May 21, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The psalms known as ‘songs of ascents’

John F. Fink(Fifteenth in a series of columns)

Fifteen of the psalms in the Psalter, Psalm 120 through Psalm 134, have the superscription “A song of ascents.”

Biblical scholars aren’t sure why they have that designation. The most likely explanation is that they were a collection of psalms sung while pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem since the ancient Israelites spoke of “ascending” to Jerusalem, which they most certainly did if they came from Jericho.

Another explanation, less probable, is that they were psalms sung by those who were ascending to Jerusalem while returning from exile in Babylon. Psalm 126 begins, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then we thought we were dreaming” (Ps 126:1).

The Jewish Mishnah says that the Levites, the Jewish priestly tribe, sang on 15 steps that correspond to these 15 psalms.

Whatever the explanation, it is obvious that these 15 psalms were inserted into the Psalter en masse. However, about the only other thing they have in common is that they are short, except for Psalm 132, which has 17 verses. Psalm 131, Psalm 133 and Psalm 134 have only three verses. Psalm 123 has four, and none of the rest have more than nine. Perhaps that made it easy for pilgrims to memorize them.

Their content, though, is almost a summary of the categories of psalms that I have written about in this series. There are several laments, hymns of thanksgiving, a penitential psalm (Psalm 130), wisdom poems, psalms expressing confidence or trust, a historical psalm and blessings.

The historical psalm (Psalm 132) recalls King David’s resolve to build a home for the Ark of the Covenant, how the ark was brought to Jerusalem, and the oath that God swore to David that he would establish his dynasty forever.

Part of the Lord’s oath to David was, “I will make a horn sprout for David’s line” (Ps 132:17). The early Christians believed that this referred to Jesus, a descendant of David. Luke’s Gospel has Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, praying in his canticle that God “has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant” (Lk 1:69).

Psalm 128 says that those who fear the Lord will be happy and prosper: “Like a fruitful vine your wife within your home, like olive plants your children around your table” (Ps 128:3).

Psalm 134, the last of the songs of ascents, exhorts those who stand in the house of the Lord through the long hours of night to “bless the Lord,” which it repeats again. Psalm 34 also says, “I will bless the Lord at all times” (Ps 34:2). I have had people ask how we can bless the Lord. Doesn’t the Lord bless us? In this context, it is a way of saying, “Praise the Lord,” or as Psalm 31 and Psalm 124 pray, “Blessed be the Lord” (Ps 31:22 and Ps 124:6).

Psalm 134 ends, “May the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you from Zion” (Ps 134:3). The Catholic Church designates this psalm as the final psalm in the liturgical week, part of night prayer on Saturday night. †

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