done to you,

                        you deceitful tongue?

            A warrior’s sharp arrows,

                        with glowing coals of the broom tree! (120:3-4).

Though the language sounds foreign to us, the sentiment is not. He prays that God will judge those of lying lips and a deceitful tongue.

The broom tree produced the best coals for a hot fire. A warrior’s arrow were sharpened for battle. Lying lips and a deceitful tongue are deserving of flaming arrows of judgment! But not from you or me. The psalmist is not a vigilante; he does not retaliate. He leaves it to God who is the ultimate judge (Ps. 50:6). John Calvin advises that “it is not enough for the faithful to abstain from hurting others: they must, moreover, study to allure them by gentleness, and to bend them to good will. Should their moderation and kindness be rejected, let them wait in patience, until God at length show himself from heaven as their protector.”[5] We would do well to teach our lips and tongues, Paul counsels, to “never avenge [ourselves] but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). What the deceitful tongue deserves we leave to the Lord.

A World of Strife

Believing the truth, living the truth, even telling the truth does not, however, guarantee a strife-free life. Sometimes, in the providence of God, our neighborhood is Meshech. Sometimes we live on the street of Kedar. We who serve the Prince of peace, who believe the gospel of peace, and who are called to live at peace, with everyone I might add (Rom. 12:18), sometimes find ourselves surrounded by neighbors who hate our Lord, oppose his gospel, and wage war against us. How do you live life in Meshech and Kedar?

“Meshech,” named after the son of Japheth (Gen. 10:2), was northwest of Israel, now modern Turkey. “Kedar,” named after the son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13), was to the southeast, now modern Saudi Arabia. In short, Meshech and Kedar are not in the same neighborhood. But they were both Gentile lands, outside Israel, and therefore hostile to the children of Israel and their God. And the psalmist feels like he is living in a world characterized by both Meshech and Kadar, an exile in a foreign land, not his home.

We can relate. Indeed, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1), but peace with God puts us at odds with a world in rebellion against him. James says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4), and so the converse must be true: friendship with God is enmity with the world. This is why Meshech and Kedar were not home for the psalmist and why this world is not our home. C.S. Lewis insightfully points out, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”[6] If peace in this world seems elusive to you, remember that the perfect and never-ending peace we desire awaits us, not in this earthly kingdom but our heavenly home. Until then, as sojourners and exiles, we “sojourn in Meshech” and “dwell among the tents of Kedar.”

A Prayer for Peace

The practical question is: How do we live day-to-day in a world of lies and deceit, a world awaiting judgment, that hates the peace of God and hates us for it? And how do we live every day pursuing peace and seeking the welfare of where we live as exiles in a land that’s not our home (Jer. 29:7)? The answer is found not at the end but the beginning of this psalm:

            In my distress I called to the LORD,

                        and he answered me.

The life of peace on earth is lived by prayer. When we feel wounded by lies and deceit, prayer directs our focus from ourselves to God, from self-pity to God’s glory. Obsessing over lies and deceit breeds bitterness; prayer fosters forgiveness.

The truth is our flesh is no help in our battle with the world and the devil. What we need, prayer provides: supernatural strength and guiding grace to endure. Surely this is what Paul meant by “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:16), an ongoing prayerful dependence upon the Lord’s provision. Surely this is what Paul meant when he commanded, “Put on the whole armor of God,” adding, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:11,18). Sometimes we cry, “Woe to me,” under the weight of the world, but sometimes our woes are because we have not because we ask not (Jas. 4:2).

Let us then pray for peace, peace with our neighbor, peace between our neighbor and God, and “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).

            O what peace we often forfeit,

            O what needless pain we bear,

            All because we do not carry

            everything to God in prayer![7]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Rhett P. Dodson, Marching to Zion: Ancient Psalms for Modern Pilgrims (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 6-7.

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 21.

[4] Rhett P. Dodson, Marching to Zion: Ancient Psalms for Modern Pilgrims (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 6.

[5] John Calvin, Heart Aflame (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999), 330.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980).

[7] “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Trinity Hymnal, Revised Ed. (Suwanee: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 629.

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