Psalms Week 12
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Psalms of Ascent
This complex of psalms belongs to a group called “Psalms of Ascent.” Occasionally, they have the additional designation “of David” (122, 124, 131) or “of Solomon” (127), Going up is a pregnant phrase in the Old Testament. It is the operative phrase for attending the temple in Jerusalem, which is symbolic of the Lord’s presence and promise.
In fact, in the arrangement of the Synagogue’s Scriptures — sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish Scriptures, or TANAK — the very last phrase is, “Let him go up” (2 Chronicles 36:23). [Author’s Note 1] The him — notwithstanding its masculine form — refers to all Israelites, females and males. These formerly exiled peoples are being invited to attend the temple in Jerusalem, which Cyrus the Persian king is about to have built at the instigation of Israel’s God (36:22–23). The temple’s previous destruction underscored the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people, Israel. Its restoration — prompted by the same divine hand that brought about its ruin — signals a future characterized by reconciliation, redemption, and renewal.
The main symbol of God’s presence and promise is about to be built again. Just as God used foreigners to destroy, God now uses foreigners to rebuild. Thus, psalms that are recited or sung as preparation for temple worship are significant. These are not songs one idly or casually sings on the way to worship. Instead, they are psalms rooted in hope, reconstruction, and the future, all at God’s prompting and as a function of a divine providence working to bring about a glorious future.
The very first psalm in this particular complex, Psalm 120, underscores the misery the psalmist is for a number of reasons experiencing. The psalmist’s distress is attributed to lying lips and a deceitful tongue, from which divine deliverance is needed (120:1–2). Apparently, this is the psalmist’s way of characterizing those seen as responsible for the terrible plight. In frustration and anger, the psalmist muses about what fate should await such despicable liars, all but hoping for an attack of a warrior’s arrows or the embers from a highly flammable wood (120:3–4).
Another cause of the psalmist’s suffering and consequent lament is Israel’s living as far away as Meshech and Kedar. Most significant about these places, presumably, is their distance from the land of Israel, and therefore Jerusalem and the temple. From the psalmist’s perspective, this is tantamount to a peace-loving person’s living among those who eschew peace and yearn for war (120:5–7). For the psalmist, this is a living hell.
Content of this nature is ironic in an ascent psalm. Why be downbeat rather than upbeat on the way to worship? Why emphasize gloom and doom? But that is the point. On the way to the temple — “Let him [and her] go up” — one will worship a God who transforms lament into praise, turns despair into hope, and promotes peace and truth in the face of violence and deception. The intense realism of this psalm accents why the people go to the temple in the first place — namely, to worship a deity who will eventually make lament unnecessary.
Almost on cue, Psalm 121 all but describes a situation that makes Psalm 120 a thing of the past. The psalmist begins by asking and answering a poignant question. Looking (longingly?) to the mountains (is that where the gods dwell?), the psalmist asks what the source is for much needed help. The answer is immediate: from the Lord, who made heaven and earth, and of course the hills as well (121:1–2). There is no reason to look elsewhere.
This God will not permit Israel’s proverbial foot to be moved — the people will stand on solid ground; indeed, this One who watches over Israel is always awake (121:3–4). This word, watch over, or keep (shomer), is a motif in the psalm, occurring six times in all (121:3, 4, 5, 7, 8). This divine keeping activity is explained by God’s not allowing for Israel’s foot to be moved, for being Israel’s shade — such that neither the heat of day nor the cold of night is a concern —, and not permitting evil to thwart life (121:3, 5, 6, 7, 8). This glorious situation obtains forever. The high of Psalm 121 is a wonderful counterpoint to the low of Psalm 120. [Author’s Note 2]
Psalm 122 continues this marvelous progression. After the lament of Psalm 120, the hope expressed for divine care in Psalm 121, we arrive in Psalm 122 at the House of the Lord in Jerusalem. The very first verse of this psalm is effusive: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’!” As though the journey were short and sweet rather than long and arduous, the psalmist proceeds to declare, “Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!” (122:1–2).
