The Step of Distress
Dr. Joe Temple

Introduction

Open your Bibles, please, to Psalm 120. We are going to begin a series of messages which, if we were going to select a theme for it, might be called a devotional theme. For the book of Psalms is one of the most precious devotional books in the Bible.

Let me explain the word “devotional,” so you will understand what we mean. We are talking about passages of Scripture which God uses to speak to our hearts by way of inspiration, by way of instruction, whereby our hearts are encouraged. We are able to grow in the Lord into that mature man which is described in the Word of God.

The fact that we have selected a devotional theme indicates that the messages themselves will be of a simple nature. Devotions are never deep. They never need a lot of exposition, but they do need a presentation in a manner which will encourage our hearts in deeper aspects of spiritual living.

A Song of Degrees

I am going to consider a series of fifteen Psalms which begins with Psalm 120 and concludes with Psalm 134. Beneath the number of the Psalm we find a title. That title reads, “A Song of Degrees.” Notice under each one of these Psalms, beginning with Psalm 120 and concluding wiht Psalm 134, that title, “A Song of Degrees.”

When we examine these Psalms more closely, we find that four of them were written by David. Psalm 127 was written by Solomon. Ten of them are anonymous. A great many Bible scholars feel that, because of the subject matter contained in the Psalms, they were written by Hezekiah shortly after the illness from which he recovered when God extended his life for a period of fifteen years. I do not know that it matters a great deal to you who the human author was, because we recognize, of course, the author of the Scriptures to be the Holy Spirit. We believe in the verbal inspiration of the Word of God.

Journey to a Higher Place

Notice the word “degrees” which is in the superscription as I suggest to you that it is a translation of a Hebrew word which means “a journey to a higher place.” These Psalms were written, then, relative to a journey to a higher place. The word is translated a number of different ways in the Scriptures to bear this out. For example, turn to Psalm 24, and notice a statement that gives us an illustration of what we are speaking about:

Psalms 24

1The earth is the LORD's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
2For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.
3Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

Notice the word “ascend” in verse 3. It is the translation of the Hebrew word in question. So the word “degree” can be translated “ascend.” We might say, as we look at Psalm 120 again, that this series of Psalms represents songs of ascension.

The same word is translated by the word “stairs” in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 12, verse 37. A wall was built and Nehemiah asked all of the people to come out for the dedication of the wall. We are told that they ascended the stairs. In ascending the stairs, they stood upon the top of the wall and sang their hymns of praise. The word “stairs” in this portion of Scriptures is a translation of the word about which we are thinking.

All of you are familiar with the story of Jacob's ladder. You remember how Jacob fell asleep as he was leaving home and he dreamed. He dreamed that there was a ladder extending from earth to Heaven. He saw angels ascending and descending on that ladder. Now the word “ascend” which describes the activity of these angels is the very same word.

An interesting thing, in the light of the memssage, is that the word that is translated “ladder” in our English text, should really be translated “staircase”–flight of steps. What Jacob actually saw wasn't a ladder but a staircase, and he saw angels walking up and down the stairs.

Songs of Ascent

This should begin to suggest to you what we are going to be thinking about. We are going to be thinking about traveling up stairs in this series of of Psalms.

Let us look again at Psalm 120, as I suggest to you that the Song of Degrees represents the songs of ascents. as they are called by some Bible scholars. For that reason, we are told that they were sung by the pilgrims as they made their annual journey to the city of Jerusalem for the various feasts which were observed each year. Of course, the reason they would call them “songs of ascents,” was that you never speak of going down to Jerusalem. You always speak of going up to Jerusalem.

Other Bible scholars feel that these fifteen Psalms were sung as the pilgrims climbed the fifteen steps to Solomon's temple, for they did pause on each step and chant choruses and sing songs. Possibly these were the songs which they sang at that time.

A Spiritual Staircase

In all probability these statements are true, but I see something more in these songs than what I have suggested. I see in them a spiritual staircase from distress to delight, just as Jacob's ladder, or Jacob's staircase, went from earth to Heaven. I would suggest to you that you think of these fifteen Psalms as the Pilgrim's Staircase, and journey with me up the staircase as each step of the staircase represents a state of spiritual growth related to spiritual experience.

I want to pause on these steps as we go along and let God speak to our hearts and perhaps find out where we are, spiritually speaking. You do realize that your Christian experience is not related to an historical event, solely. Your spiritual experience is related to a definite encounter with Christ, and then it represents growth from that time forward.

I might suggest to you that you examine yourself in the light of these stairs as we climb them and find out exactly where you are in your spiritual relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ.

A Landing In the Staircase

I would like for you to look at this staircase as a staircase of two flights of stairs broken by a landing. I want you to watch for this landing. Oh, we won't get to it right away. We won't get off the first step in this lesson, but I want you to watch for the landing. When we get to it, I want you to realize how important it is to have a landing in the staircase and how good God is to make this provision.

The First Step

Notice, please, Psalm 120 where the psalmist says:

Psalms 120

1In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.
2Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
3What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
4Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
5Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
6My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
7I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.

