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Psalms of Ascent


by Wye Huxford

Psalms 120 - 134 all have a title in the Hebrew text which is often translated something like "A Song of Ascents."  While it is probably impossible to say with any absoluteness, many scholars believe these psalms were sung by ancient Jewish travelers as they came to Jerusalem for the major feasts, "ascending up Mount Zion" to worship God.

Eugene Peterson, in the 1990s, wrote a wonderful study of these psalms titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  That book has been updated and remains in print and focuses on the challenge of being a follower of God in a culture where everything must happen instantly.

For the past several weeks I have been reading and re-reading these psalms.  Not in the sense of wanting to interpret them, discover what intriguing Hebrew word might be behind some English word, and all the "stuff" that might go along with good Bible-study habits.  Rather, I've been just reading them.  Often I've taken advantage of the nice weather and read them as I walked around outside - thinking that the ancient Jews who first read them probably weren't sitting in a temperature-controlled office or home, replete with a comfortable chair, good lighting, and all sorts of reference works should they want to dig into something in these psalms.  These are traveling psalms - perhaps best meant just to be read and absorbed.

They cover a wide array of life issues - and speak powerfully to God's care and provision for His people in the midst of struggle.  "I called, He answered" is right at the beginning of Psalm 120.  Each of these wonderfully written poems describes something about my life with God that is refreshing.  And I must say, reading them outside in the world God made has proved to be a great reminder that "my help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth"  (121:2, 124:8).  It is Psalm 133 that reminds us of the blessed experience of brothers and sisters dwelling together in unity.  Psalm 134 ends the Psalms of Ascent with a prayer that "the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion."

Less than a month from today is Thanksgiving.  We are living in a time when, looking in one direction, it seems that blessings are ours in ways too great for us to count - even if we follow that old hymn's advice and "name them one by one."  Yet, in a different direction, we are troubled in ways that frighten us when we try to imagine the destination of a culture so determined to walk away from "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy" (Philippians 4:8).

It is almost as if we are somehow being ripped apart by opposing forces:  The goodness of the blessings of God and the world He created surround us while the ever-creeping presence of godless outlooks gets closer and closer.

The Psalms of Ascent can give perspective.  In so many ways as I spoke of our own world, I also described the very world the ancient Jews lived in.

So, if you are looking for an exercise in spiritual formation for the next 30 or so days as we head up to the mountain of holidays called Thanksgiving, I invite you to join me in daily reading the Psalms of Ascent (120 - 134) outside if at all possible.  Let God, the Maker of heaven and earth, speak to your heart through these words in the context of the very world He made.

I'm guessing that it could make Thanksgiving this year even more meaningful than usual.

(Should you decide to join me in this activity, I would love to hear from you - wye.huxford@point.edu - about your experience.)