-Songs For Pilgrims Psalms Of Ascents

 Songs For Pilgrims Psalms Of Ascents

Picture FrameThe Old Testament Book of Psalms contains l5 “Songs of Ascents” (Ps. 120-134). In the King James Version each has a heading referring to them as “A Song of Degrees.” The Hebrew word translated “degrees” is used elsewhere in Scripture. In 2 Kings 20:9, for example, it refers to the degrees on the sundial used by King Hezekiah. Literally, the word means a journey to a higher place, and according to a Hebrew lexicon its use in these psalms demonstrates a progression leading to a climax. It is often asked why these psalms have this heading. In the temple at Jerusalem there were fifteen steps leading from the Court of the Women to the Court of the Israelites. According to Jewish tradition, the Levites stood on these steps and sung the psalms, though there appears to be no proof that they actually sung these psalms. Some suggest that the “songs of ascents” are connected with the return of the people of Israel from their exile in Babylon. Although this may be true, some of these psalms appear to have been composed before the Exile.

Sometimes these psalms are also called “Pilgrimage Songs.” They appear to be connected with the journeys the Israelites made from their homes to Jerusalem to worship the Lord as He had instructed (Dt. 16:16-17). Family ties in Israel were strong, and all family members were to visit Jerusalem for worship, (Dt. 16:11). We are told that Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover for the first time when He was a boy of twelve (Lk. 2:41-42). Some of these psalms, such as 127 and 128, do have a strong “family” theme, and would have been appropriate to sing as families traveled together. Psalm 122:4 specifically refers to the tribes going up to worship at Jerusalem.

The Church today is a heavenly, not earthly, people. We are living in the time the Lord Jesus looked forward to, and do not need to go up to Jerusalem to worship. The worship God seeks today is to be “in spirit and in truth” and is not connected with any earthly center (Jn. 4:21-24). However, in one sense we are like the Israelites of Old Testament times, for we are pilgrims. This earth is not our permanent home. We are “strangers and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11) as we journey home to heaven, seeking “a city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Bearing these similarities and differences in mind, there are certain helpful lessons we can learn from reading the songs of ascents.

The first song of ascents is set in alien land. The writer is a distressed individual who dwells among people who are opposed to peace. He laments: “I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war” (v. 7). He often suffered the deceitful tongue and lying lips of the wicked and prayed for deliverance from such. Falsehood is something the Lord hates (Prov. 6:17), and we need to make sure our speech is pleasing to Him. He will judge those whose words are unrestrained. Like the writer of this psalm, we may be experiencing opposition and may be longing to be somewhere better. The heavenly home should create a longing in our hearts!

This is often referred to as “The Traveler’s Psalm.” The words “keep” and “keeper” appear six times, confirming the theme of the song. As we read it, we can picture the Israelites traveling to Jerusalem. They look expectantly to the Lord for protection and will not be disappointed. He preserves His people by night and by day, and will bring them safely to their destination. We, too, can be assured that He will keep us “from this time forth, and even for evermore” (v. 8).

This psalm is different from the previous two in that it was written by David. It begins: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the LORD’ ” (v. 1). Are we glad of the opportunity for Christian fellowship? The Bible tells us how necessary it is to meet together with God’s people as often as we can, (Heb. 10:25). In this psalm the different tribes are seen to be united in the same purpose as they journey “to give thanks unto the name of the LORD” (v. 4). In spite of many individual and cultural differences, God’s people today need to display this unity to the world. Like the Israelites, we also should desire the practical experience of peace among His people. The earthly city of Jerusalem still features in God’s plans. We should be concerned enough to pray for its peace too (v. 6).

It is very likely that this psalm was written at a “low” time when the Jews were still captives in Babylon. As they suffered the scorning and ridicule of their ungodly tormentors, they looked expectantly to their God for deliverance. The individual believer today needs the same attitude of waiting upon the Lord daily for guidance and direction: “Our eyes wait upon the LORD, our God, until He have mercy upon us” (v. 2).

