From Psalm 120 to 134 you may notice a heading that either reads, “A Song of Degrees,” or “A Song of Ascent.” This particular group of Psalms not only finds a special place in my life but they were also an important part of Jewish life. What we call the Psalms of Ascent/degrees in the Hebrew were called the shiray hammaloth. They were the songs to be heard as you were going up.
While they do good to stand alone they were probably used together in sequence as Israelites pilgrimaged toward Jerusalem. Which is the most likely time these psalms were sung. These pilgrim psalms were probably sung at different levels throughout a journey to one of Jerusalem’s many religious feasts. Jerusalem itself was built on a mountain range and according to the Jewish mindset, it was the highest elevation on earth. To be in Jerusalem was to be as close to God on earth as a person could be. The idea then was that as you went towards direction you were going up. To head in any direction away from Jerusalem was to go down. This may bring to remembrance the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In verse 30 of that text it is noted that the man “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho” and then got into all kinds of trouble. That was the idea here. Going toward Jerusalem was good and going away from Jerusalem was bad. Now, whether these fifteen psalms were sung all along the way, or were a final reflection as they stood on the steps heading into the temple, we are not for sure. But we do know they were a reflection from the a journey of being distant to God to now being near him.
In a great devotional book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson takes the Psalms and uses them to reflect on the lifelong process of discipleship. He notes, “Everyone is in a hurry. The Persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach and teach, want shortcuts…They are impatient for results…but a pastor is not a tour guide…The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways” (Peterson, 2000, p. 17). We need to understand that spiritual growth does not take place over night. We become closer to God with each day we are given and until we pass from this life to the next, we will never arrive at a place where we stop growing. Even in heaven we will grow because God is infinite and we will never drain Him of glory.
Over the next fifteen days I will go through each of the Psalms of Ascent and together we will reflect on our path towards heaven and our experience in walking with Christ.
Peterson, Eugene H. (2000) A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press.