The Songs of Degrees

Psalm 120‑129  •  22 min. read  •  grade level: 7
There are fifteen psalms bearing the above title. Unlike other psalms bearing titles similar to one another, these are collected together in one (the 5th) book, forming a little series of themselves. Addressed to none of the chief singers, but simply in some cases bearing the names of their authors David and Solomon, we are left in doubt as to the meaning of their general title, “Song of Solomon of degrees or ascents.” Some have supposed they were sung on fifteen steps at the entrance to the temple, and hence their name. Others consider they were a collection of hymns, sung by the Jews in their periodic journeys to Jerusalem on the occasion of their festivals. By some they are supposed to have cheered the returning remnant in the days of Ezra, as they traversed the country between Babylon and Jerusalem. Another suggestion has been made, that the tone in which they were chanted gave rise to their appellation.
Now, whilst the term degrees or ascents (מַעֲלות) might have reference to any of these conjectures, it may nevertheless be asked, Is the hypothesis on which each explanation is made to rest supported by facts? Were they really sung at such times or in such tones? Was this the reason of their being so designated in the Bible? Have they then fulfilled the purpose for which they were written, or do they not apply to a condition of things yet future? A future, not a past application, will, we believe, alone afford a clue to their special object and name. Since the days of David and Solomon the people have never enjoyed such blessings as these psalms speak of. (See Psa. 121; 128; 132) Before that period of their history, since they first entered Canaan, they had not known the calamities referred to. (Psa. 120; 124) The blessings described are to be permanent, but only to be enjoyed after the people are brought back from their captivity. The meaning, therefore, of the word degrees or ascents will best be sought in connection with the deliverances and blessings therein set forth, instead of in any topical or musical allusions, or supposed reference to Jewish customs. The psalms themselves, we believe, explain their name, describing as they do the condition, political and moral, of the people in the last days, which end in the permanent dwelling of the Lord in their midst. The steps which lead to this are the subjects in hand. Commencing with the returned captives in their land, but with enemies still among them, the series goes on till all enemies pass away as the withered up grass; and the people, having judged themselves before the Lord, have His presence again manifested in Jerusalem; and the long divided nation, now finally united, is blessed by Jehovah out of Zion.
According to the above arrangement Psa. 120-129 are occupied with the political condition of the people, first in trouble and afterward in freedom. Psa. 130; 131 give the moral condition of God's ancient people at this time. Psa. 132 speaks of the Lord's return to Jerusalem, and the two remaining psalms tell of the happiness of unity and the blessing of Jehovah.
Psa. 120-129 “Lying lips and a deceitful tongue” are the troubles afflicting the righteous in the land. To rid himself from these is beyond his power. He knows what such an one deserves and will get: “sharp arrows of a mighty one with coals of broom” (Psa. 120:4), i.e., an abiding fiery judgment; for the ashes of the juniper or broom (as rethem should be translated) are said to retain heat for a great length of time. “Woe is me,” is his sad complaint, “that I sojourn in Mesech, and dwell in the tents of Kedar!” (Ver. 5.) Long has he dwelt with those who hate peace. To him, a man of peace, that must have been a trial; but he adds what aggravated it, when I speak, they are for war.” (Ver. 7.) Such is his condition, in which he is helpless to deliver or defend himself. Silence before men, and waiting upon God, is the position he must assume. He remits his cause to Him, and as ever: when the righteous does that, good results. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence shall come my help.” (Psa. 121:1.) Isaiah has sung of the messengers on the mountains bringing good tidings, publishing peace. (Chap. 52:7.) Zechariah has prophesied of the presence of the Lord on Mount Olivet. (Chap. 14:4.) The godly turns his eye to the quarter from whence aid will come, as the besieged strain their eyes for the first glimpse of the delivering force; and knowing for whom he looks, openly declares, “My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” (Ver. 2.) Jehovah the Creator is the God of his salvation. Could he count on such assistance as this? His very position spoke of national failure, and God's judgment of the people in consequence. Had Israel been faithful, no enemy would have lorded it over them in their land; the head and not the tail they would have always been. (Deut. 28:7-13.) God would assure him of His help: so another speaker is introduced at verse 3. The suffering one had said, “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills;” the speaker in verse 3 addresses him, “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:” a welcome assurance to the afflicted. Powerful were his foes, wary they might be: so he has here the promise of sure protection from the vigilant Preserver of Israel: “He that keepeth thee will not slumber.” No more captivity, no more sorrows from the guardians of Israel slumbering instead of watching.
