Sunday School on the Psalms Nov. 19, 2017 Psalms # 120-134, the Songs of Ascent

Book Five of the Psalms (Psalms 107-150)    Part Two: Psalms 120-134          Nov. 19, 2017

Pastor Louis Prontnicki     Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church


The Songs of Ascents (120-134) are clearly a collection of 15 psalms that were kept together as a unit, for use in Book V. All fifteen psalms are given the same title.

But three main questions arise:

One: What event were these songs, these psalms, designed for? [Purpose]

Two: Why were these individual psalms put together as a collection? [Inclusion]

Three: Why did the editor of the Psalter put this collection here, in Book V? [Placement]


One: What event were these songs, these psalms, designed for? [Purpose]

If you look at any hymnal, you will find hymns that were written for specific occasions that are now used in different occasions. For example, Margaret Clarkson wrote “Our God is Mighty” for use at the 1976 Urbana Missionary Conference, but we also sing it here at our church when we have a missionary theme in our service.

In a similar way, the editors of the Psalter, under direction of God’s Holy Spirit, used songs and psalms that had been composed for various occasions and used them in a new and special way in the Psalter. Such is the case for these 15 Songs of Ascents.

Now some think that a Levitical choir sang them on the 15 steps which led up to the temple, at the time of the Jewish feasts. The Hebrew word for ascents is literally “steps” of a staircase, or “degrees” as in a sundial.

But most think that they were sung for one of two (or perhaps three) occasions:

The first possibility was when the Jewish people would gather from their homes and travel as pilgrims to the three Jewish Festivals each year, singing one of these songs at each place along the way. You can imagine starting with Ps. 120, where the singer is far from Jerusalem, in places such as Meshech (far north) or in Kedar (to the south-east); then traveling up and down the hills (Ps. 121); anticipating standing in Jerusalem (122); getting past both robbers and storms along the way (124);… and then as the various tribes close in on Jerusalem, the sense of unity among the brothers (133), and finally being in the house of the Lord, perhaps arriving in the evening, enjoying the praise of the Lord by those who are ministering there (134).  Note that whatever direction or elevation you are coming from, in Israel, you are always “Going up” or “Ascending” when you are heading to Mt. Zion, to Jerusalem. It is not that Israel or Jerusalem is higher in elevation than other places, but that in Jerusalem, you were thought to be at the highest level to God; closest to Him. (Like spiritually “moving up in the world.”)

The second possibility was when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, returning to Jerusalem after an absence of some 60-70 years. This idea fits well with psalm 126:1-2 “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” This idea of returning from exile in Babylon would be why this collection is placed here in Book V, which is celebrating the Lord’s triumph over Israel’s enemies, and looking forward to restoration and culmination. In fact, the word for “ascents” in each title, is the Hebrew word, Aliyah, used of Ezra “going up” to Jerusalem, (Ezra 7:9 – “He began to go up from Babylon”) as he makes his way there. “Aliyah” (a-LEE- ah) in modern Hebrew can mean immigration to Israel; e.g., “He’s making Aliyah.”  It can also mean being called in the synagogue of being called up to the platform to read from the Torah. By the way, the name of the Israeli airline is El-Al, which means “upward toward heaven” or “Up to God.”

The third possibility, suggested by Michael Wilcock, is that these songs were commissioned by Nehemiah in about 445 BC, for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, by the exiles who had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. [This suggestion may well combine the ideas of the previous two suggestions.] The troubles described in some of these psalms fits well with what we read about in Nehemiah, from neighboring nations who were opposed to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls.

Therefore our reading and singing of these psalms, 120-134, may be enhanced by our understanding of the original design for their writing and use:

We can picture ourselves as pilgrims on our way to Jerusalem for a festival;

We can imagine ourselves as exiles returning to Jerusalem from Babylon; and/or

We can see ourselves as joining with Nehemiah in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles!


Two: Why were these individual psalms put together as a collection? [Inclusion}

Once again, as with the other sections of the Psalter, it is not the date of the origin of the psalm which matters, but rather the skill by which the editor fits each psalm into the overall purpose of this collection. It is like the skill of a stone mason who uses both new and old stones (some from other buildings that may have been demolished) to build a beautiful new wall or structure.

Geoffrey Grogan reminds us, “It is clear that at least some of (these psalms) were not especially composed for this purpose (that is, of a pilgrimage celebration). There are some psalms of David and even a Psalm of Solomon (127). [On the other hand] The appropriateness of some of them is apparent.” In Ps. 120 the psalmist lives far from Jerusalem, like the exiles in Babylon.  Ps. 121 refers to the hills which travelers (be they pilgrims to the feasts or exiles returning home) would encounter along the way. [Note: would the hills be a comforting picture of God’s protection, or would they be symbols of either robbers, or of places where the pagan shrines were set up, on the high places?]. Ps. 122 rejoices in the prospect of meeting together with others in the house of the Lord.  Ps. 127, a song of Solomon, is at the center of these 15 psalms, and purposefully so…..

We note that this collection, coming after the structural markers of Psalms 118-119 [Messianic Focus and Torah Psalms], balances the collection that comes just before those two psalms, namely the Hallelu-YAH collection of 111-117, or the Egyptian Hallel collection of 113-118.

