Within the Book of Psalms, certain collections or groupings of thematic psalms can be found. One of the most easily identifiable is the fifteen psalms known as the Song of Ascents, Psalms 120-134. As you can see in your Bible, each of these psalms has translated the title "A Song of Ascent" above it, as this title is actually the first verse of each psalm in the Hebrew manuscript. They were given this name because they were sung as the Jewish people journeyed up to Jerusalem during their three annual feasts. One could title this collection The Pilgrim's Psalter.
These psalms chronicle and encourage the Christian's journey in this world, which was first brought to my attention by Pastor Paul Faris. Paul was a long-term minister in the RPCNA, grandfather of James Faris who writes on Gentle Reformation, and one who served with me and mentored me in my early years of church planting. This faithful pilgrim finished his course in this world and is now enjoying the fullness of the lessons he taught me and others.
Paul saw the Song of Ascents as capturing three stages of our spiritual journey. We first begin our walk with God by leaving evil behind (Beginning), make progress in our faith by working on various areas of our life to bring them in submission to God (Progressing), then, as we near our destination, ready ourselves further with preparation to meet our God (Perfecting). These stages are reflected respectively by dividing the fifteen psalms into three sets of five, which is visualized in the diagram below.
Just as our spiritual fathers in the nation of Israel ascended toward Mt. Zion to meet with God in the temple in Jerusalem, and prepared themselves for doing so along the way (Hebrews 11:3), so we as fellow pilgrims in Christ are to encourage one another all the more as we journey together toward the heavenly Jerusalem (I Peter 2:11). Remembering that Christ would have sung these psalms Himself as He went to the temple as a child and young man, then made His ultimate journey to Jerusalem and Calvary’s cross during the Passion week where He would have recalled them one last time, makes reading and singing these pilgrim psalms all the sweeter. He learned obedience and was made perfect through that which He suffered as He went through this dark world (Hebrews 5:8-9). His followers are called to do likewise.
Yet not only do these psalms encourage us onward in our spiritual pilgrimage. They are arranged like a beautifully-composed piece of classical music, which repeats themes with variation. Each psalm in the five-psalm triad repeats themes in related but various ways found in the psalms above or below it (this is represented by the small double-headed arrows in the diagram). For an example, notice how Psalm 122 rejoices at the thought of going to God’s house where King David was seated; five psalms later Psalm 127 speaks of the importance of the Lord building our houses through the gift of godly children; then Psalm 132 finally reminds us of the promise given to David, who wanted to build a house for God. Instead, the Lord promised to build him an everlasting house through seating One upon his throne who would rule forever. This was Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of David. Our journey begins and ends with Christ making a home with us, and with us being brought home to Christ. Other themes are similarly repeated and built upon in subsequent psalms.
This collection of psalms should not only capture our attention with its thought provoking structure. These repeated themes serve to remind us of lessons we must learn as we take up our cross and follow Jesus. We need to keep bringing them to mind for the edification of ourselves and others. Whether we are just beginning in Christ or have traveled with Him for many years, all of us need to keep preparing ourselves to meet Him. Discovering, meditating and applying this little Pilgrim's Psalter helps us to live out the truth of these words:
Advancing still from strength to strength
They go where other pilgrims trod,
Till each to Zion comes at length
And stands before the face of God.
-Psalm 84B, The Book of Psalms for Worship