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Preaching the Psalms of Ascent

A soundtrack for the pilgrimage of faith.
Preaching the Psalms of Ascent
Image: Lisa Forseth / Lightstock

Since our kids have been young, one of the highlights of our road trips has been listening to music. In the “old days,” everyone would bring a favorite CD or two on the trip so we could take turns listening to music. These days, we create playlists or switch out smartphones, letting everyone have a turn at picking a song to share with everyone else. We learn a lot about one another through the music, even as we enjoy the travel experiences, and the beauty of God’s creation matched by the soundtrack for the journey.

Now, one of the most cliché phrases about human existence is that “life is a journey.” Like many such phrases, however, it is so overused because it seems so resoundingly true. That concept is woven throughout Scripture about our lives as human beings: we are on a journey, or pilgrimage, through our days. Ideally, that pilgrimage is with God but, regardless, journey is an accurate description of the human way of experiencing life.

One portion of Scripture where this is particularly clear is in a grouping of psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134). While there are different ideas about what "ascent" is a reference to, the most widely supported idea is that these psalms were sung and prayed by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. These pilgrims traveled to the Temple in celebration of the three main festivals of the Hebrew people: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths (Exodus 23:14-17). No matter where they were, they would ascend toward Jerusalem because it was on the topographical heights, but also because it symbolized the spiritual high point where God dwells with human beings.

These journey prayers provided a soundtrack for the people of God, a spiritual soundtrack for the pilgrimage of faith. The Psalms of Ascent returned the Hebrew people to their nomadic faith roots in Abraham and the liberation journey of the Exodus with Moses. They served as a reminder that God’s people were a pilgrim people on the way with God.

These psalms do the same for us today. They remind us that our life with God is a journey. It is a journey with God, but also a journey with his people on the way to God’s eternal kingdom. The writer of Hebrews describes God’s people in Christ as “foreigners and strangers on earth … looking for a country of their own” (Heb. 11:13-14). We can join with the Psalms of Ascent to sing and pray a soundtrack for the pilgrimage of our life with God, not just to Jerusalem, but to the eternal country of the new heaven and new earth with God.

Preaching the Psalms of Ascent offers an opportunity to call believers into three great realities of our faith: we are on pilgrimage, our pilgrimage is a journey of growth with Jesus, and we are headed toward an ultimate arrival.

Preaching on Pilgrimage

The idea that life is a journey is so prevalent that we almost ignore it. Increasingly, however, there is a pervasive sense in our day that life is confusing or meaningless. Depression has increased to epidemic levels in some segments of our society. A recent study by the National Institute of Health highlighted that suicide rates are on the rise in the United State, particularly in younger generations. In his book, Sources of the Self, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that one of the most challenging aspects of our contemporary milieu is confusion about personal identity. In particular, the modern human struggles to know how to relate to both ourselves and the world around us in trying to establish meaning and identity in the midst of prevalent confusion and hopelessness.

In this context, as preachers we have an opportunity to restore a sense of hope and meaning in life through preaching pilgrimage. The characteristic of Christians as people on the way means that our lives are not meaningless, but we are heading somewhere and there is purpose in our steps. The Psalms of Ascent as a structured grouping helps us remember that there is a start to as well as a destination for our journey marked by signposts of growth along the way.

Words are important here, and there is a good reason why we should preach pilgrimage to our people as opposed to simply journey or road trip. Pilgrimage “may refer to an inner—emotional, mental, and spiritual—as well as an outer, physical journey (Harpur, The Pilgrim Journey, p. 7).” When we preach the Psalms of Ascent to our people we recover the meaning in our hours and days, our steps and our pitstops. Nothing is meaningless, but in God’s redemptive way, our journey becomes a purposeful pilgrimage under the watchful care of our Shepherd.

Preaching the Pilgrimage of Growth with Jesus

The Psalms of Ascent also hint toward something else critical to our faith life. Pilgrimage echoes a word commonly used today: discipleship. Discipleship, being apprenticed to a master, is not a final state given but a developmental process. Both pilgrimage and discipleship remind us that there is a beginning of our faith life in Christ, whether we can name the day and time or not, and there is a growth toward an end. That end is fixed in Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). As believers we are on the way of growth, daily becoming more like Christ in our thoughts, words, and deeds, and inviting others into that same growth journey with Jesus.

The Psalms of Ascent combat the desire for immediacy within our spiritual growth. One-click Christlikeness is not for sale. If it seems to be on offer, it is false Christlikeness, and not something we should even desire. Our life with Christ is something that requires careful nurture and patient development, more closely mirroring our physical growth or the cultivation of a garden than a microwaveable meal or online buying.

Simply reading through the Psalms of Ascent takes time, care, and effort. There are some psalms in the grouping that are readily accessible and revered, such as Psalm 121, and there are others that seem hard to understand or distant from our lives. The structure of this group is incremental and not to be rushed through. All of this charts out a course of development, a pilgrimage of growth with Jesus, which we know as discipleship. The Psalms of Ascent tell us that growth in faith requires letting the Word of God, who is Jesus Christ, slowly seep into our lives through a daily, disciplined pilgrimage with him and toward him.

When we preach this pilgrimage of growth with Jesus through the Psalms of Ascent, we help our congregations slow down, attend to the ordinary as the place where God is burning in the bush, and see every hour and day as an opportunity to be shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit into Christlikeness. We are walking toward the destination, but we have not arrived yet.

