These Psalms of Ascent remind us that we are on a journey through our lives with God. These 15 psalms, from 120 through 134, were sung and prayed by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, as they traveled to the Temple in celebration of the three main festivals of the Hebrew people: Passover, Pentecost and Booths (Exodus 23:14-17). These pilgrim songs, these road-trip prayers, acted like a soundtrack for the people of God then, reminding them that they were a people on the way with God and preparing them in hearts and minds for worship they would experience.
What they did as they went on that geographical journey, we want to do in our journey with God wherever we find ourselves, regardless of our geography. We want every day of our lives, every week of our lives, every year of our lives, until the end of our days to be filled with the right soundtrack, so to speak, to have our minds and hearts attuned to God—who he is and his purposes in the world.
We have tried to put a new song in our mouths that leads us to have our hearts and minds aligned for the journey to the eternal kingdom.
Now, we're going to look at the last of those psalms, Psalm 134. We want to explore some key questions: What did it mean then? What does it mean now? How do we allow Psalm 134 to shape our discipleship, our faith journey with the living God?
Bless the Lord
(Read Psalm 134:1)
The New International Version of the Bible, which I usually preach out of says: “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord.” Now, while I appreciate the NIV quite a bit because it is easy to read and to understand. But there are sometimes that I do not like it, and Psalm 134 is one of those times. There are a couple of reasons for that, and one of them is right here in verse one.
The English Standard Version says, “Come, bless the Lord,” and the New American Standard Bible says, “Behold, bless the Lord.” I like that word: “Behold.” It is a translation of a little word in Hebrew, hinnēh, that is an “emphatic call to attention” (VanGemeren, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, p. 818).
Picture with me the long journey of ascent to Jerusalem for all who have arrived. Some came from Jericho on the east while others came from Galilee in the north. Just imagine doing a multi-day road trip by foot over rough terrain with multigenerational families. Hear all the noise and hubbub of extended families, and neighbors. There are those that you love and those that you love a little less than the others.
Now you have arrived, and you are tired. But when it is time for the worship and celebration to begin, everyone must snap to attention for the task at hand. The celebration in Jerusalem goes from the morning through the night, and sometimes human beings become weary. But now is the moment to take notice and be fully engaged: “Behold …” Now the calling for which we journeyed all this way is at hand.
What is that calling? It is none other than to praise the Lord; to bless the Lord. Now, this is the second reason I do not like the NIV with Psalm 134. When other translations keep the word, “bless,” here in verse one it helps us see something about the balance of the psalm. It begins in verse one with God’s people blessing God and it ends in verse three with God blessing his people. That is an important rhythm within the journey with God that we need to remember.
Again, the calling of God’s people, the reason they have taken the journey to Jerusalem, is to bless the Lord. We may not think about blessing God too much, but this is what it means. It means to revere God, to adore God, to praise God, to thank God. It means recognizing God for who he is and for what he has done, and then to go one step further and verbalize from the depths of our souls all our thanks, appreciation, and respect for God.
Blessing God—praising God—is both seeing who God is and saying who God is. To see and say. That is important because it is one thing to know something about God in your head, and it is another thing to say aloud, “God has been merciful to me. I can count the ways that he has been gracious.” Until we give voice to it, our praise has not really reached its fullness. When we come with another person and we open our mouths and say, “God is good and I have experienced it,” that is a powerful moment. When we gather with others and raise our voices in song and we praise him, there is something very powerful that happens. That is a significant part of the calling of our spiritual journey with God: to see who God is and to say who God is. So snap to attention—behold—now is the time to see who God is and say who he is, so all might hear and know.
The Invitation One to Another
Now, there is another aspect to this psalm that we might miss if we just read it and move on: this psalm is a call and response song. The language used here—“all you servants of the Lord who stand [NIV: minister] by night in the house of the Lord”—is probably addressed to the Levitical priests who minister all day and night in God’s house, the Temple. Here, it seems to be that the congregation of the people—those gathered in worship—are calling out to the priests to lead them in worship in the first two verses of this psalm. And the priests respond to that call with a blessing in verse three of this psalm.