Jerusalem, the site of the temple and the throne of David (122:5), could hardly be more profoundly symbolic. This is no mere city. This is the City of God. It is entirely God’s doing. Its construction, unity, the place to which Israel goes up (ascent language), was brought about by God’s decrees. Given this new reality, only one response is appropriate: giving thanks to the Lord’s name (122:3–4).
Having arrived at Jerusalem, both a historical and an eschatological final destination [Author’s Note 3], the psalm offers a number of admonitions, imperatives, and declarations. One watchword is peace, or shalom (note the contrast to 120:6–7). The term occurs three times in the last four verses: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (122:6); “Peace be within your walls” (122:7); “I will say, ‘Peace be within you!” (122:8). Another sentiment involves love: “May they prosper who love you (i.e., Jerusalem)” (122:6). Finally, given the singular importance of the temple, the psalmist proclaims, “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good” (122:9). Doing something good for Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s temple translates into doing something good for God.
Like Psalm 121, in Psalm 123 there is another lifting of the eyes. But this time there is no hint of questioning the source of divine help. The psalmist of Psalm 123 at once confesses confidently a God who is enthroned in the heavens (123:1; see the same imagery in 2:4). Fixing attention on this deity who is the source of mercy is as natural as male and female servants’ attending to their masters/mistresses (123:2). Indeed, in light of the past difficulties of God’s people — there has been more than enough contempt and scorn at the hand of the arrogant — there is a poetic double request for mercy: “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us” (123:3).
Keep in mind that these sentiments are expressed on the way to the temple and as part of regular temple worship. Certainly God is not confined to the temple (see 1 Kings 8:27), but the divine presence nevertheless overwhelms the temple (see 1 Kings 8:10–11). Of course, as part of Scripture these psalms are no longer fixed, so to speak, by their original context of the temple and approaching the temple. Rather, they speak to the broader reality of God’s people as a worshipping people and of a God whose presence graces not only the temple but everywhere else.
Psalm 124 exemplifies that reality in that it declares with firm conviction that Israel’s very existence is dependent on God. If the Lord had not been on Israel’s side, then by now their numerous enemies would have swallowed them alive (124:1–4). The particular crisis in this psalm is not specified, but it certainly fits the Exile. At the same time, it is immaterial. Generally speaking, Israel’s reversals are virtually never depicted as merely political or military. Instead, they are a function of divine judgment.
But, as always, the God who brings the judgment is the same God who sees to the rescue. One way or another, God’s people are in God’s hands. So this psalm praises God for allowing/causing Israel to escape the teeth of their predators and the snare their enemies set for them (124:6–7). Then the final verse of the psalm repeats the wonderful phrase of Psalm 121:2, except that the pronoun is first-person plural rather than first-person singular:
Psalm 121:2: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Psalm 124:8: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
There is a reason why another name for a temple is sanctuary.
Psalm 130 is a marvelous combination of personal intensity and corporate application. The psalmist issues a poignant cry, “out of the depths” (130:1). Though the allusion is vague, the description is nonetheless powerful. A little specificity is supplied, however, when the psalmist notes that despair could never be overcome if it had to do with sinfulness over against a stern and unforgiving God (130:3).
Fortunately, that is not the God to whom this psalmist prays. Prayers to this God are prayers to a forgiving God (130:4). Thus, what began as apparent despair has been transformed into hope. No matter what the depths are — or what sorts of sins have led to this state — the psalmist only has to wait and hope for the Lord, something that is compared to the alertness of those in charge of a morning watch (130:5–6). Hope of this sort bespeaks optimism. Forgiveness is on the way. Only patience is required.
As intently personal as this expression is — “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (130:5) — it has a communal feature. The psalmist urges the community to hope in the Lord as intently as any individual hopes for the Lord (130:7). And why should this not be the case? The Lord is characterized by covenant love and more than enough redemptive power. This is a deity who justifies all the hope the community can muster. For this reason, the psalm concludes on an utterly positive accent. There is not a hint of doubt. God will redeem Israel from all their iniquities (130:8). About this established fact there can be no debate whatsoever. The psalm begins with a plaintive prayer. It ends with absolute confidence. This is a powerful recital during one’s metaphoric journey to encounter God in the temple.
