The LORD Surrounds His People | Psalm 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
Which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time forth and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
on the land allotted to the righteous,
lest the righteous stretch out
their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts!
But those who turn aside to their crooked ways
the Lord will lead away with evildoers!
Peace be upon Israel!

Psalm 125 ESV

 

As noted previously, the Songs of Ascents appear to fall into five groupings of three loosely-connected psalms. Psalms 120-122 serve as songs for beginning the journey as they focused on discontentment with present conditions, expressing trust in God’s safekeeping, and a longing to be in Jerusalem. Psalms 123-125 then revolve around the themes of God’s mercy, deliverance, and protection. The progression is natural: first, crying to God for mercy (123); second, rejoicing in God’s deliverance (124); and finally, expressing confidence in God’s continual protection of His people (125).

THE LORD SURROUNDS HIS PEOPLE

Within the first two verses, we are presented with the glorious promise of this psalm: God’s protection of His people. The psalmist expresses this truth through two comparisons to Jerusalem.

First, he states that those who place their trust in God are like Mount Zion, which is both immovable and eternal. While there is something to be noted of the physical steadfastness of a mountain, Zion is so much more than set location within space and time. Instead, Zion is also both a concept and a promise. As a concept, Jerusalem represents the collective gathering of God’s people for worship. As a promise, Jerusalem represents the gathering that will one day occur, when people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) worship together in God’s presence for all eternity. Therefore, the immovability and eternality of Zion are rooted in the faithfulness of God, not the presence of that physical hill. Indeed, for those reasons, I would argue that Revelation 21 reveals that we are not simply like Mount Zion but in Christ we are Mount Zion. I believe that the New Jerusalem being described is the glorified people of God, Christ’s church, Israel.

The second comparison made is to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. Having recently visited Bogota, I was reminded again of why cities are often founded in valleys. The surrounding mountains make the city feel as though it is secured within a natural fortress.

Living within the United States today makes the importance of these features appear less significant. Of course, there are always wars and rumors of wars happening, but those threats are still about what another country might do. Pease still hangs by a delicate thread, but I have never worried whether the people of Sherman, TX (a city about 30 miles away) will decide to invade Durant. Yet other than in Solomon’s and the latter part of David’s reigns, the people of Jerusalem would have faced that very concern.

Mountains, however, only provide a certain degree of security. Yet the safety that they appear to give God actually provides for His people. He surrounds His people, forming an impenetrable wall. Perhaps Martin Luther summarizes it best by declaring, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”

THE SCEPTER OF WICKEDNESS

The following verses then set their eyes upon how the LORD protects His people. Verse 3 expresses the confidence that the rule of the wicked will not rest upon the land of the righteous. Pay attention to the language used here. The scepter of wickedness implies the reign of evildoers. Therefore, the promise is not that the wicked will not dwell within the land of the righteous but that they will not rule it. Also, the psalmist does not promise that the scepter of wickedness will never fall upon the land of the righteous, only that it will not rest there.

These are crucial caveats to make. Throughout Israel’s time as God’s kingdom, the prophets repeatedly warned what Paul would later summarize: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Even in the Old Testament, salvation never happened by proximity. Furthermore, many of the kings who ruled over the Israelites very much wielded the scepter of wickedness.

Unfortunately, these things are still true within the church age. Although through church membership we seek to affirm one another’s salvation, the sorrowful reality is that there will always be those who never truly followed Christ. They are “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5), yet for all their immersion within the community of believers, ultimately came to show that they never truly believed at all. And this warning is not merely for church members. Just as Israel fell under the leadership of many wicked kings, so too churches will endure wicked leadership.

But even though these things must be present for now, the promise is that they will not ultimately endure. They will not last. The scepter of wickedness may pass over God’s people, but it will not rest upon them. The wicked may be mingled with the righteous, but it will not always be so. One day, God will permanently divide the wheat from the chaff, which is the promise of verse 5. All those who follow their own crooked ways will be led away by the LORD with the rest of the evildoers.

The concept of crooked ways seems much less harmful than the word evildoers. Perhaps this is intentional. Certainly, today there is a growing desire to separate the idea of evil from the Bible’s concept of sin. Let me try to explain. Within the Bible, sin bears the connotation of missing the mark, of failing to hit the bullseye or wandering off the proper path. Sin, therefore, is predicated upon not meeting a standard established by God. If something goes against God’s design, it is sin. Which means that sin can be both an action and inaction. We can commit sin by doing something against God’s pattern, or we can commit sin by refusing to obey a command given by God. This is the biblical definition of evil, to sin and turn away from God’s good and perfect pattern for creation.

