Over the next two days, we will finish up the Songs/Psalms of Ascent. Here is a review of these special psalms from a previous post:
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 AD 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"(Phil 3:14). (p. 18)Psalm 121
This may have been an antiphonal psalm where a leader on the pilgrimage would recite the first two verses, and the group would answer with the next two, back and forth until the end. The Hebrew word, šāmar, is repeated six times in only eight verses but is translated "keeps, keeper, protect, and guard" in the New American Standard Version.
In the pilgrims' journey, God "keeps" us from all harm. There were apostate Jewish shrines on the hills outside of Jerusalem where pagan gods were worshiped (2 Kings 16:4; Jeremiah 3:23; 13:27; 17:2; Hosea 4:11-13). This psalm affirms that God is higher than any of them! He created the hills!
The superscription of this psalm attributes the authorship to David, but it fits with the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the exiles ascended to Jerusalem!
David refers to "going up" according to ordinances/statutes. This probably refers to the three Jewish feasts I mentioned in the introduction to the Songs of Ascent. He asks the people to pray for the peace and security of this great city.
The psalm lifts his eyes toward God and pleads for mercy.
We are all pilgrims on a journey toward God, and I love the image these psalms project!
Your application is to pray responsibly and personally through these psalms.