The Psalms of Ascent

A Bible Study


Week #1: August 6
Introduction: Bono and the Psalms- Video of a conversation between Bono & Eugene Peterson, compiler/author of “The Message” translation of the Bible.
Video of Interview: (21 minutes)

Week #2: August 13

Introduction to the Psalms/ Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120 to 134)
Bible Study and Commentary
Based in part on: A Bible Study in EasyEnglish on Psalms 120 to 134 by Keith Simons.

About the title: “Songs of Ascent”
The word ‘ascent’ means a step, or an upwards climb. The ‘Songs of Ascent’ is the ancient title of a collection of 15 Psalms (sacred songs). They begin at Psalm 120 and they end at Psalm 134.

The Psalms of Ascent (שִׁירים הַמַּעֲלוֹת Shirim haMa’alot) are called such because they relate to the ancient practice of publicly singing these songs when going to God’s house in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). These poems are connected to סוכת Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which runs for seven days from the 15th day of the seventh month on the biblical calendar. (This year Sept 29-Oct 6) Hallel Fellowship Author: Richard

Why do these songs have this title? Here are the most likely explanations.
1) “The most probable view is that the hymns were sung by pilgrim bands on their way to the three great festivals of the Jewish year. The journey to Jerusalem was called a ‘going up,’ whether the worshipper came from north or south, east or west. All of the songs are suitable for use on such occasions. Hence the title Pilgrim Psalms is preferred by many scholars.” (J. R. Sampey, “Song of Ascents,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Revised, 1979)
2) From Jewish explanation: Levites/Jewish men sang these songs as they mounted up the 15 stairs from the Women’s Courtyard to the Israeli Courtyard/Platform of the Temple in Jerusalem. One psalm per stair. Or “15 ascents” songs raised in pitch from one to the next or sung at high key or pitch to show emotion of yearning.

The people went to Jerusalem because God’s temple was there. This was the sacred building that was God’s house in this world. Of course, God is too great to live in any building, and people knew that fact (1 Kings 8:27). But God had chosen the temple. There, he was present in a special manner. The sacred box that was evidence of his promises to Israel was there. His glory (the splendid beauty of God’s most wonderful character) had filled the place (1 Chronicles 7:1-2). And there, God’s people met to pray. There, they offered their *sacrifices to him. (Simons)

Authors and date (Simons)
King David is the traditional author of many (or most) Psalms. And his name appears as the author of 4 Songs of Ascent: Psalms 122, 124, 131 and 133. David’s son, King Solomon, appears as the author of Psalm 127. David chose the place for the temple (God’s house in Jerusalem); and Solomon’s workmen built it.

Bible students are not sure that the titles are part of the original Psalms. But we do know that people were travelling to Jerusalem to *worship during Solomon’s life. Soon after his death, the kings of northern Israel tried to stop this (1 Kings 12:27). And after that, people from northern Israel did not often travel to Jerusalem for the sacred holidays (2 Kings 23:22-23).

If David and Solomon wrote the Songs of Ascent, then they are about 3000 years old. But some people have thought that the correct date may be about 500 years later, during the life of Ezra.

Ezra taught the people to obey God’s rules about the sacred holidays again (Nehemiah 8:13-17). But people did not go long journeys to *worship then. The *Jewish people who were in Israel lived only in a few towns near Jerusalem. The Songs of Ascent today The Songs of Ascent have always been important for both *Jewish and Christian *worship.

In many traditional churches, Christians sing or read the Psalms (including the Songs of Ascent) regularly. It is an important part of their *worship. In modern churches, Christians sing a selection of new and old songs (called hymns) during their *worship. Many of these songs include words from the Psalms. And often, they also read passages from the Psalms at their meetings.

The Songs of Ascent have also provided ideas to poets and writers. The Rock musician called Bono has written about how the Psalms have helped him.

