As you are going . . .
Have you ever taken a pilgrimage – a walk or a trip that had a spiritual purpose? When my husband and I went to Israel a few years ago, we considered it a pilgrimage. We were going to places that had spiritual significance to us and we expected to gain understanding and a renewed awe of God who sent his Son to a particular place on earth so he could live among us, die for our sins, be resurrected, and be glorified in heaven and on earth. Walking in those particular places on the globe had spiritual implications for us, and God did not disappoint.
Pilgrimage was instituted as part of the Old Covenant. Three times a year, God’s people were expected to travel to Jerusalem for special feasts: Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost. For some it was a short walk, for most, though, it would have been a multi-day journey – usually on foot. How do you pass the time on a long walk? You talk to each other, you pray, and, of course, you sing.
At some point in Jewish history, the organizers of the book of Psalms grouped Psalms 120-134 together to be used as “Songs of Ascent” or “Pilgrim Psalms”. As people approached the end of their journey, began to gather with other pilgrims coming from all over Israel, and started the ascent on the road to Jerusalem, they sang these songs. I’m sure they all had their favorites, but whatever the psalm, they sang it together, united in their message and with sights set on the city that God has chosen as his dwelling place.
The themes of the ascent psalms range from God’s presence, to praise, to consideration of his mercy, protection, sovereignty, and blessing. They speak of joy, patience, unity, and repentance. And as the city came into view, the pilgrims rejoiced as they saw glimpses of Jerusalem and, eventually the Temple itself. In fact, Psalm 122 offers a prayer for Jerusalem, and Psalm 134 praises God in his Temple.
Let’s take a look at one of the songs Israelite pilgrims sang as they ambled toward Jerusalem:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” 3 The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! 5 Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! 6 He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” – Psalm 126
The first three verses are about what God has done for them in the past. As they sing and they remember God’s rescue and restoration, and they are filled with joy. When I am feeling blessed, I often say to God, “You have done great things for me and that has made me glad” – my 21st century version of the song of the ancient Jews: Remember, be thankful, be happy.
The second part of the psalm acknowledges that present circumstances are not so good, and the petitioners desire God’s intervention. They are singing something to the effect of “Do it again, God!” And the psalm’s picture of moving from weeping to joy tells us they really believe he will do it again. Pray, trust, and be hopeful.
Do you see what these Psalms of Ascent do? They focus our eyes on God - his faithfulness and goodness to those who call on him in faith. These psalms served specific purposes for the pilgrims of old and, I think they can do the same for us, as modern pilgrims walking step-by-step through this world with an eye on the heavenly Jerusalem.
“The Christian life is a pilgrimage from earth to heaven, and our task is to take as many as possible with us as we make this journey.” – Warren Wiersbe