Of all the possible psalms of David and other authors, these 15 psalms were included in this collection as all being short (suitable for recitation on a journey); as suitable both for David’s day and for the return to Jerusalem in later generations (For example, in Ps. 122, both David and the returning exiles would have been thrilled with approaching the Holy City and the Lord’s Temple. Robertson, referring to escaping from the enemy in Ps. 124, writes that “These words encapsulate the bulk of David’s lifetime experience; yet they also capture the relief of those who “escaped” from exile.” Or in Ps. 133, David would have rejoiced in the unity of all 12 tribes now under his rule, while the returning exiles, hundreds of years later, would have rejoiced at a restored community of God’s people in Zion, after having been scattered abroad in foreign nations.

We should also appreciate the way in which these 15 songs are arranged. Biblical scholar Ernst Hengstenberg noted that the whole group is arranged around Ps. 127… on both sides stands a grouping of seven pilgrim songs, each consisting of two psalms by David, and five new ones, attributed to no one… and each group of seven contains the name of YAHWEH 24 times.

This arrangement cannot be accidental. The placement of Ps. 127 at the very center of this collection is meant to draw our attention to it. Why?

Remember that the only other psalm attributed to Solomon was Ps. 72, which not only ended Book II, but “closed” the collection of the psalms by David.  It also was a grand climax to the idea of God’s reign as king of kings over all nations. Then the editors place a psalm by Moses to open up Book IV (ps. 90), which exalts the Lord Himself as our eternal dwelling place, a great triumph and relief after the devastation of Book III. Now the editor places another psalm by Solomon in the exact middle of this time-honored collection of 15 psalms.

I confess that I have often used Ps. 127 to apply to my life and the vanity of trying to do stuff on my own, and how I need to rely on the Lord’s help for everything I do. And that’s a fine application… but I missed what the psalm is really about, which we only notice in its proper context.

For this psalm speaks of the “house” that Yahweh builds, the “city” that Yahweh guards, and the “sons” that are Yahweh’s reward. Given this psalms’ crucial placement in Book V and in the Song of Ascents, we can only conclude that the house is the House of the Lord (as in 122:1 and 134:1). The city is Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s temple (122:3). And the sons, that heritage of the Lord, are first of all the “sons of David,” as more fully developed in Ps. 132:11-12 – “If your sons keep my covenant… then their sons will sit on your throne forever and ever.”

Kidner notes that the two halves of this psalm are neatly illustrated by the first and last paragraphs of Genesis 11, where man builds for glory and security, only to achieve a fiasco (Tower of Babel) , whereas God quietly gives to the obscure Terah a son whose blessings have proliferated ever since!

There is another reason that these 15 psalms may have been put together in this collection. Dr. Robertson thinks that these 15 psalms echo the priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-27, given by Aaron the high priest, upon all the Israelites, at the Lord’s command.

“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.”

It may be that as the pilgrims or exiles approached the (restored) temple, the echoes of the priestly blessing in their songs of ascent would make them anticipate the priestly benediction that awaited them at the temple in Zion.

“May the Lord bless you” – 128:5, 133:3, 134:3

“And keep you” – 121:3, 4, 5, 7, 8

“Be gracious to you” – 123:2, 3, 130:2 (translated “mercy”)

“Give you peace” – Shalom occurs 7 times in these 15 psalms: 120:6-7, 122:6-8, 125:5, 128:6.

Perhaps the remainder of the blessing, “The Lord make His face shine upon you” and “the Lord turn His face toward you” is missing because the Shekinah glory of the Lord did not return to Zion after the first temple was destroyed and the ark taken away. Therefore the priest could not pronounce the blessing of God’s face shining upon them.

BTW: 15 psalms of ascent = 15 Hebrew words in the Aaronic benediction?

Note Ps. 133, the next to last in this collection. Three of four times, in this song of ascents, it is God’s blessings coming down or descending/ being bestowed. For as we seek Him, He is glad to bless us in Christ, who has come down to us.

Ps. 134 – The word “bless” is used three times (NIV translates it twice as “praise.”)  Kidner: “To bless God (vv. 1-2) is to acknowledge who He is; but to bless man (v. 3), God must make of him what he is not, and give him what he doesn’t have.”

Here is this final psalm of ascents, the pilgrims greet the priests and Levites (1-2) and the ministers reply with a blessing (3)

But true and ultimate blessing can only come when we gather at Jesus’ feet (133:3)

Three: Why did the editor of the Psalter put this collection here, in Book V? [Placement]

The basic answer is because they speak to the wonderful truth that God’s people are coming home, to Jerusalem, to Mt. Zion, and even better, to the Lord, their eternal dwelling place! We are drawing near in these psalms to God our Savior, to our eternal Resting Place!

Robertson: “An exilic and postexilic editing of the “pilgrim” songs (used by Jews before the exile, in coming to the festivals in Jerusalem) seems evident in view on the inclusion in Book V of psalms clearly composed both during and after the exile (Pss. 137, 126)

Wilcock: “We may use (these psalms) individually, like pilgrims who have been far from God and want to come back to Him. But we may also use them like a company of the redeemed, brought out of captivity, building the city of God among people who reckon the world is theirs. These unbelieving nations resent our intrusion into what they see as their territory, and consider us as undesirable aliens.  If they cannot remove us, they aim at least to neutralize us.” (as Sanballat and the others sought to do to Nehemiah and the returning Jews.) “In a sense, we are aliens…but where we are, there is Jerusalem; and even if we are surrounded by the tents of Kedar (120:5), this is where we stay, and this is where we build.” (p. 221, The Message of the Psalms, 73-150)