This is specifically attributed to King David. It’s a beautiful portrait of someone who has learned the hard way to dismiss ambition and pride.
David begins confessing what a might work God has done in his heart. He does not bristle at the idea of having to deal with ordinary people and mundane tasks. There is no one beneath his dignity to offer standard human courtesies. His head is not lost in great and burdensome cares of his throne. He remembers being just a shepherd boy.
Let’s not get lost on the question of weening. For all we can tell, Hebrew children were given much latitude to ween themselves when they felt ready. It has as much to do with a sense of security as physical health. The point here is that David no longer feels pulled by the insecurity of a man seeking to feed his ego. He’s ready to face the real world and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
This is what’s behind the very common message: Put your trust in God. Here is the king warning people not to put him on a pedestal. He would still be a shepherd boy were it not for God. And it was a shepherd boy the Lord wanted, so something in that role carries over to his reign as king. It was a shepherd boy’s faith that made ruling possible.
Our greatest difficulty in reading the Psalms is that we struggle to enter the Hebrew mind. This short piece sounds so much like David for its depth of passion, but there were others who caught the same fire for the Lord. In this short piece, we can catch a glimpse of that same path of devotion.
This song begins with recognition of our fallen nature. We live in the depths of delusion and sin; it is our natural state. But we were not made for this, and we know it instinctively, so we seek redemption, some small measure of restoration. From the depths of our cursed existence, we cry out to Jehovah. His court alone has jurisdiction for this sorrow. There is no other help, so we call to Him alone.
Should it be that God preserves the record of our failures, there would be no hope. No one but God is holy by nature. Yet in His holiness, forgiveness is also His nature. He blots out the record of our sins. The logic here is simple: If none are pardoned, then there is no one to give Him glory on the earth. For His divine justice to be apparent, for His fame and repute to live on the earth, there must be those who have been delivered by His justice and live to sing His praises.
The concept of “wait” in Hebrew here is binding together, of me wrapping my whole existence and welfare in His desires for me. What He reveals to me is life itself; His divine moral character is the fabric of existence. What He reveals is reality. Thus, there is no higher priority. Standing watch at night can be long and lonely, cold and exhausting, but a guard’s investment in relief at the dawn cannot compare to my depth of desire to know what God wants for me next.
And this passionate personal experience is not mine alone; it is the nature of our calling and covenant as the people of Jehovah. So the psalmist calls on his nation to join him in trusting Jehovah alone as the sole source of mercy. The Lord has more than enough redemption to cover every soul that calls on His name. Regardless how great our failures, He’s there to redeem it all.
This is the quintessential song of oppression and persistence. Genuine faith rises to meet every challenge; against such faith persecution starves and withers. Given the context here, it would seem the threat is not some neighboring enemy, but internal enemies.
The first verse is dramatic repetition. Starting with the Exodus, Israel suffered from people seeking personal gain at the cost of the community. Israel has never been without internal opposition to God’s way; and such opposition has never prospered when their victims turn to God. We have the image of plowing with oxen to represent stripes of persecution. It’s the idea of trying to prosper from the suffering of others. Next comes the image of God cutting the reins used to pull the plow. Sooner or later the faithful will see God’s deliverance. The wicked will not harvest much.
Zion here is the symbol of God’s righteous rule and His blessings. There will always be predators seeking their own, but those who seek God will see the traitors thrown back. They’ll tuck their tails and run. These are people who are like the wild grass that infests patches of dirt blown into the corners of your roof. There’s not enough soil there. They sprout, but long before they can bear seed, they dehydrate. Nobody bothers to pick it for animal feed or bundle it into grass mats. You don’t even give them a ritual greeting; they are gone by the time you notice them.
This is another Psalm of Ascension that wasn’t composed specifically for pilgrimage. Rather, it is didactic in nature and presents the pilgrim’s goal of Jerusalem as the capstone of blessings. God’s favor on Jerusalem was the foundation of national welfare, and people of faith were the king’s true treasure.
There is no distinction in Hebrew; the same word is translated “blessed” and “happy.” God’s favor is the ultimate reward. Everything implied by that image becomes a reward in itself, not least of which is communion with Creation itself, and a life consistent with God’s revelation. This is how we claim the fullness of whatever it is God offers to humans. Thus, reverence for God is just words unless we walk in His ways.
In the Ancient Near East, eating your own harvest is contrasted with crop failures and theft from raiders and invaders. In short, everything will go well for you. The image of the wife as a fruitful grape vine is an ancient symbol for a whole lot more.