In every age, Christian writers have loved the Songs of Ascent. One of many writers who wrote much about them was C.H. Spurgeon. And the Scottish writer, R.M. M‘Cheyne, wrote his own series of 14 poems, which he called ‘Songs of Ascent’. Again, they were not the Psalms, but his own poems. He wrote those poems because he liked the idea of ‘Songs of Ascent’.
Other ideas about the meaning of “Songs of Ascent” We prefer the idea that these songs were for people to sing on their journey to Jerusalem. (See “About the Title: Songs of Ascent”.) But different writers have had other ideas. Here are two of them:

(1) The title ‘Songs of Ascent’ may be a description of the style of the poetry. These Psalms are different from the style of many Psalms. In other Psalms, the lines are often in pairs. The second line may repeat the ideas in the first line; or it may contrast with it. But this does not often happen in the Songs of Ascent. Instead, the ideas seem to progress through the Psalm, as the poet repeats particular words. For example in Psalm 121, there is the word ‘help’ in verses 1 and 2, and ‘become tired’ in verses 3 and 4. If this is correct, then the word ascent means ‘steps’. And the ‘steps’ are a word-picture for these particular words, which bring us from one idea to the next idea.

(2) The title ‘Songs of Ascent’ may be about the steps in God’s house (called the temple). We do not really know whether there were steps in Solomon’s temple. But there were steps in the temple that Ezekiel saw (for example, Ezekiel 40:31). If this idea is correct, ‘Songs of Ascent’ means ‘Songs for the Temple’.

Scripture follow-up:
(1) Before Solomon built the temple (God’s house) in Jerusalem, people went to Shiloh to *worship. Read what happened to Hannah when she went there: 1 Samuel 1:3-20.
(2) About 2000 years ago, people were travelling long distances in order to *worship God in Jerusalem. They even travelled there from foreign countries, although the journey was often difficult and dangerous. Read these Bible passages about people who did this. They are from the Book of Acts in the *New Testament: Acts 2:5-11; Acts 8:27-28.
(3) Read about Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem. He went on this journey immediately before the sacred holiday called the Passover. See Mark 10:32 to Mark 11:10.

Week #3: August 20 Psalm 120

To get the maximum benefit from this study, please open your Bible and read Psalm 120 first.

What are your first impressions of this psalm? (My bible introduces the psalm as: “Prayer for Deliverance from Slanderers.”)

Why would this psalm be included in the “Psalms of Ascent”?

In this first song, the poet seems to be starting a journey. He does not say where he intends to end his journey. But it is clear that his journey begins in a foreign country. It’s assumed that the journey will end among God’s people, the *Jewish people in Israel (?).

That was not the usual experience, of course, for the people who travelled to Jerusalem for the sacred holidays. They were travelling for a short journey, perhaps for a few days or for a week. And afterwards, they would return home immediately. But this poet had no desire to return to that foreign country.

What tense is used throughout the psalm? Present or Past (past perfect)

“In form the psalm is a testimony uttered after the prayer has been granted.” Often this type of poem is translated with the perfect tenses changed to present. The thanksgiving of the worshipper, “ in the course of which he repeats his previous lament (v. 2) “in order to throw once more into bold relief before God and the congregation all the blessings bestowed upon him as a result of the answering of his prayers.” Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962 (Fifth Edition), pg. 742.

He had prayed that God would help him to leave that place. He considered that, by this journey, God was answering that prayer. In other words, God was doing the thing that the poet had asked him to do. For the poet, this was not just a holiday. He considered that God was rescuing him by this journey. And the poet needed God to rescue him because he had lived among cruel people. They were people who told lies. They were people who wanted to start wars. They even used the poet’s own words against him.

The poet says that he had lived abroad for too long. He mentioned two foreign countries: Meshech and Kedar. Those countries were not especially near Israel. In fact one is not a country at all, but a Bedouin tribe in the Syrian-Arabian desert- hence, the poet’s mention of living in tents. Scripture referemces: Gen. 25:13- Kedar: a son of Ishmael, who was Abraham’s son by his slave girl, Hagar- “These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names by their villages and by their encampments,) Isa. 42:11- mentioned in a “hymn of praise” “Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits…”

Meshech is mentioned in Gen. 10:2 as a nation that grew out of the descendents of Noah’s son, Japtheth. In Ezekial, Meshech is one of the countries with which Tyre was in commerce in ores and slaves. It was likely located somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. We do not know much about these places/people. We do not know why or if the poet lived in either place, but they were known as troublesome and savage people. (Weiser, pg. 743)

It seems that this poet had been a Jew living in the lands known as the Diaspora (in other words, in lands far from Jerusalem where Hebrews were either deported or fled during wars with the Persian and Babylonian invasions). And we do not know why he delayed his return to Israel. Perhaps he was a prisoner or a slave, so he could not return. Perhaps he was a trader, and he felt unable to return, because of his business.