(Isa. 56:10.) The appointed time for the fullness of national deliverance draws nigh: “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” Activity had characterized the enemies of Israel at a former epoch. (Isa. 5:27.) Israel should now experience what it would be to have the Lord active on their behalf. They had cried to Him before, “Awake, why sleepest thou?” (Psa. 44:23:) In former days He had awoke as one out of sleep, and smitten their enemies. (Psa. 78:65.) Now the godly man is assured He will not slumber nor sleep. The cause of His people He will take up, and accomplish their final deliverance; for the keeper of Israel is Jehovah Himself. The hardships they have suffered they shall suffer no more. No evil shall harass them; or threaten their life. Perfect freedom shall they enjoy, and that not for a season but forever. (See Isa. 49:8-10.)
But prosperity in the land is connected with the welfare of Jerusalem and the house of the Lord on Mount Moriah. To this the godly turns. He had rejoiced when men proposed they should go to the house of the Lord. “Our feet,” he adds, “have been standing in thy gates, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that is built as a city which is bound together; whither the tribes went up, the tribes of Jah (a precept to Israel) to give thanks unto the name of the Lord. For there they set thrones of judgment, thrones of the house of David.” Such had been the glory of Jerusalem, the center for worship and center of government. How could they ever forget what she had once been? But how checkered had been her history! The house of the Lord, to which he turned with joy had for ages been destroyed, and its site desecrated to another use. The city too had for centuries ceased to be the center of government. But now their hopes revive, and, with the Lord as their keeper, they can look for peace. Hence the exhortation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and the earnest desire that it should rest on her forts and her palaces. He was not satisfied with things as they were. Rejoiced to be in the city, he desires her welfare, and those who would prosper must desire it also; for blessing for all on earth is bound up with the prosperity of Jerusalem, that city so dear to the saints of old, and still to be to the saints in Israel, because it is connected with God's house on earth.
There was need to seek her peace as Psa. 123 shows, for, though the godly had access to the city, the ungodly were still in the land, and the manifested presence of the Lord in the house was still an object of desire. Hence they turn to God, but to God as dwelling in heaven, not as sitting between the cherubim. They wait for Him, and watch His movements. “As the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress; so our eyes wait on the Lord our God, until He have mercy upon us.” And there will be abundant cause for them thus to wait; for their soul will be exceedingly filled with “the scorning of them that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud.” Would any condemn such conduct on their part? Does not their past history justify it? Has not the nation been delivered before, when threatened with destruction? Psa. 124 gives the answer. Jehovah had been on their side, when men rose up against them: He had preserved them alive—otherwise the waters of Assyria, the swelling waters, would have overwhelmed them. So Jehovah, their help in time past, is their confidence still. They will trust in the Creator of heaven and earth, and Psa. 125 predicts the sure result. “Those who trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, forever it shall abide.” Stability they shall know, and the guardianship of Jehovah they shall rejoice in for evermore. “For the rod (or scepter) of wickedness shall not rest on the lot of the righteous, lest the righteous put forth their hands unto iniquity.” Confident of this, they pray for Jehovah's favor towards the good, predict His dealing with the ungodly, and await peace upon Israel.
With the future thus present to their thoughts, they are drawn out to pray for the accomplishment of these hopes in Psa. 126. When the Lord turned the captivity of Zion, they were like them that dream. The heathen, too, take knowledge of it as the mighty act of Jehovah. “The Lord hath done great things with these.” The people take up the strain and say, “The Lord hath done great things with us, whereof we are glad.” Zion had again become the center for Israel; the people had recovered their existence as a nation with a country and metropolis. Zion's captivity was turned; but they desire full deliverance from the presence and power of the enemy. “Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams (or torrents) in the south,” as a full tide of blessing refreshing the thirsty ground. It was now as it were the sowing time; the abundant harvest would be reaped, when Jehovah had finally taken up the cause of His people. How truly faith is the substantiating of things hoped for! “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” is the persuasion of their souls; the generation then living would behold, and share in, the blessings God had promised His people. For, if verse 5 might seem to be more general in its bearing, referring to the past and future of the nation, the following verse makes it plain that they expect the consummation of Israel's hopes in their day. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bearing his sheaves with him.”
Counting on God's word, they have learned to count on Him alone for everything, and now express it; for, whether it be the building the house, or the keeping the city, or the strength and blessing which the children of youth are to their families and country, all is from Jehovah. (Psa. 127) They had learned the vanity of building the house without the Lord's countenance. They had felt their powerlessness to keep the invader out of the city. The house had been laid low (Psa. 74) and the city had been a prey to the enemy. (Psa. 79, Isa. 29, Zech. 14) All extraordinary watchfulness on man's part was only in vain. God would have His people to trust Him, and to learn this from His bestowal of sleep. “So he giveth his beloved sleep.” This daily blessing was a lesson of it. Besides, if the arm of flesh was needed by which to repel the foe, God could bestow it. “Lo the inheritance of Jehovah (i.e. what He gives) is children, and His reward the fruit of the womb.” For defense or for attack let them rely on what He will provide. “For, as arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of youth.” “They shall not be ashamed, for they shall destroy their enemies in the gate.”
