Bible Study Series

Psalms of Ascents

Part 1: Psalms of Ascents

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A trip marks time in steps, distance, and landmarks. Songs mark time in notes, measures, and words. Walking, driving or flying, we have all experienced the suitable accompaniment of music and travel.

The Psalms of Ascents are fifteen psalms (120 to 134), inspired to encourage us on our journey, on our ascent to Zion by our Heavenly Father’s grace in Christ Jesus our Lord!

The Ascent to Zion—Psalms 120-122 (Part 1)

To ascend means to go up. While we often say we go “up north” or “down south,” in the Bible, up and down are set with reference to Jerusalem, regardless of your compass point of origin. The temple (God’s glory) is the highest elevation. One always ascends to get to Jerusalem and the temple.

As Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way, He said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death.” (Matt 20:17-18).1

The Hebrew word translated as ascents in the headers of Psalms 120-134 is “maalah” (Strongs 4609), meaning “steps.” Steps are used to climb. Thus, the root of the noun “maalah” is the verb “alah” (Strongs 5297), meaning “to ascend.” To this day, when one immigrates to Israel, one makes “aliyah,” or the ascent. This is true whether starting from the United States or Australia! “Distributions of funds have focused on humanitarian aid and rescue operations; trauma relief and medical care; refugee resettlement; and aliyah and absorption in Israel.”2

In summary, the temple, God’s glory, is the highest elevation. We always ascend when traveling there!

The Spiritual Journey

In our diagram, the starting point is at exile. Why did we do that? Is it appropriate if we have never experienced slavery or exile? Christ’s answer:

So, Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32).

They answered him,

We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free?” (v. 33).

Jesus answered them,

Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. (v. 34).

We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. All of our journeys start outside of Eden.

So He [the LORD] drove the man out, and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24).

Adam and Eve chose to sin and were rightly exiled from the garden. God, in His mercy, set cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life until the way of return was established.

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. (Rev 22:14).

We all walk the ascending journey of restoration. We start in sin, removed from the garden.

We end in the glorious presence of our God, allowed to partake of the tree of life by His grace through the cleansing sacrifice of His beloved Son, our Lord Jesus.

Hallelujah! What a great hope to sing of during our ascent!

The Physical Journey

Our spiritual journey was codified in the Law of Moses in physical terms. God commanded Israel to bring gifts to the place of His choosing three times a year once they entered the Promised Land.

Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. (Deut 16:16).

King David desired Israel to be blessed by keeping God’s commandments. When David perceived the time had come to set Jerusalem as the place of worship, he sought to build God’s temple in Zion. While construction was ultimately accomplished by his son, Solomon, David prepared all that was necessary ahead of time: the plans, building materials (I Chr 22:11-16), choir (I Chr 6:31-32) and musicians (I Chr 16: 4-7). It should therefore come as no surprise to find that David (Psa 122, 124, 131, 133) and Solomon (Psa 127) wrote several of the Psalms of Ascents to encourage Israel on their triannual ascents to Zion!

It is easy to picture the family of Mary and Joseph, with their children Jesus, James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, singing these same songs 1,000 years later on their festival journeys. Christ, with his band of disciples, would continue in this tradition. The present tradition is for pilgrims to recite the Psalms of Ascents on the 15 steps of the temple mount.

Who wrote the Psalms of ascents, and when were they placed in their current order? The earliest compilers were David and Solomon. This would make several of the psalms prophetic: Psalm 122, prophetic of temple worship, Psalm 126 of a return from captivity, and Psalm 132 of the future anointed/Messiah.

The latest possible compiler would have been Ezra, returning from Babylon. This would make Psalm 126 a retrospective of Babylon’s return. While the identity of all the individual authors and compilers is uncertain, the intent of the psalms and their order seems clear, to provide a set of songs to encourage us in our ascents to Zion!

It has been helpful to me to consider the Psalms of Ascents from two perspectives:

The first perspective is as a physical traveler. God commanded the children of Israel to ascend three times a year, bringing gifts. They were also given the directive to return to Zion in thought while exiled. How these psalms have encouraged such sojourners to continue their physical journey with the right mindset of praise!

The second perspective is a personal one. How can these psalms help me to depart from my Meshech (see below) and set my face and feet on the ascent to the glorious promise of worship in Christ’s freedom for all eternity? We will use this dual pattern of physical and spiritual journeys to briefly consider some thoughts on each psalm. May these psalms find a special place in your journey to Zion, the city of the great King!

Psalm 120—Trouble!

The psalmist starts the journey in desperate straits. He is surrounded by liars in a foreign land, far from Jerusalem, the City of Peace. The surrounding deceivers hate peace. Even when peace is proposed, they prefer war! This is an untenantable position. Leaving Meshech and Kedar is the only option. The sooner, the better!

A Song of Ascents

In my trouble I cried to the LORD,

And He answered me.

Deliver my soul, 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?

Sharp arrows of the warrior,

With the burning coals of the broom tree.

Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,

For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!

Too long has my soul had its dwelling

With those who hate peace.

I am for peace, but when I speak,

They are for war.

The Physical Journey

The journey starts in a foreign nation, far from the Promised Land. This is Israel’s recurrent history. She has found herself in Egypt, Babylon, and, more recently, the Roman “diaspora,” the return from which continues to this day.

