Of the Psalms & Songs of Ascents: understanding the songs & prayers of God’s people

The Songs of Ascents are a collection of psalms within the overall Psalter. In order, therefore, to understand these fifteen psalms, we must first come to a basic knowledge of the Psalms as a whole.

The book of Psalms is a collection of poems within the Bible. Although the book’s arrangement may appear quite random at first, in reality, great structure and order is given to the composition (as is always the case with the works of God). For instance, the Psalms seem to move generally from lamentation to exultation. Hymns of praise are certainly present toward the beginning, just as songs of lament are found near the end. But the overall trajectory seems to go from sorrow of life to joy in God. Furthermore, the Psalms are not one book but five, which some theologians have suggested is for each book to serve as a kind of worship commentary (a soundtrack, perhaps?) to the Pentateuch, the books of Moses.

But what are the psalms themselves, and why are they included in the Bible? Fundamentally, the Psalms are poetry, which means that we must read them with a different mindset than when we read historical narratives or didactical literature. A primary target of Hebrew poetry is to be meditative. The terse wording is carefully selected to incite ponderings. Parallelism (where a thought is repeated in different words) is a common device employed to call our attention toward certain truths. For this reason, many verses are composed of two repetitious lines. Occasionally, the two lines of a verse will express antithetical notions, which is meant to be accented by the surrounding repetitions.

The goal of meditative reading is expressed in the two primary ways that the Psalms have been used throughout the centuries by God’s people: as songs and as prayers. Many are familiar with the Psalms being called the Bible’s hymnal. The word psalm means “a sacred song or poem used in worship” (according to Merriam-Webster). Fittingly, many psalms begin with musical annotations, identifying the tune or instrumentation to be used. The Psalms are meant to be used by God’s people to worship Him. The Apostle Paul affirms this by commanding us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, during which the “the word of Christ” will dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

In Diarmaid MacCulloch’s historical opus of the Reformation, he argues that “the metrical psalm was the perfect vehicle for turning the Protestant message into a mass movement capable of embracing the illiterate alongside the literate” (308). He continues to explain how this recovery of Psalm singing was used:

The psalms could be sung in worship or in the market-place; instantly they marked out the singer as a Protestant, and equally instantly united a Protestant crowd in ecstatic companionship just as a football chant does today on the stadium terraces. They were the common property of all, both men and women: women could not preach or rarely even lead prayer, but they could sing alongside their menfolk. To sing a psalm was a liberation—to break away from the mediation of priest or minister and to become a king alongside King David, talking directly to his God. (308)

We today suffer a great loss of continuity with both God in our worship and fellowship with previous generations of brothers and sisters in Christ because we do not regularly sing the Psalms.

Yet the Psalms are not just songs; they are also prayers. Throughout history, God’s people have clung to the Psalter as a prayer book, giving them words to speak to the LORD Most High. Perhaps the greatest example for us is Jesus’ prayer from Psalm 22 while upon the cross.

But how can the Psalms be both our prayers to God and God’s inspired Word? Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers the analogy of a child learning to speak by repeating his father’s words back to him as an explanation (11). By repeating God’s Word back to Him, we learn to pray how God desires for us to pray. The benefit of this is beyond comprehension, especially since true prayer is not simply the process of pouring out one’s heart before God (9). True prayer is centered on Christ.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.

Thus if the Bible also contains a prayerbook, we learn from this that not only that Word which he has to say to us belongs to the Word of God, but also that word which he wants to hear from us, because it is the word of his beloved Son. This is pure grace, that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him. We can do it by praying in the name of Jesus Christ. The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ. (14-15)

A common objection is that praying from the Bible cannot capture our emotions. Brothers and sisters, know that praying the Psalms does not negate and suppress our emotions; instead, they provide them with the proper and reverential language to speak to our Creator. The full range of human emotions is masterfully on display in the Psalms. This is because Jesus, as the author of the Psalms, lived the life of a man, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus knows the joys and sorrows of life; He experienced them personally. But He never once sinned. He cried to the Father in lament of being forsaken by Him, and His lamentation was godly, holy, and righteous.

