Psalms 120-134: Psalms of Ascent: Part I
A Time for Rejoicing
Book V of the Psalter (Psalms107-150) presents the climactic praises of God and the future consummation of His kingdom. The Psalms of Ascent: Psalms 120-134 was a time of rejoicing remembering that Israel’s God was trustworthy and was taking care of His people. God was Israel’s God and was to be acknowledged and worshipped as such. He had revealed Himself as the God who is, has been, and will be. Circumstances including the exile and the glum of the post-exilic community and their surroundings did not mitigate the truth of God as King of kings and Lord of lords. However, the people understood the circumstances and their situation as of God was defective and not that they were rebellious sinners.
The Psalter unfolds God’s promise to David to establish a dynasty, kingdom, and a dwelling place for him and the Greater David (2 Samuel 7:11-14). Throughout the Psalter the authors have reminded the readers of twin pillars: God’s faithfulness and power. This reminder has come in the midst of joyful times (books I and II which describe the rise and glory of the Davidic kingship) and of dark times (book III and IV which describe Israel’s misery, oppression, and exile). Now, in book V Israel returns from exile and Yahweh is presented as Israel’s King still most worthy of praise. This later fact is abundantly important for Israel but seemed out of place for them. Circumstances told them so. They failed to connect circumstances to the God of circumstances. They failed to look at themselves and their disdain for Yahweh except ad a Giver.
This collection of post-exilic Psalms vividly anticipates the movement of Yahweh’s people from exile to Jerusalem and into His presence. At this time in history physical Israel and the soon-to-built temple were highlighted. But from Yahweh’s standpoint, physical Israel and the temple pointed to the new Israel and the new temple which was Jesus Christ. True hope was not in a physical building. It did not reside in the city or in the temple but in the God of His people, both Jew and Gentile. Yet, sadly Israel did not have the spiritual maturity or desire to interpret their life experiences as God’s providence for His glory and their good. They were unable to see with spiritual eyes the reality and beauty of God dwelling with His people. They were still focused on self and what they could get. Moreover, they failed to acknowledge that their God was the God of the universe.
The people had been exiled without a king, temple, or ark. They had been excluded from the very presence of God but they did not bear their own responsibility for this change. While in exile, the people had the Torah but they did not embrace Yahweh as their King, let alone their God. Moreover, only a fragment of Judah’s population had returned to the Promised Land. They found no restored Davidic kingdom. The rebuilt temple was only a modest hint of the first Temple’s grandeur. There was no ark of the covenant and no atonement lid. The Shekinah presence of God did not return to consecrate the temple (cf. Ezekiel 43:5). The nation was still subdued. The Jews were still under subjection. Life was still plagued by drought and famine. There was no Eden-like renovation. The people were unchanged morally. The post-exilic community of Israel was an unhappy bunch. Problems abounded. Yet Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, had not left them. He wooed them into His presence by focusing on His presence and power.
This collection of the psalms (120-134) is entitled Songs of Ascent and refers to the annual feasts and pilgrimages to Jerusalem-Zion. The people were to come joyfully singing praises to Yahweh. Yahweh reigns. God was making good on His promise to David concerning a permanent dwelling place for Him. The twin promises to David, establishing and maintaining a dynasty and a dwelling place, were being fulfilled. That seemed impossible since Israel had been exiled and was returning home to non-glory. Yet Yahweh was not dead. In fact, He was alive and well and His people were to hold on to the facts about Yahweh and His relationship with His people.
1. The exiles returned to what?
2. Did they view the return through physical or spiritual eyes? What was the result?
3. What was the goal of the Psalms of Ascent?
Psalms 120-134: Psalms of Ascent: Part II
Israel’s and Believers’ True Home
Fifteen psalms comprise the Psalms of Ascents. The arrangement is symmetrical with seven psalms on either side of Psalm 127, the epicenter or pinnacle psalm. The divine name, Yahweh (His covenantal name), occurs 24 times on each side of the pinnacle psalm. The author concentrated on the name Yahweh. Why do these psalms focus repeatedly on that name?
For one, the author accentuated the blessings associated with the Name Yahweh. Biblically, names are important and meaningful. Israel had gone astray and yet Yahweh held them tight. He proved Himself to be a blessing to them in His covenantal faithfulness. He was fulfilling His promise. They were coming home. This fact was demonstrated in the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-27.
Secondly, the Psalms of Ascents are an expansion as well as a reminder that Yahweh is King as well as the Blesser. The people have been, are being, and will be blessed by Yahweh.
Third, Israel was beginning life after the exile. They had no king but Yahweh. They denied this fact throughout history. The fact that Yahweh was their King required spiritual eyes and the eyes of saving faith. To many of the people that fact seemed unreasonable, even irrational, and impractical. Yes they had left Babylon but they looked at their surroundings and wondered if they were truly blessed. Should they return? Was God worthy of their trust and worship?
God still had His remnant. These longed to be in God’s presence. But in reality God had never left them! As God promised David, He will build His house. The term house in Psalm 127:1 (Unless the Lord builds the house its builders build in vain…) has been interpreted as referring exclusively to domestic situations such as the home. In fact, the context of this collection of Psalms indicates a much bigger building project and takes us back to 2 Samuel 7:11-14. In Psalm 127, the author speaks about the house that Yahweh built, the city that Yahweh guards, and the sons that are Yahweh’s reward. The psalmist is speaking in Kingdom terms. He is speaking of the Church.
As one means of encouragement to the people, the psalmist is speaking of Yahweh’s covenantal faithfulness. The house is the Lord’s house (Psalms 122:1; 134:1); the city is Jerusalem (Psalm 122:3); and the sons are the sons of David (Psalm 132:11-12). Psalm 127 especially speaks of the completion of God’s building projects in terms of a house (Yahweh’s dwelling place) and David’s dynasty (kingship). These projects correspond to Yahweh’s covenantal commitment to establishing a dynasty and dominion. Both of these are ultimately fulfilled in Christ. God blesses His people especially and preeminently in Christ: May the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion (Psalm 134:5).
What do we learn? The majority of Israelites were bogged down in self and physical Israel, the city, and the temple. The Psalms of Ascent were one of God’s instruments to point the people to their God and His care of them. The Psalms had a special place in worship and devotion since there was no temple. Yahweh was speaking to them in these Psalms.
Believers on this side of the cross and the fullness of the Holy Spirit have full capacity to view the return from exile as a rescue from bondage and darkness. They are able to see with greater clarity these following truths. First, God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. His yes is yes and His no is no in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20; 5:5). He is covenantally faithful and trustworthy. These facts were intended to glorify Yahweh and to comfort and encourage Israel then and the New Israel, the Church, now. Yahweh desires and deserves to be praised and trusted.
Second, Yahweh is to be reckoned with as the Pursuer of His people. Israel ran and yet God pursued. Third, being in the presence of God is a wonderful, beautiful thing. The psalmist turned the people to Yahweh and intimacy with Him (Psalm 34:8). Paul gives a personal testimony of this same reality (Phil. 3:7-11). What was true for David and Paul is true for all believers everywhere in every age. Fourth, this collection of Psalms highlights the beauty of being in God’s presence as a privilege and a blessing rather than simply duty. The collection of these Psalms is appropriate for personal and corporate worship.
1. God is trustworthy: how do you know?
2. What difference does His trustworthiness mean to you?
3. If you are not trusting God who are you trusting? What have been the results?
4. Circumstances don’t prove or disprove God’s Being and goodness. Do you agree or disagree and give reasons?