Psalms of Ascents as a Devotional Pilgrimage

There are times in the Life of Faith when, for a variety of reasons, our walk with God, and the associated discipline of reading Scripture, becomes a struggle. Once in this situation it can be difficult to find a way out of this bad routine. My personal reading through the Psalms of Ascents recently has made me think that these fifteen psalms, 120–134, might make a great way back into the blessing of reading Scripture. Why did I come to this conclusion?

Well, these psalms are very short and wonderfully straightforward in nature. If things have gone wrong with our daily devotions, setting the bar high to re-engage with the Bible is unlikely to help. Despite their shortness, they are packed with ideas, similes, images and truths worthy of meditation and reflection. Their short length also maximises the chance that we can remember them and take these words with us into our day.

These psalms are also built around the idea of pilgrimage, as explored in the previous post. More than that, as we read them we get a sense that they can be understood to capture a pilgrimage in words. Reading them daily is like a micro-pilgrimage, a journey without moving spatially. These short psalms, taken daily and meditated upon, will still give the experience of moving-on, but this is a moving on with God.

The first three, 120–122, give some sense of connection with a real spatial journey. Psalm 122 is all about the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. They can be used as a gentle way of coming back into the full presence of God as we set apart time to reflect on these words.

Having arrived in God’s presence Psalms 123–126 capture two aspects of the journey of faith: Lament and Confidence. As we go through life we will experience these two different, but related spiritual realities. True lament, crying out to God, comes from a point of trust. It is looking to God in trust and expectation, which transforms complaining into complaint. Complaining is what human beings do so easily and naturally. Whereas complaint is crying out to God, naming and articulating the troubles on our heart, with the knowledge that Yahweh certainly hears us and will intervene into our troubles.

Psalms 127–129 in different ways focus on how Yahweh pours out blessing from Zion. This is of course the consequence of a life of faith, a looking to the God who blesses in the midst of all the experiences of life. Such blessing as is poured on us now are a foretaste of what is ultimately to come when we move from receiving blessing from Zion, where God resides, to residing with God.

Psalms 130–131 focus on penitence and trusting God. If there is a single dominant problem with modern Western spirituality it is a lack of making space for penitence. The Medieval Church frequently over did this, but we have gone to the opposite extreme of cheapening God’s grace and making little or no space to explore what we need to acknowledge as wrong in our daily walk.Some see psalms 132–134 as a departure from Zion. I am not convinced. For me these psalms round off the Ascents but not decisively. The Psalms of Ascents reflect on pilgrimage, and pilgrimages end, but I hope that reading the Psalms of Ascents is the start of something rather than an end.

Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

Psalm 119 comes as something of a surprise to anyone reading through the Psalter, because of both its vast length and single-minded focus on Torah. Immediately following this remarkable psalm are fifteen psalms, which in different ways are also rather unusual. Psalms 120–134 are known as the Psalms of Ascents because they all have the same heading, literally ‘song of the steps’. No other psalms have this heading. So, we have here a deliberate collection of psalms (see the earlier post on mesostructure). It is not just the common heading that unites these psalms as we shall see below.

Various traditions surround the origin and function of these psalms. They are often said to be connected with pilgrimage. The first three of these psalms, when read as a sequence support this idea. Psalm 120 might reflect the hostility faced by someone starting out on a pilgrimage as they temporary leave the everyday realities of life in their community. Psalm 121 uses language which resonates with a journey and Psalm 122 clearly articulates the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. These psalms are also linked by some interpreters with the steps leading up to the inner court of the temple: there being 15 songs of the steps to match these 15 steps. Whether these psalms were used in the autumn pilgrimage festival as is proposed by some remains inconclusive. That these psalms are intentionally placed together is more clearly demonstrable.

Their unity does not come from their common genre (or Gattungen), although more than half mention Zion (Psalms 122, 125, 126, 128, 129, 132, 133 and 134) and several could be identified as Songs of Zion. Their type is varied and includes Laments (psalms 120, 123, 126, 129 and 130) and Songs of Trust (psalms 121, 125 and 131). There are elements of wisdom too (in psalms 127, 128 and 133). Psalm 132 stands out as a Royal Psalm. When they are read sequentially their ordering often seems naturally developmental, for example, in how the lament of 120 develops into trust in 121 and is followed by the joy and celebration of 122.

