Songs for the Journey Home: The Purpose of the Songs of Ascents

Psalms is a book. As such, it demands to be read like others, especially taking into account context and structure. Although this is often difficult, collections within the larger Psalter demonstrate the benefit and justify the methodology. I say this, because I would like to share a few thoughts regarding the collection of Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), beginning with the larger picture and then perhaps providing some further reflections on individual psalms in later days. So … today you get my purpose statement (albeit with little explanation).

The collection of Songs of Ascents is an eschatological interpretation/application of the Priestly Blessing based upon the psalmists’ hope in Yahweh’s faithfulness to fulfill the Davidic Covenant at Zion.

Put another way: Through the lens of the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24-26), the Songs of Ascents encourage the faithful to look forward to the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises to David at Zion. They fill out what it means for the Lord to bless, to keep, to be gracious to, and to give peace to His people. They do this by interpreting their past, present, and future in light of God’s intention to bless them through the Son of David at Zion.

The eschatological fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant provides the basis for understanding the journey to Zion that is painted in these psalms not as a simple, historical pilgrimage theme but as a journey toward an idealized/new Zion in the eschaton.

The Royal Son (Psalm 72)

It should go without saying in the church that our identity as Christians comes from our connection to the one whose name we bear—Christ. If we are truly convinced that a believer has a personal relationship with God, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, then it would behoove us to cultivate that relationship by investing our time in coming to know the one whom we serve. The way we do that is not through some mystic, sweet communion that is highly esoteric but through a consistent, lifelong commitment to learning about Christ. In other words, growing spiritually is paramount to growing in our knowledge of Christ.

This precedes all other efforts, because it is Christ Jesus Himself who has become to us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1Cor 1:30). In fact, before proceeding to tell us how to put off sin and to put on right actions, Paul says that in contrast to the lost, believers “did not learn Christ in this way” (Eph 4:20). What distinguishes us from unbelievers is that we have “learned” Christ. Even more, the large narrative of Scripture points to this One who was involved in creating the world and redeeming the world, whose name is the Son of God. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture as we have it points to the identity of this One in whom we find our new identity as children of God. He is the Messiah; His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. So from beginning to end, it’s all about Him—who He is, why He came, etc.

What this means for us, then, is this: if we want to know Christ, then we find Him on the pages of the Scripture that testifies to Him. Paul put it this way (1Cor 15:1–4):

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

For the most part, I think we would all give a hearty, “Amen,” to that. After all, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Too often, however, I think we miss the full impact of what Paul is saying. Paul is saying that the Gospel as it had been revealed to him as an Apostle was none other than the truth of the Old Testament Scriptures. So let me ask you a question: If I were to cut off the final 27 books of the Bible you have before you, could you still lead someone to Christ? Could you give a Gospel presentation from the Old Testament?

You might answer, “Why bother. We have the NT.” Well, you may never have to. However, those who wrote the NT and those in the early church would have none of that. What they understood was that a comprehensive knowledge of Christ came only when He and His work, as well as the believer’s place in the story of the world, were understood in light of the texts that pointed to our Savior.

Like most books of the Old Testament (or “The Gospel According to the Prophets”), Psalms ultimately points us to the Son, the One who was to come and now has. Psalm 72 turns our attention to this King, teaching us about Him, about His kingdom, and ultimately about a proper response to Him.

What we find in Psalm 72 is another passage that points to the One who was to come, the Messiah. In it, the ideal reign of the king is described.[1] We thus see several aspects of this king and his kingdom and the author’s response to these things. Let me bring some of these to our attention.

Justice, Righteousness, and Peace (vv. 1–7)

Solomon begins his prayer for this king by asking the Lord to give the king his justice and righteousness. A good king would be one who led his people by justice and righteousness that is only truly provided by God Himself. That is, a godly ruler will rule as a reflection of the character of God, who is righteous and just.[2]

In Scripture, most kings aren’t like this. Sure, Solomon is given wisdom from the Lord and exemplifies it with the way he ruled the nation (at least for the most part). However, the overarching point of the story of Solomon is to show that he was not the son of David who would be the object of the promises the Lord made to David. In fact, given that we are reading a prayer written by Solomon for the future king reveals that he himself understood that the ideal king ruling over the ideal kingdom had yet to come. He could only hope and pray that one of his sons would be found worthy to rule as that king.

