Z is for Zion

Journey’s End

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 [1] 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 [1] 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.

 

Reference

  1. 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 Case for the Psalms: Why they are essential’ by Tom Wright

Tom Wright is well known as a prolific author of Christian books. For example, he is working on a massive scholarly project, of which three volumes are in print and a fourth is imminent, on nothing less than the whole of the New Testament and its implications for Christian doctrine. Thus his academic expertise includes first-century Jewish history, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus and biblical hermeneutics. So some might be surprised that a New Testament scholar should publish a book on the Psalms.

The book is not meant to be a piece of Psalms’ scholarship, although Wright is clearly informed regarding diverse recent work on the Psalms. Rather this book is aimed at a popular audience. For this we should be grateful, because Wright’s central plea is a correct one. He argues, as the title indicates most clearly, that much of contemporary Christianity has, to its detriment, neglected the Psalms. I found the book to be both convincing and compelling. His thesis needs to be heard by the Christian community and there is a real need for Christians to champion the Psalms in their local Church setting.

The sheer clarity of the title might seem to indicate that the book’s argument be too clear cut, either in attacking the contemporary Christian songwriting ‘industry’ or promoting a monolithic approach to singing and using the Psalms. I am delighted to say that any such claims are groundless. For sure, Wright has some concerns (in my view entirely legitimate) about today’s Christian songwriting, however, Wright warmly acknowledges the genuine life and vitality in this movement and hopes that there is potential therein to champion the Psalms. Wright’s biographical material, which is presented as a helpful Afterword, recognises the traditional Anglican experience of the Psalms that Wright has enjoyed for his whole life. Having experienced this only to a very limited extent myself, I found this intriguing. I was also pleased to see Wright’s openness to, and recognition of, diverse ways in which the Psalms can be imbibed by the individual and the worshipping community.

If you’ve read this far you can tell I am rather appreciative of this book. The best, however, is yet to come. I expected to find myself broadly in agreement with Wright’s agenda – of, putting it bluntly, promoting the use of the Psalms. What I had not expected was the insightful way in which Wright made his case for what the Psalms contain and teach. I have read a lot about the Psalms over the last few years and have found them rewarding on a daily basis, as a central part of my personal devotions during this period. I have not previously met such a concise yet helpful overarching statement of the Psalter’s content which does justice to both their Jewish origin and use by followers of the risen Jesus Christ.

The heart of Wright’s book are three chapters, which account for around two-thirds of the content, the rest being essentially introductory and concluding material. Don’t get me wrong these parts are helpful, and indeed necessary, too. Yet it’s the three key chapters, and their overall thesis, that make this book not only compelling in its claim but an ideal way into understanding the Psalms. It’s helpful to outline the argument of these three chapters:

At the Threshold of God’s Time
Wright opens with the claim that the ‘Psalms invite us, first, to stand at the intersection of the different layers of time’. He reflects on how our mortality compares rather starkly with Yahweh’s time, and how this connects with the Psalter’s strong eschatological flavour. This is then developed into another key concern found throughout the Psalter: the kingship of God. This theme in turn explains the present context of the reader/singer of the Psalms in terms of the past, and God’s people Israel, and the future restoration of creation. This is what makes the Psalms such a powerful resource. They remind us that whatever is going on here-and-now, Yahweh is a faithful God who started a restorative work long ago in ancient Israel and will bring that work to fruition in the future restoration of all things. Or, as Wright says: ‘Past, present, and future belong to him. We are called to live joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both his and ours’.

Where God Dwells
In this chapter Wright reminds us that all too often we avoid the strangeness of the claims that the Psalms make about where God resides. Many of the Psalms quite unashamedly, without any care for our modern baggage, look to Jerusalem and what might be termed the Temple Mount as the dwelling place for the creator of the space-time universe. To pretend they claim anything else would be dishonest. It is this claim that is so central to other key themes in the Psalter. The nations are referred to many times, from 2:1 through to 149:7, in such a way that only makes sense with reference to Yahweh dwelling in Zion, i.e. Jerusalem (cf. 2:6 and 149:2). Yet despite this central, and vital claim, God can be found in other places too. The same psalms look to heaven as Yahweh’s dwelling place, e.g. 2:4. It is this claim that makes sense of the former. For the story is rich and complex, involving an ‘anointed one’ who is a steward over God’s people (2:6), the departure of God’s presence at the exile and the eschatological hope of his return. It is within this understanding of the divine presence that the frequently misunderstood Jewish understanding of Torah took shape. As Wright puts it: ‘By prayerful and obedient study of the Torah, the blessings that one might have had through the “sacred space” of the Temple could be obtained anywhere by all’. There can be little doubt of this theme in the Psalter when one notes the introductory psalm 1 and the entity that is psalm 119 (see previous blog entries).

All the Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy
In this chapter Wright builds on concerns he has discussed at length elsewhere about Western modernity’s inability to see the physical universe as a creation in which the Creator is living and active. As Wright argues this means that Christians too can miss the biblical affirmation of the essential ‘goodness’ of matter. Despite this chapter’s focus on a key concern for Wright as a theologian and interpreter, there is nothing forced in his claim that the Psalms celebrate creation. Indeed he shows, with ample reference to the Psalms themselves, the beautiful and rich ways in which the Psalter reflects on creation and thereby speaks of the Creator.

Wright’s three-fold use of time, space (place) and matter as a framework for unpacking the Psalms is commendably straightforward and yet doesn’t straight-jacket the Psalter’s rich diversity of form and content. For this insightful approach, as well as the timely message of our need to recover the Psalms, I hope many in the contemporary church will be truly grateful.

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.