SONGS OF ASCENTS Psalms 120–134
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ’Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:1–2).How do we feel when Sunday comes, and we approach the church where we worship? This group of psalms reminds us that worship is to be a joyful occasion, rich in meaning for the believer. Jerusalem lies high in the mountains of central Palestine. From the time of David and Solomon, represented in this sketch, Jerusalem was unique—a site God chose through David as the one site on earth where a temple might be built, and sacrifices offered to the Lord.
These 15 “songs of ascents,” on a variety of themes, were probably chanted by Hebrew pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem to attend one of the Old Testament’s annual worship festivals.
Understanding the Text
The Homesick Soul.
The first psalm of ascents pictures a burdened believer, far from his spiritual homeland. This land of strife is not his home: his homeland is a land of peace (shalom: well-being). “I call on the Lord” Ps. 120:1–7. At stated times during the year each Hebrew was called to turn in his heart, if not possible to return physically, to Jerusalem, to join the believing community in worship at the temple of the Lord. This psalm pictures a person living among the ungodly, who realized afresh at this time of year that he was a man of peace, who lived among those who were for war. How important for us to return to our roots, and with the community of faith look to and call on the Lord. Psalm 121: Looking to God. There is no help in the hills on which the pagans worship. Our help comes from the Lord. “The Lord watches over you” Ps. 121:5. What can we expect from the God who watches over us at all times? Simply that He will “keep you from all harm—He will watch over your life.” Psalm 122: Joy in Jerusalem. Arrival at Jerusalem, where God’s people worshiped, was a cause of celebration. Psalm 123: Dependence on God. God’s people look to Him for mercy as a slave, dependent on another’s kindness, looks expectantly to his or her master. “Have mercy on us, O Lord” Ps. 123:1–4. Mercy is a much-admired quality in the Old Testament. It is compassion and concern for a helpless person’s plight, which finds expression in reaching out with help. The person who needs mercy is completely dependent on the willingness of another to help. How wonderful that as we depend on God, He does reach out to help us. Psalm 124: God, Our Help. Only because God is on Israel’s side has this people survived. So all Israel praises the Maker of heaven and earth, who has proven to be His people’s help. “If the Lord had not been on our side” Ps. 124:1–8. Modern nations have claimed to have God on their side. In World War I the belt buckles of German soldiers proclaimed, “Gott Mit Uns,” and U.S. currency announces, “In God We Trust.” Yet only Israel had a valid basis for making this claim, for God’s covenant promises were made to this people alone, not to modern nations. Even then, God was with His people to deliver them only when they were faithful to their own covenant responsibilities. You and I as individuals do experience God’s grace. And we can determine to be faithful to the God who has been so good to us. Psalm 125: A Song of Trust. God does good to those who are good. We can trust in Him, for He alone can never be moved. Psalm 126: Great Things! Israel’s restoration to her homeland after the Babylonian Captivity is just one of the “great things” the Lord had done for His chosen people. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” Ps. 126:1–6. Looking back, the psalmist could see that Israel’s Captivity was a prelude to blessing. As you and I look back on the difficult times in our lives, we too will be able to sense the good hand of God at work. Psalm 127: Our Heritage. The children God gives us are our “house,” a heritage from the Lord who does not build houses but families. “Sons are a heritage from the Lord” Ps. 127:1–5. The attitude of the Jewish people toward children is best expressed in this simple psalm which views them as a gift from God, and suggests that “the more, the merrier!” Psalm 128: Fear of the Lord. The blessings of reverence toward God are celebrated here. We rejoice in the Lord. And we rejoice in His good gifts to us. “May the Lord bless you” Ps. 128:1–6. Fear of the Lord, that Old Testament respect for God that motivates obedience, is the path of blessing for all of us. In most cases the blessing will be obvious: long life, prosperity, a large and happy family. These are the things that the Jews of biblical times wished for one another as they gathered for worship. Peace and prosperity. Not all of us who walk in God’s way have this experience on earth. But every one of us who knows and serves the Lord is assured peace and prosperity in those “days of your life” which stretch on and on forever in eternity. Psalm 129: Peace and Prosperity. Against the background of past troubles, the blessings of peace and prosperity seem doubly important. Psalm 130: Redemption’s Song. The man who stands amazed at God’s willingness to forgive understands both his own sinfulness, and the extent of God’s “unfailing love” and “full redemption.” (See DEVOTIONAL.) Psalm 131: Childlike Faith. David pictured faith as a young child, nestling against its mother, and contrasted this attitude with an arrogance which challenged God’s Word. Psalm 132: God’s Covenant Oath. God’s promise to David assured Israel of her destiny. “The Lord swore an oath” Ps. 132:1–13. Jerusalem, the city of David, was ruled by an unbroken line of his Descendants. And one of his Descendants would yet be placed on Judah’s throne, there to rule “forever and ever.” In addition, God had chosen Zion as the location for His temple. So Israel’s future was secure. God had said: “This is My resting place forever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it— I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor will I satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints will ever sing for joy” (vv. 13–16). You and I too face a future that is totally secure. We can celebrate, for in Christ God’s oath to David was fulfilled, and a new promise made to every person who puts his or her trust in the Lord. Psalm 133: In Praise of Unity. Worship brings God’s people together as a family. The oil “poured on the head, running down on the beard,” speaks of celebration and happiness. We too find joy when we experience our unity with brothers and sisters in the family of God. Psalm 134: In Praise of Ministry. What a privilege and joy to be servants of the Lord.
“What Do You Mean, Nineteenth?
“(Ps. 130)Donald Grey Barnhouse used to picture a believer, burdened with a sense of guilt, appealing to God for forgiveness. The believer was ashamed, for he knew that he had committed the same sin many times before. “O Lord,” he begged, “please forgive me again. I know I don’t deserve it, as this is the nineteenth time I’ve committed this sin this month. But please, Lord, forgive me this nineteenth time.” And, Dr. Barnhouse would say, the Lord looked up in surprise. “What do you mean, nineteenth?” The point this great old expositor of God’s Word was making is stated clearly in Psalm 130:3–4. “If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness.” God keeps no record of our sins! When we confess, He forgives, and then our sins are gone. What a blessing! Our past no longer is a weight we must carry with us always. Our past is gone, and we can look ahead with renewed hope. Through forgiveness we have been cleansed! Tomorrow will be different, and through Christ we will win victory over sins that in the past meant defeat.
Don’t let a sense of shame keep you from enjoying God’s forgiveness.