But as we know from Scripture, Solomon’s kingdom was ripped apart immediately after his death. Turmoil continued to ensue until ultimately David’s/Solomon’s kingdom was in shambles and in fact was overthrown and removed from the land. The “son of David” had yet to come.

The book of Psalms reflects this story as well as it is read as a book (see this post and this one). Two quotes by Hutchinson elucidate this point:

[P]raise in the Psalter arises particularly from a circumstance-defying belief that Yahweh’s covenant promises will come to realization – through the arrival of the Davidic king.[3]

[T]here is an eschatological or teleological thrust to the book of Psalms, as signaled right from the start by the introductory and programmatic Ps. 2. … The Psalter insists that the king of Ps. 2 will appear – an absolute supreme and righteous ruler who will be greater than Solomon (Pss. 45; 72), in whom the Abrahamic promises will find fulfilment (72:17b), a ‘horn … for David’ (132:17) whose coming will prove that Yahweh has not renounced his commitment to the Davidic covenant.[4]

Such a rule as depicted in these verses—one characterized by justice/equity for the oppressed, flourishing righteousness, and peace for all—could only be led by one who had been given divine ability to do so. Isaiah’s prophecy about this king reflects this (Isa 11:1–5):

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make decisions by what His ears hear; But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist.

Dominion, Worship, and Compassion (vv. 8–14)

V. 8 joins with other important messianic passages in the OT to point unambiguously to a king who would come and would one day enjoy a universal reign. Consider the following verses:

Numbers 24:17–19
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, While Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, And will destroy the remnant from the city.

Psalm 110:2
The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of Your enemies.”

Zechariah 9:9–10
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim And the horse from Jerusalem; And the bow of war will be cut off. And He will speak peace to the nations; And His dominion will be from sea to sea, And from the River to the ends of the earth.

According to vv. 9–11, the response to this king’s rule should be marked by (1) compulsory submission (v. 9), (2) tribute from other kings (v. 10), and (3) worship by kings and all nations (v. 11). Interestingly, though, the reason for this response is given in vv. 12–14: the king’s disposition and beneficent actions toward those in need.[5]

Blessing and A Name (vv. 15–17)

Solomon concludes his prayer by focusing our minds around an important biblical theme—blessing. These verses tie the rule of the king to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Genesis 12:1–3, God called upon Abraham to leave his father’s land and to become the recipient of divine favor and blessing as the Lord made these promises to him:

I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Thus, the following connections between Genesis 12 and Psalm 72 can be made:

  • Abraham’s name would be great, just as the king’s name would be.
  • Abraham would be blessed, just as the psalmist calls upon all to bless the king.
  • All nations would find their blessing in Abraham’s seed, just as all nations would find their blessing in the king.

The Response: Blessing, Name and Glory (vv. 18–19)

Vv. 18–19, while capping off the second book of psalms, plays an important role in bringing this prayer for the king directly into the reader’s life. The proper response, as given by the author, is to bless the Lord.

What I find interesting is how this doxology, which plays an important role in the larger context of the Psalter, also connects to the psalm we just read.

  • Just as the king was to be blessed by all nations, so the psalmist gives a two-fold “blessing” to the Lord.
  • Just as the king’s name would endure forever, so the psalmist proclaim: “Blessed be His glorious name forever.”
  • Just as the king’s kingdom would stretch from sea to sea, so the psalmist prays: “May the whole earth be filled with His glory.”

I believe it’s quite likely that the object of this last request is none other than the king that is described in the psalm. Consider these two passages from Isaiah

6:1–3 – “In the year of King’s Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. … And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.’”

11:9 – “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord As the waters cover the sea.”

In this light, this also agrees with the NT conclusion about Christ. The earth will be filled with the glory of God by means of the Son, who bears the name Lord. Consider what Paul says (Phil 2:9–11): “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Without a doubt, these last verses bring the psalm to its rightful end: The son of Solomon, the son of David, the One who was to come, deserves and will receive worship, fear, praise, glory that only God deserves. The conclusion: He is divine, the son of God; He is our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

How then do we respond?

  1. By repenting of our rebellion to this king. In Acts 17:30–31, Paul said to a group of unbelieving Gentiles: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
  2. By embracing the Lordship of this king, who came and who is yet to come. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
  3. By singing the blessing of the psalm to the Lord.

