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.

Some Initial Thoughts on Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is clearly very different to Psalm 1. If Psalm 1 is about personal piety, Psalm 2 is on a wholly different scale. Its concern is with the nations rather than with the individual in their local assembly (but note the individualistic final claim of v.12). Not only is the dynamic different, the whole form is different. If Psalm 2 is didactic, its teaching method is one of the ‘reader’ entering into some sort of grand drama rather than learning from wisdom metaphors and meditation on torah. Commentators frequently note this almost theatrical character to Psalm 2.

The different voices that speak in this psalm not only give rise to a sense of drama but it is frequently assumed that Psalm 2 was read as part of the real drama of the coronation of the Davidic kings of Israel or as part of a hypothetical festival in which the earthly king’s kingship was remembered, or as some suggest, as part of a celebration or enactment of Yahweh’s kingship. Even those that disagree that Psalm 2 dates back to the Davidic monarchy agree that its wording deliberately borrows and mimics such a setting.

So far we have recounted the form-critical consensus. What about the substance of the Psalm? Again commentators agree on the structure of the psalm—almost universally discerning a fourfold structure. Although commentators diverge a little on the precise nature and purpose of these sections the differences are fairly small. A number of commentators helpfully note that this fourfold structure follows an abb’a’ structure. This structure is indicated in the following four summative headings:

Verses 1–3 The nations and their kings conspire against Yahweh and his anointed.
Verses 4–6 Yahweh answers with scorn and anger, and points to the king he has anointed.
Verses 7–9 The anointed king recognises his authority, from Yahweh, to rule.
Verses 10–12 The kings of the nations are warned to fear Yahweh and his anointed.

This structure highlights two related types of question which are central to exegetical studies of this psalm:

1. How do the grand claims for God’s anointed relate to the actual history of Israel? More specifically what was the significance of these words in a time of failed monarchy?
2. Who is the anointed described in the psalm?

Collectively these sorts of questions raise questions about the ideology and eschatology of Psalm 2.

If we consider the opinion that Psalm 2 originated as a cultic psalm which was read and/or performed as part of either the coronation of the king or part of an annual festival celebrating either Yahweh’s or the king’s rule then what would it have meant?

For much of the period of the monarchy the claims of Psalm 2 were essentially hyperbole. Among the nations of the Ancient Near East, Judah (if we rule out the possibility of an origin in the Northern Kingdom as most commentators do) was hardly a dominant force and the claim that other nations were under Judah’s authority (note the chains and shackles of verse 3) seems laughable. Brueggemann doesn’t seem too far from the truth when he sees the psalm’s claims as ideological (p.606 of his Old Testament Theology). He seems to imply that like much civic ritual throughout history this psalm promotes an ideal of the ruling classes that keeps everyone in order as they imbibe the claims of the elite.

The ideology and the warlike language of Psalm 2 challenge the legitimacy of the hermeneutic of trust which we encouraged in our look at Psalm 1. However, we can note that despite this ideological nature, or mythopoetic dynamic, there are two softening aspects within the psalm. The first is the fact that in verse 8 there is something of the anointed’s authority still to be fully achieved at some future point (although this might be a consequence of the original use of the words at the start of the reign of a new king). The second and more certain softening of tone is the conclusion of the psalm: ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’. Whilst the psalm rebukes the kings of the Earth this final sentence is surely meant either for the audience, if this sentence was part of the cultic version, or meant for the ‘reader’ if it is a later editorial addition or adaption. This brings us to the question of the later interpretation of the psalm and the possibility of editorial work.

If the psalm originated in the monarchical period its interpretation is likely to have changed when there was no monarchy and when the Temple in which the rite was originally performed was no more. What can this psalm mean when the nations appear to have conspired and plotted against the anointed of the Lord and wiped him from the Earth? Where is Yahweh’s wrath at their actions? Where is the king Yahweh installed on his holy hill? One answer to these questions would be to omit or remove the psalm from the collection (along with, of course, a number of other compositions). This was obviously not the response of the compilers of the Psalter. Its very inclusion prevents it from just being interpreted from the standpoint of the monarchy. Like many psalms it demands, simply by its existence, to be reread.

There is much speculation about minor editorial amendments to the text of Psalm 2. Most likely is the suggestion that the very last sentence was added or altered, but unless our intention is to recover the psalm for monarchical ritual use this is really besides the point. If we want to understand the first temple Cultus then such speculation might achieve something, but if we want to see this psalm as Scripture then it is the current text that is key. It seems beyond dispute that this psalm was a relatively late addition to the growing Psalter and as such was given a post-monarchical rereading by the editors. In other words the editorial intention is that it has a clear eschatological dynamic. Such an intention begs the question as to whether its position near the beginning of the Psalter is incidental or part of an overall design for the Psalter as a whole.

The use of both Psalms 1 and 2 as a deliberate introduction to the Psalter is a topic that we will return to shortly.