Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134
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Introduction to the Songs of Ascent
Vincent Van Gogh, 'Irises' (1890), oil on canvas, 23 x 74 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 Hebrew poems, nearly half attributed to David, the "sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:1). That these poems were meant to be sung is apparent in the very Hebrew word for "psalm," which means "song" or "instrumental music," from the verb "to sing, make music." Each psalm was a song or hymn sung to a musical setting in Israel's worship.
Within the Old Testament collection of 150 psalms are two groupings in particular:
- Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118), from the Hebrew word for praise. To this day, these six psalms are recited by observant Jews on Jewish holidays.
- Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), which specifically are designated "A Song of Ascents" in the ascription.
Psalms 120-134 each begin with, "A Song of Ascents" (ESV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB), "Song of degrees" (KJV). This the word for "song" plus maʿalâ, "step, stair, ascent," from the verb ʿālâ, "go up, climb, ascend."
Nowhere in the Bible are the Psalms of Ascent defined, but there are four major theories about what they are.
- Literal Steps. Jews traditionally teach that these 15 psalms refer to the 15 steps in the Second Temple leading to the Court of Men on which the Levites played musical instruments on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
- Rhythm of Psalms. Some claim that these psalms display a step-like progressive rhythm of thoughts.
- Songs of Returning Exiles. These psalms were traveling songs of the exiles returning to Jerusalem from Babylon.
- Pilgrim Songs. That the Psalms of Ascent were psalms sung by pilgrims ascending the hills to Jerusalem on the feast days. This explanation seems by far the most likely.
In the early days of the kingdom, Jews were required to come to Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate the festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14--17). Perhaps, you've noticed that in the Bible you never go "down" to Jerusalem; you always go "up" to Jerusalem. The Psalms or Songs of Ascent were sung as the pilgrims ascended the hills, ever higher, up the road that led to the Holy City.
Before we read the Psalms of Ascent, it will be helpful to review what we know about Hebrew poetry -- for these psalms are intended to be sung poetry. Hebrew poetry differs from most traditional Western poetry in that it doesn't rhyme or have a distinctive meter. Two elements seem to distinguish the beauty of Hebrew poetry: (1) thought parallelism and (2) imagery.
The element of thought parallelism in Hebrew poetry is quite apparent and has become better understood in recent decades. Unlike poetry that relies on rhyme, parallelism can be translated into other languages without losing its distinct flavor. The two basic types of parallelism are:
Synonymous Parallelism is the most common form of parallelism. Here the idea of the first line is reinforced in the second line.
"He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities." (Psalm 103:10)
You can find parallelism in Jesus' teaching, too (for example, Matthew 5:43-45). But scholars have realized rather recently that synonymous parallelism is something of a misnomer. The lines are not strictly synonymous. You might describe it as "A, what's more B." The second line always seems to carry forward the thought found in the first phrase in some way.
When interpreting Hebrew poetry however, it's important not to overemphasize the nuances between the similar words, for example, between "man" and "Son of man" in Psalm 8:4 or "my soul" and "my flesh" in Psalm 63:1. As Kidner puts it, "They are in double harness, rather than in competition." Rather look for the ways that second idea builds upon the first.
Antithetic Parallelism is also common. The idea in the first line is contrasted or negated in the second line as a means of reinforcing it. It is found most commonly in the Proverbs and in the didactic psalms.
"The wicked borrow and do not repay,
but the righteous give generously." (Psalm 37:21)
We see glimpses of antithetic parallelism in Psalms 120:7; 125:4-5; 127:1; and 129:2.
In addition to these two common forms of Hebrew parallelism, scholars have found a number of other less prominent varieties. Hebrew poetry was a fine art that we are just beginning to appreciate more fully.
A second common characteristic of Hebrew poetry is its powerful use of imagery, comparing one thing to another. The Psalms are especially rich in Hebrew poetry. Imagery has a way of fixing an idea in our minds with clarity.
Think about the images in the familiar 23rd Psalm. In prose we might say with some accuracy: "God meets all our needs and protects us." It is true, but not particularly memorable. The power and beauty of the 23rd Psalm is the way that it communicates these ideas through images: shepherd/sheep, green pastures/still waters, the valley of the shadow of death, a table, an anointing, and an overflowing cup. These images in our minds with the thoughts and emotions they evoke contribute to make this psalm an all-time favorite.