But such a view of evil has never been gladly received. Sure, we will gladly call murderers and rapists evildoers, but refusing to care for the orphans and widows isn’t evil, right? It’s just little bit of negligence. Failing to rejoice and give thanks in every circumstance isn’t wickedness; it’s only having a bad day. Neglecting to meet together with God’s people isn’t sinful; it’s simply taking some time to rest or get caught up around the house. Sin delights in hiding its evil behind good intentions. The reality is that those who turn aside to their crooked ways will be led away with evildoers because they are themselves evildoers. Turning aside from God’s path and commands is an act of evil. As uncomfortable as that truth may be, I pray that you will meet it head on. I pray that you will see all failure to obey God (no matter how small) as an act of open rebellion against the Most High God.

Notice also the reason for God’s leading away of the wicked: lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong. The greatest threat upon the righteous is neither oppression nor persecution; it is that the righteous would imitate the wicked. Why is this the primary threat? For a righteous person to commit sin would negate their righteousness. Doing wrong is the characteristic of evildoers, while the righteous, on the other hand, do right. If the righteous become corrupt, then verse 4 becomes unnecessary. How can the LORD do good to those who are good if none exist?

Tragically, such a lamentable circumstance is not hypothetical but reality. As Paul quotes from Psalm 14: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Perhaps the bleakness of that passage would be easier to ignore if the refrain of not one didn’t continue to appear. Yet Paul fully leans into that dark reality by commenting a few verses later: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We deserve not to receive the good from God’s hand but to be led away with fellow evildoers. Such is our lot, the grave that we have dug for ourselves.

From that place the mountains of God’s surrounding presence look more like a prison cell than they do a mighty fortress, an entrapment by one who would limit our freedom. Sin distorts reality, making guardrails look like arbitrary confinements and twisting the commandments of our loving Father into appearing to be the petty rules of a tyrant. Thus, we become alienated from God.

PEACE BE UPON ISRAEL

But that can’t be the end, right? After all, the psalmist is praying and singing this psalm while clearly imagining himself to be among God’s people. But if none are righteous or good, how then does God possess a righteous people who are good with upright hearts?

During the psalmist’s day, all he knew was that through the sacrifices within the temple God forgave sin. He would have known, of course, that the blood of bulls and goats was not sufficient to cover the penalty earned by sin, yet God commanded them. So he would have, by faith, trusted God to blot out his sins… somehow.

What he almost certainly didn’t understand was that God ordained the animal sacrifices to be a shadow of the sacrifice to come, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Yet even though he did not know God’s full plan, Christ was still his only means of salvation. Even in the Old Testament, sin could only be forgiven by the cross of Jesus. Through worshipfully making sacrifices, they placed their faith in God’s mercy and grace upon them, not yet knowing that it would come finally and ultimately through Christ. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that the psalmist would have considered himself truly good and righteous apart from God’s steadfast love upon him.

The peace and security of Israel in the Old Testament, therefore, was the same as the peace and security of the church today. God’s people become God’s people because of God’s steadfast love and mercy upon hellbent sinners. The great joy of this psalm is that through the death and resurrection of Christ we are able to boldly pray for God to do good to those who are good. Not that we ourselves are good or have upright hearts, but that Jesus has granted us His righteous, giving us new and clean hearts in His name.

Peace is, therefore, upon us. We have been redeemed, and the God of all creation is no longer against us. Instead, He now surrounds us like the mountains about Jerusalem, like a mighty fortress. No greater security exists. As Paul testifies in Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If Christ (God incarnate) loved us enough to die for us, not even our own death can separate us from Him. He who died for His people will also secure His people.

Is this your hope?

Is this your security?

Do you have the peace of being counted among the people of God?

The mountains of the LORD will either be your judgment or your security.

Choose this day to repent of sin and lay hold of the righteous of Jesus Christ, that God’s peace may be upon you.