In 1719, Isaac Watts published his Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, which included hymns based on 138 of the 150 psalms. His purpose was to “accommodate the book of Psalms to Christian worship.” Among these hymns was a paraphrase or imitation of the second half of Psalm 72 named “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun.” It’s readily apparent from reading the words of Watts’ hymn that he saw in Psalm 72 a call for the Gospel to extend to the nations. Note how his words reflect this psalm:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

To Him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown His head;
His Name like sweet perfume shall rise
With every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on His Name.

Blessings abound wherever He reigns;
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blessed.

Let every creature rise and bring
Peculiar honors to our King;
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud amen!

Great God, whose universal sway
The known and unknown worlds obey,
Now give the kingdom to Thy Son,
Extend His power, exalt His throne.

With power He vindicates the just,
And treads th’oppressor in the dust:
His worship and His fear shall last
Till hours, and years, and time be past.

The saints shall flourish in His days,
Dressed in the robes of joy and praise;
Peace, like a river, from His throne
Shall flow to nations yet unknown.

[1] Although it appears I am just assuming this psalm is messianic, the messianic character will become more apparent throughout these comments.

[2] This is borne out on the seams of the Psalter, as well. Cf. Pss 41:1–2; 89:14; 106:3; 146:3ff.

[3] James Hely Hutchinson, “The Psalm and Praise,” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, ed. David Firth and Philip S. Johnston (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 97.

[4] Hutchinson, 97–98.

[5] “The king of Psalm 72 is to exercise it [power] in a direction contrary to the politics of power. He acts on behalf of the powerless, not so as to ingratiate the nobles and the powerful. By ignoring the politics of power, he—remarkably—in turn gains a powerful empire.” Craig C. Broyles, Psalms, 297.

Hebrew Clauses – Diethelm Michel (Section 28)

Although his work consists of a detailed study of the Psalter, Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen has an important section about the syntax of clauses in Hebrew (Section 5 of the work). For my own benefit and perhaps some out there who find such study interesting, I thought it might be helpful to present his results. (I did a similar summary of Wolfgang Schneider here.) In section 28, Michel lays out his understanding of the verbal clause and the nominal clause.

The Verbal Clause

  1. We refer to a clause as a verbal clause (VC) when it reports the performance of an action or the appearance of a characteristic.
  2. The predicate of a VC always consists of a finite verb.
  3. The finite verb always stands at the beginning of the clause; only adverbial qualification can step in before it. An explicit subject follows the verb in attributive position. An example of an adverbial phrase coming before the finite verb would be Ps 102:9a:

כָּל־הַ֭יּוֹם חֵרְפ֣וּנִי אוֹיְבָ֑י
all day my enemies surround me

The Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a nominal clause (NC) that makes a statement about a subject.
  2. A subject of the NC is a substantive or an equivalent of such (pronoun, substantive adjective or participle, substantive clause).
  3. A predicate of a nominal clause can be (1) a substantive, (2) an adjective (participle), (3) a pronoun, (4) an adverb, or (5) an entire clause. The last possibility is important in that it leads the third classification, the compound nominal clause.

The Compound Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a “compound nominal clause” when its predicate consists of an entire clause, a NC or a VC.
  2. In the predicate of the clause, a back-reference to the larger subject can take place.
  3. When a so-called copula is used in a nominal clause, it is regarded as a compound nominal clause.

Here are two examples, the first is a CNC with a NC as predicate, the second with a VC as predicate. Both have a nominal at the front about which a whole clause makes a claim.

Psalm 69:14
וַאֲנִ֤י תְפִלָּתִֽי־לְךָ֙׀ יְהוָ֡ה
As for me: my prayer is to you, Yhwh.

Psalm 103:19
יְֽהוָ֗ה בַּ֭שָּׁמַיִם הֵכִ֣ין כִּסְא֑וֹ
Yhwh [he has done this as a characteristic]:
he has established his throne in the heavens.

Reading, Interpreting, and Preaching the Psalms – Step 2

Please see this post for the origin and purpose of the process I’m continuing today. Breaking the 10-fold procedure into bite-size chunks, I will be explaining what I mean by step #2:

1. Read the Hebrew Text

Please refer to this post for my thoughts on this step.

