Post Title: Going Up with the Psalms of Ascent (chapter 2)
These edited transcripts are taken from Dwight's most loved audio series, Highways in Their Hearts. Click here to see the downloadable audio version in our online store.
Each Psalm is composed in a style that features free and flexible rhythms, which makes lasting impressions on the minds and hearts of those who sang, read, and recited them.
The chief way of creating this rhythmic character in Hebrew is not by concentrating on syllables, words, rhymes, or some artificial metric system. Instead, whole sentences balance against one another—a technique called parallelism in English. Once you begin to see this, it adds layers of depth, meaning, and personal application.
In this Hebraic way of thinking, ideas and sentences are in a parallel relationship to each other. It will start making more sense as we examine the three different types or categories of parallelism.
Synonymous Parallelism: Using similar language, two or more lines repeat the same idea. Here is an example from Psalm 103:1
Line 1: Bless the LORD, O my soul,
Line 2: and all that is within me, bless his holy name
Synthetic Parallelism: The idea is restated in a way that supplements and builds on the meaning. Let's keep reading in Ps 103:2.
Line 1: Bless the LORD, O my soul,
Line 2: and forget not all his benefits
Antithetical Parallelism: The thought is not so much repeated or supplemented; instead, one line stands in opposition to the other. As a result, the main idea is strengthened by way of contrast. Consider verses 15 and 17 of Psalm 103.
Lines 1-2: As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
Lines 3-4: But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
These psalmic rhythms are creative, imaginative, and evocative.
Once you learn to identify the pattern of parallelisms, you will begin to experience the wondrous power of this style in all of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The images used in Hebrew poetry are concrete, earthy, and real to our experience of life with God under the Sun (as Ecclesiastes puts it). These images and parallelisms correspond to and reflect Jewish biblical life and priorities. The authors expect a rudimentary knowledge of things like Temple sacrifices, morning and evening prayers, Sabbaths, and Holy Days. What was so characteristic of our faith forbearers is alien to you and me today.
Typically, moderns have little life rhythm shared by a community. It is true of our church traditions as well. I'm not talking about liturgy as much as the rhythms of walking with God. We are slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. When we are preoccupied with the urgent, we tend to overlook the important. The Book of Psalms offers us an alternative.
Turn with me to Psalm 120, where you'll see in most translations, above verse 1, the words A Song of Ascents. No one is entirely certain what the Hebrew ascription of this grouping is referring to. There is an interesting connection with a passage in Ezra 7:9 describing Ezra's journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. When it says he began to go up from Babylonia, it is the same language for ascending used in the ascription. These are psalms for going up; they accompany us on life's spiritual journey.
Scholars propose at least three contexts in which the Psalms of Ascent were used. Each is significant for our study.
1) These were the psalms sung by faithful Jews in exile, particularly in Babylon. Those who longed to return to the Promised Land sang as they made their way from foreign soil up to Israel, up to Jerusalem. While in Babylon, their instruments were silent and their eyes were filled with tears.
They longed to lift up their eyes to the hills, to Mount Zion, to the Temple of their Holy God. And so they were glad when their exile was over and could say to one another, Come, let us go up to the house of Yahweh.
2) These are psalms sung by pilgrims—from inside and outside of Israel—who would make their ascent up to the City of David three times a year for the pilgrim festivals. There were only a few ways to get there, and those roads were traveled by great caravans of people, both for security and convenience. As these large groups traveled, making their way up to Jerusalem, they would sing these inspirational psalms.
They eagerly looked forward to the moment they would walk into the city and the temple precincts. When they finally entered Jerusalem, the pilgrims and the priests would sing these psalms as they made their way up to the holy mount through the streets of Jerusalem. What a sight that must have been!
3) These psalms would continue to be sung as the processions made their way into the Temple. I can only imagine the anticipation as they walked up the stairways from the outer court into the inner court, up into the Temple itself. These were the psalms of going up, songs of degrees—step by step, one step at a time.
Ezekiel had a vision (recorded in chapter 40) describing the Temple. He says the outer court had seven steps and the inner court had eight steps. Israel's ancient sages taught these fifteen steps correspond to the fifteen Psalms of Ascent (120-134). The picture is that of an adoring heart making its way ever closer to the object of its affection, the dwelling place and presence of the Most High God.
Why this study? I want to travel alongside you on a sacred journey.
I want to look at these psalms both in their historical context and as spiritual archetypes providing principles and insight into what it means to grow up as we go up to the Lord.
If you have no interest in drawing closer to God right now, these psalms and their implicit challenge to hunger and thirst for God's presence won't appeal to you. These psalms won't matter much if you are only interested in history, archeology, and textual studies. What they offer is the sacred fire of single-minded devotion.
I invite you to join me on a journey divinely designed to move our hearts from complacency to freedom. To walk again, in earnest, on an ancient pathway up to the Lord our God. In the words of C.S. Lewis, to go farther up and farther in. Will you come?
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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.