Psalms 120-134 constitute the only unbroken collection of psalms in the Bible. Other collections, such as the Hallelujah Psalms and the Songs of Asaph, are broken up and scattered among the five Books of Psalms. However, these 15 psalms, labeled Road Trip Songs or, more literally, Songs of Ascents, appear as a unit.
The title “Songs of Ascents” comes from the Hebrew verb for ‘to go up’ or ‘ascend.’ Jewish Law required all Jewish males ‘to go up’ to Jerusalem in a kind of pilgrimage three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16). Jerusalem sat on top of a ridge. So, no matter which direction pilgrims came from, they had to climb the hill up into Jerusalem.
The Road Trip Songs were probably sung by these pilgrims as they came into the city and worshipped at the Temple.
Date and Purpose
It seems likely that the Road Trip Songs were added to Book 5 of Psalms in the 500s BC, sometime after the Jews who had been held in exile in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq) were freed to return home to Jerusalem. The purpose of the songs then was two-fold. They served first and foremost as pilgrim songs, but they also commemorated the return of the exiles.
Even though the Road Trip Songs were added to Book 5 of Psalms at a late date, some of the individual psalms in the sequence may have been taken from earlier periods and arranged or altered to fit the new scenario. For example, Psalm 132:8–10 forms part of Solomon’s blessing for the newly constructed Temple, as found in 2 Chronicles 6:41–42. In addition, four of these psalms (122, 124, 131, and 133) are said to be “of David,” while one (Psalm 127) is said to be “of Solomon.” Of course, this does not necessarily mean that these psalms were written by David and Solomon or even written during their time, but only that they were inspired by them in some way. Whatever the time of composition, they were put to new use here.
Ascending to the Temple
The content of the psalms themselves suggest a sequence that moves forward in a planned manner. The first few psalms seem to indicate that they were sung by the pilgrims or by the exiles themselves as they set out from distant lands, traveled to Jerusalem, arrived in Jerusalem, and then climbed the 15 steps between the Temple’s Court of Women and its Court of the Israelites. On the other hand, some Bible scholars say the pilgrims sang all the songs as they ascended the 15 steps of the Temple itself.
Psalm 120, the first of the Road Trip Songs, complains of living in far off lands and enduring hardships. The situation (especially in verses 5 and 6) fits the idea of a people exiled in a foreign land and yearning to be free. As such, it looks back to the end of Book 4 and the start of Book 5 of Psalms, which focus on the return of exiles to Jerusalem.
Psalm 121 seems to describe the actual journey to Jerusalem. It refers to far-off hills and it trusts that God will guide the pilgrims or exiles, keep their feet from slipping on the road, and protect them from the heat of the sun.
Psalm 122 expresses the joy felt by the pilgrims or exiles as they arrive in Jerusalem, the city on the hill. It goes on to describe how they will
“Make the climb up this hill,
By law, to give thanks to the LORD” (Psalm 122:4).
Pleas to God
Psalm 123 is a community lament that asks God to show mercy and end the contempt and scorn their enemies are heaping upon the people. Once again, this brings to mind the exiles. Because the text in this psalm shifts from the singular to the plural, it may have been a responsorial song in which a priest or leader of song began a chant (verses 1–2) and the people then answered in a kind of pilgrim’s chorus (verses 3–4). Some of the other Road Trip Songs also have this responsorial element.
The psalms that follow (124–130) affirm the need to rely on the LORD alone. They thank God for always coming to their aid and ask God to:
- be good to people who lead honest lives,
- put an end to crooks,
- provide food and a family with lots of children,
- protect the people from enemies,
- forgive Israel’s guilt,
- restore Israel as he has done in the past,
- bring shame against anyone who hates Jerusalem, and
- grant peace.
The many references to daily life and families suggest that these psalms were meant to be sung by everyday people, as opposed to priests. Though, as already mentioned, some of the songs may have been responsorial psalms, with a priest or other leader of song singing one part of the psalm and the chorus of pilgrims responding
Psalm 131 pauses to express humility and to call upon Israel to hope in the LORD.
Reasons to go up to Jerusalem
All of the Road Trip Songs are short except for Psalm 132, which is a longish psalm that seems to have been inserted into the Road Trip Songs to give reasons for making the required pilgrimages to Jerusalem. To do so, the psalm goes back in time, recalling that God had chosen Jerusalem as both his own home and the seat of David’s government. It also recalls that David had promised to find a resting place for the LORD (though it would be his son, Solomon, who would actually build the first Temple).
The psalm goes on to repeat God’s promise that David’s descendants would rule Israel as long as they kept his Law. Jerusalem is his resting place forever and he will always watch over it.
Psalm 133 affirms that God will bless his people if they live together in harmony. This blessing seems to be given in the following psalm.
Psalm 134, the final psalm of the sequence, sounds very much like a blessing given by a priest to the pilgrims at the end of their pilgrimage. The priest invites the pilgrims to fulfill the purpose of their journey—to praise the LORD. He then gives them a final blessing. The pilgrimage has come to an end. The return from exile has been remembered and celebrated.