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Our Help Is in the Name of the LORD | Psalm 124

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone cover us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 124 ESV

 

Thus far in the Songs of Ascents, we have pondered the necessity of leaving the lands of Mashech and Kedar (symbolic for worldliness) in order to journey toward Jerusalem (Psalm 120), our need for God to be our keeper along the pilgrimage (Psalm 121), and the hopeful longing to worship with God’s people in God’s city (Psalm 122). Together, those three psalms formed a kind of opening trilogy for beginning the God-fearer’s pilgrimage. Psalm 123 then began the second set of three psalms, this time with a predominant theme of God’s protection over His people. Where the previous psalm was a cry to God for mercy, Psalm 124 is a song of thanksgiving for having received God’s boundless mercy.

THE IMMINENT DANGER

As is true of all the psalms, Psalm 124 is aiming to strike our emotions. Such is the nature of both poetry and music. They engage both the head and the heart, our logic and our passions. John Donne’s poem, The Triple Fool, is an amusing meditation on how poetry is often used to bind the torrents of emotion, while setting a poem to music releases those very emotions out again. As both a song and poem, our psalm does both seeks to capture emotion, like a lightening bug in a jar, and at the same time provide us a means of releasing those same emotions.

What emotion then is our psalmist, David, both capturing and releasing? It is the exuberance of being delivered from death. David’s passion overflows with the kind of joyful ecstasy that comes from having narrowly avoided his undoing. Perhaps you’ve felt that feeling before. Hydroplaning while speeding down the highway will do the trick. Adrenaline spikes, and you don’t seem to breath. Pupils dilate, making you feel like you’re seeing everything all at once. Your body feels the danger far quicker than your mind understands it. When you pass through unscathed, your heart is still racing, an adrenaline rush. Through sky-diving, bungie-jumping, roller-coasters, horror movies, and various other means, we seek to experience that danger in a controlled setting. As we’ve said previously, God designed us to tackle the deadly and perilous road of life, filled to the brim with both love and loss. One of the basic foundations of a story’s plot is the conflict, and each story crafted is merely an imitation of the Story that God has been telling from the very beginning of creation. We (whether secretly or not-so-secretly) are fascinated with danger because life itself is dangerous. Deep down we want to slay to the dragon to rescue the damsel or transform the wild beast into a civilized and charming prince because that’s what Jesus did for us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Notice that in the first verse, David pauses his thought in order to invite all of Israel into his jubilation. Remember that God made the nation of Israel into His chosen people by making a covenant with their ancestor Abraham. In Christ, the blessing of Abraham has now been extended to all nations. Therefore, as followers of Christ, we are God’s people, the church. David then is also inviting all Christians today to join in his song.

Verses 2-5 express the danger that both David and all of Israel were rescued from: a bloodthirsty mob and a raging flood. The imagery is intentionally poetic and ambiguous, but in our walk with Christ, we know the face of danger well. It comes through three general modes of temptation (Satan, the flesh, and the world), but the threat itself is singular: sin. John Piper concludes correctly that “nobody goes to hell because of Satan. The only reason we go to hell is sin” (Declare War on Sin). Ultimately, the demonic, worldly, and selfish temptations around and within us are only avenues toward sin. Sin is the danger.

The imagery of people rising up to attack is fitting, especially since God described Cain’s sin as crouching at his door like an animal stalking its prey (Genesis 4:7). God then declared that sin’s desire was contrary to Cain. Sin’s greatest lie is that it wants to make us happy. It promises to fulfill our deepest desires. We buy that lie every time we sin. We do not merely stumble into sin. We sin because we want to sin; we think that it will satisfy a need that God is not meeting. The LORD repeatedly exposes its falsehood to us, reminding us that sin’s desire is contrary to us, fundamentally against us.

Paul captures this notion profoundly with this simple truth: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The entire premise of wages is that they must be earned. A paycheck is the rightful fruition of a labor contract. Do a job; get paid. And sin is a work with death as the paycheck. Paul is exposing that truth precisely because we don’t often believe it. We lust because, for a moment at least, we think will be satisfied through him or her. We lie because we think it will put us in a better position. We gossip because we think it will keep us socially connected. Each sin presents a different promised end, but the wage is always the same: death. Like Levi and Simeon with the men of Shechem, sin offers false promises only to make us ready for slaughter.

Next, David describes his danger as a flood. Three times in verses 4-5 he claims that the torrent and raging waters would have drowned us. The significance of this imagery runs throughout Scripture. From Genesis 1, the waters (or deep) has a negative and chaotic connotation. As Creator, God brought light into darkness and order out of chaos. The global flood in Genesis 7-8 was, therefore, a symbolic undoing/reforming of creation. The sea is untamable to all but God, as any wise seaman knows.