There are two kinds of images used in the Psalms:
1. Simile is a comparison which is made explicit by the presence of the word "like" or "as." For example:
"As the deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, O God." (Psalm 42:1)
2. Metaphor is a comparison that is implicit, that is, a comparison without the mention of "like" or "as." For example:
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want." (Psalm 23:1)
A metaphor communicates a more vivid image than a simile because it is implicit and draws the comparison more closely.
As you study the Psalms, be aware of the images that are used and the thoughts and emotions that they are intended to evoke in us, the readers. A few psalms (9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145) are structured as an acrostic -- another Hebrew poetic artform -- each verse or section beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Since the time of Hermann Gunkel (1875-1935), scholars have been classifying psalms by their genre or type. Here are the some of the most common, with examples among the Psalms of Ascent.
- Hymns -- songs of joy to celebrate the blessings of life (Psalms 122, 134).
- Laments -- songs written in times of distress and trouble (Psalms 120, 123, 126, 129, 130).
- Thanksgivings -- similar to hymns, these are songs written to thank God for deliverance from trouble (Psalm 124). Similar to this are Remembrance Psalms, songs that look back to God's great acts of redemption.
- Confidence -- songs of trust in the face of troubles (Psalms 121, 125, 131).
- Prophetic -- songs containing divine statements or prophecies where God is the speaker (Psalm 132).
- Wisdom -- songs that contain material similar to Proverbs and other Wisdom literature in the Bible (Psalms 127, 128, 133).
- Royal -- songs that concern either God as king or a human king (Psalm 132).
These aren't hard and fast categories, just observations. Some psalms bridge two or three of these types. There are no rules!
Four of the Psalms of Ascent are indicated as "of David" -- Psalms 122, 124, 131, and 133. Psalm 127 is indicated as "of Solomon." David is certainly known for writing psalms of praise. He is called "the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:1). Psalm 18 (imbedded in the text of 2 Samuel 22) clearly gives him as the author. And a number of the ascriptions at the beginning of psalms are quite specific about the occasions for which they were written. But does that require that David wrote all the psalms that indicate "of David"? We're not sure. The ascription may not have been written at the time a particular psalm was penned. Theoretically, "of David" could mean "authored by David," or "in the tradition of David," or "from the school of David," "for David's use" or "dedicated to David." I'll be generally taking "of David" to mean "authored by David."
Finally, as you read the Psalms of Ascent, don't expect a psalm to be complete treatise on a particular subject. Rather it is a thought, a way of looking at God's providence, an occasion to trust the Lord, an expression of praise for God's faithfulness.
Our task is to try to understand the main ideas the psalmists had in mind when they created these works of literary art under divine inspiration. And then apply these truths them to our situations and lives.
 Mizmôr, TWOT #558c. We get our word "psalm" from the Greek word psalmos, used to translate the Hebrew idea, "song of praise, psalm," in accordance with Old Testament usage (BDAG 1096).
 "Song" is shîr or shîrâ, from the verb shîr, "to sing" (TWOT #2378). This is often used as a synonym of mizmôr, "psalm."
 G. Lloyd Carr, maʿalâ, TWOT #1624m.
 J. R. Sampey, "Ascents, Song of," ISBE 1:313.
 But in Hebrew poetry, the rhythm isn't well understood (Longman, How to Read the Psalms, p. 108). The rhythm may be in terms of units per line. However, the exact nature of this is still debated and some recent scholars have concluded that the Psalms are not metrical, that this is an idea imported from Western poetical forms. Longman recommends caution about any interpretation based primarily on a verse's supposed meter. Longman cites, "A Critique of Two Recent Metrical Systems," Biblica 63 (1982):230-254.
 Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 2.
 Longman, How to Read the Psalms, pp. 107-108.
 For more on types or genres of psalms, see Longman, Psalms, pp. 38-42.
 Longman, Psalms (TOTC), p. 25.
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- Abraham, Faith of
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- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
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- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
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- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
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