In Leviticus 23, God ordained seven national celebrations called “festivals” for the Israelites to observe. His purpose for these festivals was to establish worship and fellowship into Israel’s culture, and He commanded the Israelites to designate a time of coming together for spiritual renewal and thanksgiving for all God had accomplished on their behalf.
There were three festivals that required them to travel to Jerusalem: Passover, Pentecost, and the Festival of Tabernacles. It is here that the Psalms of Ascent come into play. They are a group of fifteen hymns from Psalms 120-134 which the Israelites (also referred to as pilgrims) would sing as they made the difficult journey by foot to Jerusalem. Written by various authors–including king’s Hezekiah, David, and Solomon–each psalm communicates a theme or a concern common in their day. Behind such themes as fear, danger, hostility protection, trust, contentment, joy, sorrow, harassment, and honor are genuine accounts of real people who experienced life in raw form. They’re honest testimonies sung with deep emotion. Centuries old, yet the topics in the Psalms of Ascent are of great concern or interest to military service members and their families today. Tucked within the themes are rich and distinctive metaphors, which expand our understanding of the psalms and amplifies their relevance to the culture and faith of the ancient Israelites. As the pilgrims traveled, they recited the psalms, each one a step in their trek to Jerusalem. The overarching premise of the Psalms of Ascent is that their faith made a difference in the outcome of their lives.
The psalms are timely in light of America’s recent war campaigns. Military families can draw vital spiritual lessons that can contribute to their spiritual readiness levels as they answer the call of their commander-in-chief to support and defend America’s moral values, its Judeo-Christian faith and her freedoms.
The title “Psalms of Ascent” originated from several suggested meanings. The most widely known one is that the fifteen psalms relate to the fifteen steps going from the Court of Women to the Court of Israel in the temple in Jerusalem. (If you have a study Bible, check in the Topical Index for “temple” to see if a temple diagram is provided.) Another suggested view is the relationship between Mount Zion and the location of the temple in Jerusalem. Seemingly, the pilgrims continued to sing these psalms as they ascended Mount Zion to reach the temple. It is also worth noting that because these psalms were sung, they’re also referred to as the “Songs of Ascent” and also as the “Pilgrim’s Songs.”
I’ve also seen the Psalms of Ascent referred to as “Songs of Degrees,” a view presented by John Lightfoot and E. Thirtle.1 This view makes a correlation between King Hezekiah and the degrees on his father’s, King Ahaz’s, sundial. Sundials in this period were sometimes made in the form of miniature staircases so that the shadows moved up and down the steps.2 Second Kings 20 gives the story of Hezekiah’s brush with death. Because he came down ill and wasn’t expected to recover, the prophet Isaiah told him to put his affairs in order. In great distress, Hezekiah prayed to God, calling attention to his faithfulness to God as a king (v. 3). Moved by the king’s prayer, God healed him and gave the king an additional fifteen years of life. Because there was some doubt on the part of the king that God would do as He promised, the king asked for a sign.3 Isaiah told Hezekiah that God would turn the shadow on the steps back by ten degrees. “The prophet Isaiah cried to the Lord; and he brought the shadow back the ten intervals, by which the sun had declined on the dial of Ahaz” (v. 11). Because there are ten Psalms of Ascent in which the authors are not identified, the suggestion is they were written by King Hezekiah matching the ten degrees that the sundial retreated,4 with the remaining five authored by the others already mentioned. In 2 Kings 20:5 is an interesting association. God instructed King Hezekiah, upon his healing to go up to the temple on the third day.5
Some scholars treat the fifteen psalms as the five stages (three psalms each), a believer experiences on his or her journey to maturity in Christ. Others group them according to the tone and intended purposes. For example, Psalm 127 and 128 deal with the home and family and therefore are placed next to each other. In my research, there doesn’t appear to be one exact interpretation of the meaning of each psalm. However, there does seem to be similar interpretations between authors. My presentation of the Psalms of Ascent in this book reflect commonly held views for a practical approach for understanding and applying the spiritual principles of each psalm to experiences common to the military lifestyle.
For the greatest benefit, read the Psalm of Ascent that precedes each chapter and contemplate the significance of its meaning, considering tone and emotion. Also consider what application the psalm would serve for your life and circumstances now. If you’re comfortable with writing in your Bible, consider keeping it next to you when reading each chapter, making notes in the margins.
Have you always wanted to know more about the lives of the ancient Israelites, their culture, faith, trials, triumphs, traditions, and also learn about God’s nature in ways that will lead to a deeper worship experience? It is my hope that as you take this journey with me through the Psalms of Ascent, you will find new aspects of God’s nature and biblical truths and principles to apply to your military marriage, family, and personal journey of faith.
May God bless you from Zion.