It’s a bright, sunny autumn morning. The family is almost ready to set off, your father has his walking stick and your mother is helping your little sister tie on her sandals. You’ve been waiting all week for this day, and you barely slept last night—it’s the Festival of Tabernacles, and this year your family is going to spend it in Jerusalem! Your mother passes each of you a piece of bread left from last night’s dinner, and you are finally on your way. The long walk to the city will take all day—but you’re used to walking long distances, and you’ve been looking forward to the trip almost as much as to the days you’ll spend celebrating the long holiday.
The first part of the day is spent walking along dusty trails, the roads are far more crowded than usual as many other families are heading to the city as well. Around midday, your family stops in a village you’ve never been to. You gather under a fig tree to eat a hasty lunch of salted fish, raisins, and water drawn from the well that stands in the center of the village.
Then you’re off again, walking with the growing crowd. The sun becomes so hot in the early afternoon that the walk suddenly seems long and terribly boring. You try to forget your aching feet and ignore the sweat that drips down your back, but you and your siblings are disciplined for arguing on more than one occasion.
But as the day wears on and the sun begins to drop, the band of travelers that’s formed along the way perks up. Jerusalem is not far now, just a few hours away!
You can see the ground start to rise in front of you—and even catch a glimpse now and then of the holy city up ahead. The air is cooler, and everyone seems to get a second wind. Your family is joined by more and more people as you go, and as the ground begins to rise before you and the way becomes harder with the change in elevation, a man a few yards ahead begins to sing:
“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever…”
As if on cue, others join in. Their voices rise over the heat and dust of the road to Jerusalem, and you happily sing along to the Psalm that’s always been one of your favorites, a Psalm of Ascent that’s often sung on the road to Jerusalem:
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time forth and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
On the land allotted to the righteous,
lest the righteous stretch out
their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts!
But those who turn aside to their crooked ways
the Lord will lead away with evildoers!
Peace be upon Israel!
(Psalm 125, ESV)
What is a Psalm of Ascent?
Psalms of Ascent are songs that were often sung on the way to Jerusalem (and, perhaps also by priests going up the steps of the Temple). Jerusalem was built on a hilltop, and to visit the holy city was an upward climb for those from all the cities that surrounded it. Jewish people often went to Jerusalem during feast days, to make sacrifices or visit the temple and celebrate the holy festivals that happened throughout the year.
In Hebrew, the word translated as “ascent” is ma’alah (מעלה), which means ascent or degree and indicates a movement upward. There are 15 Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120 to 134. Out of the 15, four were written by King David: Psalm 122, 124, 131 and 133. David’s son Solomon wrote Psalm 127, and the author of the others is not mentioned in the Bible.
These Psalms would have been memorized and sung as people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. All males were required to appear in Jerusalem three times a year, at the major festivals: The Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Tabernacles. These songs were a tradition as pilgrims climbed to the holy city, ready to celebrate and worship with others as they flooded the Temple grounds offering sacrifices.
The 15 Psalms of Ascent
What are the Psalms of Ascent about? Here are the 15 Psalms:
- Psalm 120 is a cry of distress to the Lord, from someone who has suffered greatly.
- Psalm 121 is a song of praise to the true God who helps and protects us.
- Psalm 122 sings of the joy the Israelites had in the city of Jerusalem.
- Psalm 123 cries out for mercy from the Lord.
- Psalm 124 tells the story of how God has saved His people from destruction.
- Psalm 125 is about dwelling in the peace of God.
- Psalm 126 predicts the future of Jerusalem, and how God’s people will be gathered there.
- Psalm 127 is a reminder that without God, we can do nothing.
- Psalm 128 speaks of the importance of the fear of the Lord.
- Psalm 129 is a song of victory over Israel’s enemies.
- Psalm 130 is about our hope in the Lord.
- Psalm 131 reminds us to wait on the Lord and place our hopes on Him.
- Psalm 132 tells of the importance of Jerusalem (Zion).
- Psalm 133 is a joyful song about the power of unity among God’s people.
- Psalm 134 is a worship song about the certainty we have in the Lord and the power of His word.
What Can the Psalms of Ascent Teach Us Today?
While we might not go on yearly trips to Jerusalem, the Psalms of Ascent are a powerful group of songs that offer us a condensed version of the songs of praise, worship, lament, hope, defeat, victory, and trust in God. They are beautifully written, passionate, and cover the full gamut of emotions that we experience in our walk with the Lord.
In fact, studying the Psalms of Ascent can become a sort of pilgrimage of your own, even if you never leave your house! Plan out a few weeks to concentrate on these Psalms, reading each of them in depth and going over related commentary. Keep a journal as you go, and see what the Lord has to teach you through these beautiful passages. While you might not be literally “walking up” to Jerusalem, you’ll find yourself moving upward towards a deeper relationship with God.
– Christ Revealed
P.S. The Bible is full of rich history like you just read above…
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