In the psalm, Meshech (a son of Japheth) is the starting point. The tents of Kedar (A son of Ishmael) are also identified. Perhaps these represent non-Semitic and Semitic peoples, respectively. The nations have never been a place of peace for Israel, nor were they meant to be (Deut 29:22-28). Returning to Zion is a necessity (I Kgs 8:33-34).
Meshech is notably called out to remain adversarial, even until the LORD makes his name known among the nations (Ezek 39:25-29).
And the Word of the LORD came to me saying, Son of man, set your face toward Gog of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him. (Ezek 38:1-2).

The Spiritual Journey

As in the physical case, in the spiritual, we will only leave Meshech when we admit we are in trouble. Troubles can be external, but our liberating spiritual journey starts when we see that the real troubles are from within. A hint is provided in the writing of James.

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? (Jas 4:1).

If trouble comes from without and from within, where can we find help in our time of need? Hint: The answer is found in our next psalm.

Psalm 121—Hope!

Q: Where does our help come from?

A: Our help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth!

The exile lifts his eyes and sees the mountains of Zion far in the distance. He remembers the LORD’S compassion and the glorious promise of Jerusalem’s peace. Hope is kindled! He begins the journey home, confident in God’s protection.

The protection of the LORD is emphasized in this psalm. That He is and will be our and Israel’s keeper is mentioned six times. The Hebrew word translated as keeper is “shamar” (Strongs 8104), meaning: to keep, watch, preserve, etc. Take a moment to contemplate the LORD, the creator of heaven and earth, as our “shamar.” God is and will keep our going out (from Meshech) and our coming in (to Zion) from this time forth and forevermore. Let us lift our eyes to Him!

A Song of Ascents

I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;

From where shall my help come?

My help comes from the LORD,

Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to slip;

He who keeps you will not slumber.

Behold, He who keeps Israel

Will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;

The LORD is your shade on your right hand.

The sun will not smite you by day,

Nor the moon by night.

The LORD will protect (keep) you from all evil;

He will keep your soul.

The LORD will guard (keep) your going out and your coming in,

From this time forth and forever.

The Physical Journey

It is a multi-day walk to Jerusalem from most points inside of Israel. Sojourning from Egypt, Babylon or Meshech would take weeks or months! This song would remind the ascender of the LORD’S continual protection day and night. It would be an encouragement to sing as one traveled in the cool of the morning or rested in the shade during the midday heat. Singing confidently of God’s certain protection from “going out to coming in” would enliven all fainting hearts.

The Spiritual Journey

Paul’s letter to the Roman Ecclesia comes to mind.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39).

Our Heavenly Father’s help and protection on the journey to His Kingdom is certain. He will keep us from all evil and save our souls. As we shall see, our voyage will include many hardships, but if we endure in Christ, the good end is sure. Hymn 14 (Green Book) says, “God is my (our) strong salvation, what foe have I (we) to fear?”

We have left Meshech with our eyes fixed on Mt. Zion, strong in the “shamar” which God supplies in His beloved son. In our next psalm, the tents of Kedar are behind us, and the House of the LORD appears on the horizon!

Psalm 122—Jerusalem the City of Peace!

This is David’s vision of worship in the House of the LORD. He began this in type when he brought the ark to Jerusalem. A day of great rejoicing with those that shared the vision. He spent the remainder of his life planning for the culmination, organizing materials, singers, musicians, and this song and finally setting Solomon as king to complete the work. (I Chr 22:17-19).

This psalm has two distinct stanzas: 1) The joy of a community giving thanks to YHWH for His righteous judgments, and 2) A prayer for peace in worship, for YHWH’s honor and the wellbeing of brethren and friends. Praying for Jerusalem’s peace is the true love of God and neighbor.

A Song of Ascents

I was glad when they said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the LORD.”

Our feet are standing, Within your gates, O Jerusalem,

Jerusalem, that is built, As a city that is compact together;

To which the tribes go up, even the tribes of the LORD—

An ordinance for Israel—To give thanks to the name of the LORD.

For there thrones were set for judgment,

The thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

“May they prosper who love you.

“May peace be within your walls,

And prosperity within your palaces.”

For the sake of my brothers and my friends, I will now say,

“May peace be within you.”

For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,

I will seek your good.

The Physical Journey

All Israel was to journey three times a year to Jerusalem at the same time. God’s ordinance provided for traveling companions! Sometimes it is hard for us to start our journey; good friends can encourage us. We are glad when fellows rouse us with the call, “Let us go up to the house of the LORD!” Jerusalem was both the center of praise and the seat of righteous and merciful judgments coming from the throne of David. The vision of receiving righteous judgment and its accompanying peace has always been a strong motivator. This blessing will continue in Christ’s reign.

And many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob;

That He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.”

For the law will go forth from Zion

And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And He will judge between the nations,

And will render decisions for many peoples;

And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not lift up sword against nation,

And never again will they learn war. (Isa 2:3-4).

The Spiritual Journey

Companionship is a strong encouragement in our walk to the Kingdom. We receive fellowship with our Heavenly Father through Christ. In turn, we share this encouraging fellowship with one another.

What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed, our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (I John 1:3-4).

As Hymn 341 in our Green Hymn Book reads, “Brethren let us walk together in the bonds of love and peace.”

Do we also look forward to judgment? We often think of judgment in a negative light, but we should not. Judgment is what we need. And only our Heavenly Father can provide it. We need the thoughts and intentions of our hearts to be discerned, divided asunder, and then made new with the law of God written upon it.

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12).
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, And I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, And they shall be My people (Heb 8:10).

Only after judgment will we have peace in the city of peace. We pray and long for that day for the sake of our brethren and friends and for the sake of the house of the LORD our God.

Philip Sweeny
Atlanta North Ecclesia, GA

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