Imagine the scene with me here. People have taken the pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem from all around the country and now they are standing in the Temple of Jerusalem. This is the culmination of their journey, and worship festivities have likely occurred all week long. The priests may be tired. The people are likely tired. And here they are gathered for a nighttime worship gathering. Then, the community enters into a call and response moment.
You know what call and response is, even if you don’t think you do. It’s when two parties call back and forth to one another, affirmatively echoing a theme as it builds in excitement and energy until it reaches a zenith.
This is what cheerleaders do at sports games: they call out something on a theme and the crowd responds, echoing back the theme.
Cheerleaders: When we say PACKERS, you say Go!
Everyone: Gooo PACKERS!
Now, I know this may sound a little strange, but that call and response chant is trying to usher in a new reality. It says, “If we shout this out, it will inspire the team to persevere and overcome with victory.” The call and response is a hopeful call into a new reality.
It happens in music. Roger Daltry of The Who sings, “People try to put us down,” and everyone responds, “Talking ‘bout my generation.” He sings, “Just because we get around,” and everyone responds, “Talking ‘bout my generation.” And there we have the snarling 1965 theme-song for counter-culture that invited people into a new reality built by a rebellious attitude and disrespect for the older generation (“I hope I die before I get old”).
Psalm 134 has that call and response element of worship and praise of God. But it is interesting that it is in reverse order of what you might normally think. The call in Psalm 134:1 is actually not coming from the mouths of the worship leaders or the priests. The call comes from the voices of the people who have ascended to Jerusalem. Now they are here in the outer court of worship at the Temple, and they are calling out to the priests, “Come, bless the Lord. All you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord.”
That language, “all you who minister [or who stand] in the house of the Lord,” is the descriptive phrase of the Levitical priest. This is how they were described all throughout the Pentateuch. That is their activity. So we know this is the congregation calling to the priests. It’s as if they are saying, “Hey, we've been on a long journey. We need you to lead us in worship now.” And as you get to the third verse, that is the response of the priest back over the people: “May the Lord bless you from Zion.”
This back and forth, this call and response, is the calling in of a new reality in worship. It is reminiscent of what we hear in another psalm, that God inhabits the praises of his people (Psalm 22:3 KJV). When we invite each other into that reality, we're stepping into the place in Jerusalem. This enthronement was a geographical place in the mindset of God’s people. The place where God sat on his throne was the temple and they said, “We are stepping into this place. Now, let's remember that we're here to worship the living God. He's right here in this place with us.”
It is a reminder to us that when we bless God, when we praise him, we, in a sense, step into his presence. We remember who he is, see who he is, say who he is, and we call each other back and forth to worship. We do this as a church at worship even today in different ways. If here in the front and I say, “God is good,” then the whole congregation shouts back, “All the time.” When we go back and forth like that and you hear some other people shouting that back around you, it actually causes something to rise up within you. It causes you to rise up to the moment and say, “I am here in the presence of a good and great God who is like that all the time, and I’m ready to worship. That is what is happening here in Psalm 134.
There is something that happens when we invite one another—call and respond to one another—along the journey of life with God. We need that and it fuels our worship and daily living with God.
Praise the Holy God with Holy Hands
(Read Psalm 134:2)
‘Lift up your hands …’
All those who lift up their hands when they sing in our worship services are saying, “See, I told you so!” And all those who prefer to keep their hands at their sides or deep in their pockets are getting uncomfortable. Here is the idea that we need to grasp. The lifting up of hands was a common practice in Hebrew prayer, and is still common in parts of the Middle East today. When I visit with my friends in Amman, Jordan, they still often lift their hands in front of them open-palms to God. When King Solomon, son of David, dedicated the Temple at its construction, we are told that he stood before the people, raised his hands before God, and called out for God to set apart that local place for worship with his presence.
When we raise our hands in worship, we are acknowledging who God is. We're saying, “God, you are awesome.” Lifting of hands is an expression of praise, but also an expression of need. “God, I need you.” So when we worship, that would be part of why we're raising our hands. People who raise their hands, say, “God, you're awesome. God, I need you.”
