Ascend – Sermon Series on the Psalms of Ascent

We are starting a new series this Sunday (May 19) that will take us through the Summer on a section of the Psalms called the Psalms of Ascent, covering Psalm 120-134. Here is some information about the purpose of these Psalms and our plan for the series.

I remember that as a kid my family would take a twice a year journey to Plainview, Texas, once at Christmas and again in Summer. We were pilgrims of sorts on a quest, that included a really long car journey. Of course the trip included lots of family fun, even some hunting, and sometimes a trip to the mountains. Yet, what made this journey meaningful was the opportunity to spend a week with grandparents. The Hebrew people took three long pilgrimage journeys annually, leaving their towns and work in order to travel to Jerusalem. In the Torah (books of Moses) God gave His people three different festival celebrations, with the expectation that Hebrews would travel to Jerusalem for these events. These week long parties included the Passover, Feast of Weeks, and Feast of Trumpets. Since the city was on one of the highest hills in the region, they were all going up to the city, where there would be celebrating and rejoicing. But there is another reason Jerusalem was considered to be “up”, an ascent from even the highest mountain in Israel. It was the place of the Temple, the holy city called Zion, the place where God met His people. What made the journey meaningful was the invitation into the presence of God, to experience His grace and redemption. They were not only ascending up a hill, but they were ascending into the presence of the Lord. Psalm 120-134 are called the Psalms of Ascent, a reference to these journeys. This “Psalter within the Psalter” contained a series of songs the Hebrews would sing together along the road on their way. For many, the trip may have taken multiple days, so they may have sung them over and over again on the trip. The first Psalm begins with them as sojourners in a far away land, and the last few songs represent their ascent into the city. These songs express fears, struggles, hopes, and longings that can only be met in the presence of God. So they are songs for the journey for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem, up to the Temple to worship, and into the glorious presence of God Himself.

As with all of the Psalms, these songs were written for Jesus. He would have sung these as a child as he journeyed to Jerusalem with his parents, extended family, and people from Nazareth. And Jesus would have sung these with His disciples when they went to Jerusalem. He also sang them as a pilgrim. But these songs are also about Jesus. The longings in these Psalms find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. We can see the beauty of this as he probably sang them with His disciples on the way to Jerusalem as they went there for the Passover that would lead to His crucifixion. Yet, His ascent had a different meaning, different purpose, as He was sacrificed in our place to bring us back to God. Jerusalem is a place, but we learn that the real meeting place for people and God is in Jesus. Therefore he is the hope, joy, and expectation of each Psalm.

The New Testament community of faith no longer makes trips to Jerusalem for festivals. In fact, we are now the holy place, God now dwells within us. Yet we are often referred to as pilgrims and aliens who are just journeying through this world. Christ is our mountain, our place where we meet God, and our ascent is to look to the Gospel as the path to the presence of God. So these songs bring us to Jesus, they are ultimately about Him and about how He is the fullness of the hopes expressed by these pilgrim songs. It is our hope that this series brings us to worship Him fully and trust Him as both the destination for the journey and our hope along the road.

NOTE – Sermon titles and text descriptions come from the ESV Study Bible

Sermon 1, May 19 – Deliver Me (Psalm 120)
Psalm 120 is an individual lament, sung by someone living away from Israel (v. 5); his distress concerns the way that deceitful people are stirring up war, while the psalmist prefers peace. It is possible that the psalm originated during the exile, when God told his dispersed people to seek the “welfare” (or “peace,” Hb. shalom) of the city to which they were sent (Jer. 29:7). Because the Gentile lands of Meshech and Kedar are so far apart, some have suggested that “I” in this psalm is the people personified, but this is unnecessary (see note on Ps. 120:5). Worship in Jerusalem, both for the singer and for the Gentiles, is the remedy for this violence (cf. Isa. 2:3–4).

Sermon 2, May 26 – My Help Comes from the Lord (Psalm 121)
Psalm 121. This psalm seems to be intended to instill confidence in those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship (see note on Psalm 120 for the Songs of Ascents). The successful journey becomes a parable for the whole of one’s life, in which the faithful can be confident of God’s tireless care.

Sermon 3, June 2 – Let us Go to the House of the Lord (Psalm 122)
Psalm 122. This psalm celebrates Zion as God’s chosen city (cf. Psalms 46; 48; 76; 87), and specifically the privilege of going there on a pilgrimage (cf. Psalm 84). Not only is “the house of the LORD” there, but so are “the thrones of the house of David.” Christians who sing this recognize that in their gathered worship they are carrying out the task of the temple, and their Davidic king (Jesus) is present with them (1 Pet. 2:4–5; cf. Eph. 2:19–22).