As we pause in our reading, may I suggest to you that the first step in our spiritual staircase is the step of distress. Let me say that again: It is the step of distress. You'll never begin this climb unless you take this first step. You'll never begin this staircase until you put feet on this first step, the step of distress.

Now, perchance you are thinking, “Are you speaking to unsaved people only?” No, I'm speaking to unsaved people and to people out of fellowship. I am speaking to people who have come to a standstill in their Christian experience. And as I say, as the songwriter wrote, “Press on the upward way.” You've got to put your feet on this first step. You remember the words of the song, “I'm pressing on the upward way, new heights I'm gaining every day.”

I hate to say this, but I am afraid that it is true. Some of us cannot sing that song in all sincerity because we are not pressing on the upward way. We have come to a standstill in our Christian life. We haven't taken a step forward in some time.

Step of Distress Essential

Now, if that is true, you have to come back to the step of distress or you have to put it somewhere in the staircase because it is an absolute essential. What do I mean by this word “distress?” Let me suggest to you that it is the translation of a Hebrew word which is translated in a number of different ways in the Scriptures. It is translated by the word “trouble,” by the word “tribulation,” by the word “adversity,” by the word “affliction,” and it is translated by the word “tightness” or “narrow.” All of these words speak of trouble.

I am interested in the last two words that I gave you–“tightness” and “narrow.” You know, you can be in trouble without anything being immoral in your life. You can be in trouble without anything being unlawful in your life. You can be in trouble because you are in a narrow, constricted place.

It is an interesting thing to notice how accurate the Scriptures are in a description of conditions. For example, there are individuals who are upset about various things, and they will describe their feeling by saying that they have a tightness in their throats, a tightness in their chests.

The psalmist was in trouble, and he cried out to the Lord out of his trouble, out of his adversity, out of his distress, out of his tribulation. What I want to emphasize, Beloved, is that unless you get to that place of dissatisfaction you are never going to cry out to God and you are never going to seek God's will and His purpose.

A Distant Dwelling Place

Let us see, as we glance at this Psalm, exactly why the psalmist was distressed. May I suggest to you as you glance at verse 5, that he was distressed because of his distant dwelling place. He says in verse 5:

Psalms 120

5Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!

The psalmist was speaking figuratively, because there is no evidence that any of the writers of the Psalms were ever in Russia, and that is where Mesech is located. There is no evidence that any of them were ever to the far eastern part of Arabiaa, which is where Kedar is. As far as their thinking was concerned, those were the farthest, most distant points. He says, “I am so far away from God and the people of God that I feel like I am in Russia or Kedar.” That is the point of the Psalm.

Let us forget Mesech and Kedar for a moment and suggest to you that the psalmist was in distress because he was conscious of a great distance between him and the Lord. The psalmist was aware of a lack of the sense of the presence of the Lord.

Do you realize that there are many of God's dear children who are out of fellowship with Him and who are not conscious of His presence and haven't been for a long time? They don't even realize it. The reason they have never done anything about their condition is that they don't sense it. They have never taken this step of distress where they realize a great gulf separates them and the Lord, figuratively speaking. There is no real desire in their hearts to do anything about it.

Deceitful Associations

The distress of the psalmist was related to something else if you will look again at verse 2. He says:

Psalms 120

2Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.

I would suggest to you that his narrowness, his trouble, his distress, was not only related to the fact that he sensed a great distance between him and his Lord, but his distress was related to the deceitful associations which it was necessary for him to keep.

He says, “Lord, I am tired of a deceitful tongue and lying lips.” You see, where ever he was he was in associations that he didn't enjoy. He could not enter into these associations wholeheartedly, and he was tired of it all. There was a stirring in his heart, and he said, “Lord, I am in trouble; I need your help.” He wanted to be delivered from those deceitful associations.

Now, notice carefully what I am saying to you. A good gauge of your spirituality and of your relationship to the Lord is how you feel when you are thrown with ungodly, unsaved people. Now let that sink in. Even at the risk of theological difference, for I don't know how else to express it, I recognize in a sense that if you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you are spsiritual, and if you are not filled with the Holy Spirit, you are not. But I would say to you that your comprehension of what spirituality is can be gauged by the way you feel about ungodly associations.

I want to say to you that as a Christian if you are happy to be around ungodly people all the time and happy to be in the midst of lying tongues and deceitful lips, if you are happy to be with people whose conversations are of things of this world instead of the things of God, then if I were you, I would check into my relationship with the Lord. I would find out why I was what I was and why I enjoyed what I enjoyed.

Don't misunderstand me. I know you can't always surround yourself only with Christian people and have nothing to do with the unsaved. I know that. but let me tell you that if you choose to be among the unsaved and unspiritual and are not burdened about it and distressed with it, then you need to check your spiritual relationship to the Lord.

The psalmist reached a place where he said, “Lord, you've got to help me.” And the Lord said, “Why do you need help?” The psalmist said, “In the first place, I feel a long way from You.” And he said, “In the second place, the only associations I have are deceitful associations, and I am tired of them.”