Just as sin is as malevolent as an army of enemies, so sin is as destructive as a tsunami. The damage of sin is like a violent force of nature. However foolish it might be to underestimate the destructive capacity of raging waters; the foolishness of underestimating sin is far greater. Proverbs 6:27-29 uses the same logic (although with the element of fire) toward the sin of adultery:

Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.

Are you aware of how immanent a danger sin is? Are you buying the lies that your sin only wants to make you happy? When was the last time you spent time truly thinking of the sin you’re wrestling with right now as enemy that wants you dead or as a torrent of raging waters that long for you to drown?

Or perhaps, you aren’t even wrestling with your sin. The greatest danger of all is the one that goes unnoticed. No army can be fought until their presence is scouted. No disease can be treated until it has been diagnosed. Ignorance does not cause danger to cease; it simply forfeits the opportunity of escape.

Brothers and sisters, sin’s utmost desire is our death. Are you aware of the danger?

OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD

Yet despite the grave danger, our psalm is a song of thanksgiving, not lament, because David is exulting that God has not allowed these dangers to consume us. The key message proclaimed in verses 1, 6, and 8 is that the LORD Himself has saved us from certain death. In fact, as the psalmist begins, if God had not saved, we would have surely perished. Such was the hopelessness of our situation. In Ephesians 2, Paul went so far as to call us dead in sin and objects of God’s wrath.

Brothers and sisters, it is far too easy to forget what makes grace so amazing. We were as good as dead. We were without hope. Our sin is not just a problem for us. It was the problem. It wasn’t just one disease of many; it is a cancer that had infiltrated each organ system. Our plight against sin was the very definition of bleak. We blatantly defied the Author of life itself, the Almighty Creator. We attempted a coup against the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We deserved the flood. We deserved to fall into the hands of our enemies. We deserved death as our just wages. We earned it.

And yet God did not give us as prey to the teeth of our sin. He came to our aid. He became our helper, standing beside us.

Notice that God is on our side. Regardless of how anyone responds to God’s offer of salvation, the truth remains that sin is contrary to us while God is for us. Even though the LORD’s plans often involve pain and suffering in moment, He assures us that everything He does is in love. All suffering (whether caused by our sin or not) is the discipline of the LORD upon His children. Like a loving father and mother, discipline their children, not just by correcting bad behavior, but also by establishing godly rhythms and routines, so God uses everything to mold and shape us for His glory and our good. We must hold this truth with a death grip to our chest if we are to have any hope of overcoming the sin’s lie of happiness. Our sin wants us to believe that it is on our side and that God is our enemy. We must fight, literally, for our very souls to cling to the opposite truth. God is good, and He desires our good as well. We must wrestle with all our might to believe that.

But how does God show is love for us?

How does He reveal that He is on our side and that He is our helper?

He does so by breaking the snare of sin. What a powerful image in verse 7! Sin is fowler’s snare, and we are the birds. Like witless birds, we are being hunted for our lives, yet we are often utterly oblivious of the danger until the trap springs upon us. Gloriously, our God has broken the snare! He has shattered the trap of sin.

How did He break sin’s snare? He did it “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14-15). Upon the cross, Jesus nailed the debt of our sins, putting to shame and triumphing over the very demonic powers which seek to incite to sin.

For the Christian then, the cross of Jesus Christ is not merely an avenue by which we may be free from our sin. Jesus’ substitutional death crushes and annihilates our sin. It has been disarmed, a snare now broken. The cross is, therefore, not only the sole avenue of forgiveness for past sin; it is also the only instrument of victory over present sin and the only hope of future freedom from sin entirely.

But this victory over sin can only come from via the name of the LORD. Paul captures the significance of our help being in God’s name when he declares “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Salvation from sin can only come by crying out to the Savior.

But if the action is so simple, what prevents us from calling upon His name? Most often it is pride. Back when my wife and I first began dating, we were visiting my parents and needed to run some sort of errand. In a fit of nostalgia, we drove my car from high school, but after completing our task, we got back in the car only to find out that the key wouldn’t turn. Thinking that the steering wheel just needed some wiggling, I fiddled with it for a several minutes. Finally, after about thirty minutes of avoiding the inevitable, I called my father. His first suggestion was, of course, to ask whether I was using the right key. What an insult! That’s exactly why I avoided calling him in the first place! He was just going to assume the most basic problem… I quickly stopped using the wrong key, started the car, and headed home.

