Introduction to the Songs of Ascent

Audio (11:02)

Vincent Van Gogh, 'Irises' (1890), oil on canvas, 23 x 74 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
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."1 Each psalm is 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).

Why Are they Called 'Songs of Ascent'?

Psalms 120-134 each begin with the ascription, "A Song of Ascents" (ESV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB), "Song of degrees" (KJV). In Hebrew this is the word for "song"2 plus maʿalâ, "step, stair, ascent," from the verb ʿālâ, "go up, climb, ascend."3 Nowhere in the Bible are the Songs of Ascent defined, but there are four major theories about what they are.

  1. Literal Steps. Jews traditionally teach that these 15 psalms refer to the 15 steps in the Second Temple leading up to the Court of Men on which the Levites played musical instruments on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
  2. Rhythm of Psalms. Some claim that these psalms display a step-like progressive rhythm of thoughts.
  3. Songs of Returning Exiles. These psalms were traveling songs of the exiles returning to Jerusalem from Babylon.
  4. Pilgrim Songs. That the Songs of Ascent were psalms sung by pilgrims ascending the hills to Jerusalem on the feast days. This explanation seems by far the most likely.4

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 because of its elevation. 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.

Hebrew Poetry

Before we begin the Songs of Ascent, it might be useful 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.5 Two elements especially seem to distinguish the beauty of Hebrew poetry: (1) thought parallelism and (2) imagery.

1. Thought Parallelism

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. There are two basic types of parallelism.

Synonymous Parallelism is the most common form. 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."6 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 among the Songs of Ascent (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 is a fine art that we are just beginning to appreciate more fully.

2. Imagery

A second common characteristic of Hebrew poetry is its powerful use of imagery, comparing one thing to another. 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 lie in the way that the psalm communicates these ideas through images: shepherd/sheep, green pastures/still waters, the valley of the shadow of death, a table, an anointing, an overflowing cup, the house of the Lord. 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)

  1. 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)

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.7 However, you don't find that literary device in the Songs of Ascent.

Types of Psalms

Since the time of Hermann Gunkel (1875-1935), scholars have been classifying psalms by their genre or type. Here are some of the most common, with  examples among the Psalms of Ascent.

  1. Hymns -- songs of joy to celebrate the blessings of life (Psalms 122, 134).
  2. Laments -- songs written in times of distress and trouble (Psalms 120, 123, 126, 129, 130).
  3. 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.
  4. Confidence -- songs of trust in the face of troubles (Psalms 121, 125, 131).
  5. Prophetic -- songs containing divine statements or prophecies where God is the speaker (Psalm 132).
  6. Wisdom -- songs that contain material similar to Proverbs and other Wisdom literature in the Bible (Psalms 127, 128, 133).
  7. Royal -- songs that concern either God as king or a human king (Psalm 132).8

These categories aren't hard and fast, just observations. Some psalms bridge two or three of these types. There are no rules!

Psalms of David

Four of the Songs 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 (embedded 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 are 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, but may have been added later as the collection of Psalms was edited. Theoretically, "of David" could mean "authored by David," "in the tradition of David," "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."9

Finally, as you read the Songs of Ascent, don't expect a psalm to be a complete treatise on a particular subject. Rather a psalm is a thought, a point of view, a reflection, 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 to our situations and lives today. May God bless you as you learn from the Songs of Ascent that form this portion of God's Word.[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Abbreviations and References

[1] 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).

[2] "Song" is shîr or shîrâ, from the verb shîr, "to sing" (TWOT #2378). This is often used as a synonym of mizmôr, "psalm."

[3] G. Lloyd Carr, maʿalâ, TWOT #1624m.

[4] J. R. Sampey, "Ascents, Song of," ISBE 1:313.

[5] 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. He cites, "A Critique of Two Recent Metrical Systems," Biblica 63 (1982):230-254.

[6] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 2.

[7] Longman, How to Read the Psalms, pp. 107-108.

[8] For more on types or genres of psalms, see Longman, Psalms (TOTC), pp. 38-42.

[9] Longman, Psalms (TOTC), p. 25.

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