An Introduction to the Songs of Ascent
Psalm 120 - 134 are part of a group of Psalms called the "Songs of Ascent" or "Pilgrim Psalms." "Ascent" is from a root which means "to go up," as ascending a stairway. They were sung by Jewish travelers on their way up to the temple in Jerusalem for the three annual feasts (Exodus 23:14-19; 34:22-24) - Passover in spring, Pentecost in early summer, and Tabernacles in the fall. Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine at 2,600 feet above sea level. So, the pilgrims spent much of their time ascending to the city and then ascending the steps to the temple. Jesus' family was taking the journey to Passover in Luke 2:41-52.
Each psalm is a "step" along the journey. The Mishnah (the writings on Jewish tradition that was compiled in A.D. 200) states that the fifteen psalms correspond to the fifteen steps that led up from the Court of Women to the Court of Israelites in the temple.
Psalm 120 begins in a hostile, distant land, Psalm 121 is the journey through the hills to Jerusalem, and Psalm 122 is their arrival! The rest of the psalms are about moving toward and up the ascending steps to the temple while contemplating various characteristics of God. While on the journey, the pilgrims would contemplate the blessings of walking with God.
What a beautiful picture! Eugene H. Peterson writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society :
But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem lived a life upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity -- what Paul described as "the goal, where God is beckoning us onward -- to Jesus" (Philippians 3:14, The Message). p. 18Psalm 133
Of all the Psalms in the Songs of Ascent, ten are anonymous, one is attributed to Solomon (127) and four are attributed to the main character of our 1 Samuel story, David (122, 124, 131, 133).
Imagine the pilgrims walking together up the steps to the temple when you read this Psalm With one voice, they went to praise God. I put this particular psalm here because it fit with David's beautiful friendship with Jonathan in 1 Samuel.
Psalm 133:2 compares unity to precious oil. This probably refers to the holy anointing oil for the high priest. Moses used this oil to anoint Aaron as the first high priest along with all the priests (Exodus 29:7, 30:22, 25, and 30). It flowed down his beard and shoulder and onto the breastplate with the names of the 12 tribes. It symbolized the unity of the nation of worshipers under the priests.
Psalm 133:3 compares unity to the dew of Mount Hermon, in the north. It was the tallest mountain in Palestine (almost 10,000 feet), southeast of the Sea of Galilee. The dew of Hermon was very heavy. Mount Zion was on the lesser mountains and 200 miles south, but God's dew fell on both. Unity is refreshing and invigorating to the soul!
As I was doing a "summer soak" in Psalm 133, Teala, one of my best friends since the late 70's, called to find out if we could meet to catch up over a Lavender Lemonade at a local hangout. What a perfect application of this Psalm!
Our fellowship was as refreshing and invigorating as the lemonade. We have unity as friends! I read her this Psalm as we sat outside on a beautiful, Oregon summer day.
Meditate and pray through these verses. Then call up a friend and thank them for the unity you enjoy. If you are in conflict with a friend, call them up and lovingly make peace with this Psalm in mind.
Pray through Psalm 133!