Sermon 4, June 9 – Our Eyes Look to the Lord Our God (Psalm 123)
This is a community lament, as the references to “we” and “us” show. As a Song of Ascents (see note on Psalm 120), it envisions a situation in which the faithful pilgrims feel themselves to be the objects of scorn and contempt—whether from the unfaithful in Israel or from unbelieving Gentiles among whom they must pass, the psalm does not say (the words are general enough to include both). The psalm goes beyond simply asking for a safe journey; it seeks relief from the scorn (a visible sign of God’s mercy, which might even benefit those showing scorn). Christians should have no difficulty in praying the same way

Sermon 5, June 16 – Our Help is in the Name of the Lord (Psalm 124)
This is a thanksgiving hymn for the community, particularly for an occasion in which God’s people have been under threat but have been delivered. It is conceivable that David wrote this psalm in response to some deliverance such as those in 2 Sam. 5:17–25, but the words are quite general, applicable in a wide variety of settings; God’s people have known many occasions on which this psalm provides just the right hymn. The implication of the psalm being now a Song of Ascents (see note on Psalm 120) seems to be that the faithful would sing it in connection with their pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the deliverance of the whole people allows them to continue journeying there (see note on 122:6–9).

Sermon 6, June 23 – The Lord Surrounds His People (Psalm 125)
This psalm instills confidence in the Lord’s people, that remaining loyal to him really is worth it. The leading image is of Zion as a city surrounded by sheltering mountains. It is possible that some of Zion’s citizens might go over to evil, but the Lord will see to it that he publicly vindicates his faithful ones. This is like Psalm 122, in that it stresses the ideal of what the city should be (and the faithful will do their part to make it live up to the ideal).

Sermon 7, June 30 – Restore our Fortunes, O Lord (Psalm 126)
This is a community lament that recalls a previous time of God’s mercy on his people (v. 1) and asks for a fresh show of that mercy (v. 4). The psalm does not specify which particular mercy or crisis is in view (see note on v. 1), and it is well-suited to a wide variety of comparable situations. In such crises, God’s people may take encouragement from past events of mercy and pray for more of it. Repeated words that tie together the two halves of the psalm are “restore the fortunes” (vv. 1, 4) and “shouts of joy” (vv. 2, 5, 6). The psalm also reminds God’s people that their well-being impacts the nations around them (v. 2).

Sermon 8, July 7 – Unless the Lord Builds the House (Psalm 127)
The basic theme of this wisdom psalm is that without the Lord’s blessing, all human toil is worthless. This is explicit in vv. 1–2, and implicit in vv. 3–5, where the pious are to see their children as the Lord’s gift. Psalms 127–128 are wisdom poems in the Songs of Ascents. Wisdom themes are suited to worshipful pilgrims, because in the Old Testamen t, faithfulness in everyday life (the emphasis of wisdom) and vitality in worship go together (see note on Psalm 111). Christians need the same reminders. This psalm, along with Psalm 72, is attributed to Solomon. God gave Solomon great wisdom (1 Kings 4:29–34), though Solomon himself did not always abide by it (1 Kings 11:1–8).

Sermon 9, July 14 – Blessed is Everyone who Fears the Lord (Psalm 128)
This wisdom psalm expands some of the topics in Psalm 127. Psalm 127 ended with the “blessed … man” (127:5), and Psalm 128 gives a further description of this man’s blessedness: in the context of ancient Israel, it consisted of a productive farm, and a faithful wife and children around the table together (see note on Prov. 10:4). The ending of the psalm shows that neither wisdom nor blessedness are individualistic; both relate to the larger reality of the well-being of God’s people.

Sermon 10, July 21 – They have Afflicted Me from My Youth (Psalm 129)
It is reasonable to call this song a psalm of confidence for the community, as it reflects on what God’s people have endured and how God has sustained them. It could also be called a community thanksgiving, which celebrates God’s sustaining presence, or a community lament, asking that God continue to sustain his people against those who would harm them. As a Song of Ascents, it is well-suited to remind the pilgrims never to take their privileges for granted.

Sermon 11, July 28 – My Soul Waits for the Lord (Psalm 130)
This is an individual lament, expressing penitence and trust in God’s mercy. (Other psalms with prominent penitential themes are Psalms 6; 25; 32; 38; 51; 143.) The penitential element is geared toward helping worshipers to see themselves as forgiven people, whose only right to enter God’s presence lies in his mercy.

Sermon 12, August 4 – I Have Calmed my Quieted Soul (Psalm 131)
This psalm of confidence in the Lord models the ideal frame of soul before God, a “calmed and quieted soul.”

Sermon 13, August 11 – The Lord Has Chosen Zion (Psalm 132)
The theme of this royal psalm is God’s covenant with the house of David (2 Sam. 7:4–16) to establish the dynasty for the good of the people and, eventually, of the world. Most of the psalm expresses confidence in these promises; the requests are for God to carry out his purpose (Ps. 132:1, 8–9). As a Song of Ascents, this psalm recalls how the dynasty of David is to ensure the stability of the realm, especially of Jerusalem (cf. the Davidic Psalm 122). In the era in which the Psalter was edited, the inclusion of this psalm in the collection shows the editors’ faith that in due course God will renew the Davidic line (132:11–12).

Sermon 14, August 18 – When Brothers Dwell in Unity (Psalm 133)
This wisdom psalm celebrates the beauty of brothers in Israel dwelling together with two colorful similes that describe the blessedness of Israel being true to its calling (“when brothers dwell in unity”).

Sermon 15, August 25 – Come, Bless the Lord (Psalm 134)
This final Song of Ascents is geared toward a liturgical occasion, perhaps the opening or closing of a festival (depending on the identity of the “servants of the LORD,” v. 1). By the reading argued for here, this would suit well the close of a worship service.

 

 

 

 

 


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