The Pilgrim’s Playlist

How to Pray the Songs of Ascents

Having concluded the Songs of Ascents, I will provide one final thought regarding them as a collection and how I have benefitted from praying through them as such. I have included a diagram to help visualize the connectivity of these fifteen psalms.

As I have stated, the Songs of Ascents were psalms that were sung by Jewish pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the yearly feasts and festivals. Since our final destination is dwell forever with God in New Jerusalem, these psalms obviously have much to say about life as a disciple of Christ, which is itself a pilgrimage. For the Christian, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit means that we are each temples of God. We are each miniature Jerusalems. Yet we are also awaiting the coming physical reality of New Jerusalem when Christ returns. And sandwiched between these two manifestations of Zion, each local gathering of Christians to worship God is also form of Jerusalem, a return to Eden, where heaven and earth meet, and God walks with man again. Hebrews 12:18-24 calls us to meditate upon the how these realities are presently real to us in Christ:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

By the blood of Jesus, the heavenly Jerusalem is a present reality for us, even though we still wait for its physical manifestation. I urge you, therefore, to pray through the Songs of Ascents with these layers of meaning in mind. Use them to prepare yourself for and to reflect upon Sunday gatherings. Use them to stir your longing for Christ’s return and the material reality of the kingdom of God. Use them to pray for heavenly eyes, even as you dwell in Meshech and Kedar.

Songs of Ascents Diagram


Like Jacob

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”

Genesis 32:9-12

Jacob was a coward. When his mother hatched the plot to help Jacob steal Esau’s blessing, Jacob did not oppose for moral reasons; he only expressed concern out of fear of being caught. He then ran away when his brother began to plot his murder after the deception. Next, when Jacob finds himself in a polygamous marriage, he is bounced around by his wives, instead of lovingly leading his family. And when he desires to return to his father’s land, Jacob sprints away from his father-in-law, fearing that Laban would kill him.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is maturing in his walk with God, but he is still fearful. Now that he escaped his father-in-law, Jacob would eventually need to reunite with Esau in order to re-enter his father’s homeland. As Jacob feared, Esau seemed to still be angry at Jacob as evidenced by the 400 men traveling with him to meet Jacob. In response, Jacob divides his family, servants, and cattle into two camps, so that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. This was an sinful act of fear rather than faith, a predictable action from Jacob.

But then Jacob does something else. He prays. Perhaps Jacob prayed before this, but it is his first recorded time of coming to God for aid. It’s a sign of Jacob’s inching maturity, but it is also a great prayer from which to learn. It is an honest prayer of belief and doubt, where Jacob is desperately clinging to faith in the midst of great fear. The man with a demon-possessed child fought the same battle when he prayed to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

We would do well to learn from the honesty of Jacob’s prayer. Take a moment then, if you will, to break down the prayer’s components with me, studying how we might continue to strive for Christ-like prayers.

1. Remember who God is.

Jacob opens his prayer by addressing its Recipient. Before we can ever pray effectively, we must first know to whom we are praying. Jacob lived in a time of vast polytheism, and praying to a god is quite different than praying to God. And he made this distinction by calling God by His holy name, the LORD. If we are not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of merely assuming that we are praying to the LORD, the God of Abraham and Jacob. Few people have carved out household gods today, so we think that the identity of God is presumed. Unfortunately, many pray to their own version of God instead of God Himself. They pray, but it is ultimately for their will to be done, not the will of the Father. In order to be certain that we are praying to the God (not our version of Him), we must submit our understanding of God to the Scriptures. Make a habit, therefore, of praying with the Bible open before you, allowing it to answer and guide your prayers to the Father.

2. Remember who you are and what God has done.

Next, in verse 10, we see Jacob acknowledging his dependence upon God and remembering God’s past provision. If remembering God’s identity is primarily important in prayer, remembering our identity is a close second. Jacob understood that he was the mirror opposite of God. The LORD is mighty in strength, but he was weak and frail. This is true for us as well. Until we recognize our utter dependence upon God, our prayers will never be effective, since we will continue to strive in our own strength.

It is also helpful to follow in the pattern of Jacob by remembering God’s previous provisions. Jacob left his father’s land with only his staff, and now he was able to divide his own household into two great camps. God had never left Jacob, but when preparing to meet his brother, Jacob needed to remember that truth all over again.

3. Ask for help.

Here is what we commonly think of as being prayer: asking God for help. As we have seen, prayer is more than making requests; however, bringing our supplications to God is certainly a crucial act of prayer. Unfortunately, it seems that on this matter we tend to fall into two errors, sometimes in the same prayer.

