The Pilgrim’s Playlist

When Brothers Dwell in Unity | Psalm 133

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

Psalm 133 ESV

 

Within this penultimate psalm, the Songs of Ascents prepare to conclude. Psalm 132 called us to meditate upon Jerusalem and its king and people. Particularly, it focused upon the beauty of God choosing to dwell among His followers. Psalm 133 now turns our attention toward that God-inhabited community, reminding us of the beauty of being a unified people for God.

THE GOODNESS OF UNITY

This psalm is a poetic meditation upon the sweetness of brotherly unity. It is a psalm of David, who certainly understood from personal experience the damages that strife within a family could cause. Verse 2 is an image of the pleasantness of unity by describing the anointing ceremony of Aaron as the high priest. The anointing oil was meant to represent the Holy Spirit coming upon the person to empower them for their task. The second imagery in verse 3 is of dew from Mount Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion. The first analogy exemplifies the holiness that must both mark and empower God’s people in unity, while the second emphasizes our dependence on God for our unity. Theses are, therefore, the basic ideas of the psalm; let us now apply them toward the brotherhood that we share in Christ.

We must begin by noting that the New Testament affirms the goodness and pleasantness of God’s people being unified. In the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus asked the Father to unify His disciples even as He and the Father are one. Paul similarly upholds the importance of unity within his letters. In Philippians 2:2, he states, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” To the Ephesians, he claims that walking in a manner worthy of our calling means being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). In the following verse, the Apostle roots our unity in our worship of one God, by one Spirit, into one body, through one faith, in one baptism, for one Lord. To the Colossians, he wrote, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). To the Corinthians, he appealed, “that you may agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). Peter, likewise, urged that “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).

Still, the New Testament’s warnings against disunity are just as numerous.

“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

It is worth noting that the list of the flesh’s works in Galatians is presented as the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit. While Paul lists fifteen sins, eight of them are sins which directly threaten the unity of the church. Obviously, therefore, the New Testament places a significant importance upon the unity of the church. But why is unity so highly emphasized in the first place?

The unity of the church reflects the power of the gospel to the world. Paul spends a significant time in Ephesians addressing how the gospel destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, the gospel alone was mighty enough to bridge the gap between those peoples. Similarly, whenever we stand firmly together without anything to link us but Christ, the strength of the gospel is made visible. And given that the gospel message is actively undoing the effects of Babel in the world, we should pray that its power spreads all the more.

Furthermore, unity is an indicator of holiness. God’s people are holy because we belong and imitate our holy God. Those, then, whose lives are marked by God’s grace will be happy givers of grace as well. Those who have been embraced by the Father will be glad to embrace others as well. Those upon whom the peace of God dwells will be peacemakers. When we strive for unity, we image God; we live as His holy people.

This is especially critical because the world cannot duplicate the unifying effects of the gospel. Skim through today’s media, and you will be met with the ideas of diversity and tolerance being held out as some of the supreme dogmas of the day. Yet in practice, uniformity appears to be the actual goal, which is made evident when differing viewpoints are demonized in place of being understood.

Christianity, on the other hand, should be the exemplar of diversity and tolerance. What, after all, could be more tolerant than loving those who hate you and praying for those who persecute you? What could be more tolerant than Jesus healing lepers and demonic mad men in the first century? Yet Christianity exemplifies these ideas precisely by not making them primary. We hold to Jesus alone as supreme, and, because of that joyous truth, we are then able to love others like He did.

Hear this, brothers and sisters, nothing is more unifying than the gospel. The reasoning is twofold.

First, the gospel beings by reminding us that we are all equally damned before God. Ephesians 2 says that before Christ we were dead in our sin. Are there different levels of deadness? Is the one who died five minutes ago less dead than the he who died 500 years ago? No, dead is dead. Likewise, sin condemns. Each sin is an offense against the holy, good, and eternal God, and each one, therefore, earns us a just and eternal punishment.