The final ascent psalm in this particular cluster does not have David in the title, but nevertheless focuses on David. The focus, though, is not primarily on David as a successful politician, or as moral exemplar, or as a representative Israelite. Instead, the psalm celebrates the role of David as God’s anointed — a messianic figure — and on David’s involvement in the development of Jerusalem, or Zion, as symbolic of God’s commitment to God’s people.
Psalm 132 begins by reminding its readers how assiduous David was in attempting to found a dwelling place for God, here referred to as “the Mighty One of Jacob.” David refused even to sleep until this strategic task was accomplished (132:1–5; see 2 Samuel 7). Allusions to Ephrathah and the fields of Jaar, which are closely associated with David, underscore how badly David wanted to build an appropriate edifice for the God he loved (132:6). When people intoned their desire for worship — “Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool” — in David’s mind there needed to be such a place (132:7).
This was to be a place where God would be and a place where the ark of God would be (132:8). Here righteous priests would preside and worshipers — saints (RSV), or faithful — would shout for joy (132:9). Here David as the ultimate messianic figure would be celebrated (132:10). Does this not make perfect sense? David as God’s anointed would build not only the city of David — Jerusalem/Zion — but also the most glorious building in that city: the temple of God. Surely this is a plan made in heaven.
However, that is not how the story unfolds. Famously, David wanted to build the temple and Nathan the prophet supported him in this endeavor (2 Samuel 7). But the Lord had other plans. Instead of David’s making vows to do something for God, God made vows to do something for David. This psalm reflects this something. The Lord makes an irrevocable commitment to David — namely, to establish a permanent dynasty (132:11–12). In this psalm, the conditional aspect of God’s covenant with David is featured. However, though individual members of the Davidic dynasty violated God’s trust, the ideal David kept that trust (see 2 Samuel 22:21–25). Of course, the New Testament’s son of David embodied that trust (see Matthew 1:1).
But the Davidic dynasty is to have a seat — namely, Zion, or Jerusalem (Psalm 132:13). This will be nothing less than God’s habitation, the resting place that God desires (132:14). Again, while God is not confined to temple or city, both have enormous symbolic value as divine residences. The benefits of God’s presence are palpable. God will bless the city’s provisions and see to it that the poor are fed (132:15). Religious needs will go hand in hand with physical needs: priests will be clothed with salvation and all God’s people — saints again (RSV) — will shout for joy (132:16). Finally, God will make sure that the Davidic dynasty receives appropriate care. God will provide for the dynasty’s continuation and the necessary light — a lamp — for the messianic figure (132:17). Enemies will not be able to thwart this divine plan (132:18).
In the Old Testament, the perpetuity of the Davidic dynasty becomes part of the prophetic vision of Israel’s postexilic future (e.g., Amos 9:11–15). In the New Testament, this future finds its ultimate expression in the Son of David, Jesus the Christ, and the kingdom he inaugurates.
All these psalms display the array of topics the people of God recite, pray, and sing as they “go up” — to Jerusalem and to the temple. Ascent describes the liturgical, religious, and spiritual posture of God’s elect.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Our psalms for this week were often utilized as songs for the journey as people traveled to worship in Jerusalem. Have you ever participated in any sort of spiritual journey or pilgrimage? If so, what impact did it have on your life? If not, would you ever consider doing so in the future? What is the potential value of such experiences?
- Which of the Psalms of Ascent spoke to you about your own journey of faith and why?
- Dr. Spina notes the interesting context and content of Psalm 120. What is notable here, and how might it impact our understanding of the posture we bring to worship?
- What do you notice about God’s role throughout these psalms? About the role of humanity? What, if anything, do the Psalms of Ascent tell us about the long-haul of Christian faith?
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