Unfortunately, most of us will waste far more than thirty minutes on unrepented sin, which is far more foolish. The prideful refusal to call upon God’s name for salvation is like remaining in a burning house because we can’t admit that we left the stove unattended. The sorrowful reality is that no one will be cast into hell who did not choose to be there. Many would simply rather face an eternity of torment rather than confess their helplessness. The cross, however, is predicated upon such helplessness. The glorious message of the gospel is that the LORD has rescued us from our sins through the death and resurrection of Christ because no other avenue of salvation existed.

The question, then, is not merely have you looked to the cross, but are you looking to it?

Do you see your sin as an immanent danger that only Jesus can save you from? Or do you view it as a pet that you have on a leash? The reality is that sin is more than happy to let you feel in control long enough to establish a good grip around your neck.

Have you cast yourself at the mercy of the LORD, and are you still doing so?

May each of us pray now and forever the words of Augustus Toplady:

Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling; naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace: foul, I to Thy fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die.

Psalm 121

Lift up mine eyes…
How?
They are so easily drawn
    to the things near by.
Created shapes and forms
    scream and cry
    for my attention,
    for my affection.
Zion is too distant
    to be real,
so I wrestle desperately
    to maintain zeal
    for that holy mount,
    for the blessed fount.
Lift up mine eyes, O LORD
for I cannot of my own accord.

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.

Deliver Me, O LORD | Psalm 120

In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.

 What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!

Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!

Psalm 120 ESV

 

God rarely chooses to do what we expect or want. Fittingly, the Songs of Ascents do not begin with the easily remembered words of Psalm 121:1-2, “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Instead, they begin with Psalm 120, a lament. Although lamentations are often abnormal for us today, we will discover by studying this psalm its important place as the first of the Pilgrim Songs.

LAMENTATION: A HOLY DISCONTENTMENT

Lamentations are songs of sorrow, prayers of anguish, to God. Such psalms comprise the largest genre within the Psalter. One out of every three psalms are laments. The Bible expects us to be familiar with laments because life is full of lamentable things. Psalm 120 is one such psalm, so the first question for us to ask should be: why is the psalmist lamenting?

He is crying for God to deliver him from the people around him. The description is twofold. They are deceitful and violent. The similar language of other psalms helps us understand what’s happening.

Psalm 109:1–3 | Be not silent, O God of my praise! For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.

Psalm 140:1-3 | Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps.

The psalmist finds himself among people who are opposed to God and His truth and peace; instead, they delight in causing strife and spewing slander. The Slanderer and Accuser is their father, for they are like him in nature (John 8:44-45). They willfully reject the peace and truth of God.

And the psalmist is distressed. Regardless of how the actual events unfolded, he felt as though he was a sheep in the midst of wolves. That’s one great point of poetry, after all, to capture the emotions of the writer. He feels lost and abandoned by God, left to wander in the wilderness alone.

While the psalmist probably lived in Israel, he claims that he was dwelling and sojourning in two lands: Meshech and Kedar. The first was in present day Turkey, while the second was in Arabia. These locations must then be symbolic. Meshech might represent the liars, those who serve false gods rather than the LORD, and Kedar may be the violent since they were Ishmaelites who regularly came into conflict with the Hebrews. More broadly, however, they seem to represent the Gentile world as a whole, the lands of the godless. If he lived in Israel, this would become a forceful rebuke that many of God’s own people have rejected God’s ways. Biologically, they were Israelites, but they were Gentiles at heart. Alongside David, he cries: “Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:1-2).

Such a lamentation is the perfect place to begin the Pilgrim Songs. At the heart of Christ’s followers must be a kind of holy discontentment. Don’t misunderstand me. Improper discontentment is the root of many sins. The discontentment of Adam and Eve (with pride) caused the first sin to be committed. It is proper, therefore, to pursue the contentment of God as Paul did (Philippians 4:11-13). We must learn to eat and drink and enjoy the life that God has graciously given to us (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

But another form of discontentment exists as well, a holy and godly discontentment. This psalm expresses it well. It is a discontentment with the world as it is, broken and marred by sin. It looks forward to something better. It longs for a renewed paradise, a world without evil, sin, and death. It hates the constant rebellion of God’s creatures against the Creator. It especially hates when that very rebellion is found in his own heart. Such discontentment yearns for peace and truth in the midst of a world of war and lies. It cries out for God’s final rescue.