Second, the gospel makes us children of God by the exact same work. Christians are able to be unified because there is no hierarchy within the body of Christ. The substitutional death of Jesus bought forgiveness for each of us. We, therefore, have no grounds for boasting; our works were worthless. We each have different roles and functions, but we still form just piece of the whole. And we’ve been grafted into the body because of the Christ and Christ alone. We have all been made Christians by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less.

Too often we can begin to believe that being a good theologian makes us a good Christian. We can believe that knowing theology will bring us into a higher form of Christianity. Ben Myers aptly writes against this mentality by revealing the true benefit of a greater theological understanding:

“’All things are yours,’ says Paul: ‘all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God’ (1 Cor 3:21-23). We are not beggars hoping for scraps. We are like people who have inherited a vast estate: we have more than we can take in at a single glance. In the same way, it takes considerable time and effort to begin to comprehend all that we have received in Christ. Theological thinking does not add a thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are. (The Apostles’ Creed, xv-xvi)

Therefore, arguing degrees of sin or righteousness is utterly nonsensical. Gloating that someone is more sinful than you is like being on a sinking ship and rejoicing that someone else went into the water first. Likewise, boasting in your own righteousness is like a man bragging that he has more paperclips than his coworkers. All of our sins, big or small, condemned us to hell, and our good deeds, however great or numerous, were powerless to save us. We are all in the same boat, and that is fertile ground for unity. The gospel is the only solid foundation for true unity. It is the gift of God that He alone rains down upon His people through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord.

UNITY AT WHAT COST?

But if unity is such a good thing, we must then ask when is (or even whether there is) a proper time for severing that unity? The unity described is between brothers, so at what point does a person who claims Christianity remove themselves from the brotherhood? How can we discern between a true brother with whom we may sharply disagree and someone who has ventured into heresy, leaving behind sound doctrine and abandoning the faith?

These are the kinds of questions that particularly shape how we view ecumenical efforts. Ecumenism is typically understood as attempting to unite the various branches of Christianity together. Sometimes it is used as uniting all religions, which is really just religious pluralism, so we would obviously reject that understanding. But unifying all of Christianity, isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor? Should we pursue ecumenism?

First, we must remember that unity is not maintained at the expense of sound doctrine. A departure from the essential beliefs of Christianity is a denial of Christianity itself. Then, of course, comes the question: what are the essential beliefs of Christianity? We might rightly begin with the sort of proto-creed in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Since Paul calls this statement of first importance, we should conclude that a denial of the atoning death of Jesus and His bodily resurrection is a denial of Christianity.

But still, most Christian groups affirm those verses. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and even Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. Should we, then, all unite under this truth? Very early into church history, Christians began to declare a series of core truths during baptism which revolved around affirming the Trinity. This baptismal confession came to be called the Apostles’ Creed. Although it was not written by the Apostles themselves, Christians readily affirmed it as a summary of the Apostles’ teachings. This creed would go on to form the basis of the more detailed Nicene Creed, which clarified the divinity of Christ. If we hold to the truths expressed within those creeds, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are both removed from the stream of orthodoxy.

What about Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox? Both fall into conflict with Protestantism’s declaration of salvation by faith alone. While I have no doubt that there are genuine disciples of Christ within these branches of Christianity, I do not believe that the beliefs themselves align with the truths of Scripture. Our understanding of the gospel is so different that unity under the gospel is virtually impossible. This is especially true of Catholicism, which in the Councils of Trent declared anathema (or eternally damned) everyone who believes salvation by faith alone. By this still standing official doctrine, we cannot be united with Roman Catholicism.

What do we do then with fellow Protestants? We must begin by recognizing the differences between convictions and essentials. This is crucial because a person who denies an essential doctrine of Christianity is a heretic, which means that they are not of the faith, they are not in Christ, and they are still in their sins and under the wrath of God. That is the reality of being a heretic. O brothers and sisters, may we never pronounce that word upon others flippantly. We must remember that God holds unnecessarily dividing His church as a form of heresy in and of itself. To cause divisions within the church over personal convictions is the self-condemning action of a warped and sinful person. We must, therefore, guard ourselves against the extremes of both liberalism and fundamentalism. Liberalism seeks to place all essentials into the realm of conviction, while fundamentalists want to make their convictions into essentials. Both, though in different ways, undermine the essential doctrines of the faith.

