The Psalms of Ascent. Selah?

Dear Church Family,

In our evening worship service this coming Sunday, October 8th, at 6:00 pm, we will begin a new preaching series in the Psalms. We will be examining the Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120-134.

This series of Psalms is unique in that each one begins with, or is titled, “A Song of Ascent.” There are various interpretations as to what is meant by “A Song of Ascent.” John Calvin points out in his commentary on Psalm 120 that some understand this phrase to refer to the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. Calvin dismisses this notion by pointing to the fact that some of these Psalms are attributed to David and sung in the Temple (preceding the Babylonian captivity). With this, I would agree with Calvin.

Musical Notations?

While maintaining that the interpretation of this phrase is “a matter of small moment, I am not disposed to make it the subject of elaborate investigation,” Calvin does come down on the interpretation of this phrase as being a musical notation: “I agree with those who are of opinion that it denotes the different musical notes rising in succession.” In his commentary on Psalm 3, Calvin makes the same point about the word “Selah” – another word that has mystified interpreters. Speaking of the word “Selah,” Calvin writes, “we incline to the opinion of those who think it denotes the lifting up of the voice in harmony in the exercise of singing.”

So, for Calvin, both the phrase “A Song of Ascents” and the word “Selah” refer to musical notations. Try as I might, I don’t see it. So, on this I would humbly disagree with Calvin.

Perhaps Selah is a musical notation of sorts that has been lost to us over the ages; however, Charles Spurgeon points out that it is probable that the word corresponds to the sense of the passage where one ought to pause (Spurgeon’s Commentary on Psalm 3 in The Treasury of David). Likewise, Matthew Henry writes in his commentary on Psalm 3, “it [Selah] is a note commanding a solemn pause. Selah—Mark that, or, ‘Stop there, and consider a little.’”

Regardless of one’s interpretation of “Selah,” in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t really affect one’s interpretation of the Psalms in question.

A Pilgrim’s Progress

However, with regard to the phrase “A Song of Ascent” in Psalms 120-134, the interpretation of it may affect our understanding of these Psalms and help us in applying them. More helpful, I think, is Eugene Peterson’s interpretation and application of this phrase in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society:

These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity. What Paul described as ‘the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:14). (Peterson, p 14).

 

If you read these Psalms of Ascent in succession, this is the sense that you get. There is this idea of a pilgrimage, a progression – as Peterson calls it, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Thus, these Psalms begin with a cry to the Lord for deliverance (Psalm 120). The subsequent Psalms proceed through a confession of faith and dependence upon the Lord’s grace and protection, while the pilgrims long for ‘the house of the Lord.’ And, these Psalms conclude with brothers dwelling together in unity (Psalm 133) and worshipping in the sanctuary (Psalm 134).

Join the Pilgrimage!

In our evening worship service this coming Sunday (Lord willing and the water in the streets don’t rise!), we will begin our pilgrimage through these Psalms of Ascent. And, we will begin in Psalm 120 in the quagmire of sin, but with a confession of sin and repentance – and a cry to the Lord for deliverance:

1 A Song of Ascents. In my trouble I cried to the LORD, And He answered me.  2 Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, From a deceitful tongue.  3 What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, You deceitful tongue?  4 Sharp arrows of the warrior, With the burning coals of the broom tree.  5 Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech, For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!  6 Too long has my soul had its dwelling With those who hate peace.  7 I am for peace, but when I speak, They are for war. (Psalm 120)

 

Join us on this Sunday evening for this pilgrimage in the Psalms of Ascent – and, yes, you can sing them in a higher key if you like!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch