Zion is journey’s end. This is true for this A to Z project but also true for pilgrims of old who equated Zion with Jerusalem. It is also true today for pilgrims of a different sort who see life as ‘the life of faith’. For such modern day pilgrims, Zion is where God is and captures the hope and anticipation of resurrection and eternal life. As our journey’s end Zion is wholly positive. How could this be otherwise when Yahweh is there awaiting the pilgrim or disciple? The word Zion and especially the word Zionist, however, can have other more difficult connotations. The word Zionist and how one uses it can quickly be seen as taking sides in the complex issues of the Middle-East.
In this post Zion refers to (i) Jerusalem during the time of biblical events and the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and (ii) the eschatological destination mentioned above. Below we look at both of these in turn by considering the use of the word Zion in the fifteen psalms known as the Psalms of Ascents.
Psalms of Ascents and Zion
The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Psalms, or Psalter, has 150 psalms arranged in five books. For many years scholarship on the psalms focused so hard on the genre of the psalms that this led to the conclusion that the psalms were an anthology. More than that, it was assumed that little, if any, care had been given to the arrangement of the psalms for the editor or editors of the Psalter. This conclusion was odd for a number of reasons. One of the more obvious contradictions was the apparent existence of prior collections of psalms now demarcated by headings or opening phrases. These include:
- The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
- The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88).
- The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).
- The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
- The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).
The Psalms of Ascents stand out in particular as they are all consecutive and have a remarkable number of features that draw them together as not only as a collection but as a highly structured whole. Mitchell  helpfully explores the interconnectedness of these fifteen psalms.
The fifteen Psalms of Ascents have a strong focus on Zion. The words Zion and Jerusalem occur twelve times. The connection with Zion is greater than this word count, as the collection can be seen to be consistent with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In this way even those Psalms of Ascents which do not mention Zion or Jerusalem have this connection—and of course the very name Ascents refers either to the fifteen temple steps or the ascent into Jerusalem on ‘its holy hill’ (Mitchell  argues persuasively that it is both of these).
Zion and the Life of Faith
The Christian tradition has seen pilgrimage as a point of continuity with its Jewish roots. Sometimes this is a very physical reality analogous to travelling by foot to Jerusalem. For many Christians however pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor of what it means to be sojourners on the earth and travelling to a life in the hereafter with Yahweh. The Psalms of Ascents take on a different dynamic when seen from this perspective. Of course it is not just the nature of this journey that differs to that made by pilgrims to the earthy Zion. For the Christian journeying to the heavenly Zion, the Hebrew Bible itself is changed because of the new post-Easter lens. The Hebrew Bible is still the Hebrew Bible and yet as precious Scripture which points to Easter it becomes part of the Christian Bible. This Old Testament is not old in terms of being outmoded or surpassed but is old only in terms of chronology. Unless this First Testament is recognised fully as the Hebrew Bible there is a danger we damage that which to the pilgrim is God-breathed.
- David C. Mitchell, The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples, Newton Mearns: Campbell Publications, 2015.
Further Reading on the Structure of the Psalms
- The Psalter’s Structure—An Introduction
- The Psalter’s Structure—An Macrostructure
- The Psalter’s Structure—An Mesostructure
- The Psalter’s Structure—An Microstructure