But even when we agree on the essentials, we may have deep convictions that make it difficult to be unified. Some of these convictions will certainly run so deep that we are not able to gather together within the same local church each week.[1] Navigating through strong convictions is perhaps made easier if both parties can agree upon the authority of the Scriptures, which is a foundational belief since Paul grounded the death and resurrection of Christ as being “in accordance with the Scriptures.” If we can both agree that Scripture is our final authority, we should at least be able to understand one another’s reasoning. Without the Bible as our authority, we will each appeal to various traditions, philosophies, arguments, and viewpoints, yet if it is, our discussions should have a fairly fixed reference point.

GUARDING UNITY

But how exactly do we fight for unity within the church? Peter said it well: by possessing sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Unity is impossible without these qualities.

Sympathy urges us to seek mutual understanding. Perhaps this is the quality most sorely missing in today’s climate. Too often, even within the church, we tend to presume guilt by default instead of actively giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you actively seek to understand others’ viewpoints? Do you assume the best about your brothers and sisters with whom you disagree?

Brotherly love, then, makes us genuinely seek each other’s good. When you disagree, especially with a fellow Christian, do you seek to win the argument or to build them up in the faith?

A tender heart keeps us sensitive to the needs and weaknesses of others. Consider how a tender heart may be necessary for loving and shepherding someone who is leaving heretical spin on Christianity, such as Mormonism. The indoctrination of those groups is so powerful that a significant length of time might be necessary to help them see the true teachings of Scripture. To label this person who is laboring to leave heretical teachings a heretic could inflict a much deeper wound upon the already wounded. A tender heart, however, keeps us ready to care for the weaker sheep among us.

A humble mind keeps us willing and ready to admit our errors or faults. Note that true humility is ready to concede when necessary. Too often, I am fine with the abstract concept of admitting an error, yet I prove to be unyielding when the time comes. The prideful holding of ground can cause splinters within God’s people, but humility nourishes a church’s unity.

Given that we will continue to wrestle against sin throughout this life, we will need to possess these qualities in abundance. Our unity depends upon them.

Yet ultimately, our unity is reliant upon God. Like dew from Hermon falling upon the mountains of Zion, God must give us the power to remain unified. We must be led and guarded by the Holy Spirit in order to bear with one another in love.

Indeed, whenever unity is present, true and biblical unity, the blessing of God is surely to be found. A people cannot be united by the Living Water and not themselves become fountains of that same Water. A church that is unified both in spirit and in truth becomes a conduit for God’s blessing. We glimpse the glories and goodness of eternal life with God whenever we participate in the blessing of the communion of the saints here.

Unity, indeed, is pleasant. Have you savored it yet?

May we, therefore, strive for unity with one another.

May we earnestly seek unity through sympathy, brotherly love, tender hearts, and humble minds.

May we keep the gospel front and center of our lives, knowing that only it can destroy the walls of hostility caused by our sins.

May Jesus both unify and glorify His church.


[1] Although, I believe, we should balance this thought with the realities of church life within the New Testament. For example, Jesus told the church of Sardis that they were a dead church with nothing more than a reputation for being alive. For the believers in Sardis, there was no other church for them to move to. They were forced to face the reality that Jesus was speaking to and of them. Their collective repentance would also need to be done as individuals.

Advertisements
The Pilgrim’s Playlist

I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills | Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

Psalm 121 ESV

 

Last week we began the Songs of Ascents with Psalm 120’s lamentation over living among those who reject God, which was fitting since every pilgrimage must begin with a discontentment for present circumstances. Psalm 121 presents the next steps of fixing our eyes upon our destination and establishing our hope that God will keep us safe through the many dangers that meet us along the way.

LOOKING TO THE HILLS

No one will ever venture away from home and the comfort of normalcy unless a yearning has stirred within them for more. Such is the holy discontentment that we described previously. We cannot live as strangers and exiles in this world until we have become sufficiently disillusioned with the world’s many promises of joy and satisfaction. To use the language of these psalms, we will not take the risk of traveling to Jerusalem without being first convinced that it is more glorious than Meshech and Kedar.

But now that we have experienced this discontentment, what is the next step? We lift our eyes toward our destination, toward God’s holy hill, Jerusalem. Interestingly, even though these first two verses sound much more hopeful than Psalm 120, they are actually expressing the same essential idea. Through his lament, the psalmist of 120 expressed his hope that God would ultimately rescue him from his sojourning in Meshech and dwelling in Kedar. Verses 1-2 of Psalm 121 now provide an explicit declaration of God’s expectant rescue as well.

We should make a note that many commentators view the hills of verse 1 in a negative light. They suggest that the psalmist is declaring that he will not fix his eyes upon the worshiping of idols that often occurred on the high places. While this interpretation is certainly plausible, I believe that the hills are instead representative of Jerusalem, and the psalmist is declaring his intention to look away from the things of this world and upward to God.

Sight is a crucial symbol within the Bible because we will walk toward what we are looking at. Only foolishness would claim that we can continue to move forward while setting our gaze upon what is beside or behind us. The high speed of automobiles helps to solidify this point. Far too many accidents occur because the driver is distracted with something in the backseat. Likewise, no hiker would ever attempt to navigate a rocky trail with his eyes fixated on something behind him. In the same manner, the hard and narrow path that leads to life is easy to stray from if our eyes are not set upon our destination. Our goal of eternal life, the Celestial City, is like the hill of Jerusalem, and we must have our eyes lifted toward it. The danger of veering off the path is too great to do otherwise.

Jesus gives this very warning to a potential follower in Luke 9. In verse 61, the man declares to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Seems reasonable, right? Who knew when the man would see his family again since Jesus had an itinerary ministry? Furthermore, many who became disciples of previous “messiahs” met their end via the sword of Rome. Why should he not want to say farewell to his family? Yet Jesus answers the man, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62).

Does this seem harsh?

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan portrays a similar scene. The main character, Christian, becomes convinced that his city (the City of Destruction) is doomed to meet the fiery wrath of God and that he must journey to the Celestial City in order to be saved. Upon learning this knowledge, Christian becomes incredibly distraught, and his wife, children, and neighbors all attempt to calm his fears. Eventually, he is told by Evangelist to flee this destruction by going to the Wicket Gate and beginning his journey down the Narrow Way. Christian’s response is immediate:

Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! Life! Eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain. (4)

Such an extreme response is necessary for following Christ. He has also demanded, after all, that we must love Him more than our own family (Matthew 10:37). The choice to follow Christ, therefore, cannot be made flippantly. To be a disciple of Jesus is to bear a cross (Matthew 10:38), being marked by death even as we yet live. If we seek to be like our master and teacher, how can we expect anything more pleasant than the humiliating rejection that He was given via the cross (Matthew 10:24-25). Becoming Christ’s disciple means choosing the path of greatest resistance, the way of rejecting the comforts and promises of this life. It means lifting our eyes toward the hills and the God who dwells in them. It means becoming an enemy to those who hate God and His Word. It means becoming a foreigner in the very place we once called home. It means considering our life lost for the hope of finding true life in Christ.

Such an action is exclusively individualistic.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying.

Far too often we forget the essential component of community in the life of the believer. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian who is outside of a local church. The assurance of our salvation is given to us through the affirmation of our brothers and sisters around us. We need each other far more than we can truly comprehend.

Yet salvation itself is not a communal event. The blood of Christ does not redeem entire families by simple proximity to a Christian. The journey of faith is one that each of us must walk, and in the end, we must each stand before God alone, naked and bare before His judgment. No one will simply wander into the gates of heaven. Many will enter stumbling and crawling, but no one will just happen to find the entrance. Few will find the narrow gate that leads to life. Find implies the necessity of searching.

