Psalms of Ascent

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In all, there are 15 “psalms of ascent.” They are conveniently grouped together and not scattered throughout all 150 psalms like the other types of psalms we have looked at. Psalms 120 to 134 make up the psalms of ascent. Psalm 120 is the very first psalm to bear the title Shir ha-maaloth, which means “a song of the goings-up.”

These psalms figured prominently in the life of the faithful Jew, who made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the various festivals throughout the year. Some scholars are of the opinion that observant Jews spent as many as three months each year just celebrating the festivals of God. In the New Testament, we see Jesus, the most observant Jew ever, journey to Jerusalem as an adolescent to observe Passover (Luke 2:41) and then later as an adult (John 7:10; 10:22). John’s Gospel goes to some lengths to point out just how observant our Lord was.

All of the Jewish festivals were events of religious remembrance and national pride and the psalms of ascent celebrated these thoughts. They were recited or sung, probably in order, by those making the journey to Jerusalem, a city built on a hill which made it the highest city in the land. So these psalms of ascent not only celebrated Jerusalem – it’s topography and its spiritual heights – but also the spirits of the those who were singing them. For as they recited this group of psalms, their spirits would be lifted.

Paul Goodman, in his book Little Prayers and Finite Experience, gives us a sense of these wonderful psalms:

On the high road to death trudging, not eager to get to that city, yet the way is still too long for my patience.

Teach me a travel song, Master, to march along as we boys used to shout when I was a young scout.

Yes, these psalms of ascent are the believer’s “travel songs,” helping to keep our focus on God and close to Him, no matter how rough the road we are traveling on may be.

Bob Westbrook makes an interesting observation about this group of psalms.

This group of fifteen Psalms is describing the progression of events from the point of conflict between Israel and those who want her land, all the way through to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of Israel, and the coming of the Lord Jesus to Mount Zion!

And here is his excellent outline of the psalms of ascent:

Psalm 120 – Ascent 1 – Distressed call from Israel in response to deceitful, warlike people in their midst.

Psalm 121 – Ascent 2 – Assurance of help and the Lord’s constant watchfulness in spite of those enemies on the surrounding hills.

Psalm 122 – Ascent 3 – A call to go up to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.

Psalm 123 – Ascent 4 – A request for mercy in response to the contempt and scorn inflicted by the arrogant.

Psalm 124 – Ascent 5 – The Lord is on the side of Israel, helping them when attacked by those whose anger flared up.

Psalm 125 – Ascent 6 – The Lord’s people trust in Him for security, and he banishes the others from the land allotted to Israel.

Psalm 126 – Ascent 7 – Great joy on the restoration the fortunes of Zion!

Psalm 127 – Ascent 8 – The Lord builds the house!

Psalm 128 – Ascent 9 – The Lord’s blessing from Zion to those who fear Him.

Psalm 129 – Ascent 10 – Israel, greatly oppressed for a long time, is now free from those who hate Zion.

Psalm 130 – Ascent 11 – Israel cries out for forgiveness, and the Lord responds with unfailing love and full redemption.

Psalm 131 – Ascent 12 – Israel humbles itself and puts its hope in the Lord.

Psalm 132 – Ascent 13 – The Lord returns to Zion, His chosen resting place, remembering His oath with David.

Psalm 133 – Ascent 14 – Brothers dwell in unity, enjoying the Lord’s blessings from Mount Zion.

Psalm 134 – Ascent 15 – Continual praise and blessing from the house of the Lord on Mount Zion.

Psalm 121

Given the history of God’s people, it’s astounding that they existed to sing any psalms at all! The second psalm of ascent carries on the theme begun in the first one:

I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. (Psalm 120:1 NIV)

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. (Psalm 120:5, 6 NIV)

The psalmist, representing all Israel, needs deliverance from the enemy who is all around. In fact, the psalmist wrote that he dwelled among the enemy; everywhere he looked, all he saw were his enemies. He has faith in God because God had delivered him before, but what about now? How will God deliver him this time?

The NIV translates Psalm 121:1, 2 like this –

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. (NIV)

Kenneth Taylor’s paraphrase of those two verses gives us a clearer sense of what the psalmist was getting at:

Shall I look to the mountain gods for help? No! My help is from Jehovah who made the mountains! And the heavens too! (Psalm 121:1, 2 TLB)

The psalmist is teaching a very profound truth every Christian needs to lay hold of: Our confidence must be in the Lord who created the material universe; help is not found in any created thing or person, but in the Creator Himself. This calls for absolute faith in God and loyalty to Him.

The Canaanites and all the pagans that surrounded Israel looked to the high places and their gods for spiritual help. God’s people, however, must look higher! You may be inspired by the majesty of God’s creation, and though you are able to see God’s hand in creation, you don’t find deliverance in the mountains or salvation in nature. While it is true that God created man, and some men are full of great wisdom, wisdom that saves comes only from God.

