An Introduction To The Songs Of Ascents: Part One

When the Psalms were compiled in the post-exilic period, there were a few areas of the Psalms where song cycles were placed.  In our contemporary age we are used to compilations and concept albums, so much so that we think of these as a contemporary phenomenon.  In our hurry to view the Psalms as private devotionals, and to be certain, this is easy to do [1], we are quick to label the psalms by their themes and contents, and to comment on them as lament psalms or wisdom psalms or praise psalms or imprecatory psalms, to treat them with a genre analysis, to comment on their authorship, and then to get straight to the point at critiquing their theology or their tone.  It is very rare that most people put the psalms together in the context in which they were written.  Yet there are at least several areas of psalms where there are series of psalms that are connected by a theme that the compilers of the Psalms, likely during the early Second Temple Period, bring to the attention of the observant reader.  Some of these thematically connected sections [2] have already been discussed, but today I would like to begin another discussion on the deeper meanings and connections of the Songs Of Ascents.

Before this can be done, though, it is important to address an important question:  why should we care about an obscure collection of psalms in the first place?  In many ways, the Songs of Ascents could only have been collected, and some of them [3] could only have been written in the post-exilic period towards the beginning of the Persian period.  That time, it should be noted, is not well known.  Coming in at the end of the period when the Hebrew scriptures were being written and collected, it serves as the period when books like 1st and 2nd Chronicles were being collected, where the temple priesthood was all-important and the institution of kingship had been eclipsed in a period where Judah, even though there were returnees and a revival of national culture, was clearly a small backwater or border territory in larger empires, as it would remain for centuries, where Ezra and Nehemiah sought to encourage moral revival, and where Malachi critiqued the social decay of institutions like the priesthood and the Judean family in ways that are starkly relevant but painfully unpleasant in our contemporary milieu.  And then, after that closing note of warning the curtain closes and there is no inspired literature until the Gospels amidst the growing tide of Hellenism as well as the dawning of the Messianic age, before Israel’s statehood is extinguished amidst its rebellions against Rome.

And truthfully, we know little about the Persian period in Judah.  At the time Jerusalem was a minor provincial capital, its people were poor, odd, neither particularly numerous nor powerful.  The second temple was a pale imitation of the first, and the post-exilic society that had survived the catastrophic centuries of Assyrian and Babylonian domination was a gritty and somewhat downbeat world.  Yet the collection of hymns from Psalm 120 to 134 were sung by pilgrims traveling from their towns and villages to that temple.  For almost 2000 years, this temple has been destroyed and not rebuilt by the Jews, and few believers even know or care about the annual feasts commanded by God in Leviticus 23, three of which involved travel to the place where God had set His name, a place that, at the time and in a time yet to come, was Jerusalem.  In this atmosphere of forgotten periods, long-destroyed buildings, and ignored customs, we have a large body of psalms that takes up one tenth of the entire collection of the Psalms, and yet is largely obscure as a body.  Why should we care about what pilgrims did in times past as they traveled to a temple that no longer exists in order to worship festivals that most who profess to follow biblical faiths are largely unaware of?

There are several reasons why we should care about this collection of psalms, if we care about the Bible as a text.  It should be noted in this series that the audience is presumed to be made up of people who care about the Bible, how it was put together, and what it means.  Those who do not have those concerns or a pro-biblical worldview will find little of interest here.  For those who do care about the Bible and who consider it the Word of God, the highest authority on how to live life, this section of scripture offers a worthy area of study and is worthy of further investigation.  That said, the fact that there is a body of fifteen songs that are placed in a particular order about the subject of traveling to and from the temple in Jerusalem is worthy of comment and is a matter of significance, considering that they form 15 of the 150 songs collected in the Psalms, and contain psalms from both David and Solomon, two people who were very interested in the first temple and its design and construction.  The fact that these particular songs are set apart with a special, albeit somewhat enigmatic, title, suggests that we ought to deal with these pslams as a body and reflect upon them and study them and sing them as a group, and that any sort of analysis that does not recognize the context in which they are part of will lose some part of the purpose for which they were put together by the anonymous compilers of the Psalms.