Preaching About the Destination

However, there will be an arrival, and the Psalms of Ascent point toward that reality. The Hebrew pilgrims walked from their home areas with extended family or town groupings toward Jerusalem. There was no question of where they were going or why they were headed there. It was time to go to the mountain of the Lord where they would worship God, gather with others, and remember the great story of their identity as God’s people.

I remember one of our family road trips that led to some confusion. While we were on a circle tour of Lake Superior, we lost our GPS signal in the wilds and lost faith that the preloaded guidance from Google Maps was accurate. This only increased when a yellow warning sign on the right side of the road blazed, “ROAD ENDS AHEAD.” Suddenly our minivan was roaring across a gravel road and I had a sinking feeling as one of my kids exclaimed, “Where are we going?!” Thankfully, we found out this was “the way” and eventually arrived at our destination (with tires a little worse for the wear).

There is nothing worse than feeling lost or that you do not know where you are going in life. Many seasons of life can disorient us. Some are difficult like the loss of a loved one, divorce, mental health issues, social injustice, or a pandemic. Even amazing experiences can do this, like being hired for that job we hoped for, the birth of a child, or moving to a new city. When we become overwhelmed, either for good or ill, by life, we need to remember why we are here, where we are going, and how each day fits into that. The pilgrimage of faith with Jesus is the underlying story of our lives, giving meaning to the now and to our future arrival.

The Psalms of Ascent provide a roadmap of sorts, enabling our pilgrimage of faith to stay focused on the daily way and the ultimate end. For the Hebrew pilgrims Jerusalem was the end. For Christian pilgrims, the ultimate end is both becoming like Christ in our lives but also the new heaven and the new earth of God’s kingdom. While we do not want to become “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good,” with no end before us we often lose motivation and wander along our life journey.

Preaching the Psalms of Ascent helps keep the destination of the journey in front of us. We are not aimless and lost pilgrims, but those who, like the great heroes of our faith, are “looking for a country of their own” (Heb. 11:14).

My Encounter with Preaching the Psalms of Ascent

There are many great examples of preaching the Psalms of Ascent. I cannot recommend enough Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, which was written out of Peterson’s own preaching series on these psalms. There are other resources worth exploring as well (see below), but let me provide below an example of a series I preached in my local congregation that started in the fall and eventually overlapped with Advent.

Title: Ascend

Series Description: Our life with God is a journey. It is a journey with God, but also a journey with his people on the way to the eternal kingdom. The New Testament describes God’s people as “foreigners and strangers on earth … looking for a country of their own” (Heb. 11:13-14). Within the Book of Psalms there is a soundtrack for this sort of journey known as the Psalms of Ascent. These ancient prayer-songs accompanied the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in times of celebration. Join with us as we explore themes of spiritual growth, life as pilgrimage, and the season of Advent in this series.

Week 1: “Peace”

Text: Psalm 120

Summary: Oftentimes, lies that people tell us hang over our head for years. They cause distress and unrest in our souls, leaving us without any sense of God’s peace. We need to do the soul-work necessary to receive the truth that matters most is in our lives: God and his Word.

Week 2: “Help”

Text: Psalm 121

Summary: The psalmist is looking to the hills, and asking where his help comes from? His help comes not from the hills themselves, but from the hill that is God himself.

Week 3: “Community”

Text: Psalm 122

Summary: We need to be joyful in gathering with God’s people because this is what God has called us to in community. We shouldn’t look to the church to see what it can offer us, but rather we should rejoice in simply drawing near to the house of the Lord.

Week 4: “Labor”

Text: Psalm 127

Summary: Unless God is at the center of all that we are, whatever we are doing is in vain. This will include some exploration about work, effort, vocation, and worship.

Week 5: “Mercy”

Text: Psalm 130

Summary: This Psalm describes the guilt, points to God’s forgiveness, and then shows the hope that comes as a result of living guilt-free.

Week 6: “Unity”

Text: Psalm 133

Summary: Unity is good and pleasant and can only come from God. We’ll explore why unity within the community is essential to the journey of faith.

Week 7: “Praise”

Text: Psalm 134

Summary: The end of the journey with God is unmitigated goodness.

Every time my family packs up the car and gets ready to hit the road, we continue to enjoy music that becomes a soundtrack for our journey. Every once in awhile we pull out some old songs that we have not heard in a long time, and it brings us back to previous years and memories of all we have enjoyed as a family. The Psalms of Ascent are like that for the family of faith. They provide a soundtrack for the pilgrimage of faith as we journey together, growing with God both individually and together until the day we see our King in the everlasting kingdom.

Resources for Preaching through the Psalms of Ascent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Prayerbook of the Bible. DBW vol. 5. Minneapolis, MN: Fotress Press, 1995.

Walter Brueggemann. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing, 1984.

________. The Psalms: the Life of Faith. Edited by Patrick D. Miller. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995.

Derek Kidner. Psalms. Kidner Classic Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

C. S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harvest Books, 1958.

Tremper Longman III. Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

James L. Mays. Psalms. Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994.

Josh Moody. Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Eugene H. Peterson. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.

Erik Routley. Ascent to the Cross: Meditations on the Pilgrimage Psalms. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1961.

Willem VanGemeren. Psalms. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., volume 5. Edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

N. T. Wright. The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. New York: Harper One, 2013.

Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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