This is the second ascents psalm written by David. Recognizing the dangers they had faced from their enemies, the people united in praising the Lord for His deliverance. If He had not helped them, what would have become of them? Many of God’s people since then have been able to sing these words as they have experienced the intervening mercy and power of God. Knowing the Lord makes all the difference! “If it had not been for the LORD who was on our side … Our help is in the name of the LORD” (vv. 1,8).

As the pilgrims approached Jerusalem and saw the mountains surrounding their beloved city, it reminded them of how the Lord Himself surrounded them (v. 2). He knows the pressures we experience and will mercifully intervene at just the right time, (v. 3). It is still true: “They that trust in the LORD shall be as Mount Zion which cannot be removed” (v. 1). They will enjoy a stability in their lives that the world never understands.

This song complements Psalm 123. What joy would fill pilgrims’ hearts when they were returned from exile! The Gentile nations would recognize that it was all the Lord’s doing. As we recall our costly redemption we too can sing with gladness, “The LORD has done great things for us” (v. 3). Our responsibility to tell others is seen in the context of sowing seed. The work may be difficult and disheartening, but when the harvest comes there will be rejoicing. We must look to the Lord of the harvest to bless our labor: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (v. 5).

Presumably this psalm, identified as written for Solomon, was also written by David. Whether building the temple, maintaining the city’s security, or raising his own family, Solomon had to learn to depend upon the Lord. “Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (v. 1). Sadly, he failed in marital affairs and with his family (1 Ki. 11). Christian parents today must recognize that their children are an inheritance from the Lord. Just as arrows have potential, so do children. We must make sure that they are suitably prepared for usefulness.

The theme of an ordered life is developed here. All the blessings in this psalm result from fearing the Lord. Nothing is more important: Blessed is everyone that feareth the LORD” (v. 1). In this “family psalm” the mother is at the heart of the home, ably supported by her husband. Godly parents can have a beneficial effect upon their children, and their nation (vv. 5-6).

Ever since its birth in Egypt (Ex. 1) the nation of Israel has suffered. It is a miracle that the nation has survived! The Lord will ultimately deal with all of Israel’s enemies. The third verse of this psalm surely reminds us of the Lord Jesus whose back was cruelly scourged: “The plowers plowed upon My back.” In our own lives, we learn more of Him in times of affliction than in times of ease.

That which was experienced nationally in the previous psalm is depicted individually here. The theme of affliction continues as an individual cries to the Lord from the depths of despair. Our God is merciful and forgiving, and we are to hope in Him. “My soul waiteth for the LORD more than they that watch for the morning” (v. 6). Just as morning will dawn, the Lord in His own time will bring relief – and He is coming for His saints!

Another psalm of David, but this time it appears to be a kind of defense against accusations. Knowing that God’s ways are always best, he humbly resigns himself to God’s will. “Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and forever” (v. 3). Humility and hope should characterize the child of God.

Some suggest that this psalm was written by Solomon to be sung at the dedication of the temple. It describes the conveying of the Ark to Jerusalem and therefore was an appropriate song for pilgrims to sing. It is the longest of the songs of ascents. Notice, in particular, verse 9: “Let the priests be clothed with righteousness; and let Thy saints shout for joy.” New Testament believers are also “priests” (Rev. 5:10; 1 Pet. 2:5,9), and are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, (1 Cor. 1:30). Like these Old Testament saints, we can rejoice in what the Lord has done for us.

This is the last song of ascents attributed to David. The theme of unity, seen in previous psalms, is paramount here: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (v. 1). Christian unity today cannot be created by man’s efforts. Our responsibility is to maintain the unity of the Spirit that already exists (Eph. 4:3).

This final song of ascents is a fitting conclusion to the series. It is set in the temple and was probably sung at the close of evening worship at the Feast of Tabernacles. As pilgrims left Jerusalem at the end of each feast, they would want to take the blessing of the Lord home with them. Like the early New Testament believers, may we be continually blessing Him (Lk. 24:53), and may we come to know more of His blessing in our lives as pilgrims. “The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee” (v. 3).

By Martin Girard
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website:


2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Jewish Pilgrimages: How We May Benefit From Them | Prayer A to Z
  2. Jewish Pilgrimages: Past and Future | Studying Bible Prophecy

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