Discordant Surroundings

The third thing which I would emphasize to you is that his distress was related to his discordant surroundings. Look at verses 6 and 7:

Psalms 120

6My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
7I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.

Do you understand what he is saying? He was dwelling with a people whose aims and ambitions and motives were all contrary to his; they were not interested in the same things.

He gives a very good illustration. He says, “I am for peace, but they are for war.” They don't agree with anything.

Now, Beloved, if you are in places which are contrary to the Word of God, in places that are contrary to that which tends toward spirituality and you are not concerned about it, then there is something wrong. Now hear me again! God, for purposes known to Himself, may place you in these places. He may expect you to stay right there, but that doens't mean that you can't be concerned about it. The psalmist was in distress. Because he was in distress, he was able to give voice to a strong desire.

Desire for Deliverance

May I suggest to you that you will never express the desire of which I am speaking until your soul is distressed by the people and the places in which you find yourself. Until you wake up and realize that there is a need in your own life, you will never express any desire at all. The reason that people are content to rock along in the same old boat is that they have never been stirred to do anything else. They have never been stirred to take any step higher with the Lord.

But the psalmist was. He told the Lord that he had a desire to be delivered of those ungoldly associations where he was. Notice, please, verse 6 again:

Psalms 120

6My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.

If you wanted to translate the phrase “long dwelt” very literally, you could translate the verse, “My soul has dwelled too long with these folk who want war when I want peace.” or “Lord, I have been around them too long and I am ready to move.”

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that if you are born-again, if you have had an experience of grace, though you may go out and dwell with the ungodly, you're going to get sick of it before too long. You are going to get fed up with it before too long. You are going to say, “Lord, I'm tired of it all. I've dwelt too long among the ungodly.”

Now the only sad thing, and the thing that grieves my heart, is that sometimes while you are there, you make ungodly alliances that cannot be broken, and you have to live among those ungodly people. Esau did that. Ruth did that. It is a sad situation, but it sometimes happens. The psalmist awoke to the fact of where he was and his desire mounted to his lips and he said, “Lord, I am tired of being with these ungodly people.”

In verse 7 he says, “I am for peace.” Actually what the psalmist was doing was holding up his hands to God and saying, “Peace God, peace, peace. I want peace!” Now perhpas you have never been in a place where the peace of God is taken away from you. Notice what I am saying; the peace of God, not peace with God. You can't make your peace with God. That was done at Calvary. But you can enjoy the peace of God.

Have you ever been in the place where you have lost the peace of God? Have you ever been in a place where you looked into the heavens and cried unto the Lord, saying, “Lord, if I just had peace. If only the peace that once I knew, when first I loved the Lord would come to my heart. Oh, how happy I would be.” Have you ever been in that place? Some of God's dear children are. And that is the place where the psalmist was–the step of distress. And he told the Lord that he wanted deliverance.

Cry Unto the Lord

Out of the distress of the psalmist came a decision. Will you think with me? How many times in your own life and your own experience have you been distrubed? How many times in your life have you been distressed? That is the convidction of the Spirit of God. That is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our world today. It is to convict men of their need of spiritual things and of their relationship to God. How many times have you been in distress? How many times have you been disturbed and you know that you should do something? How many times have you told the Lord that you were tired of a certain way of life? How many times have you told the Lord you were tired of certain people? How many times have you told the Lord that you wished you had the peace you have when you first knew Him? How many times have you said that, but you have done nothing about it? Well, thank God, the psalmist did something about it.

Look at verse 1 again:

Psalms 120

1In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.

Notice that is the past tense which represents the introduction to the Psalm. He is telling us what he did, and then he tells us how he came to do it. What he did was to make a decision to cry to the Lord. He followed the wisest and best possible procedure.

You know, this reminds me of the Prodigal Son. When he got down there in the pigpen and he had nothing but the husks of the corn that was fed to the pigs, you know what he did? He came to himself, and he said that the servants in his father's house were better off than he was. “The lowest of the lows are doing better than I am,” he said. He said, “I will rise and go to my father.” Now the story doesn't end there. If it did, he would still be on this step of distress. He never could have given any kind of testimony. But you know what the final statement is in the story. He arose and went. That was the decision.

A Deeper Relationship

Now, Beloved, I want to say to you, because I am confident that God has led me to bring you this series of messages, that we are going to begin the climb up the spiritual staircase. We are going to call it the Pilgrim's Staircase. If you expect to come into a deeper relationship to the Lord and be closer to God by getting back in fellowship, if you expect to be saved, you are going to have to take this first step. You must realize that being in right relation to God is more desirable than what you are having right now.

If you are out of fellowhip and are not concerned about it, you'll go right on being out of fellowship. If you are unsaved and are unconcerned about it, you will continue in that condition. I trust that what I have said has caused some of you to think so that you are beginning to be distressed. And I want to remind you that if you are distressed there is deliverance for you in the Lord Jesus Christ.


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