Hill Climbing Choruses: The Psalms of Ascent

“I rejoiced with those who said to
me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’” Psalm 122.1

Our family enjoys hiking in the Rocky Mountains.  For a long time, living at the foothills of the Rockies, we could get to great trails quickly.  When the children were young, they all had the challenges of their first hikes. We’d start with them in a backpack!  Then they would begin to walk on short hikes.  We’d increase the distance.  They’d inevitably complain as the length of our hikes increased.  When they started to grow tired, guess what?  We’d sing.  I actually had a collection of songs that would help them climb to forget how tired they were.  They were my “hill climbing choruses.”  Singing almost always helped my young children make it to the top.   When we reached our beautiful destination, we’d break out lunch and have a mountain top feast.

In the Psalms we actually have a collection of hill climbing choruses that Israel used as they journeyed toward Jerusalem.  You can find them in Psalms 120-134.

Physical Ascent and Spiritual Ascent
Over each of these psalms you will find the title “Songs of Ascent.”  This title indicates the function of the psalm in the life of Israel.   Three times a year, pilgrims would stream toward the holy city for their annual pilgrimages, making their ascent toward some great worship festival.   These are songs that help them get there.  The songs lifted their spirits as they madethe journey by foot.  While these were literal songs for ascending the Judean mountains, the physical ascent of each pilgrim parallels a spiritual ascent that they were making as they drew near to the house of the Lord.  Their spirits were ascending to the throne of God.

Preparation for worship
It is easy for us to approach worship casually and not prepare.  We treat worship like many of the other activities of our lives.  We just do it.  So on Sundays, too often we bust into God’s presence, but our hearts are not ready.  In approaching the holy one so thoughtlessly, we are not ready to meet him.  We are not angled to hear him speak.

The psalms of ascent stand as an important reminder that good worship requires preparation.   Another earlier psalm asks, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD?  Who may stand in his holy place?”  Then it responds, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD.” (Psalm 24.3,4)

Progression in the Psalms of Ascent
There is an interesting and relevant progression in these ascent psalms.  They start with people and their problems.  Then they turn to God.  They remember what he has done and who he is.  They give him thanks and come to a place of  unity and praise in their
worship.

The first ascent psalm, Psalm 120, begins, “I call on the LORD in my distress” (Psalm 120.1).  The people are immersed in their own difficulty.  Their eyes are on themselves.

As they approach Mt. Zion, they look up.  “I lift my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121.1,2)

As they travel closer to the city, they meet others along the road.  There are others on the same path.  “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the
LORD.” (Psalm 122.1)  The clans are all gathering to praise the Lord. “That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, to praise the name of the LORD.” (Psalm 122.4).

They recall that God is their divine companion and remember what he has done for them in the past “If the Lord had not been on our side…” (Psalm 124.1) “The LORD has done great things for us.” (Psalm 126..3).  They become more focused as they go up toward the temple. “Blessed are all who fear the Lord and walk in his ways” (Psalm 128.1).     They know that some love Zion and others do not.   “May all who hate Zion be turned back in
shame” (Psalm 129.5).  They focus on his forgiveness. “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord , who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.” (Psalm 130.3).  They pray for those who serve in the temple, “May your priests be clothed with righteousness.” (Ps, 132.9).  They remember the blessings of unity: “how good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133.1). Finally the songs erupt in praise.  “Praise the LORD, all you servants of the Lord….Lift up your hands in
the sanctuary and praise the LORD.  May the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion” (Psalm 134).

You might not have mountains that you climb, but each Sunday as we approach the sanctuary, we are ascending the LORD’s mountain.  Let us ascend as thoughtfully as these ancient pilgrims who made their way to Jerusalem.

Categories: Bible | Comments

2 Comments

  • zachicks says:

    The Psalms of Ascents have become some of my favorites, because of their earnest character and array of emotion. Cardiphonia (https://cardiphonia.org/psalms-of-ascents/) has been working on a Psalms of Ascents project for a while, taking versified English psalm texts and setting them to new music. I was blessed to be on this project and we’re putting our version of Psalm 125 (“Firm and Unmoved are They”) on our new album in September! Hopefully this project can help give congregational voice to more of these somewhat forgotten psalms.

  • zac, just saw this. Thanks for the link. Has been such a fruitful project!

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