This discontentment with current conditions is in the heart of all pilgrims. The Separatists aboard the Mayflower risked the cruel waves of the Atlantic and the brutal winters of the New World because such a journey was better than staying in England. The Israelites (despite their complaining) continued to wander the wilderness because the hope of Canaan was better than the slavery of Egypt.

The pilgrimage of the Christian life is same. We are in this world, but we are not of it (John 17:14-16). We hate the sin that both surrounds us and indwells us. Our hearts cry out for rescue, for deliverance from this life. Like the Israelites, we have been rescued from slavery but are not yet in the Promised Land. We are sojourners and exiles in the wilderness of this life. We have seen the eternal truth and can no longer be satisfied with the lies of this world. Eugene Peterson captures this discontentment perfectly:

Christian consciousness begins in the painful realization that what we had assumed was the truth is in fact a lie. Prayer is immediate: ‘Deliver me from the liars, God! They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.” Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know that I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of religionists who ‘heal the wounds  of this people lightly,’ from the lies of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who ‘get rid of God’s command so you won’t have be inconvenienced in following the religious fashions!’ (Mk 7:8). Rescue me from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.

The lies are impeccably factual. They contain no errors. There are no distortions or falsified data. But they are lies all the same, because they claim to tell us who we are and omit everything about our origin in God and our destiny in God. They talk about the world without telling us that God made it. They tell us about our bodies without telling us that they are temples of the Holy Spirit. They instruct us in love without telling us about the God who loves us and gave himself for us. (27-28)

Christian, do you feel such a discontentment with the world? Is Christ your ultimate treasure?

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the gifts of God in this life. By all means, we must! But even as we celebrate those gifts, our hearts must yearn for more, for the delights of which this life can only offer us the slightest taste.

If you are fully satisfied with this world, you will never complete the treacherous journey toward the next one. Do not allow “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19) so that it proves unfruitful.

Do you possess a holy discontentment with this life? Do you cry out to God for an end to your sojourning in Meshech and Kedar? Do desire to be free from the empty lies of this world, to live forever in the truth of God?

AN UNFAILING HOPE

The greatness of sorrow and turmoil within lamentations can sometimes blind us to the hope that is almost always present within them as well. Such hope is evident twice in this psalm.

First, we must not fail to notice that the psalmist grounds his lamentation by remembering his history with God: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.” Before he cast his petition at God’s feet, he recalled God’s faithfulness to answer Him in the past. Such verses are why we need to let the Bible guide the complaints we lay before God’s throne! He felt abandoned by the LORD, but he gently reminded himself that God had yet to fail him.

Second, he surrendered the judgment of his enemies over to God. Verses 3-4 are essentially poetic ways of trusting God to enact vengeance on behalf of His people. As suggested, the broom tree was used in the same function as coals, which provides a vivid imagery of God’s fiery judgment against these violent liars.

Like the psalmist, we stand upon the promise that God will one day rescue us from our sojourning. He will pour His wrath and perfect justice upon everyone who rejects His Son, and He will gather His people to dwell with Him forever. Our hope in the wilderness is that God will bring us to our blessed rest in Him. He will preserve us through every trial along the way because He will be faithful to finish the work that He began (Philippians 1:6). In faith, both we and the psalmist sing the words of John Newton: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

A PRAYER OF JESUS

While the words of this psalm must be the cry of every Christian, we must remember Bonhoeffer’s council that the Psalms are not primarily about us but about Jesus. With this thought in mind, we can safely claim that no one has more right to pray this psalm than Christ. The world itself was Meshech and Kedar for Him, and we are the violent and the deceitful. We rejected God’s commandments, serving our own passions and desires. We deserved the “warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree” because we actively chased after lies of the world.

With His birth, Jesus entered this fractured and corrupted place. The eternal God left His home and throne to become a pilgrim among us. Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).

Jesus had more right to pray this prayer than any of us. He had the right to pray down God’s judgment upon us, and yet Jesus absorbed the arrow of God’s judgment in our place by His crucifixion. We can look by faith for God’s rescue because Jesus “was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Are you a citizen of Meshech and Kedar, separated from the truth and peace of God? Then look to Christ, who has paid the penalty for your sins and now offers you life in His name.

Are you a follower of Christ, placing one foot in front of the other as you traverse the straight and narrow path? “Lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Brothers and sisters, “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).

May this song of Christ be an expression of our hope as we journey ever closer to our heavenly home. May we cry in our distress to the LORD, who has answered us by the blood of His Son.

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.