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 world 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.
By Psalm 132, the reader has gained good altitude. As the longest psalm in this section, it stands as the center of the overall message. It is all about the Messiah, refocusing the reader on the peace of Jerusalem that the son of David will bring by this reign. Psalm 133 highlights the unity and peace of that day, and Psalm 134 calls the people to praise.
This is the high note that the following two psalms continue to carry. Though neither names an author, their “anonymity” suggests they are added here with editorial intent. They repeat the praise of Psalm 134. “I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods,” Psalm 135:5 tells us. And then Psalm 136 repeats that marvelous line over and over: “his steadfast love endures forever.” This is praise and hope and wonder, leading us straight to Psalm 137:1: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”
That Relevant Question
This should be surprising to us. We’ve been ascending this whole time, step by step, song by song, rising from Psalm 120 through Psalm 136, and then, all of a sudden, there is weeping. Weeping? We’ve read about the Messiah coming, about unity restored, about enemies banished, and then there is this jarring, depressing picture of an enslaved people. We’re back to Psalm 120. Israel has captors, tormentors — powers opposed to the will of God. And so they ask, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).
There may not be another question so relevant for Jesus’s church in the rough and tumble of life in a fallen world. “How are we supposed to praise you here, God?” “How do we sing of your wonders here?”
Have you ever asked that? Have you felt that tension? Like Israel, we also live in competing realities. We have this new-creation redemption Jesus has accomplished, but this old-creation setting in which we’re left to live. We have promises deep and wide enough to make praise combustible. But we have situations so bleak and sad that we can barely lift our heads. How do we sing your praises here, God? Here where terrorists murder 132 children? Where thousands of babies are slaughtered every day? Where racism wreaks havoc, and governments commit atrocities, and the godless get more gain? How do we sing your song here?
Out of the Depths
We, too — new creatures in Christ, on this side of the cross and empty tomb — find ourselves in sojourning, on the road and not yet home. We might have thought that this great salvation we enjoy means smooth sailing from here out. We might have expected that since we are in Christ, the kingdom is complete and the waiting is over. But no. That’s not how it goes — not yet.
Even in all this grace, we’re not home yet.
Even in all this grace, overcome with all this glory, one look around confirms that we’re not home yet. There is a new Jerusalem for which we long, a lasting city upon which our hope is set. Which means, we’re called to a kind of praise we didn’t plan. We would have never designed it this way, but God knows what he’s doing. He’s let us taste a joy that defies this world, a mirth that confounds its wisdom. How do we sing the Lord’s song here? By breathing in the air from there. We humbly realize, that for now, as one writer puts it, “the new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God.”
We’re in a fight of faith here, but we never fight alone. As distant as the New Jerusalem might seem, we can still reach out our hand. Home’s not that far away.