[These are the notes for a message that was given to the Portland UCG congregation on Sabbath, March 7, 2020. The audio for the message can be found here.]
Many of us are familiar with the reality of the annual check up. We go to the doctor’s office and we have our height and weight measured and perhaps some blood work done and doctors and nurses tell us to work to lower our weight and keep a better grip on our blood pressure or blood sugar or cholesterol or uric acid levels through diet and exercise or perhaps some pills that they wish to give us. Likewise, during this time of year as we approach the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread it is our custom to examine the state of our spiritual lives so that we do not take the unleavened bread and wine that represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ in an unworthy fashion. It is not always easy for us to know how we are to examine ourselves, though, and so today I would like to explore the use of a section of the Bible known as the psalms of ascents as a way of helping us to determine the state of our spiritual lives as a way of helping us to examine ourselves and where we are at during this season of reflection.
Today we will be spending all of our time in the book of Psalms from Psalm 120 through Psalm 134. Although there are a great many ways that these particular psalms can be discussed, we will only look at the concerns that the psalms bring up that allow us to reflect upon the state of our hearts and minds as we approach the Passover or any other Holy Day season. As we shall see, there is a clear progression as the psalms move through the series, so that we begin with concerns that reflect our relationship with the outside world, move on to concerns relating to our families and communities, and then end up reflecting on our relationship with God and other brethren. In going through these psalms we will read them out with only brief comments–most of them are very short–and then we will examine the specific aspects of the psalms that may resonate with us as we reflect upon our lives and behavior.
Psalm 120 begins the Psalms of Ascents, and it reads as follows: “In my distress I cried to the Lord, and He heard me. Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips and from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given to you, or what shall be done to you, you false tongue? Sharp arrows of the warrior, with coals of the broom tree! Woe is me, that I dwell in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar! My soul has dwelt too long with one who hates peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” Psalm 121 has a similar theme, so let us read it as well: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills— from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.” Both of these hymns show where we often begin in our relationship with God. We begin in places of distress. We call out to God for help and assistance. We dwell among people with false tongues and lying lips who speak for war when we desire peace. We seek shade from the blazing sun, and desire to be preserved from evil and harm. And God promises that protection. This is where we start in our walk with God, but not where we end up.
Psalm 122 picks up with how we respond to the call from God, and it reads: “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.” Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together, where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to the Testimony of Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For thrones are set there for judgment, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces.” For the sake of my brethren and companions, I will now say, “Peace be within you.” Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good.”
Psalm 123 expounds upon the theme of God’s mercy towards us: “Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens. Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until He has mercy on us. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us! For we are exceedingly filled with contempt. Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorn of those who are at ease, with the contempt of the proud.”
Psalm 124 reflects a theme of gratitude for the help that God has given us. It reads: ““If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” Let Israel now say—“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us; then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul; then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul.” Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Psalm 125 is a reminder of both sides of God’s judgment: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people from this time forth and forever. For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous reach out their hands to iniquity. Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts. As for such as turn aside to their crooked ways, The Lord shall lead them away with the workers of iniquity. Peace be upon Israel!” Meanwhile, Psalm 126 provides us a look at the aftermath of God’s judgment upon Judah, and it reads: “When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad. Bring back our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the South. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Psalm 127 and 128 discuss similar themes. Psalm 127 reads: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so He gives His beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with their enemies in the gate.” Psalm 128, in turn, reads: “Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways. When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. The Lord bless you out of Zion, and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. Yes, may you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel!”
Psalm 129 reflects upon longsuffering, and reads: ““Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth,” Let Israel now say—“Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth; yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.” The Lord is righteous; He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked. Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back. Let them be as the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand, nor he who binds sheaves, his arms. Neither let those who pass by them say, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord!” Likewise, Psalm 130 deals with the patience of waiting for redemption, and it reads: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning—Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”
Psalm 131 talks about the simple trust we have in God as His children, and it reads: “Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me. Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever.”
Psalm 132 is the longest of the psalms of ascents, and it reads: “Lord, remember David and all his afflictions; how he swore to the Lord, and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob: “Surely I will not go into the chamber of my house, or go up to the comfort of my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of the woods. Let us go into His tabernacle; let us worship at His footstool. Arise, O Lord, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength. Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let Your saints shout for joy. For Your servant David’s sake, do not turn away the face of Your Anointed. The Lord has sworn in truth to David; He will not turn from it: “I will set upon your throne the fruit of your body. If your sons will keep My covenant and My testimony which I shall teach them, their sons also shall sit upon your throne forevermore.” For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His dwelling place: “This is My resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints shall shout aloud for joy. There I will make the horn of David grow; I will prepare a lamp for My Anointed. His enemies I will clothe with shame, but upon Himself His crown shall flourish.””