Another important aspect that we may skip over is that when the Levitical priests prepared to lead people in worship, they had to consecrate themselves. That Bible word simply means they had to cleanse themselves to prepare to lead in worship. This was because the priests were seen as standing between God and the people, mediating an encounter with God. Because of this, they needed to be right, clean, and holy. They wore special garments as a sign of being clean and fit for the task of worship leading.
So, they would lift up their hands to say, “God, I'm clean before you and I don't carry anything wrong into your presence.” That is what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he mentions this concept to the young pastor, Timothy: “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 2:8). The lifting up of hands is a sign; the hands become a sign of our lives, specifically of standing blamelessly before God.
Now for those of us who stand on the other side of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, we understand that no one is able to enter into the presence of God on their own. No one can truly be clean. We need a cleansing from beyond ourselves, from God, and that is part of what Jesus did on the Cross. He cleanses us of the power of sin, of the stains of guilt and shame, the evil that grip us, and the punishment that we deserve. We can stand in God’s presence, cleansed through Jesus’ blood and covered in Jesus’ righteousness.
So, when we lift our hands in worship, and you are more than welcome to do that here, it doesn’t mean necessarily that we are having an emotional experience, it means—among other things—that we are calling out to God with a physical expression of our desire to be holy before God and, in Jesus Christ, a gratitude for the holiness imparted to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When we worship, there are certain phrases that may come up where you might see people lift their hands high from time to time. That is just as an acknowledgment that God is great. We see who he is and we're saying who he is and what he's done. We know we need him. We know that we stand clean under Christ because of his great sacrifice.
Even more, we know that Jesus is the Great High Priest. It says in the Book of Hebrews that he eternally intercedes before the Father on our behalf (Heb. 7:25). We may think of him praying on his knees with his hands folded, but we should really think of him as standing with his hands raised high. He's standing as the mediator of a new covenant between God and humanity saying, “I have washed them clean.” His hands are, in a sense, raised high to push open the doorway of the kingdom of God in heaven, that we all might come in through his complete work. Jesus stands with his hands raised on our behalf in worship. It is an amazing reality.
‘In the Sanctuary …’ or ‘The Holy Place …’
Psalm 134 is a call to the priests to go into the temple in Jerusalem and lift up their hands in worship before God. As the Psalms of Ascent lead to the Jerusalem Temple, so we know that in Jesus Christ, our earthly journey is toward the new Temple that will be fully revealed in the new heaven and new earth.
How much more significant is this new reality that through Jesus Christ, our spiritual journey with God is not locked into one geographical place for access to God. In fact, we are not constrained to worship God in the Temple at all, but are now given free access to the Father through Jesus Christ. As the writer to the Hebrews says, we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Now, every single place upon which we tread our feet is a holy place unto the Lord. If you are riding the bus on your way to work in the morning, that can be a holy place where you can encounter the living God. If you are on your morning commute in your in your car, that can be a place where you encounter the living God. If you're walking down the hallways of your elementary school, middle school, or high school, that place can be a holy place where you encounter the living God.
Jesus stands eternally with his hands raised before the Father so we can boldly approach God’s throne of grace, where mercy and help our found in our time of need. That is our new reality. So approach that throne of grace, and lift your hands high. You might not want to do it on the bus or in the hallway at school, but express your need and praise to God: “I see who you are and I want to say who you are. My life is a response of worship to you God.”
Blessed by the Lord
(Read Psalm 134:3)
This is the response of the priests who have been invited to lead the people in worship by the people. They were called to hold up their holy hands in worship.
Blessed from Zion
Zion is the place of God’s presence. Yes, that is Jerusalem. This is specifically the Temple Mount where God was seen to dwell. Yet, for those of us who are here today because of Jesus, it is different than simply that geographical place. Here's how Old Testament scholar, Derek Kidner describes it: “His true Mount Zion is, as Hebrews 12:22-24 shows, where ‘Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,’ reigns in the midst of His people. In the words of the previous psalm, ‘There the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore’” (Psalms, p. 454).
