Today we finish the 119th Psalm, finally, and we read the 120th Psalm which is the first of 15 Psalms referred to as the “Song of Ascents”. I’d like to share with you some commentary from James Montgomery Boice concerning these 15 Psalms in general and the 120th Psalm in particular. I’ll be jumping around his commentary due to space and time constraints so if you find his comments intriguing, I highly recommend you read the full commentary – you’ll have to buy it to do so of course.
First Dr. Boice comments on the 15 Psalms that make up the “Songs of Ascent”, which were typically sung as Hebrews went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for any of the three major annual feasts. Here he points out that we Christians today are also on a long pilgrimage and that these Psalms have value for you and me today. This quote starts in the middle of Dr. Boice’s discussion about a book he purchased.
“The book was about the Songs of Ascents, a fifteen-psalm “Psalter within the Psalter” to which we have now come in our study of these ancient Hebrew poems. The author is Eugene H. Peterson, currently a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.
The subtitle of Peterson’s book is “Discipleship in an Instant Society,” and it is a clue to what he sees as the importance of these songs for today. They are discipleship songs—I will explain more about that in a minute—and the reason they are important today is that Christians in our time know very little about discipleship.
We live in an “instant society,” and one way that has impacted the way we think is the nearly universal assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired quickly. Peterson wrote,
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.
I do not think Peterson is exaggerating this judgment in the slightest. And I also think he is right when he challenges us to look at these psalms for their teaching about discipleship or a pilgrim mentality. Christianity is a long-obedience religion, and if we do not know that about it, we know very little about Christianity. In fact, if we are not in it for the long haul, we are not even Christians.
… These fifteen psalms (Psalms 120–34) seem to have been used by pilgrims who were making their way to Jerusalem for the three major annual feasts. Joseph and Mary would have sung these psalms as they made their way to the city with the young Jesus (see Luke 2:41), and Jesus would have sung them himself when he went up to Jerusalem with his disciples.
It has been said that these psalms do not reflect the high level of faith and spirituality found in other psalms. “They are marked by a kind of plaintive note, by a mild sadness.” If so, it is appropriate for those who were on their way to God’s city but had not reached it yet. It is this note of sadness that makes these songs so descriptive of the Christian’s similarly hard and upward pilgrimage through this dark world toward heaven.
… At first glance, Psalm 120 seems a strange psalm with which to begin this series, or even have in it, since it does not mention Jerusalem or even contain the thought of going there. Still, it is appropriate in this context, for it begins with the feelings of homesick people settled in a strange land and thus sets the tone for the joyful upward journey reflected in the psalms that follow. Derek Kidner says, “It appropriately begins the series in a distant land, so that we join the pilgrims as they set out on a journey which, in broad outline, will bring us to Jerusalem in Psalm 122, and, in the last psalms of the group, to the ark, the priests and the Temple servants who minister, by turns, day and night at the house of the Lord.”
… A pilgrim is a person who has grown dissatisfied with where he or she has been and is on the way to something better. Peterson says that a Christian pilgrim is one who repented of the lies that surround him (and are in him) and who is now going to God, and whose path for getting there is Jesus Christ.
Peterson writes at some length about the lies the world tells us. The world says that human beings are basically nice and good, that everyone is born equal and innocent and self-sufficient, that we are born free, and that if we are in chains now, it is someone’s fault, and we can correct it with just a little more intelligence or effort or time. When people discover the real world, most get angry and fret like spoiled children, rather than recognizing the lie and turning from the lie to God’s truth.
If we want to be Christians, we need to ask God to deliver us from these lies, as the psalmist does in verse 2.
“Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.”
Peterson elaborates on what this verse should mean in our culture:
“Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know what I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of religionists who “heal the wounds of this people lightly,” from the lips of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who “leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mark. 7:8). Rescue me from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.”
Peterson admits that many of these lies are factual. They contain right data, but they are lies all the same because they leave out God. They do not tell us that we come from God and have our destiny in God and that we are here to know and serve God. “They tell us about the world without telling us that God made it. They tell us about our bodies without telling us that they are temples of the Holy Spirit. They instruct us in love without telling us about the God who loves us and gave himself for us.”
Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 107–150: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Brothers, as Christians we are indeed on a journey; and it is a very long journey. Along the way the Father of Lies will try to distract us with worldly wisdom and fleshly desires. Reject the siren song of instant gratification. Persevere in patience knowing that God is the author of your salvation and He will see you through the long journey to ultimate gratification. Don’t settle for lesser things!