The theme of God’s protection continues throughout the rest of this great psalm. Notice how many times the psalmist writes about God watching over His people. He’s always doing that!

For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. (2 Chronicles 16:9 NIV)

John Owen, the great puritan non-conformist, wrote:

To believe that He will preserve us is, indeed, a means of preservation.

He right about that. And that’s why this psalm, as part of the psalms of ascent, was recited over and over. Knowing that God preserves and protects is part of His preservation and protection because confidence is created in the hearts of believers.

Psalm 122

The third ascent, Psalm 122, contains the name of David, as do Psalms 124, 131, and 133 in this group. Many, though not all, Bible scholars believe that David wrote these particular psalms of ascent, while others think they were either written for him, about him, or in his style. It’s theme is the “golden” city of Jerusalem, the very pride and joy of the psalmist and the goal of his aspirations. He has traveled far and finally reached his destination.

I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem. (Psalm 122:1, 2 NIV)

The travelers have reached the very gates of Jerusalem, their journey is over and they are ready to go to the temple and worship the Lord, which was the purpose of their journey. Jerusalem was a magnificent city at the time this psalm was written. It was built and established by the Lord, “a city solid and unbroken” (Moffatt). But these pilgrims were interested only in going into “the house of the Lord.” The gates of Jerusalem led to the city and, for the faithful, the Temple led not only to God’s presence, but into His very mind and heart. N.T. Wright wrote this concerning the Temple of the Lord:

The Temple was never supposed to be a retreat away from the world, a safe holy place where one might stay secure in God’s presence, shut off from the wickedness outside. The Temple was an advance sign of what God intended to do with and for the whole creation. When God filled the house with His presence, that was a sign and a foretaste of His ultimate intention, which was to flood the whole world with His glory, presence, and love.

No wonder the faithful wanted to get into the Temple! It was the focal point of their theology. It wasn’t so much that it was merely a grand building, which it was, but that it was a sneak peak into what God has in store for the whole world. In other words, the Temple was never the be all and end all of the Jewish faith! That’s why the prophet Jeremiah wrote these words:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 7:4 NIV)

The prophet understood what the psalmists understood; that the Temple was way, way more than just a building! It was the intersection between heaven and earth; the one place where God was making known His purpose for all creation. And that was God’s purpose for the nation of Israel: to become the example for the nations of the world that God wants.

The world has moved on since this psalm was written, and the Temple is no more. One of the many benefits of Christianity is that with the initiation of the New Covenant, God’s presence is everywhere. He is no longer localized in a building, on a hill, in the Middle East. Even so, we read this:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… (Psalm 122:6a NIV)

The command is to pray for the shalom of Jerusalem. Shalom a big word that usually gets translated as “peace,” but it also means things like, “prosperity,” “perfection,” and even “well being.” This command is just as pertinent today as it was when this psalm was written. We understand, however, that there will be no lasting peace in Jerusalem, or anywhere else on earth for that matter, until the Prince of Peace returns.

Psalm 130

Psalm 130 is another psalm of ascent, but it is also one of seven penitential psalms, and verse one captures the tone of this psalm:

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord… (Psalm 130:1 NIV)

Morgan wrote:

The deepest note in all true worship is this sense of “plenteous redemption,” and the perfection of Jehovah’s love as thus manifested. To mark iniquities would be to fill us with despair. To redeem from all iniquities is to inspire us with hope.

That’s this psalm in three sentences. The psalmist is full of truly heart-felt misery as he gives voice to the despair he feels when he considers his sins and those of his people.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3 NIV)

He’s right about that. Without the righteousness of Christ covering us, we could not stand in God’s presence. Fortunately for us, God is a loving, compassionate God.

Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs. (Proverbs 10:12 NIV)

Verses 3 and 4 are all about God’s forgiveness, but if you think the psalmist is writing about perpetual forgiveness for perpetual sinning, you’ve missed the point entirely.

But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. (Psalm 130:4 NIV)

Sinners are forgiven so that they in turn may service the Lord with reverence, or with a holy fear.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge… (Proverbs 1:7a NIV)

Just so. If God alone can forgive, then on Him alone can the sinner come to for mercy. If we pray for forgiveness, He forgives. But if we persist unrepentantly, then He will judge. When we claim God’s forgiveness, there must follow a corresponding devotion to Him. The psalmist puts it like this:

I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Psalm 130:6 NIV)

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, then you’ll get the gist of what our psalmist is trying to say here. What a relief it is when you roll over and see the dawn! All night long you tossed and turned, waiting for the sun to rise so you could get up. That’s the sense of what it means to be waiting for the Lord. Charles Spurgeon wrote this about waiting on the Lord:

If the Lord Jehovah makes us wait, let us do so with our whole hearts; for blessed are all they that wait for Him. He is worth waiting for.

That might be the pithiest thing Spurgeon ever wrote, and he’s absolutely right. No believer loses anything by waiting for God.

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