Consider that her life is rooted at home, not wandering. She’s fruitful and it all contributes to the family’s welfare. His children grow up like olive trees already at the table, supplying a generous diet and the means to light the house. Both are symbols of God’s Spirit resting on the household, which is more to the point. This is what a reverent and faithful servant of God can expect; it’s what God has promised.
In the best of times, the City is busy and wealthy. In the worst of times, Jerusalem is the one place that must be defended. But the symbolism is that God must be the center of every believer’s universe. If you don’t make Him first in your life, don’t bother with the rituals of pilgrimage. With genuine faith in God, there will be a Zion and a Temple to visit every year, and you will lead your children and your grandchildren there to worship.
This is the shalom of God.
Translations vary on whether Solomon wrote this himself of took it into his collection of wisdom literature. Either way, it reflects the kind of broad moral insight he had. We can be sure this wasn’t written for the annual pilgrimage. However, it was included later because, without such moral wisdom, there would be no city and temple to which they should return every year. This psalm is loaded with Ancient Near Eastern symbolism; don’t get lost in the apparent literal meaning.
God is the foundation and the blueprint of a life worth living, for both individuals and the nation as a whole. Don’t start any projects without first insuring that God is involved. And once you have built, you cannot keep it without God’s continued favor. You must choose a course that God has laid out in His revelation, or everything you do is wasted effort.
Cease striving on your own power; work smarter, not harder. Internal peace is a gift from God. Good responsible stewardship means taking care of your own sanity and health as part of the shared resources of your covenant community. There is nothing noble about a pointless sacrifice to lesser things.
But if you hear and obey the Word of God, then it would be just like a man who fathers many children while he is still young. Now that’s a job worth some extra effort, worth a little struggle early on in your life. The spawn of obedience will go far, stopping threats from a distance like archery in battle. You can never have too many arrows of that sort. They will become men before you are old, established and well known in the community. Then when you do grow old, these worthy sons can present a strong argument in your favor when opponents try to bring judgment against you.
The implication is that you’ll die in peace because you lived in shalom.
This Song of Ascents refers to the Exile and Restoration, but looks back upon it from a later date. Yet still fresh in memory was the giddy joy of the imperial announcement that the Judeans could go home and rebuild their city and temple. The terminology in the first refers to a restoration of something that was confiscated. But restoring the freedom to live in the place God granted their Father Abraham, and the ridge line where David built his royal capital, seemed almost too good to be true.
So even as they were preparing to depart, they were singing with irrepressible joy. The other nations crowded into the Babylonian ghettos around them were echoing the celebration in recognizing that Jehovah had finally called His people back home. Wasn’t it a wonderful thing to watch? Yes, say the Judeans, what a wonderful thing He has done for us and we can’t keep it to ourselves.
But everyone knows that when they did come home, it was anything like the dreams they had treasured for so long. There was trouble from every side and it seemed to take forever before they started rebuilding the city, and yet longer still to build the Second Temple. Frankly, there was precious little of the giddy joy left as the Returnees clustered around the city and the vast majority stayed behind in Babylon, never to return. Some Restoration!
Lord, can we go back and finish it? Can we even today, return to the purity of devotion that drove us back here, but keep our faith intact this time? It would be like that brief rainy season in the southern wastes of Judea. For most of the year the wadis were dry, but for just a week or so those watercourses were roaring torrents. We need a heavy rain of Your Spirit, O Lord.
Imagine the farmer who lives in troubled times. He faces great anxiety and serious hunger, but he must sow his grain on the ground when planting time comes. Once that harvest comes, though, the bad times are forgotten in the abundance of blessings.
A song of security, scholars suggest this was not originally meant as a pilgrimage psalm. However, it fits the theme well enough referring to the geography around the City of Jerusalem. One can hardly approach the city without climbing over at least a few mountains along the way because it sits in the midst of them.
Despite a few earthquakes now and then, the shape of Zion had never changed in the human memory. Those who trust in God are just as stable and solid. Like the mountains ringing the city, you have to get past God who watches of it.
For this reason, the psalmist is confident that no foreign invaders could permanently conquer the land. If something like that happened, there was no hope for keeping the people righteous. It would have to mean Jehovah had abandoned them.
So the psalmist prays the God would continue to protect and prosper the righteous. And if anyone in the land forsook the Covenant, let them be led away as prisoners to some other land. Thus, would the nation remain in God’s shalom.
