Saturday, June 25, 2011

Psalms of Ascent, 120-134

Sunday Bible Study Lesson for June 26. 

Background Reading:  Three times a year, according to the tradition and the book of Deuteronomy, the faithful Jewish people (I don’t know if they all did this) went to worship at Jerusalem.  It was a long trip in some ways, but fortunately Israel is not a really large place.  When they went on these pilgrimages, they would sing these psalms as the “ascending” up to Jerusalem and the temple.  Those three times a year were Pesach (Passover, April), Shavuot (Weeks, late May or early June), and Sukkot (Tents or Booths, late September or early October).  “They were well suited for being sung, by their poetic form and the sentiments they express. ‘They are characterized by brevity, by a key-word, by epanaphora [i.e., repetition], and by their epigrammatic style.... More than half of them are cheerful, and all of them hopeful.’" (quoted from Wikipedia, but original citation not given.)

One website explains the songs of ascent this way:

We can divide these fifteen psalms into five "stages" of three psalms each. We are not looking at these psalms from a scholarly point of view. Rather, we will treat them in a simple way according to our experience.
  • Psalms 120-122 are the first stage, the stage of "vision."
  • The second stage, Psalms 123-125, focuses on our consecration. Out of our vision we come to a consecration.
  • The third stage, Psalms 126-128, is the stage of enjoyment. Our consecration leads to a rich enjoyment of the Lord.
  • The fourth stage, Psalms 129-131, we will call the stage of enlargement. Our enjoyment of the Lord eventually causes us to become an enlarged person.
  • Then from our experience of enlargement we enter the final stage, the stage of maturity (Psalms 132-134).
(from  This is sort of a spiritualization (rather than taking the psalms literally and historically), but it’s kind of interesting.  We often do this with the psalms, and I think that as long as we do not ignore the context and the original meaning, that it is all right to make the psalms personal because they are about the human experience of God.

The King James calls these Psalms of degrees (like levels), because of the steps. 
Think of them as a journey.  Man on youtube video, each step.  I thought it was funny that people seemed to think it was a contest to see who could get to the top first.  I was struck with the thought that I probably would have done the same thing.  We put a huge amount of emphasis in our culture on getting it done, being fast, moving on to the next thing, which is what?  I feel myself pushing myself on to the next thing, and I’m not sure why it is so hard to live in the moment, to enjoy the moment I am in. 
Dr. Derek H. W. Thomas, a Presbyterian pastor in Jackson, MS, writes, “And here is a journey of a psalmist who finds himself initially in the wilderness, longs for the fellowship of God’s people, longs for the fellowship of God Himself.”
Longs for.  We definitely see that in these psalms.  This life is a life of longing for God or self-satisfaction. 
One of the great things about being in God’s people is the bond and communion we have with people thousands of years ago.  We sing these (usually as choruses) and they were sung by Jewish pilgrims 3000 years ago.  We sing A Mighty Fortress is Our God in communion with Christians breaking away from the Catholic church almost 500 years ago. 
There is a progression of thought in the psalms in how they are arranged, but the first one is downbeat.  Why?  Because that’s where we often start.  I don’t start the day happy.  I start it tired.  I start it sore.  I start it stumbling around in my bedroom hoping I don’t hit my toe on something and then I go turn the blasters on the bathroom and immediately my eyes hurt.  Then I take a shower, and things are getting better (maybe that means I should spiritually start the day with repentance!)  I’m awake now.  I’m starting to look like someone who should go out in public, but I still have some work to do on that.  When I’m dressed and made up, I go down the hall to the living room and let the dogs out of their kennels.  They make me happy because they are happy to see me, or at least act so in their doggy way.  I might take Nala for a walk.  I get my coffee.  I eat something. I read.  I thank God for the food.  On days when I oversleep and have to rush out to face a class of 25 people without the preparation, I am all out of sorts.  I think this is true of everyone, in their own way. 
I am a generally upbeat person, but not at 6:00 a.m., not immediately.  Psalm 120 is about someone who is discouraged—more than that, he is distressed, living with deceivers, . Maybe we would do well to read these psalms continuously rather than separately. 

One way of looking at these fifteen psalms is that they are in five sets of three.  Each set of three starts with a psalm of despair, then a psalm of faith, then a psalm of victory. 
Or another way to put it is the psalm of complaint (120, 123, 126, 129, 132 – words such as affliction, distress, trouble, depths, war, contempt, scorn—much like the imprecatory psalms), a psalm of recognition of God’s working and power (121, 124, 127, 130, 133—words such as I, choice, will, help, who made heaven and earth, shall, hope words, preserve), and a psalm of rejoicing and renewed vision (122, 125, 128, 131, 134, words such as peace, royalty and power words, Zion, Jerusalem, bless).  God’s covenant name is used throughout. 

John Calvin said so many hundred years ago, when he wrote commentary on the Book of Psalms, it provides for us an anatomy of the entire soul of man, of all the parts of man.  People think of John Calvin as just preaching about predestination but he was about so much more than that.  He was a great Bible teacher.  But the point is, all the songs we sing in church are upbeat, happy, joyful, etc.  Why don’t we sometimes corporately sing about repentance? About how our sin has hurt us?  How we feel far from God?  We’ve all sung songs in church and thought, “I don’t really feel this way, sowhy am I singing this?”  Of course, sometimes the singing changes our hearts, but sometimes it’s just fake and false.  While I doubt we will ever start singing songs about repentance and loneliness, maybe we can start being brutally honest with God in our own lives and within our fellowship with others.  It would also be nice if we had much more corporate prayer in church worship services.

I have been tired lately, just not the energy I have had.  I’m not depressed, except I’m frustrated that I can’t do everything I would like.  It may be physical, it may be just age, but it’s getting me down.  My flesh and Satan tell me I can’t keep up, I can’t look forward to a fruitful and active life, I’m just going to get older and more tired and more decrepit.  But that is not close to what this psalmist is going through, which is apparently enemies who want to destroy him with lies or even physical danger.  However, God doesn’t say to us, “I don’t care about your distress because it’s less severe than someone else’s distress.”  I am glad of that.  I often say, “God cares about me but other people have more problems so mine don’t matter.”  That’s saying, “God doesn’t have enough power to deal with me and the rest of the world.” 

I’d like to just read these and you all jump in when you have a thought or a blessing.

120:  Meshech and Kedar:  not near Jerusalem.  He is far away from the center of worship.  He is not connected to God’s people.  WE can let that happen very insidiously.  What does he do about it?  Honesty, and prayer. 

121:  Hills—those on which Jerusalem sits.  Here is the big difference between us and the psalmist.  He thinks in terms of Israel as a place and God living in that place, or God’s presence being in a place.  However, they also knew God “made heaven and earth” and inhabited all of space and time.  Presence wasn’t literal but signified special relationship with Israel.  God is everywhere and here.   God is within us to empower and convict and teach, but He’s elsewhere, too.

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