The Songs of Ascent: What are they?
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
It is important for us to read the Holy Scriptures because they were, as St. Paul said, “written for our instruction”, and through their encouragement “we might have hope.” The Songs of Ascent are songs of hope for pilgrims seeking their home in God’s Holy City. Some have described the Songs of Ascent as a “handbook of devotions for pilgrims”. A full ten percent of the 150 Psalms found in the Bible are written as songs for the journey back to the Lord and to His Holy City. These fifteen Songs of Ascent are Psalms 120 through 134 of the Biblical Psalter.
In the exposition of the Psalms in the Interpreter’s Bible (vol. 4, p. 639), the expositor states:
There is much in these fifteen psalms that fits in with the regular visits to the temple for the recognized feasts and festivals. But what has all this to do with us? Why trouble our heads with ancient processions and their musical accompaniments? Actually the question may be raised in many other connections? Why study the classics? Why write and read ancient, or indeed modern, history? Why trouble about the excavation of long-buried deities? Why? Because such investigations help us today. There can be no doubt about this with the Songs of Ascent, especially if we think of life itself as a pilgrimage. We are all travelers upon a path which, though trodden hard by those who were before us, is yet new to us with pleasant and unpleasant surprises at every turn.
So even though these Psalm were written by Jewish exiles making their way back home to a demolished city which they called home, there is something important in each one of these songs for us today. They were “written for our instruction”. But beyond that, when we recite, sing, or simply read these Psalms, we join with every pilgrim who has made the trek toward a closer walk with God. We join even with our Lord Himself who made the earthly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the great feasts of the Jewish year, and who undoubtedly joined with His disciples in singing these Psalms along the way. In studying the words of the Songs of Ascent we are instructed in how to prepare to enter into the New Jerusalem, and to offer pleasing worship to God in His Holy Temple.
There is an ebb and flow to these Psalms when read them in order. As we move steadily through this “handbook of devotions for pilgrims” we move out of allegiance to, and dependence on the things of this world and make a steady progression into the New Jerusalem. And once we are there, we learn how to make our home in His Presence, His dwelling place, and offer pleasing and laudable worship to Him.
The Songs of Ascent are our “map quest”, the directions we need to find our way out of this world and into the place where we belong as citizens of the Kingdom.