So, what unites these psalms other than their common heading? Goulder (1998) helpfully builds on the work of other scholars and singles out four features that mark out these psalms (except 132 which we’ll return too below):

1. They are short psalms
These psalms are on average about 40% the length of other psalms in the Psalter. The exception being 132. All 15 together are shorter than psalm 119.

2. They use step parallelism
The psalms are known for their use of parallelism, but in the Psalms of Ascents this often takes on a style in which whole phrases carry over from one clause to the next. For example:

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV)

3. They repeat some short phrases
There are around six phrases that are repeated 2 or 3 times in this small group. For example:

a. Maker of heaven and earth (121: 2, 124:8 and 134: 3).
b. From this time forth and for ever more (121: 8, 125: 2, 131: 3).

4. The use a large number of positive similes
The psalms as a whole tend to favour metaphors over similes. When similes are used they are often militaristic in nature. Here in these psalms (except 132) there is a large density of similes and they tend to refer to everyday objects and events. They are also positive by nature, four typical examples being:

a. as the eyes of servants (123: 2)
b. as grass upon the housetops (129: 6).
c. as a child that is weaned of its mother (131: 2).
d. like precious ointment upon the head (133: 2).

So, what of all these features? Well they are evidence enough that these psalms are a coherent whole, except that Psalm 132 is marked out as exceptional. It is much longer, does not use step parallelism, does not have phrases that are common with the other 14 and does not contain any similes. In this way our attention is drawn to this Royal Psalm. What are we to make of these efforts to highlight this psalm?

The first issue of note is that at the time of collecting the psalms, and at the time of their use, if they indeed reflect the autumn festival, the Davidic kings were long gone. When we remember this, we see that this psalm takes the Davidic story and makes it into an eschatological promise par excellence. Despite Zion being a place of God’s dwelling, despite the pilgrimage to this city, there is something missing. There is no king of the line of David as was promised. There is no anointed one. This psalm, like a number of other prominent psalms in the Psalter, rewrites the promises of an earthly anointed ruler and transforms the meaning from ‘anointed’ to ‘messiah’. It is this hope that makes sense of pilgrimage. It is this expectation that ensures that Jerusalem is not just another earthly city. It is this future which is the horizon that the Psalms draw our attention to. Psalm 132 singled-out like this reminds the pilgrim ‘reader’ that pilgrimage is not just about the now it has a firm future eschatological dynamic too.

M. D. Goulder, The Psalms of the Return: Book V, Psalms 107–150, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

The Long and the Short of it: Psalms 117 and 119

Psalms 117 and 119 stand out for being respectively, unusually short and remarkably long. If there is any sense of editorial purpose behind the Psalter it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that these two psalms are so close together. Their odd length also means they must have been selected with good reason. Despite the fact that Psalm 119 is almost 100 times longer than Psalm 117 they are both equally singular in their focus.

Psalm 119, as was seen two posts ago, focuses on Torah. This focus was also that of Psalm 1. Some scholars have suggested that on its way to completion the Psalter opened with Psalm 1 and closed with Psalm 119. If this was the case this would have given a key place to Torah in the Psalter, however, the final form of the Psalter still places a strong emphasis on Torah, with Psalm 119 dominating Book V because of its massive size and prominence before the Songs of Ascents. In this way, Psalm 119 picks up a key aspect of the Psalter’s opening – delight in God’s Torah or instruction.

Interestingly Psalm 117 also effectively picks up on a key aspect of the opening too. It is worth quoting Psalm 117 in full:

O praise The Lord, all ye nations:
praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us:
and the truth of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise ye The Lord.

Compared to Psalm 2 something has happened, in Psalm 2 the question raised was: ‘Why do the nations rage, . . . .?’ (2:1). The nations appear many times in the Psalter and here in a positive light. Psalm 2 articulates the problem of particularity, the good news comes first to Israel and then the nations. Psalm 117 in all is simplicity anticipates the gospel having gone out to all the nations. This is the nature of the psalms, they are concerned with ‘the now’, but then there are glimpses forward. The psalms are eschatological and in this context articulate a simple worldview where all is resolved. This is what we find in Psalms 1 and 117. In other places the questions of now are at the fore. Such questions are there in Psalm 2: why do the nations reject Yahweh? Why have the kings of Israel failed. Psalm 119 for all its focus is still asking questions: is devotion to God’s Torah enough? Will the faithful find vindication in the end?

In a way this is what we have in the Psalter, a twofold blessing: (i) permission and language to deal with the troubles and challenges of the life of faith, (ii) glimpses of that perfect future when all has been set right.

