(A slightly condensed version of this article first appeared in the November/December issue of the Reformed Presbyterian Witness—reprinted with presmission.)
Many of us have our favourite pieces of music pulled together into a playlist on Spotify or on our phones. If we’re heading off on a journey, or we need to unwind, we set it to play. Within the book of Psalms there is a playlist for a journey. Psalms 120-134 all bear the heading “A Song of Ascents”—commonly understood to be songs sung as the Jewish people made their way to Jerusalem for the three annual feasts.
OT scholar, Alec Motyer, describes the collection as “possibly the loveliest single group of psalms in the whole Psalter”.
Among them are some of our great favourites—Psalm 121 sung at the start of many a significant journey; Psalm 122 with its joyous delight in gathering to worship; Psalm 124’s celebration of a great escape; the mighty cry from the depths of Psalm 130.
The whole collection is one of a journey. Starting far from home, they take us repeatedly towards Jerusalem, and eventually to the Lord’s house itself. Rescued, redeemed, returned, restored, rejoicing.
Alec Motyer points out that they are loosely clustered in groups of three with the first describing some element of stress or distress (trial), the second pointing us to our all-sufficient God (trust), and the third psalm in each case brings us home (triumph). This is the broad pattern for the first four triads, but in the fifth we find it all climaxing in the togetherness of God with his people unitedly serving him—home at last.
This journey theme is why they resonate so much with us. They are grittily realistic—no wide-eyed optimism here. In this world believers are slandered (120), catastrophe looms (124), saints are scorned (123), injustice threatens to reign (125), tears flow (126), and sin engulfs (130). But God is always sufficient, and the hope of home is always present. They fit our experience and our longings. They are perfect songs for the journey.
But what if there was another reason to love them even more?
What if they weren’t so much written for us, but for someone else on a journey?
Come with me and walk beside a group of men travelling south from Galilee to Jerusalem. One man is striding out in front with focus and determination. And as he walks he sings—they all do—these Psalms of Ascent. Listen to him sing them, because you will hear them sung like never before. They were our Saviour’s ‘Playlist’, his songs for the journey, before they were ours.
He sings of himself and his mission. He is on his way to the feast, to the Passover, but he is the Passover Lamb, and these are his songs. He sings of his trials, his trust, and his anticipation of triumph. Along with 113-118 these are especially ‘Anthems of the Dying Lamb’ (as Phillip Ross titled his book on Psalms 113-118). And he sings to us—assuring us of the outcome of his journey to Jerusalem.
Listening to him sheds new light on all these psalms, and it helps us with the psalms that don’t quite make it into our favourites. Too often we can pass over some Psalms because we don’t identify with them—but what if instead of trying to find our voice in the Psalm, we stop to listen for his voice?
When I started to look at them this way, Psalm 120 went from being an unnoticed psalm to a new favourite—to hear my Saviour sing of his longing for home, having dwelt too long amongst lying lips, and all for my sake, suddenly made it precious.
Take all you know about who sings them, and what will happen. Hear him sing these as he journeys to the Cross. Sometimes he sings of himself, sometimes to us, sometimes with us. Each psalm repays richly when you hear his voice. Here is a taster…
Hear him sing of himself
Psalm 120—Hear your Saviour sing of his longing for home “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek…. Too long I have lived among….” It was for your sake and mine he cries this anguished “Woe”. He goes to Jerusalem to walk into a maelstrom of lies, “I am for peace, but when I speak they are for war!”
Psalm 129—How precious to hear his lament of his long afflictions. He endured all manner of temptation and affliction from his earliest days for our sake, yet he was faithful.
Psalm 131—The exalted Son humbles himself—a precursor of Philippians 2. He restrains his divinity and says “I don’t know” to ‘matters great’ outside his earthly remit. He calms his soul as he heads to the Cross—what a monumental work! And he calls us not to waste his pain.
Hear him sing with us
Psalm 124—He sings with his people of the marvellous escape that will be theirs—but he more than any will feel the snare closing on him. Yet he anticipates his escape, which will also mean our escape—“We have escaped!” he celebrates with us.
Psalm 126—The Messiah sings with his people, recalling the great things God has done, and praying with us for the final restoration of God’s kingdom, even as he goes out to sow the seed in tears.
Hear Him sing to us
Psalm 121—As he travels to Jerusalem he turns to his disciples and sings about the one who will keep them, both in this life and forevermore. “He who watches over you…”. He is travelling to Jerusalem to do all that is necessary for us to enjoy this eternal keeping. Hear the assurance from his lips, “My Father, He will keep you”.
Psalm 122—He joys to go to Jerusalem, even if it is the place where judgment happens (v5), but he goes for his brothers’ and companions’ sake, so that he can say “Peace be within you… I will seek your good.” I joyed to seek your good, your peace. You are my friends and my brothers.
Psalm 133—Hear him sing of his delight in our unity. Oh how it delights and refreshes the heart of our great High Priest. This is in part what he is going up to Jerusalem for (and yet even as he does his disciples squabble about who is the greatest!) Oh hear him even now singing from Heaven of his delight in the unity of his people!
I like to think of the next time the disciples were heading up to a feast, singing these familiar songs, and psalm by psalm it hits them as they remember the last time they sang them, and the Voice that sang them in their midst as never before. Oh how much richer they would be to them. And now for us. Surely “the loveliest single group of psalms in the whole Psalter” just got a whole lot lovelier!