Are you searching?

Have you lifted your eyes to the hills of the LORD?

Like Christian, have you placed your fingers in your ears and fled from sin and onto the path of life?

The journey can only begin with eyes lifted toward Jerusalem, toward our eternal home with the LORD.

THE LORD IS YOUR KEEPER

The main theme from verse 2 onward is God’s preserving power upon His people. Keep (or keeper) is used six times within the final six verses, making the point of these verses far from obscure. Like a resounding gong, this psalm seeks to drive the promise of God’s providential protection of His people into our minds and hearts. The LORD, our God, will keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.”

But why do we need this promise?

From what dangers do we need to be kept?

While I am not frightened of flying, few can deny how unnerving the idea of speeding hundreds of miles per hour tens of thousands of feet in the air for several hours at a time is. Consider that the first commercial airline flight took place on January 1, 1914, which means that the airline industry is only 105 years old. Something should be slightly unsettling about that knowledge. And yet before June, I plan to spend approximately 56 hours in the air.

Why take such risks?

For the sake of reaching the destination.

Journeys are dangerous, but some destinations are worth the danger. A pilgrimage is not for the fainthearted because staying home is always safer than traveling. By foot, car, boat, or plan, traveling is risky business. To quote Bilbo’s wise words to his nephew: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Fittingly, the first danger that the psalmist acknowledges is that our feet might slip. In a society where walking was the primary mode of travel, a sprained or broken ankle is a far greater inconvenience than a flat tire. But there is also the danger of our feet being swept off the path. This may come through carelessness, a failure to diligently follow directions. Or it could occur through dangers that force a detour. Whether our feet become injured, we wander from the path, or we are pushed off the road, each poses a serious threat to reaching our destination.

The elements are the second danger of which the psalmist warns. Being struck by the sun and moon in verse 6 may not sound like great threats today, but let’s consider their meaning. The sun is certainly easier to understand. Living in the southern Oklahoma, news stories can be read each summer of individuals who passed away due to having a heatstroke.

The moon is a bit different. The word lunacy derives from the belief that the moon could have direct effects upon one’s mental health. Perhaps this thought could be easily dismissed as a worldly superstition, since the moon’s varying gravitational pull does not seem to impact cognitive behavior. Or perhaps being moonstruck was caused by the comparatively great light of a full moon in a world without electricity. Maybe this “lunacy” was the result of a disrupted circadian rhythm, which we now know can have serious ramifications upon a person’s mental health.

Regardless, the psalmist’s point in using the sun and moon is to illustrate the unavoidable dangers of the natural world. Due to the sin of Adam and Eve, all of creation was plunged into the darkness and brokenness of sin. The earth, which was once meant to be cultivated into a gigantic Eden, now frequently harms we who were placed in dominion over it. Without proper protection, the sun and moon that give us light can also strike us down.

For the third danger, the psalmist simply states all evil. Unfortunately, the risk of traveling is greater than simply losing our way or meeting an unavoidable natural disaster; there is also the threat of wicked men. The heartbreaking reality is that there are people who earn profit for themselves through inflicting harm on others. White-collar conmen, drug dealers, or sex traffickers, the world has a greater number of truly malevolent individuals than we ever dare to think about. Especially when people design attacks purely to cause terror, the natural response is to shrink back in fear, to hide ourselves away from the rest of society, to retreat from the world.

It truly is dangerous business to walk out your door. Possibly more so than we understand. In fact, given that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is symbolic for the life of a Christian, we should not be surprised to discover that these dangers can also be symbolic for our spiritual journey. It is often said that the three enemies of our walk with Christ are our own flesh, the influence of the world, and the wiles of the devil. The dangers within this psalm seem to parallel those enemies.

Psalm 73 uses the imagery of feet slipping to describe the psalmist almost falling into his envy of the foolish and prosperous. Therefore, our wandering feet could easily be counted as our flesh’s tendency to wander away from the LORD.