From the building of the house, and keeping the city, and destroying their enemies in the gate, we are led on in the next psalm (128) to the peaceful life of those who fear the Lord. “Happy is (lit. the blessings of) every one fearing Jehovah, who walketh in his ways.” The general statement here made includes all in that day who fear the Lord, not the seed of Israel only, but the stranger who will have a portion in the land. (Ezek. 47:22.) What a picture it presents of the calm, quiet enjoyment of the earthly people! “Thou shalt eat the labor of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.” How often had their fathers sown for others to reap! How often had the enemy invaded the land, and carried off the produce of the soil! (Judg. 6:3, 11.) Their affairs shall prosper, and in their families God's blessing shall he experienced. But this is not such worldly prosperity as may be witnessed now, for it is directly connected with the kingdom established in power on Mount Zion. “The Lord shall bless thee out of Zion; and see thou the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life, yea, see thou thy children's children, and peace upon Israel.”
How naturally the glowing prospect of the future, and the announcement of the coming blessing to Israel, recall the sorrow of the past! (Psa. 129) “Many a time have they afflicted me, from my youth, may Israel now say: many a time have they afflicted me from my youth,” i.e. from the exodus from Egypt under Moses. The Babylonian, the Roman, the Assyrian powers had put forth their might against the people, and laid waste Jerusalem; but the nation will be found to have survived the heaviest blows. And, knowing that the millennial blessing was shortly to be enjoyed, they add, “but they shall not prevail against me.” The marks of God's dealing in government through the instrumentality of their enemies they had borne about with them. Jehovah had dealt righteously in chastising them; He had now acted righteously in cutting the cords of the wicked, and setting His people forever free. The haters of Zion, those opposed to the nation and the kingdom, should be ashamed, and turned backward, and fade away as grass on the roof before one plucks it up. Long had the wicked prospered on earth, and set himself in opposition to the counsels of God. Now the end appears, and the wicked pass away undesired and unblessed.
The outward condition of the people having been thus described till the culminating point of earthly prosperity is reached, the Psalmist turns to depict the moral condition of the remnant at that time. For, since their troubles sprang from their forefathers' unfaithfulness, and they themselves are by nature sinners, there must be a real and true judgment of hearts and ways, ere God could in righteousness restore and finally bless them. In trouble the godly one had cried to Jehovah, and the words of his cry are given in Psa. 130:2-4. “Lord (Adonai), hear my voice, let thine ear be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If thou, Jab, shouldest mark iniquities, Lord (Adonai), who shall stand? Truly with thee there is forgiveness, that thou mayest be feared.” Iniquities acknowledged, and forgiveness desired, he has waited for Jehovah more earnestly than the morning watchers watch for the first dawning of the day, alluding, as it is generally thought, to the priests and Levites on duty in the temple, watching for the moment to offer up the morning burnt offering. But, since the final deliverance will not be individual only but national, all Israel are exhorted to hope in Jehovah, “for with Jehovah is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” This is becoming ground for them to stand on, and indicates in those who take it a real work of God in their souls. They cast themselves on God to do according to what He has said. “In his word do I hope” is the simple statement of the godly one. “He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” is the settled conviction of their souls. “Let them hope in his mercy” is the advice they give to their fellows. “God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” (Rom. 11:32.) His purpose thus worked out, the time to show that mercy has come.
Grace operates on the hearts of the remnant, to fit them to be recipients of mercy, which their forefathers despised. The next Psalm (131) shows this. With self put on one side, without searching into depths beyond him, David had walked, and the remnant will tread in his steps. Many difficulties might suggest themselves from the dealings of God with them. Unable to solve them, they can trust God to bring them through all their trials. Humble, trusting, weaned from his desires, as a child weaned from its mother, the godly one has walked. For himself and for Israel there is but one path, that of hope in the Lord from this time and for evermore. (Psa. 131)
Brought into their true place morally, no impediment will exist to the blessings being poured out on them. Moses had told them that, when they should return to the Lord in the land of their captivity, the Lord their God would bring them into the land which their fathers possessed. “And thou shalt,” he said, “possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the Lord will make thee plenteous in every work of thine hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land for good.” (Deut. 30:5, 9.) This is just what they had sung of, anticipating its near fulfillment. But that will only take place when the Lord is dwelling among them. This leads on to Psa. 132, in which we have His entrance into Jerusalem announced, and the gracious declaration that it is His abode for evermore.
