Psalms of ascent: What a long strange trip it’s been*

Embrace the disillusionment and rant on.

Reading the songs of ascent in sequence as a journey that started with a rant and moved through disillusionment into praise, then back into disillusionment and back into praise again. If you think you know how spiritual journeys are supposed to go then either these psalms have got it wrong or you have.

The Songs of Ascents or Songs of Degrees are calls from the world to God. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, the Songs of Degrees make up the Eighteenth division of the Psalter and are read on Friday evenings at Vespers throughout the liturgical year.

We don’t walk the road all at once

I knew the psalms, or at least I thought I did. But I had only read each one as stand alone worship songs, here are songs of pilgrimage, meant to be read in order. The psalms in general have an order to them, they are not all written together but gathered into five separate books.

  • Book 1: 1-41
  • Book 2: 42-72
  • Book 3: 73-89
  • Book 4: 90-106
  • Book 5: 107-150

Book 5 can be divided up:

  • Hallelujah Group: 111-117
  • Songs of Ascent to Jerusalem: 120-134
  • Davidic Group: 138-145
  • Congregational Praise Group: 146-150

Book 5 is a compilation of psalms from the time after the return from exile, some refer back to the exile, attribution to David could mean that they are written by David and compiled later, in the style of David or dedicated to David. I see no reason why those attributed to David, there are three among the songs of ascent, are actually by David.

The Talmud says that the fifteen songs correspond to the fifteen steps between these courtyards of the Temple, some have said that the songs were sung by the Levites from those steps, though there is no evidence to support this. In any case the first of these songs speak of being in a far off place and the songs describe the journey towards Jerusalem.

Preparation

The first five form a group:

  • Psalm 120 starts, “I call on the Lord in my distress,” Followed by a rant about what distressed him.
  • Psalms 121 to 123 pivot around the first verse of Psalm 122, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Which is followed by a song of praise and a prayer for the safety of Jerusalem. The attitude of the pilgrim is changed from one of looking first at the world to focusing on God. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? (Psalm 121:1) becomes “I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven.” The pilgrimage begins when we focus on God, who is the destination of the journey.
  • Psalm 124 is a reminder to the pilgrims that God protected them in the past and will be their protection on the journey.

The journey begins

  • Psalm 125 is a reminder at the start of the jourmey to focus on the destination and to trust in God.
  • Psalm 126: A song of joy about the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.
  • Psalm 127 is a reminder that what we do requires God’s strength, not ours, to be successful.
  • Psalm 128 is about reverence and obedience to God. The last verse, “May you live to see your children’s children – peace be on Israel.” is a reminder that it was the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those taken into exile who returned to inherit the land.

Psalms 129 to 131 remind us that things are not usually plain sailing. Disillusionment and despair are often part of a spiritual journey.

  • You know what it is like when you set out to do something but stuff happens and you get disillusioned: that’s Psalm 129, another rant. This is not a spirituality which is divorced from the realities of life. This is a spirituality which is involved in the realities of life. God cares for the physical.
  • Psalm 130 starts with, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord.” Things have gone from disillusionment to despair, yet we can find that God does not desert us even in the darkest times.
  • Psalm 131 is a prayer of confession, a swallowing of the pride that makes us all do things our way instead of relying on God. God does not save us from the struggles of life, but walks with us through them.

Arrival

  • Psalm 132 is about the self sacrifice not only of this temple, but also of the original one prepared for under David and built in Solomon’s reign.
  • Psalm 133 We have travelled here together, success is a joint effort.
  • Psalm 134 We have arrived and we bless God. Although they have travelled together, God blesses them individually.

*Title taken from a lyric from Truckin’ by Grateful Dead
All Bible quotations in this series, unless otherwise mentioned, are taken from Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

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