Another reason that we should care about these psalms is that the Bible cares a great deal about the travels of believers to the temple.  Although the Bible prophesied the destruction of the temple, during the time that it stood, the Bible spends considerable effort discussing the effort and importance of traveling to the temple for believers, even those who were critical of the corruption of the Aaronic priesthood that served in the temple.  This point is worthy of some notice, as both Jesus Christ and Paul are discussed in considerable detail as having placed particular importance in traveling to the temple.  Considering that the songs of ascents are about precisely that journey of pilgrimage, something that is important to key figures in the Bible ought to be important to all of those who consider the Bible and its figures as being worthy of reflection and emulation in their practices.  Rather than simply to take my own word for it, let us reflect on some of the passages that demonstrate the pivotal importance of traveling to Jerusalem for the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, and show how this journey is highlighted in scripture.

Luke 2:41-42 tells us:  “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.  And when He [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast.”  Given the importance of the Passover to the chronology as well as the course of scripture, it is noteworthy that attending the Passover, despite the lengthy travel it took, was a custom of Jesus’ family.  Given the reputation of Galieans for not being particularly serious about the biblical faith, it is of importance that they regularly traveled the several days between their home in Nazereth and the temple in Jerusalem, a trip that would be far longer than most of the traveling done by people in the contemporary period unless they took lengthy road trips.

John 7:1-10 points out that the trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals of God, in this case the Feast of Tabernacles, could be the subject of considerable contention even during the days of the second temple period:  “After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him.  Now the Jews’ Feast of Tabernacles was at hand.  His brothers therefore said to Him, “Depart from here and go into Judea, that Your disciples may also see the works that You are doing.  For no one does anything in secret while He himself seeks to be known openly.  If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.”  For even His brothers did not believe in Him.  Then Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always ready.  The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil.  You go up to this feast.  I am not yet going up to this feast, for My time has not yet fully come.”  When He had said these things to them, He remained in Galilee.  But when His brothers had gone up, then He went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.”  Here we see that Jesus went to the Feast in enemy territory, as it were, given the hostility of the leadership of the Jews that was already troublesome, and that would later lead to his illegal trial and death due to the corruption and wickedness of both the Roman and Jewish leadership.  It was so important to travel to the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus did so, even though it required that He travel in secret so as to arrive undetected in the absence of an entourage or a scene.  Here we see something of Jesus’ hostility to the celebrity culture that was hindering His own ministry, and His approach to dealing with the hostility of His own half-brothers to His ministry.

And this importance of traveling to the temple was not something limited to our Savior alone.  Paul undertook a trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost that took two chapters of Acts (Acts 20 and 21) along with several months of travel from Greece to Asia Minor and then to Judea, despite receiving warnings of doom and gloom along the way, like that discussed in Acts 21:10-14:  “And as we stayed many days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.  When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”  Now when we heard these things, both we and those from that place pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem.  Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart?  For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.””  Here we not only see Paul’s absolute commitment, in the face of prophecies of personal disaster, to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, but we also have an indication of the fact that believers viewed traveling to Jerusalem to the feast as “going up,” something we also saw in John 7 that points to the meaning of the songs of ascents as being sung by those going up to Jerusalem.

Having seen just how important it was for the most important figures of the early Church of God in traveling to Jerusalem to attend the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, despite the very real risk of death involved, and the fact that this was viewed as going up (i.e. ascending) in a very literal way, there ought to be a couple of very obvious takeaways from the passages discussed here.  For one, the feast and traveling to it was a matter of great importance to God’s people, and that by extension if we wish to be like Jesus Christ or Paul, such matters ought to be of importance to us.  After all, these people risked their lives to obey God’s command to assemble for these feasts at the place where the Eternal placed His name.  The least we can do, we who generally risk far less to travel to His festivals [4], except maybe some unusual travels in strange places or looking slightly ridiculous or being around people who may not like us very much, is to follow that example to the best of our abilities given our own conditions.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/an-introduction-to-the-psalms-commentary-project/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/12/psalm-26-i-will-wash-my-hands-in-innocence/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/psalm-88-for-my-soul-is-full-of-troubles/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/reflections-on-the-haggadah/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/the-prophetic-narrative-of-the-first-sons-of-korah-collection/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/07/16/psalm-126-those-who-sow-in-tears-shall-reap-in-joy

[4] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/bags-fly-free/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/from-chiang-mai-to-khun-yuam/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/no-room-at-the-inn-the-economies-of-scale-of-travel-housing/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/caravan/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Music History, Musings, Psalms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to An Introduction To The Songs Of Ascents: Part One

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Songs Of Ascent: Part Two | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: An Introduction To The Songs Of Ascent: Part Three | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: On The Ideal Size Of An Assembly | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: A Long Obedience In The Same Direction | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: The Days Of Unleavened Bread And The Problem Of Khol Ha-Moedim | Edge Induced Cohesion

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