And here the ground on which God is addressed is worthy of observation. “For David's sake turn not away the face of thine anointed.” It is David's trouble, not the affliction of the nation, that is spoken of. “O Jehovah, remember for David [i.e., favorably] all his afflictions” are the first words of it. It was natural that David should thus plead with God. To him God had made promises, As God's anointed he had suffered much. But this language, so suited to him, will suit the remnant likewise. They with their fathers have failed, but God had made promises to David. Where they could not speak of themselves, they could tell of the promises. David had died, but the promises held good: his children had failed, but God's words could not. The mercy to Abraham, the truth to Jacob (Mic. 7:20), the promise to David, the Lord will perform. How gracious of our God, not only to plan, but to promise to His servants, long since departed, what He would do for them and their people, that, when failure has come in (and the only right place for the people is to own it), they should nevertheless be able to lay hold of promises, which, whatever they have been, must be made good to those, who, though dead as regards this world, yet live to God! So this Psalm finds its fitting place here, because, whilst the entry of the ark into Jerusalem under David probably gave rise to its composition, the fulfillment to the remnant of the promises made to David will alone exhaust its meaning. The Lord will dwell in Zion for evermore. We have David's oath about the ark, and the Lord's oath about David's heir. David did provide a tent for the ark, an habitation for the mighty One of Jacob after its captivity by the Philistines. They had heard of the ark at Ephratah, and found it in the fields of the wood, i.e., Kirjathjearim. (1 Sam. 7) The habitation David provided in Zion was a temporary one, the promise about his seed was to last for evermore. The petitions preferred, the Lord answers, but, as has been often observed, goes beyond the requests of His servant. “Arise into thy rest,” said David. “This is my rest forever,” was the gracious answer. “Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness, and let thy saints shout for joy,” the prophet had petitioned. “Thy priests,” “thy saints,” he says, speaking to the Lord. “Her priests,” “her saints,” the Lord calls them. Having chosen Zion, all belonging to her shall be blessed. Her poor shall be satisfied with bread, her provisions shall be abundant. How often since David's day has famine visited that city, when besieged by her enemies. Plenty shall be found there, and the poor be satisfied. Her priests shall be clothed, not merely with righteousness, but salvation, and praise be heard in her streets. There, too, the horn of David shall flourish; the nation, the priesthood, the family of David, all shall share in the joy of that day. God has provided that this hope should not fail. “I have established a lamp for mine anointed.” Throughout each night it was the duty of Aaron and his sons to order the lamps of the candlestick. (Ex. 27:21.) Man may fail as the priests did—witness the temple in the days of Ahaz—but God will not. This promise has several times in their past history been referred to, when nothing but God's forbearance and faithfulness could stave off the deserved punishment. When Solomon had sinned (1 Kings 11:36), when Abijah reigned (chap. 15:4), when Jehoram walked in the ways of Ahab, this was declared to be the reason of God's forbearance. (2 Chron. 21:7.) And, since those days, during the long dark night of Israel's rejection and captivity, this promise, yet to be made good, remains in all its force. David shall have a lamp in Jerusalem, the light of the glory of his kingdom shall not be extinguished. And, when the remnant find this Psalm applicable to their condition, they will behold the faithfulness of their God, as they look on Him whom they have pierced, and mourn, learning that He is the Christ, the fruit of David's body, who will reign over the people of Israel forever.
With the two following psalms this series closes. What more have they to ask? what petitions have they yet to prefer? The throne of David re-established, the house rebuilt, the Lord returned to Jerusalem, peace and prosperity enjoyed, their enemies subdued, they have only to be satiated with the blessings God will provide, and to bless Him for them.
Since the days of Solomon, Israel and Judah have been separated. By David they were outwardly united. Under David's Son they shall be one in heart, and united forever. (Isa. 11:13; Ezek. 37:22.) The first sense of the happiness of this union forms the subject of Psa. 133 “Behold how good and how pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity! Like the good oil upon the head, that runs down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, which descends to the skirts of his garments. Like the dew of Hermon which descends on the mountains of Zion.” Smoothness and refreshment pervade all. From the highest to the lowest, throughout the whole nation, from the center or head to the most distant part, the blessing is felt. And the center is Zion. “For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.”
With this before them, He must be praised, and that by all His servants. And no time can be unseasonable in which to bless Him who thus blesses them. By day and by night His praises should be declared. “Behold, bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, which by night stand in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.” The hands, so often lifted up in prayer towards God's house, are to be lifted up in praise. When raised in prayer the Lord had answered, He will not be the less mindful when lifted up in praise. “The Lord that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.” The Creator now dwells in Zion, and from thence in connection with the throne can bless His people.
From depths of trouble to heights of blessing the godly will pass. From tribulation to millennial rest they will proceed. They have cried to Jehovah in heaven, they will know Him as present on Zion, and present there for evermore. “Happy is that people that is in such a case; yea, happy is that people whose God is Jehovah.”