The Psalms are an inspired record of the fight of faith; that’s one of the reasons we love them. By the time we get there in the story of Scripture, two competing realities grab our attention — the promise of God and Israel’s terrible situation. It goes like this:

On the one hand, there is the fact of God’s promise. Going back to Genesis, we see God’s word to bless Abraham and make him a great nation through which the whole would be blessed (Genesis 12:1–3). This promise perseveres over hundreds of years and progresses into the promise to David, that he would have a son who would reign as king forever over a rescued and restored Israel (2 Samuel [7:16]).

But on the other hand, there is the fact that Israel is deep in idolatry. The chosen people of God just can’t seem to listen to him for long, and therefore, judgment ensues, and they are taken captive by foreign powers. Captivity is where they find themselves by the time the Psalms have been collected. The stage has been set for these two competing realities to go head to head. God promises greatness and blessing, but they’re surrounded by turmoil and captivity. God says one thing, but they are experiencing another. Eventually these two competing realities lead to one central question: Is God going to keep his promise and do what he said?

Enter the Ascents

These two realities, and this one question, form the background to that section of psalms known as “The Psalms of Ascent.” This section, beginning with Psalm 120 and stretching through Psalm 134, is joined under that idea reflected in its name — “to ascend.” It means to step up or come out, and in the wider context of the psalter, these psalms envision the day when Israel comes out of their foreign exile. The hope is focused on the deliverance the Messiah will bring, rescuing his people from their captivity and restoring Jerusalem to glory and peace.

This section of psalms jumps right in the middle of the tension. It cuts through the competing realities and determines that God’s promise will take the day. If the Psalms at large are a record of the fight of faith, the Psalms of Ascent are an absolute brawl. We have so much to learn from them.

Psalm 120 starts the journey in exile, with the psalmist in distress about his situation. “Woe to me, that I sojourn . . . Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace” (Psalm 120:5–6). Put simply, the psalmist finds himself where he doesn’t want to be. He is a sojourner, unsettled, dreaming of a better day.

But then Psalm 121 comes next to remind God’s people that God is our keeper. Although we may be in exile, God keeps our going out and our coming in (Psalm 121:6–8).

Psalm 122 follows with homesickness for Jerusalem, but not just any Jerusalem. The psalmist dreams of a peaceful Jerusalem under the throne of David (v. 5).

Psalm 123 echoes the plight of their situation, but makes clear that their eyes are fixed on God (vv. 3–4). Psalm 124 says God has been faithful to keep his people in the past; 125 assures the people of coming peace in Jerusalem; 126 dreams yet again of that peace. Then Psalm 127 brings children into the picture, implying that God is going to make good on his promise to send a son of David. Psalm 128 envisions the coming day of peace and blessing in Jerusalem; 129 reminds the reader that Zion’s enemies will be put to shame; 130 refocuses the hope on God’s plentiful redemption. Then Psalm 131, a Psalm of Ascents of David, stands forth as a model of faith. Like David, the faithful reader should have a steady, patient soul that trusts in God.

Written by Jonathan Parnell
Read more at Desiring God

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