Praise ye The Lord.

Psalms 1 and 2 as an Introduction to the Psalter

The idea that the first two psalms are an intentional introduction to the Psalter is not new. A lot of recent scholarship on the Psalms has recognised this possibility and for centuries it was natural to read the Psalms sequentially as a book and so recognise a beginning to the Psalter. Despite the very different style (technically Gattungen) of these two psalms there are a number of literary links between them. These include:

1. They are both untitled, something which is unusual in the first book of the Psalter.
2. There is an inclusio which uses the word happy/blessed at the start of Psalm 1 (1:1) and end of Psalm 2 (2:12).
3. Both refer to ‘the way’ (Hebrew derek)—verses 1:1 and 2:12 again.
4. Both use the Hebrew word hagah in a manner central to the psalm’s ‘argument’. In 1:2 it is often translated meditating and in 2:1 as muttering. In both places it could be translated as murmuring ; in the former case the positive murmuring of torah and in the latter, negative language as in the English idiom of ‘under one’s breath’.

Even the difference between the two psalms might be deliberately complementary in that the first is clearly focused on the individual in the community of faith and the second on Israel and her king among the nations. More can be said on the literary links, see, for example, Whiting (2013) for an outline and Cole (2013) for a full treatment.

Over the last few years I have found it helpful to see Psalms 1 and 2 as a gateway into the Psalter. They raise a number of themes that are developed in later psalms and also raise questions which are addressed subsequently in the Psalter.

A key theme of the Psalter, and indeed much of the rest of Scripture, is the idea that there are two ways to live life. There is a way of blessing which involves devotion to Yahweh, including delighting in his torah or instruction. Conversely there is the alternative of not living in keeping with Yahweh’s teaching. One way leads to blessing often, portrayed in metaphors of fruitfulness like the tree in Psalm 1, and the other judgement often with negative metaphors like chaff blowing in the wind. Such metaphors tend to be ambiguous as to whether the consequences are ‘in this life’ or in the future. This question ‘of when’ is returned to at various points in the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 37 and 73).

That torah is central to following Yahweh is probably implicit in the fivefold division of the Psalter reflecting the nature of the Law—i.e. the Pentateuch. More explicitly the second half of Psalm 19 and the massive Psalm 119 leave little doubt about the importance of law/torah (see the previous post).

Psalm 2 considers the king as God’s anointed, and at the same time the authority of Yahweh over the nations is introduced. These two interrelated themes are found throughout the psalms. The nations are like a recurring character in the psalms. Though the nations rebel, their salvation is a concern of the Psalms (see the next post for more on this). The role of the king is central and if the psalms are read from an post-exilic viewpoint (when the psalms were collected) or from a New Testament perspective then the king, because of his designation as ‘anointed’, becomes the Messiah or Christ. Many of the psalms can be helpfully read as the words of the king or Messiah, including Psalm 1.

Worship is obviously central to the psalms nature and purpose as they are, among other things, a collection of songs. Though the individual roles of psalms in worship is still a much debated issue, that they were used in individual and corporate worship is clear. Psalm 1 focuses on an individual who finds his place amongst the corporate worshipers by opposing other rather less God-centered groups. Psalm 2 is itself very likely, first and fore-most, a liturgy used in the context of a coronation service or celebration of Yahweh’s kingship. It also indicates that the gathering of the people of God marks them out in contrast to the scoffing nations.

A more complex idea that there is a Zion Theology that connects Psalms 1 and 2 and which is found throughout the Psalter. Those interested can refer to Gillingham (2007) and Whiting (2013). A future post will look at the idea of Zion Theology in more detail, when we shall see that such a theology is a key agenda of the psalmist—this doesn’t mean we will be Zionists in the modern sense. What it does mean is that we must take seriously how we interpret the psalmist’s preoccupation with Zion today.

 

R. L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, (2013).

S. E. Gillingham, ‘The Zion Tradition and the editing of the Psalter’, in J. Day (ed.), Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, T&T Clark, (2007): pp.303ff.

M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (2013): 246-262.

Psalm 119: A misunderstood psalm

This psalm has not always been held in high regard by bible commentators. Many have seen its 176 verses, eight beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in turn, as dull and unimaginative. Others have equated the thought of the poet with self-indulgent legalism.

Few readers of this post will perhaps go quite so far in criticising this psalm. However, even amongst psalm readers unused to being critical of Scripture it is perhaps all too rarely a favourite. It is my hope, in this brief post, to look to some reasons why this psalm should be valued highly by psalm ‘users’.

The first point that I think is helpful is to dispel any idea that the poet is a self-righteous legalist. To be sure the psalm does feature God’s word and God’s law in virtually every verse! The word Torah, or instruction, and seven other near synonyms are meant to be seen as portraying a multi-faceted truth; that Yahweh has provided rich instruction to those willing to pause and pay attention. This is no dry dull legalism, but a reflection of something which is more remarkable than a set of rules. God’s law, or Torah, was always more than regulation and here it is seen as essential in its life-giving efficacy. It is not the case that the law must be obeyed, or else, rather if life is going to be lived to the full then listening to God’s instruction is wise.

The author of the psalm is also not someone who is claiming to have a superior ‘holier-than-thou’ position of obedience to judge from. From our perspective, however, this might be exactly what we read into the psalm. Our modern sensibilities are informed, at least in part, by a caricature of Pharisaism such that any talk of law smacks of dead legalistic piety. We can also easily miss that the writer is actually writing from a perspective of lament, see for example verses 5, 18, 82, 107, 123, 169 and 176.

Another problem we sometimes bring to the psalms is an inability to take them as the reflective poems they are meant to be. If we go to Psalm 119 to receive propositional truth we will be disappointed, finding that it can be distilled into just a handful of clauses. Of course this would entirely miss the point of why this psalm exists in the canon! What if instead we see this psalm as a prayer to be read and savoured; life-changing verses to be meditated on? Such an approach puts faith in this psalm as God’s word, giving rise to an expectancy of its transformative potential. In making space to pray these words attentively we can allow God to shape us and enable us to find delight in a God who speaks his instruction and wants us to be nourished to find life in all its fullness.

Rereading the Psalms: The example of psalm 2

What is meant by rereading? It is a recognition that biblical texts take on a different meaning over time. Such a claim might make some a little nervous; how can Scripture change its meaning? I suggest that it need not undermine a doctrine of Scripture, but rather it can be a useful way of appreciating some Old Testament texts and in fact might cohere with a healthy doctrine of Scripture.

An example is a good place to get the measure of the idea of rereading. We will consider psalm 2 in this post. Many scholars suggest that psalm 2 originated as a piece of liturgy that was used either in the coronation of the king of Judah or in a rite celebrating, or perhaps renewing, Yahweh’s kingship over Judah. Whilst the details are contested, and are likely to ever remain unclear, the idea makes sense of the form and content of psalm 2. Such a meaning might seem alien to many twenty-first century Christian readers because we often, and indeed uncritically, reread the Psalms.

Returning to the idea that it was originally a piece of liturgy used in connection with the Davidic monarchy, we might well ask what happened when this psalm was ‘read’ after the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Davidic kings. It might be imagined that any liturgy involved with an obsolete practice would be marginalised and lost rather than treasured and preserved. It would appear, however, that the very claims of the psalm raised questions that gave rise to some interesting answers. These answers are a rereading that sees the psalm as speaking of a future messiah; an anointed king who will act on behalf of Yahweh. Whether or not psalm 2 was edited as part of this rereading is a complex question for another day.

The story does not stop there. The inclusion of psalm 2, along with psalm 1, as an introduction to Psalter placed its rereading at the heart of the Psalter (see earlier posts re psalms 1 and 2 and Whiting (2013) for a fuller treatment). The messianic hope of psalm 2 is not only a rereading of the psalm, but it also provides a lens for reading (rereading?) the whole collection. For those who acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as messiah the rereading trajectory continues. Psalm 2 is reread as fulfilled in part, yet also awaiting fulfilment too. This second rereading takes on a strong eschatological flavour distinct from its original Jewish one.

The example of psalm 2 is indicative of a broader phenomena. Rather than Old Testament texts being fossilised, their preservation and collection is part of their flexibility to have ongoing relevance. A value within new contexts was often achieved by rereading. Other texts less conducive to being reread were probably found wanting by the people of God and thus marginalised and eventually lost. Such suggestions of rereading of preserved and ultimately canonical texts is no denial of their nature as Scripture. Rather it is a dynamic view of God’s working in the midst of his people; God speaking in fresh ways by Spirit inspired insights that represent fresh revelation about the God of Israel. This may be more nuanced than a simplistic notion of divine dictation, but this creation bound frailty is typical of a God who works through incarnation and sacrament.

M. J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly 85 (2013): 246-262.