This is ascribed specifically to David. We should take notice how very much this is like a responsive song, heavy with Hebrew parallelism.
We have this basic confession: Were it not for Jehovah’s favor, there would be no Israel. Think just a moment about her history. How many times did the Patriarchs stand threatened by circumstances? And didn’t Israel face a very well-armed force trying to escape unarmed from several generations of slavery? And that generation that died in the wilderness? Remember those biting serpents, the droughts and lack of food? How many times should Israel as a nation have died by normal human reckoning? This sentiment is restated twice.
This sentiment is expressed in two ways. First, is the image of larger and better armed nations rising against them, described twice. Then the metaphor of an overwhelming flood is expressed three times. Make no mistake — this echoes the crossing of the Reed Sea and Jordan during flood stage.
The song then jumps into praise. God didn’t let them eat us alive. David compares this to a bird caught in a snare that escapes because the trap broke. It’s not that Israel was smart enough to stay out the traps, but that God kept breaking them free. Their salvation was in the “name of the Lord.” That’s a Hebrew turn of phrase that reminds us God operates as an eastern suzerain, and we are His vassals. This is all about His glory, His reputation. Let us remind everyone that this is our Creator.
While very short, this Psalm of Ascents is far more intense than any English translation can convey. It echoes of someone in deep distress from oppression, implying a persecution for one’s faith in Jehovah.
The first word in the Hebrew here points to God as the obvious focus; there is no other. We are bowed down under the pressure of a world that dehumanizes and tries to own us, but we recognize no Sovereign but Jehovah. He is the One who dwells in the Heavens as His natural home, built by His hand.
In a related figure of speech, the psalmist cites a protocol whereby the servant watches the right hand of his master, or her mistress. Many Ancient Near Eastern potentates would establish subtle hand signals, training their servants to respond immediately. Just the slightest twitch from Your finger, O Lord, and we are ready to jump. We are watchful and eager. What is not easily translated to our culture today is how such a servant was utterly convinced that the whims of their lord were always in their own best interest. In this case, it’s all the more so true when we seek His mercy and favor for deliverance.
And what favor do we seek? The psalmist includes everyone, emphasizing it by repeating it. We burdened by the hideous moral distress of contempt we face from those bearing worldly authority over us. The obvious implication is that God is not like that; we are His family and His treasure. Who compares to the greatness of God? Yet men with piddling authority over a few others so quickly forget humility before God, and oppress His people.
This prayer doesn’t seek revenge, only deliverance.
Though written by David whose palace sits in Jerusalem, he assumes the perspective of a pilgrim who has come from the farthest distance.
We have arrived! We are here in Jerusalem and the first thing we want to do is pay our respects to God. This first verse is very popular, though seldom properly understood in context. Instead of seeking rest and recovery from the journey, the pilgrims hurry to seek God’s favor. The anticipation that energized them on the journey brings a demand that cannot be denied. Meanwhile, they pause just a moment to celebrate the fact their feet are now inside the gates of the city. You can almost see them bowing down to kiss the stone pavement. This becomes a song to Jerusalem as the capital of the nation and the symbolic home of God’s Presence among His people.
It’s not just any city; Jerusalem is a most winsome place. The word typically translated as “compact” carries the connotation of communion, a place where the whole nation returns to their spiritual home. It signifies the sense of moral fitness, that everything is in its place, and that the whole universe is in proper balance under God’s favor. It’s a primary meaning behind shalom. The sense of unity in the vast nation is a testimony to God’s greatness. Surely we can all share our gratitude to Jehovah. How proper it is that the City is also the seat of government, the City David won for himself from the Jebusites.
So while we are in the House of God, let us pray for the continued shalom of this lovely place. Given what it represents, let the Lord’s favor rest on those who love to be here. Let there be that powerful sense of peace and rest and vivid life that demonstrates God’s promised blessings. And even if David has to write it himself, there is a standing command from God to pray for the welfare of the king.
Meanwhile, lest we imagine that David is tooting his own horn, he explains his true motives here: David is still the shepherd boy serving his Lord. All of this is for the sake of his flock, his tribe, his nation, his brothers and sisters Israel. If there is peace in the City, it’s a whole lot easier to insure that peace rests on the whole kingdom. So it is for the sake of God’s great name on the earth that David seeks the well-being of his whole nation.
Note: Keep in mind that when David wrote this, there was as yet no Temple. The “House of the Lord” would have been the Tent of Meeting standing in the courtyard outside his fortress-palace.