Tucked away in the book of Psalms is a collection of 15 psalms known as the “Psalms of Ascent.” These psalms, Psalms 120-134, held special significance for the Jewish nation because they were sung or chanted by men and women on their trips from their villages and towns to the city of Jerusalem for the three most significant festivals (Festival of Booths, Festival of Weeks, and Passover) of the Jewish calendar.
Attending festivals was a crucial part of the religious life of observant Jews, so it is not astonishing that the gospel writers often record Jesus in Jerusalem for these events (Luke 2:41; John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:2; John 11:55). To attend the festivals, Jesus likely joined with other travelers to make his way from the cities in northern Israel – where he expended most of his life – to the temple in Jerusalem. The most significant of all the festivals was Passover, which celebrated the Israelites’ rescue from Egypt.
It was the forthcoming Passover festival that encouraged Jesus to make the journey to Jerusalem in the final weeks of his life. While we may not have a written record of Jesus singing the Psalms of Ascent as he made his final pilgrimage, it is nearly certain that he both heard and sang them as he traveled. As Jesus walked toward Jerusalem, fully knowledgeable that outside the city walls the Jewish leaders would put him to death, these psalms are the words that helped him continue to make his way toward the cross.
Equipping Your Heart with the Psalms of Ascent
Because the Psalms of Ascent were on Jesus’ mind during the final weeks of his life, this small compilation of psalms has rich meaning during Lent, the designation for the days leading up to Easter that many Christians take to ready their hearts and minds for Resurrection Sunday.
If you would like to read the Psalms of Ascent as part of your trial for Easter, the following are short summaries of each psalm to give you some additional context for reflection. If you read one psalm each day beginning on the first day of Lent (also known as Ash Wednesday), which is February 17 this year, you will finish your third reading of all the psalms on Good Friday. Or, you may prefer to read each psalm for three uninterrupted days before moving to the next psalm. Regardless of how you choose to read them, these meaningful psalms can counsel your heart and mind toward the cross during this Lenten season.
A Guide to the Psalms of Ascent
The first three psalms focus on the actual journey to Jerusalem. Besides, Psalm 120 is considered a psalm of lament, or poem of sorrow. This psalm is written from the standpoint of a worshipper coming from a distant land. Feeling persecuted by their neighbors in their hometown, the pilgrims pray for redemption and express a deep longing for peace. This psalm is a wonderful reminder that we can bring our relational efforts and sorrows to God.
As men and women proceeded on the journey to Jerusalem, protection from the weather and potential thieves would have been a persistent concern. This psalm facilitates travelers to “lift their eyes to the mountains” (v. 1), knowing in confidence that God will watch over their lives and shelter his people from harm. Psalm 121 helps us to place our trust in God’s power and loving protection.
Psalm 122 begins with the pilgrims coming with their feet “standing in your gates, Jerusalem” (v. 1), and with joy they praise God for safely sending them to their destination. In Jerusalem, they pray for peace and security for the city because they desire to see God worshipped in his house. We can join with the psalmist and pray for peace in Jerusalem and in the cities where we reside so that God will be worshipped in the church, God’s current dwelling on earth.
Psalm 123 and 124 can be read as a pair, with Psalm 123 as the prayer and Psalm 124 as the reply. In the first psalm, the people pray to God and ask him to express mercy. We can join with the psalmist in this request, acknowledging God is capable and willing to extend mercy to us.
Attending the psalm of prayer for mercy, this psalm celebrates God’s delivery of the nation of Israel in the past. Like the pilgrims, we can choose to recall God’s work in our lives to give us assurance that he will act on our behalf in the future.
This psalm recounts the miracles of trusting in God whose protection is compared to the strength of mountains. While we might be tempted to look for security in other places, the psalmist prompts us that only God can provide everlasting, steady security that allows us to live at peace.
Psalm 126 proclaims that God “has done great things for us” (v. 3). The psalm recognizes the times of sorrow that bring tears but predicts God’s faithfulness to result in joy. As we recount God’s efforts on our behalf, we can look forward in hopeful expectation to the happy future of eternity in heaven even when we are suffering.
The middle psalm and the only psalm attributed to King Solomon in this compilation, Psalm 127 celebrates God’s gifts to his people, including food, sleep, and family. Emphasizing their dependence on God because unless he “builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (v. 1), the psalm draws us back to the reality that all we have comes from God’s gracious hand.
This psalm is a reminder that God has promised to bless to those who “walk in obedience to him” (v. 1). As we consider God’s authorities for us today, we can commit ourselves to faithful obedience.
Psalm 129 is a call for justice for the people who have persecuted the Israelites. The psalmist also asks God to take the past difficulties in their lives and transform them into victories. We can pray with the psalmist that God will bring justice to those who are currently being persecuted.
Psalm 130 is a psalm of confession that recognizes the deeps of sin but remains hopeful because of the assurance of God’s forgiveness and guaranteed love. Like the psalmist, perhaps we need to take time to consider areas where we need to confess sin and express repentance for our actions and attitudes.
One of the shortest psalms with only three verses, Psalm 131 is a prayer of utter reliance and trust in God. This psalmist pictures this theme as a content child with her mother. During Lent, we can contemplate the things we are tempted to place our trust in for security and instead seek to put our hope in God alone.
Psalm 132 recalls the joy Israel encountered when David brought the ark to Jerusalem and celebrates the promise of a coming Messiah. Looking back at the realization of that promise in Jesus, we can praise God for his faithfulness to his promises and thank Jesus for being willing to die for us so that we might experience salvation.
Filled with vivid metaphors, this psalm recalled the pilgrims of the benefits of living together in unity despite their differences as they came together to dedicate the festivals in Jerusalem. While there are still many ways that we might be different from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the more blessing of the Spirit that unites us over all possible divisions.
The final psalm in the Psalms of Ascent is a benediction and blessing for the people. As the pilgrims prepare to return to their houses, they are given a blessing to take with them on their journey. In the same way, receive this biblical blessing for the path ahead of you. “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face glitter on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).