The Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134 Introduction

The Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134


These Psalms are called “Songs of Degrees” in the authorized King James Version but “Songs of Ascent” In the more modern translations. The Hebrew superscription is Shir Hama’alot, a song of ascending. The idea of going up to worship the Lord is used frequently in the Old Testament. It is used in fact in the book of Exodus in prospect of the future where we read, And no one will covet your land when you go jp three times each year to appear before the Lord. It is also used in I and II Chronicles in describing David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem and of Solomon bringing it up to the temple. And finally it describes the priests and Levites accompanying Ezra out of Babylon and  up to Jerusalem in Ezra 7:7. The Rabbis developed the theory that these fifteen Psalms were sung on the 15 steps of the temple successively as they ascended. They even proposed that the 15 parts of the Seder or Passover meal paralleled the 15 steps of the temple on which the Levites sang these Psalms. There is not much support for this view outside of the Jewish Mishnah, but it may have influenced the collection of 15 Psalms rather than some other number. The collection of these Psalms is significant because they were not written at the same time but they are arranged symmetrically with 1 Psalm by Solomon in the middle and 2 by David in the first part and 2 in the second part. The rest are anonymous. Whether it is true or not is somewhat immaterial since the main point is the going up to worship.

These Psalms have much to teach us about worship and that is sorely needed in these days. In fact the singing of the Psalms in Christian worship which is commanded in Colossians 3:16 would go a long way to freeing us of the individualistic, “I” centered, man centered, user friendly, superficial worship that characterizes the Church in these days. By the way, the reference to “psalms hymns and spiritual songs” in Colossians 3:16 is referring only to psalms because the three words used by Paul are all words that appear in the superscriptions of psalms in the Greek translation (LXX) of the Old Testament which was made over 200 years before the birth of Christ. Thus we have a devotional staircase here teaching us today principles and patterns of worship.

The pilgrims in our Psalms were going up to Jerusalem because that was the place God had appointed for worship. That was where the temple was built in accordance with God’s appointment. In Nehemiah 1:9, for example, Jerusalem is referred to as the gathering place for the exiles, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name. The place was chosen by God through David according to I Chronicles 22:1. Jesus changed the geography of the kingdom of God in John 4:19-24 in His conversation with the Samaritan woman,  “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The earthly Jerusalem is no longer the center, but rather the Church which is the new house of God. The Apostle Paul continues this teaching in Hebrews 12:18-22 where he tells the Jewish Christians,  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them... But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. And likewise in Galatians 4:24-26, These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. Consequently when we read the Psalms we must be aware of this double meaning for Jerusalem for the Old Testament readers it meant the physical city on earth, but in the New Testament fulfillment it is the Jerusalem which is above.

Finally as we enter a consideration of these 15 specially collected Psalms we should be aware of their unique arrangement. There are five groups of three and within those groups there is a progression, as follows:

Group 1-Psalms 120-122
A The distress of enemies
B The Upward look to Zion

C The peaceful arrival at Jerusalem

Group 2-Psalms 123-125
A The contempt of the nations
B The anticipation of deliverance
C The protection and peace of Jerusalem

Group 3-Psalms 126-128
A The sowing in tears in captivity
B The hope of rebuilding the house of God
C The blessing of God upon Israel

Group 4-Psalms 129-131
A The many afflictions of God’s people
B The cry unto the Lord for mercy
C The confident and contented security of Israel

Group 5-Psalms 132-134
A The destruction of the house of David and the promise
B The return and regathering with blessing
C The benediction of God in His temple

In all of these groups we can discern a similar pattern of leaving the tribulation and distress of the world, journeying up to worship and home, and finally, reaching the appointed place of worship and the blessing of God. There is also a progression from Group 1 to Group 5 as we see the hatred and contempt of the world, the opposition to Israel, the captivity, the review of their afflictions, and finally a renewed confidence in God’s promises to David.