2. Evaluate the Variants

If the first step of reading the Hebrew text is taken seriously, this second step of textual criticism will naturally arise as difficulties in translation are observed or the critical apparatus becomes significant. As variants in Hebrew manuscripts and ancient translations are considered, exegetical commentaries (e.g., the Word Biblical Commentary volumes) or other reference works (e.g., Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible) will be helpful in this process.

The casual reading of various English texts will also demonstrate that not all translations are alike. Not only do they have various translations of Hebrew forms and tenses, but they also reveal completely different readings. For the preacher/teacher, the practical advantage of being diligent in this step is coming to understand why modern translations differ. As such, evaluating variants will prepare the preacher to speak intelligently and honestly about the nature of the text. Decisions will have to be made, and those decisions will need to be carefully integrated into interpretation and wisely presented to the congregation.

For example, evaluating the variants of the text will elucidate why English translations of Ps 100:3 vary. The NASB says, “It is He who made us, and not we ourselves” (cf. also [N]KJV), while the ESV reads, “It is he who made us, and we are his” (cf. also NIV, NRSV). Faithful expository preaching will probably have to address such an issue, so the preacher/teacher must be prepared.

Another example would be Psalm 72:5. In his work, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic, Michael Rydelnik has a helpful chapter regarding “Text-Criticial Perspectives on Messianic Prophecy.” Although the whole chapter (and book) is well worth reading, I refer to it in this discussion because he shows how a textual variant is important in reading 72:5, where the MT (יִירָאוּךָ) and LXX (και συμπαραμενει) differ, with quite distinct meanings. As such, English versions vary: “May they fear you” (ESV, see also NASB, NKJV) or “He will endure” (NIV, see also NRSV). Since there are possible messianic implications involved here, the reader must take these alternative readings into account.

This is not an easy step and can be done at various stages of this whole process. But the reader of the Psalter must come to an understanding of the textual criticism and how these differences are to be handled within a responsible view of composition and inspiration.









Reading, Interpreting, and Preaching the Psalms – Step 1

Please see this post for the origin and purpose of the process I’m beginning today. Breaking the 10-fold procedure into bite-size chunks, I start with the first one:

1. Read the Hebrew Text

Essentially, become acquainted with the text, specifically its vocabulary and grammar. Since the Psalter was written in Hebrew, it only makes sense that the one who desires to read it competently and faithfully will spend time reading it in its original language, especially if you have gone through the difficult process of learning biblical Hebrew. Why be satisfied with reading poetry in translation when so many nuggets lie clearly before the one who will crack open that Biblia Hebraica purchased with such high hopes of devouring the OT? [Sorry . . . I’m now getting off my soapbox.]

In this early stage of reading, all that was learned in basic Hebrew will feed this step as your knowledge of Hebrew is stretched to learn (1) new forms, (2) vocabulary, and (3) grammatical tendencies of Hebrew poetry. The goal in this step is simply to saturate one’s mind with the text, ideally to the point where you can read through the text with no helps. A mind saturated with the text will more readily be prepared to make the observations on many of the later steps in this exegetical process.

I have recently begun to listen to the Psalter being read in the Hebrew, following along in the text. Although I was somewhat hesitant to do this at first, reasoning that I didn’t want to confuse the written with the oral, I have somewhat changed my mind on this with regard to the Psalter. In the psalms, I believe it provides help in recognizing the phonetic tendencies, i.e. consonance, assonance, other repetitions, etc. I will talk more about this in a later post on parallelism. If you’re interested, here is a resource.

Most students and preachers have a tendency to run quickly through the text by basically reading it along with the English versions. This is certainly not bad, but it surely is not the best. Granted, when one first gets out of basic Hebrew classes in school, he/she is probably not ready to break open the Psalter and read every line with just BDB in hand. This is probably the reason why many well-meaning students become disillusioned with using practically their Hebrew knowledge. However, increased exposure to the text will procure increased competence and decreased discomfort in the language.

So…try it. Psalm 117 would be a great place to start developing your “vocabulary of praise.”

הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־גּוֹיִ֑ם שַׁ֜בְּח֗וּהוּ כָּל־הָאֻמִּֽים׃
כִּ֥י גָ֨בַ֤ר עָלֵ֙ינוּ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ וֶֽאֱמֶת־יְהוָ֥ה לְעוֹלָ֗ם הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃

Here are the other steps I will be discussing in later posts: