This is the first of the fifteen “songs of degrees,” as the title appears in our version (“of steps” in the LXX. and Vulg.; literally, of goings up). The probable meaning of this strange inscription is discussed in the General Introduction. That the Psalms so entitled formed a collection made with some definite intention can hardly be questioned. But whatever that intention, the position of this psalm in the collection is unaccountable. Even if the title denotes a rhythmical peculiarity—a kind of climactic progress in the verse—it is only just observable here, while there is not the slightest touch in the poem, which can be brought into peculiar connection or association with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or with the return from the captivity. One thing is clear; we are again, after the long gnomic 119th Psalm, in the region and air of lyric song, this fragment, for it is nothing more, being bright and intense with passion and fire. If the poem is personal, it records an experience which every phase of life in all ages presents, the mischief arising from slander. If—the more probable conjecture—it is national, then we must look for its motive in the complications which would naturally arise when Israel had to struggle amid foreign powers and influences to maintain its religious and national existence. The “enemy to peace” (Psalm 120:6; comp. Psalm 129:5; Ezra 4:1) has been most plausibly identified with the Samaritans. (See 2 Kings 17:24 seq., and Josephus, Ant. xi., 2:1.)
Title.—“Song of degrees.” Rather, lyric song of goings up, or ascents.
Juniper.—Properly, broom. Hebrew, rothem, a plant identical with the Arabian retem and Algerian retama. (See 1 Kings 19:4-5.) Doctor Tristram mentions the employment of this bush for fuel. “It is ruthlessly uprooted by the Arabs, wherever it is tolerably abundant, for the manufacture of charcoal, which is considered of the finest quality, and fetches a higher price at Cairo than any other kind. Several travellers have mentioned their meeting with Bedouins employed in conveying retem charcoal to the Egyptian markets” (Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 360; see also Bible Educator, iv. 194). Burckhardt and Robinson also both noticed this trade.
Wonderful stories are told both by Jerome and the rabbis, how travellers, having cooked their food by fires made of the juniper wood, which they suppose to be the wood here meant, and returning a year after to the same spot, still found the embers alive.