First, we treat God as our personal genie. This kind of prayer treats God as nothing more than a prayer answering machine. There is no real relationship. No true communication between God and us. We only talk to God in order to ask for what we need. Jesus answers this pitfall of prayer by giving us a model prayer to learn from. In that prayer, Jesus only spends one phrase asking for personal, physical needs. He gives the rest of the prayer to praying for God’s holiness, for God’s kingdom, for God’s will, for our forgiveness of sins, and for our deliverance from temptation. Bringing our daily requests before God is a crucial part of prayer, but it is still only a part of prayer.

Second, we can also trick ourselves into thinking that God does not want to hear our needs. As we consider God’s holiness and our sinfulness, it can be easy to wonder why the Almighty God would have time to listen to our miniscule needs, but that kind of thinking is entirely unbiblical. God desires for us to bring our needs to Him. Christ urges us to do so. And Paul gives a similar statement, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)

God is not our genie, ready to grant our wishes at any moment; rather, He is our Father, who takes great care and delight in hearing and answering our needs.

4. Cling to God’s Word.

Jacob closes his prayer by clinging to God’s Word. The LORD promised to make Jacob’s descendants into a great multitude, so Jacob reminds God of His promise. This is important because it shows that Jacob’s faith in God was not unfounded. He was not merely wishing that God would protect him from Esau; instead, Jacob remembered God’s promise to him as the basis for his faith in God’s future protection.

Though today we may not encounter the audible voice of God nor His abundant financial provision as Jacob did, we have God’s promises laid before us on a daily basis in His Word. God may not promise us material riches, but “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) We may continually wrestle with our sin, but “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) We may often be weary, but Christ calls, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

The promises for us in God’s Word are multitude. Cling to them. In the long night of the soul, latch onto the Scriptures and cry out to the Father. For God is honored and glorified by such desperate and needy prayers.

Meditate on Jacob’s prayer of desperation to God. Do you pray only to ask God for help? Do you avoid requesting anything of God? Consider how to correct either pitfall.

Pray through Jacob’s prayer outline: remembering who God is, remembering who you are and what God has done, bringing your requests to God, and clinging to His Word.


For Forgiveness

And forgive us our debts, 

as we also have forgiven our debtors. 

Matthew 6:12

This is simultaneously the most hopeful and heavy piece of the Lord’s Prayer. It is hopeful because Jesus is encouraging us to come to the Father to ask for forgiveness. The heaviness comes next, “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” As we petition God to forgive our sins, we must also forgive the sins of others. In order to truly understand this principle, let us breakdown what Jesus means by debts here.

Christ calls us to ask the Father to forgive our debts, presumably our debts owed to Him. But what debt do we owe God? The answer is a sin debt. Each one of our sins is committed in offense to God, who is holy and eternal. David, after committing adultery and murder, prayed to God, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” He knew, of course, that his sin hurt others, but he also recognized the greater truth that God was most offended. Sins against people are also sins against God, in part, because God made people in His image. Murder is the defiling of God’s image, and God takes direct offense. But even more than offense, sin is disobedience, the breaking of His commands. Sin is, therefore, an act of open rebellion against God, and the punishment, since God is eternal, must also be eternal. We rebel against the Infinite One, and we suffer an infinite punishment, a never-ending debt.

Fortunately, God answers this exceedingly bad news with good news. Though God could not simply forgive sin without the penalty being paid (Prov. 17:15), He provided a way to both maintain His justice and display His mercy and grace toward us. God came to earth, taking on human flesh, becoming one of us. He then lived a perfect life, entirely without sin (the first and only person to accomplish that feat). Even though He did not deserve death as we did, He willingly suffered death by crucifixion in our place. He took our debt upon Himself. The infinite God absorbed our infinite punishment at the cost of His blood. Jesus, therefore, ransomed our lives with His, and with His resurrection, He secured the sole right to forgive us of that debt.

We can only ask God’s forgiveness in Christ’s name and by His death and resurrection. There is no other means of forgiveness. But we must also be humble enough to accept forgiveness. We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that endless guilt is an act of humility; however, believing we are beyond forgiveness is actually arrogance and pride. Theologian R. C. Sproul writes, “When God promises us that He will forgive us, we insult His integrity when we refuse to accept it. To forgive ourselves after God has forgiven us is a duty as well as a privilege.”

But we must also go further. If we have been forgiven of our infinite debt by God, we also cannot withhold forgiveness of lesser sin debts that others owe us. Matthew 18:21-35 is a parable of a man who is forgiven of a gigantic debt and then refuses to forgive a much smaller debt. The man ends up being punished severely because of his lack of grace. Recipients of grace must also be givers of grace.