Psalm 133 was the favorite psalm of the late Herbert W. Armstrong, and reading it, it is obvious why: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing— life forevermore.” A similar sense of blessing fills the last of the psalms of ascents, Psalm 134, which reads: “Behold, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who by night stand in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord. The Lord who made heaven and earth bless you from Zion!” Both of these hymns reflect the blessings that come to mature and godly believers, who labor and serve God and their brethren in unity and serve as part of God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation.
The Psalms of Ascents, taken from the Hebrew term ma’alot, represent the ascent of the believer into the hill country of Jerusalem in general as well as the temple mount in particular that was taken three seasons a year for the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles. It is not surprising, therefore, that they would take a complex view of the state of the believer, and it is likely that some of these hymns will resonate better with you than others will. We can organize the Psalms of Ascents in a variety of ways. Some of the Psalms, like Psalm 120, deal with our relations with the outside world of unbelievers who are hostile to God’s ways and who want conflict and war when we desire peace. Other psalms, like Psalm 127 and 128 deal with our relationship with our family members and neighbors, as we seek the well-being of our communities as well as enjoying happiness with our spouses and the growth of our children, if we have them. Still other psalms, like Psalms 133 and 134, reflect on the unity and service of the brethren with whom we worship. And still other psalms, like Psalms 122 and 123, deal with the call of God and God’s mercy towards us.
Other concerns of these psalms are complex in the way that they reflect different aspects of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with humanity and our relationship with other people. Some of these psalms, like Psalm 120 and 121 and 123, call out to God in search of rescue from troubles in which the psalmist is in. On the other hand, other psalms, like Psalm 124, give praise and gratitude to God for having blessed us. Similarly, while Psalm 123 calls out to God with the expectation that God will be merciful to us as believers, and Psalm 131 shows trust in the workings of God, other psalms show a less pleasant aspect of God’s workings. Psalm 125 and 126 reflect on the judgment of God on the world and on His people, while Psalm 129 reflects upon the patient longsuffering of believers in dealing with the troubles that we face in this world. And while Psalm 120 reflects on the lack of unity that we have in a world where our way of life and belief system is in disharmony with the ways of the heathen around us, Psalm 122 and 133 revel in the unity we share with other believers in the community of faith.
The Psalms Of Ascents also leave us with a lot of expectations about how believers are to behave. Psalm 127 and 128 come with the expectation that believers will not be solitary individuals but will be happily married and have godly children and be a part of communities where everyone desires the safety and well-being of the community as a whole. It is easy for us as contemporary Americans, and easier for some of us than for others, to think of ourselves as solitary individuals with a personal relationship with God. And this is precisely the opposite perspective to the one that the Psalms of Ascents addresses. Consistently from beginning to end these psalms place the believer within a larger context that includes fellowship with other brethren at the temple in Jerusalem as Psalm 122 tells us for the Holy Days, and that includes unity and harmony with those brethren as Psalm 133 tells us and service as part of the royal priesthood of God, as Psalm 134 tells us. Whatever our own expectations are about our spiritual lives, these psalms consistently put the believer in the context of fellow believers worshiping God together, of citizens of Israel and their own local communities, and of members of families. We are not in this alone.
And it is with these observations that we close our discussion of the Psalms of Ascent and their relevance to us with regards to self-reflection as we approach the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. While each of us undertakes the task of examining ourselves according to the Bible, this personal and private self-examination by necessity includes thinking about our relationships with God as well as with other people. The Psalms of Ascents are one of the sections of scripture that help us to realize how interconnected we are with others and how our personal decision to honor and obey God has larger consequences with other people, depending on whether they are likewise committed to obeying God or whether they are hostile to God’s ways and therefore hostile to the servants and children of God. Likewise, the Psalms of Ascents are also complex enough and deal with enough concerns that how these psalms resonate with us and with our own life experiences and situations can help us to better understand where we stand and where our prayers and efforts need to be dedicated. I hope that as we read these psalms and other sections of the Bible this season as we approach the Passover that we may better know ourselves, better appreciate what God is doing in our lives, and better relate to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.