I have long had a favorite book of reflections on these Psalms of Ascent. It is entitled: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson. He introduces this section of the Psalms in this way….
In the pastoral work of training people in discipleship and accompanying them in pilgrimage, I have found, tucked away in the Hebrew Psalter, an old dog-eared songbook. I have used it to provide continuity in guiding others in the Christian way, and directing people of faith in the conscious and continuous effort which develops into maturity in Christ. The old songbook is called … the Songs of Ascents. The songs are the psalms numbered 120 through 134 in the book of Psalms.
These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity. What Paul described as “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
Three times a year faithful Hebrews made that trip (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:2-24). The Hebrews were a people whose salvation had been accomplished in the exodus, whose identity had been defined at Sinai and whose preservation had been assured in the forty years of wilderness wandering. As such a people they regularly climbed the road to Jerusalem to worship. They refreshed their memories of God’s saving ways at the Feast of Passover in the spring; they renewed their commitments as God’s covenanted people at the Feast of Pentecost in early summer; they responded as a blessed community to the best that God had for them at the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn.
Peterson gives to each of the Psalms of Ascent a watchword that summarizes its meaning:
Psalm 120: Repentance
Psalm 121: Providence
Psalm 122: Worship
Psalm 123: Service
Regarding Psalm 120, Peterson writes, “A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way.”
Two place names in Psalm 120 are probably mystifying to most readers. Peterson explains that Mesach was “a far-off tribe, thousands of miles from Palestine in southern Russia; Kedar a wandering Bedouin tribe of barbaric reputation along Israel’s borders. They represent the strange and the hostile. Paraphrased, the cry is, “I live in the midst of hoodlums and wild savages; this world is not my home and I want out.”
Psalm 121, beloved by many, is also undoubtedly misunderstood by many. The Psalm begins:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord
Who made heaven and earth.
We tend to picture the psalmist as looking to the hills and being reminded of God by the beauty of his creation. This is far from the original meaning of this psalm. In the time when this psalm was probably written, the Jew looking at the hills round about would have seen the places of worship of foreign gods. The psalmist does not look to these gods for help, but rather to the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Peterson summarizes the meaning of the psalm this way:
The promise of the psalm—and both Hebrews and Christians have always read it this way—is not that we shall never stub our toes, but that no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us.
The message is similar to that of Paul at the end of Romans 8. Regardless of our being accounted daily as sheep to be slaughtered by the world, NOTHING shall ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Psalm 122 is all about worship. Peterson expounds on its message in this manner….
As I entered a home to make a pastoral visit, the person I came to see was sitting at a window embroidering a piece of cloth held taut over an oval hoop. She said, “Pastor, while waiting for you to come I realized what’s wrong with me—I don’t have a frame. My feelings, my thoughts, my activities—everything is loose and sloppy. There is no border to my life. I never know where I am. I need a frame for my life like this one I have for my embroidery.”
How do we get that framework, that sense of solid structure so that we know where we stand are therefore able to do our work easily and without anxiety? Christians go to worship: week by week we enter the place compactly built, “to which the tribes go up” and get a working definition for life: the way God created us, the ways in which he leads us. We know where we stand.
Regarding Psalm 123, Peterson notes the importance of looking up to God, of realizing our servant position. He writes, “We would very soon become contemptuous of a god whom we could figure out like a puzzle or learn to use like a tool. No, if God is worth our attention at all, he must be a God we can look up to—a God we must look up to….”
We live in a society and culture that longs for freedom. “Freedom is announced and celebrated. But not many feel or act free. Evidence? We live in a nation of complainers and a society of addicts.”
What is the solution to this problem? We must realize that “freedom is the freedom to live as persons in love for the sake of God and neighbor, no a license to grab and push…. A servant Christian is the freest person on earth.”