Meditate upon Matthew 18:23-35 and think of any people that you need to forgive. Consciously choose to forgive them, even if you must continue to choose forgiving them each day.

Pray for forgiveness of your own sins, asking the Lord for grace to turn away from committing those sins again.


For Provision

Give us this day our daily bread,

Matthew 6:11

 After praying for God’s name to be holy, for His kingdom to come, and for His will to be done, Jesus now leads us into praying for our needs. It is important that our needs come after praying for God’s work because it gives us the proper focus. Knowing that God’s name is holy, not our own, keeps us from becoming self-absorbed in our prayers. And it’s the same with God’s kingdom and will. Even though we now begin to pray for ourselves, we do so in light of God’s supremacy and sovereignty.

When Christ guides us to pray for our daily bread, He is describing our daily provision from God. Being altogether good and loving, God urges us to come to Him with our needs and cares. In fact, we are commanded many times to make supplication to God. Philippians 4:6-7 is perhaps the best known:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Notice that Paul gives praying our needs to God as the antidote for anxiety. God desires for us to find peace in Him, trusting His lovingkindness towards us. He longs for us to walk in faith, not anxiety.

In this sense, making our requests known to God is really for our benefit. Jesus tells us that our Father “knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:8) Thus, asking God for provision is not because He is forgetful; rather, it is because we are forgetful. Each day, we naturally begin to forget the grace and mercies of our Father, and we will take our lives into our own hands, paying little heed to God’s plan and will.

It’s what we do as humans.

We constantly forget that we need God.

So praying daily for God to provide for our needs is a means of remembering that we truly do need Him.

This is especially important today. No other society, past or present, has experienced the prosperity that we have. Even without considering the conveniences of electricity or A/C units, most of us have little fear of going without food. Granted, our budgets may not allow us to continually purchase the types of food we want most, but often the danger of hunger is still nothing more than an abstract concept to us.

Or maybe water is the better example. Though we have the most convenient, clean, and reliable water that has ever been available on a large scale, many live on the verge of dehydration from not drinking enough. Safe water is perpetually at our fingertips, and we simply forget to drink it (or replace it with various carbonated, flavored syrups).

Both of these blessings were mere fantasies for most people in Jesus’ day and throughout human history. Thus, the prayer for daily bread was a literal prayer for daily bread, as each day was a struggle to have enough food to survive.

Does this mean then that our access to food and water are sinful?

Not at all!

They are tremendous blessings of God, yet because they are so available, we easily forget that they are not guaranteed nor promised. Even if they seem to be perpetual, God alone keeps them so.

More than ever, praying for daily provision ought to remind us of our true source of sustenance.

Meditate upon the daily blessings that God has provided you and upon His grace and love in giving them.

Pray to God in thankfulness for His provision and joyfully bring your needs to the Father in prayer, knowing that “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16)



The Father’s Will

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10b

 But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicing so—all of which the heart can do by itself—with prayer. And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty. No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ. /// Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (p. 9-10)

Prayer is ultimately, as Bonhoeffer suggests, not about our own thoughts and wants but rather about submitting ourselves to the will of God. Because we know that God is infinite, eternal, and absolutely sovereign, why would we desire for our will to be done at all? Paul tells us clearly in Romans 8:26 that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought”. Thus, as we approach God in prayer, we must determine that His will is far more important than our own.

To this degree, when we pray for God’s will to be done, we should hold no pretense about the necessity of our prayers to accomplish the will of God. The LORD will be mighty to do as He wishes without the aid of anyone, so praying “your will be done” is not about helping God through our prayers. Rather, in praying for God’s will to be done, we are, in essence, submitting ourselves to His desires. We could very easily throw the words with me onto the end of the phrase: let your will be done with me. In this prayer, we place ourselves entirely at the discretion and the mercies of God.

This submission is a summation of Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Praying for God’s will is a sign that we trust God and are leaning upon His understanding rather than our own.

There is simply no better way to begin the day than by praying for God’s will to be done because we are aligning ourselves onto the winning side of all affairs. Or to say it like this: if God’s plan will be done, let us submit ourselves to it now. Let us throw ourselves at God’s mercy, asking Him to guide us in all things.

Meditate upon the will of God and your responsibility to do it.

Pray for God’s will to be done in your life, trusting Him with all your heart and not leaning on your own understanding.


For the Kingdom

Your kingdom come,

Matthew 6:10a

Many Christians do not realize that all of Jesus’ teachings and ministry can be easily summed into one sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17).” The entire life of Jesus centered around the idea that He was bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth. The Jews of Christ’s day understood that this was Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. From the moment that God promised King David an offspring with an eternal throne in 2 Samuel 7, the Israelites waited for the appearance of that great Davidic King, who would reign forever over Israel and the world. By announcing the arrival of the heavenly kingdom, Jesus implicitly declared that He is the promised descendent of David.

