These fifteen psalms form a little psalter by themselves; they are the Songs of Ascents, or Songs of Degrees, as the King James Version translates the Hebrew word Ham-maaloth; literally, the word means “steps” or “stairs” and since it includes a definite article, it is clearly describing particular steps. In the Latin Vulgate, these psalms are known as “stair songs”.
In the Jewish tradition, it was understood that there were fifteen steps leading up to the inner court of the temple; in Ezekiel’s vision of the future temple, there are seven steps up to the outer court and eight steps from there to the inner court, making fifteen in all. Tradition has it that they formed a type of spiritual ladder, with one psalm sung on each step by those ascending to the inner court to worship Jehovah.
The writers of the King James Bible, on the other hand, considered that these psalms were connected to Hezekiah’s extra fifteen years given to him by God and that the Ham-maaloth were a reference to the ten degrees by which the shadow of the sun went backwards on the sundial of Ahaz (1 Kings 20). In this interpretation, ten psalms are the work of Hezekiah, with four being David’s and one being of Solomon. Interestingly, there are five of Hezekiah’s and two of David’s in the first seven and the last seven, with Solomon’s occupying the middle, or eighth position.
Whatever the fifteen steps signify, there is no doubt that they formed an important part of the Jewish liturgy of the temple; but this is not their only significance; there is a strong prophetic vein running through this “Little Psalter”. They speak of a time yet future, when Israel will “ascend” out of the depths of its national apostasy and humiliation, up to the “Mountain of the Lord”, where they will take hold of His glory and reflect it upon the nations round about, which has always been God’s purpose for His chosen people.
This collection of psalms begins with “distress” (Psalm 120:1); sin is the distress of all God’s people, Jews or Christians, and the psalmist cries out for deliverance; he longs to dwell in peace but his soul dwells with those who hate peace. All believers understand this terrible conflict and dilemma that confronts God’s people. Paul put it best; “For that which I am bringing about I do not recognise; for I do not do that which I wish but I do that which I hate” (Romans 7:15); then, the cry; “O wretched man that I am” (verse 24).
This is always a good place to start in approaching God; to confess our distress at our sinfulness and repent in the deepest places of the heart.
Distress leads to trust as we “lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help” (Psalm 121); Jehovah is presented here as Israel’s keeper; “Jehovah shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and forever”.
Trust is still the vital ingredient that we must add to the work that Jesus has carried out; trust is really only faith by a different name in English; in Greek the same word pistis is used for both. Today, many Christians try to have faith without truly trusting in Christ Jesus, except for those things that they cannot do themselves. But trust involves surrendering those matters, in which we are quite capable of making decisions, into the hands of the Lord.
It is only through trust that we can have peace (Psalm 122); not the peace of the world but the peace that only Christ Jesus can release. In that condition of peace with God we too, can say “I was glad when they said to me ‘let us go up into the house of the Lord’” (verse 1); there is no fear in standing before the thrones of judgement, for peace is within the walls of the house of God. This is a Psalm of David whose faithful heart is revealed herein.
The next Psalm evokes surrender; “unto Thee I lift up my eyes, O Lord who dwellest in the heavens” (123:1). There is yieldedness to God and a crying out to God for His mercy. “Our eyes wait upon the Lord our God until He have mercy upon us”.
There is a beautiful progression of worship in these psalms, embracing Jehovah’s faithfulness, trustworthiness, mercy and peace, and evoking surrender, peace, rest and fear of the Lord. This “Little Psalter” concludes with the unity of the faithful in Psalm 133 and finally, arrival at the entrance into the inner court of the temple; “Bless the Lord all ye servants of the Lord, which stand by night in the house of the Lord; Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord” (Psalm 134:1-2).
But there are prophetic elements in this set as well and Psalm 129 is an example.
The speaker in this psalm is the nation of Israel; “Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed” (verse 2). This is the history of Israel from the foundation of the nation as a people under God; suffering at the hands of other nations; “they have plowed upon my back, they made long their furrows” (verse 3).
Israel’s youth was spent in Egypt, where the rulers plowed indeed upon their back and deep and painful were their wounds; “Yet they have not prevailed against me”.
Egypt was afflicted with plagues, Pharaoh and his army were drowned, but of Israel we read that “the more they afflicted them the more they multiplied and grew”. So Egypt certainly did not prevail against them. Then there were Canaanites, Philistines, Midianites, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome; a whole host of powerful nations sent to oppress God’s people; “yet they have not prevailed against me”.
Throughout the dispersion that followed the Roman occupation and the destruction of the temple it would have been thought likely that such a small and powerless people in the great sea of humanity would soon be swallowed up; in many countries, brutal and cruel force was brought against them; wholesale massacres were initiated by the rulers of apostate Christianity in the dark ages, but in spite of all, “they have not prevailed against me”.
Rome and Greece are gone, their descendants have been mixed with other nations so that they have lost even the traces of their origin; Israel alone has been spared among the nations from its infancy; Israel still preserves the laws that were given to it in the first days of the world; the history of Israel connects present times with the earliest ages of the world; Israel begins at the cradle of mankind and will be preserved until the end. It is a remarkable story of the sovereignty of God and His covenant faithfulness to a nation that He formed for Himself. Israel is indestructible!
The national, or collective life of the Jewish nation is a type, not only of the Church of God as a whole, but more significantly, of the spiritual life of the individual believer, which is also indestructible. History, as well as scripture, attests that no man or nation that has lifted up his hand against Israel has prospered; and Israel, though hardened in heart and apostate from the Lord, will yet be restored as a holy nation before God. Psalm 130 prophecies of those days, yet to come, when Israel will cry out to their Lord from the depths; “and He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities”.
The follower of Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour, can rest in the assurance of the indestructibility of his spiritual life, for it is born of an incorruptible seed and God will see His work completed.