The poet knows that he has been living among evil people. He has heard their evil words; he has seen their wicked actions. He knows that God will punish them severely. But God has saved the poet from them. God has allowed the poet to leave that place. He is going to the place where God’s people live.

Some lessons from Psalm 120
How does this psalm speak to us today?
Christians have to live in this world, where many evil people surround them. There are those who claim faith in Christ, but spew hatred, support violence upon persons of other races or gender identities or even political parties. (i.e., a woman afraid to go to her high school reunion in a conservative town because she knew that some of her friends would verbally assault her due to her social and political views.)

We have been given a promise that God is establishing God’s Kin-dom on earth, so during our lives, we are Christ’s witnesses through our words and actions. Jesus spoke about this in his prayer in John 17:14-21.
However, as Christians, we must leave behind many things from this world. We must not continue to follow our evil thoughts, desires and attitudes. Instead, we invite God into our lives. And we ask for his help so that we can obey him.

Of course, sometimes we will still do wrong things that are against God’s law. Then we must confess those things to God, and he will forgive us (1 John 1:9).

Sometimes we may have to leave people because we believe God. Or, people may leave us. Our friends and relatives may become our enemies (Mark 13:12). Perhaps we will decide to leave some friends because they urge us to do wrong things.

Sometimes one spouse is a Christian, and the other is not. Paul said that if both were content to live together, they should not divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12). Paul added that, perhaps, God will use the Christian spouse to save the other. (1 Corinthians 7:16).

But if we must leave people because of our belief in God, Jesus has a promise for us. We might have to leave a few people whom we love. But even in this world, God will give us many more people to love (Mark 10:29-30). There will always be trouble for us in this world. However, in the realm of the Kin-dom of Christ, our troubles will end. Then, we will always live with God. God is making a permanent home for us (Revelation chapter 21).

Psalm 120 as poetry and prayer

Here is a version of the psalm in the present tense. First, compare it with the translation in your Bible. This will help you to understand the parts of Psalm 120 that may seem difficult. Then use the poem again when you pray. Perhaps you have had experiences like those that the author of Psalm 120 had. Then you will be able to make the poem into your own prayer to God.

Psalm 120 (Handout)
A song for the journey to Jerusalem.

I am distressed, O Lord,
by the attitudes and actions of those
who claim to honor Your name
and to live within Your purposes.

They don’t really listen to Your Word.
They appear to be following some other god,
or they are simply taking the path of least resistance.

They assume that their wishes are Your will,
that the crowd they travel with
or the nations that govern them
are righteously carrying out Your objectives
despite their ungodly
means and methods.

How long, O Lord, must I dwell
in a world that breeds violence
and amongst people that engage in war?

Teach me, O God, how to be a peacemaker;
how to confront violence with love
how to courageously and patiently promote
Your will and Your Word
among the hostile and angry masses

From Psalms/Now by Leslie F. Brandt, pg. 194

1. How does the psalm relate to us and the world today?
2. Have you had to leave someone or a situation because of your belief in the God of Jesus Christ?
3. Following Paul, Luther writes about being “in” the world, but not “of” the world. What does this mean to you and how does this relate to the psalm?
4. What do scriptures say about why God wants God’s people to be separate from the world. Read this passage which may help you: 1 Peter 2:9-12.
5. What does this “separation” mean for you as you live each day?

Closin Prayer: Psalm Prayer from LBW, Psalm 120, pg. 426:
“Lord Jesus, you blessed the peacemakers and called them children of God. Give us that peace which the world cannot give, so that your Church may be freed from the schemes of the arrogant and, devoted to the works of peace, may go forward joyfully to meet you, the Prince of Peace, our Savior and our Lord.” Amen

“Songs of Ascent” PowerPoint Slides
SONGS OF ASCENT“>Songs of Ascent