Throughout the gospels, we read of Jesus’ teachings regarding the kingdom of heaven. Most of these instructions came through parables. In Matthew 13, after Jesus told the parable of the sower, His disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables. Jesus answered, “To you is has been give to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… This is why I speak in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand (v. 11,13).” Jesus taught about the kingdom in parables as a means of both revealing its secrets to His disciples but also concealing them from others. In other words, the kingdom of God is not all-inclusive. Jesus did not first come in the glorious and splendid fashion that the Jews expected; rather, Jesus inaugurated His kingdom quietly, unveiling it only to His followers.

This backwards and upside-down display of God’s kingdom is also on display in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In chapters 5-7 of Matthew, Jesus essentially presents the picture of how citizens of His kingdom are meant to live, which are all completely counter to what comes natural for us. For instance, we find normal and, sometimes, appropriate to respond violently to those who are violent against us, but Jesus says instead, “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt. 5:39).” Then He goes even further by commanding, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:44-45).” Citizens of Jesus’ kingdom must be ready to go against what comes natural to us in order to do what God desires of us.

In praying for God’s kingdom to come, we ought to consider three applications.

First, knowing that we are a part of God’s kingdom should remind us that Jesus is our King. Asking God for the kingdom to come is a prime opportunity to remember that our lives are all about Jesus and His glory and honor. We live to serve the King, not ourselves, in all that we do.

Second, though Jesus inaugurated the kingdom with His life, death, and resurrection, the kingdom of God is yet to be consummated. In other words, we know that Jesus is King, but we do not yet see that reality fully around us. Therefore, we should pray that Christ would make His second coming to earth to consummate His kingdom fully.

Third, this prayer helps remind us that God’s kingdom is expanding everyday, and it is doing so through the making of disciples. God has ordained for us to be instruments in the spreading of His kingdom into all the earth, which happens by obeying the Great Commission. Thus, we must pray that God would guide and use us for the coming of His kingdom.

Mediate upon the kingdom of God and your responsibility to live and expand it.

Pray that Jesus would become more clear to you as King, that God’s kingdom would come in all of Christ’s glory, and that you would be active in expanding the kingdom now.


For Holiness

Hallowed be your name.

Matthew 6:9c

To be such a key biblical concept, holiness is sorely misunderstood and overlooked. Most of this, I fear, comes from an ignorance as to the meaning of being holy. If this is so, we must seek to readily correct it because holiness is of tremendous importance. For instance, ancient Hebrew had no italics, underlining, or bolding of a text; instead, when they desired to place greater emphasis, they would so through repetition. If something was stated again, they reasoned that they must pay higher attention; otherwise, why would it be repeated? Thus, when the angels in Isaiah 6 cry out, “holy, holy, holy”, they do so with triple-repetition because declaring God to be holy is supremely important.

Holiness is probably best described as the “otherness” or exclusivity of God. Often God is thought of as being the most superior being in all of creation, yet such thought is far from the Bible’s teaching. God is not merely sitting high atop the final rung of the ladder of creation. No, God created the ladder! In considering an amoeba and an archangel, we should note that the archangel is not closer to being like God than the amoeba; rather, both are more similar to one another than to God. All things are created by God, but God is eternally existent with no beginning or ending.  When we speak of the holiness of God, this then is what we must have in mind: the infinite and unfathomable grandeur and uniqueness of God.

Our prayers ought, therefore, to be a tightrope walk between the boldly approaching God as our Father and fearfully coming before Him as the Holy One. Yes, we are now free in Christ to have intimacy with God, but we must still maintain the awe and reverence of God’s holiness.

Allow me to bring up one final principle here. What does it mean to pray for God’s name to be holy? Obviously, we realize that God will be holy whether we pray for that or not; rather, I believe that God urges us to pray for His name’s hallowing for our benefit. In praying for God’s name to be holy, we ought to have certain areas in mind. For instance, we should long each day for God’s holiness to be displayed in our lives, and we do so by exalting the glory and supremacy of God’s name. Praying “hallowed be your name” is prayer for Him to increase while I decrease (John 3:30). It is a prayer for us to be self-crucifying and Christ-exalting throughout our lives. Daily prayer for the holiness of God’s name is meant to humble ourselves, while lifting high Jesus. In short, it is the act of setting our “minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col. 3:2).”

Meditate upon the holiness of God, thinking deeply about His glorious supremacy.

Pray for the God’s name to be holy in your life, that you would live for His name to be honored rather than your own.