The sun and moon, which are ever-present in this life, parallel with the influence of the world upon believers. Like the sun and moon, we cannot exist apart from the world, yet we must always be wary of their dangers, which are all the more intensified by their ubiquitous presence.

Finally, the maliciousness of men is readily compared to the evil one, from whom we pray to God for deliverance. If these symbolic interpretations seem like a stretch, I would argue that the poetic nature of the Psalms absolutely warrants these types of application.

To be honest, with all these dangers in mind, life will probably go much smoother if you do not follow Christ, just as staying home is less risky than traveling abroad.

Walking out your door will always have greater risk than staying behind it.

Picking up a cross will always be harder than leaving it on the ground.

Dying to self will never be immediately more appealing than living for self.

Following Christ is a call to come and die. It means acknowledging that our very bodies are not our own but were bought with the price of Jesus’ blood, making us His bondservants, slaves to His grace.

His yoke is easy.

His burden is light.

But the way is narrow and hard.

Few will find the gate to life at the path’s end.

Following Christ is a one-way flight, a journey from which there is no return.

Only those who endure to the end will be saved. The call for endurance, of course, implicates difficulty.

With so many “dangers, toils, and snares,” how can we ever hope to arrive safely at Jerusalem, the Celestial City?

The psalmist answers by admitting that we have no such endurance within ourselves. God alone can keep us secure until the end. He expresses this confidence in God for three reasons.

First, God does not slumber. By God’s design, we are never more vulnerable than when we sleep. Of course, we can certainly wake ourselves quickly when danger may be near, but sleep itself remains a state of helplessness. I believe this is meant to be a divine limitation upon our pride. We can never escape the necessity of sleep; thereby, we are daily reminded of our creatureliness, that will never be gods. Repeatedly the New Testament writers urge us to be watchful and to stay awake, yet we are only capable of so much vigilance. Our own attentiveness can never fully protect. We are limited, finite, and dependent upon rest. Our God, however, is not. His rest upon the seventh day of creation was, much like Jesus’ baptism, intended to model our behavior. The LORD has no limitations nor does anything lie outside His watchful gaze. Even among the dangers around us, we can pray with David: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

Second, as God kept Israel, so He will keep us individually. Here the psalmist is calling us to reflect upon God’s steadfast love toward His people in general in order to find confidence in Him personally. The account that is repeatedly remembered in the Scriptures is the Exodus. But as Christians, we are now able to also recount the greater exodus, how God freed us from our slavery to sin. If God was willing to rescue us from our sins by the blood of His Son, how much more will He be faithful to deliver us from other dangers as well!

Third, God made the heavens and the earth. It is glorious news that God desires to be our helper and keeper, but that fact remains nothing more than a pleasant sentiment unless God can actually do it. Joyously, the LORD’s hand is not to short to save (Isaiah 59:1)! Because He is the all-mighty and sovereign Creator, God is entirely able to keep us “from this time forth and forevermore.” What a magnificent truth! God absolutely can preserve us to the very end of our journey, and, in fact, this is our only hope of reaching our destination. Just as we are justified by God’s grace, so are we also preserved by His grace. Without the strength and guide of the Spirit within us, we could never endure to the end and be saved.

Of course, this promise of perseverance does not guarantee ease. God does not promise to make the journey smooth for His people; He promises to see them safely to the end. Often it is through the challenges and hardships that God both teaches and shapes us. By His providence, the dangers around us become the instruments of our growth and progress. Our great hope, therefore, is not that we will be spared from all tragedy, sorrow, and pain; it is that in the midst of those things God will ultimately work each of them out for His glory and our good.

Brothers and sisters, lift your eyes up to the hills. Set your sights upon Jerusalem, our heavenly home with the God. The journey is perilous indeed with dangers always at hand. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), yet by the LORD’s strength and provision, those who seek it will find it (Matthew 7:7-8). Follow Christ and look to Him as your keeper both now and forevermore.

The Pilgrim’s Playlist

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.