Would you ever have the boldness to pray Psalm 44: 23 to the High King of Heaven: “Awake! Why are you sleep, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!”? Might I suggest that praying these words apart from the guidance of God’s Word could easily be a sinful rant against the LORD. Yet whenever we pray them from the Scriptures, we are repeating God’s Word back to Him, holding Him to His promises, and expressing our faith that He will not abandon us forever. The boldness of bringing our complaint to God from the Psalms is an act of faith, while simply complaining against God is an act of foolish disrespect to the one before whom our words ought to be few (Ecclesiastes 5:3). Psalm 44, after all, begins by praising God as King (v. 4) and declaring, “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever” (v. 8). The Psalms, therefore, balance our emotions, giving us the confidence of great boldness before God, while also reminding us of God’s inapproachable glory.

Like the rest of the Psalms, the Songs of Ascents are both songs and prayers. What differentiates this mini collection from the others is their specific function. While there are many suggestions as to purpose of collecting these psalms together as the Songs of Ascents, two are most common. The first suggestion is that these were psalms to be sung by the Levitical priests as they were ascending the steps of the Temple to perform their priestly duties. The other offers that these were prayed and sung by Jewish pilgrims while traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the annual festivals. Either way, we can safely assume that these poems were most likely written individually and grouped together at a later date.

I believe that the second thought is the more likely of the two, which has been the predominate view throughout history as well. Because they are believed to be sung during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they have often been called the Pilgrim Songs. Such a view makes them eminently practical for Christians today.

The Christian life, in fact, is a pilgrimage, and we too are traveling toward Jerusalem. We are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11), but our destination city is not of this world. We march toward New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21), which is our eternal home with the LORD.

John Bunyan powerfully captured this biblical metaphor in his allegorical fantasy story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In that book, the main character, Christian, encounters many tests and trials as he leaves his home in the City of Destruction to reach the Celestial City. The story’s goal is to conceptualize the life of a Christian as a great journey down the straight and narrow path toward that heavenly city.

And it’s all true. We are pilgrims. Wanderers and foreigners traveling a vast and perilous journey toward our home. Our love of adventure and fantasy stories, tales with action, suspense, and peril, comes from God designing our lives for this quest.

The Christian life only becomes dull whenever we forget this truth. The straight and narrow path is long, arduous, and full of danger. In the end, few will traverse it. A broader road exists too. It’s way is easy, and the risk is kept to a minimum. The path of ease is always tempting, but destruction is its destination. So we choose the hard road. Come what may. We walk forward, ever onward, ready to endure to the end.

Music is often tied to journeys and their stories. Tolkien filled The Lord of the Rings with songs because they enhanced the depth of Middle-Earth. The spirituals sang by slaves gave voice to their oppression and eventually gave birth to blues and jazz. Even the stereotypical ideal of a roadtrip is not complete without fitting tunes to accompany the mileage.

The great reformer, Martin Luther, called music the second greatest gift of God to humanity (the Scriptures being first). It’s not difficult to see why he believed this. More than anything else, music seems to be able to stir up our affections. Music can move us even when nothing else seems to. It captures both the head and the heart.

I’ve titled this series, The Pilgrim’s Playlist, because the Songs of Ascents are the Christian’s God-given soundtrack for our roadtrip through this life. They are hymns for us to sing as we take another step closer to the Celestial City in the distance. Like all good music, they speak to us. They keep the destination in sight even when our physical eyes fail. They remind us of what we have left behind, of what we will surely encounter along the way, and what a mighty hope we cling to. They are the psalms of the desert wanderers, ready for the Promised Land. They are our songs. The songs of the redeemed people of God, the followers of Jesus Christ our Lord. As we sing them on the long, hard road of life, may they also prepare us for the songs of praise that we will sing together in the heavenly city.

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