The Apostle Peter writes about that in his first letter: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). Each and every one of us who have reached out to God by faith in Christ, God is assembling into a new temple, a new house, in which his glory will dwell.
So, we are not only looking toward Zion or Jerusalem, we are actually looking at how, as his people, we are becoming the new place in which his glory dwells in the blessing of God. This issues forth not just from a geographical place, but in the midst of this relational space in which his new family is being established. God's blessing is accessible. Now. It is accessible to you and me. It is accessible through Jesus Christ.
Blessed by the Maker of Heaven and Earth
It is not just some local deity who does this, not just some household god. This is the God who has created the heaven and the earth. This God we are dealing with is not merely a deity to be served with sacrifices and songs, with festivals and fear, but a God who draws near to his people with good things.
Yes, we are called to bless the Lord—to praise God, to adore him, to thank him, to reverence him—all because he is worthy of it. He sustains the world and he sustains our lives. He gives us good things, and keeps the world spinning. Even in the midst of darkness, there is still beauty: the wildflower rising up to bloom amongst a battlefield; the sonorous melody filling up the bombed-out concert hall. Praise him, all you servants of the Lord. But the final word is not our blessing—not our words of praise—but the blessing of God upon us. This is even more striking than the privilege of praising God we are given by grace.
So the last word here in this song, Psalm 134, is the word berekah, which means “to bless.” As Eugene Peterson says:
It describes what God does to us and among us: he enters into covenant with us, he pours out his own life for us, he shares the goodness of his Spirit, the vitality of his creation, the joys of his redemption. He empties himself among us and we get what he is. That is blessing (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 185).
And with this final word all the themes of the Psalms of Ascent are gathered together into one unconstrained gift of grace for our life’s journey:
The One we call to in our distress blesses us (Psalm 120) The One higher than the hills blesses us (Psalm 121] The One who gives security within our walls blesses us (Psalm 122] The One who builds our houses blesses us (Psalm 127] The One who forgives us and graces us with waiting blesses us (Psalm 130] The One who descends w/true unity blesses us (Psalm 133]
Yes, that God, that One who made heaven and earth, truly blesses us.
Trailblazing with God
Discipleship just means learning, being apprentice to a master. You can think about it as putting a tool in your tool belt while being apprenticed to master Jesus on what it looks like to be a woman or man of God in this life.
When we think about being on a journey, when we go backpacking, we take a backpack with a lot of supplies in it. We need some certain supplies in our journey packs so that we can actually go the long haul. I want to give us two today that are drawn out of Psalm 134 and I want to, I want to put it in context of, of being a trailblazer.
You may have heard the word "trailblazer" used in reference to individuals like Galileo, Nikola Tesla or Pablo Picasso—scientists or artists who forged beyond the common knowledge of their times to discover something new. The concept of being a trailblazer is an idiom derived from a backcountry source. In the wilderness, a blaze is a type of marking that establishes a trail for other hikers. While Tesla and Picasso were intellectual and artistic trailblazers, outdoor adventurers blaze their trails literally as well.
No matter what form trail markings take, their ultimate goal is to communicate two basic pieces of information: where a hiker is presently and also where the hiker needs to go next.
Like hikers along the pathway, as disciples of Christ, as those walking with God in life, we need blazes to guide us so that we know where we are presently and where we need to go next. I’d like to suggest two spiritual practices that are vital to our walk with God from Palm 134. We can see them at the very beginning of the psalm.
Living to Bless God and Living Blessed by God
The first blaze that marks where we are and where we are going is to live our lives in order to bless God and to live within the blessing of God. There are two directions here. The first is that we intentionally choose to live in praise of God with reverence, adoration, and delight with him. When we bless God, when every day of our lives is marked by praising him, then it helps us know where we are and where we need to go next. Praise leads us to seek to honor God with our lives, thus, lifting up holy hands.
At the same time, as we direct our attention to God in praise, we also realize this amazing reality: God also blesses us. He reaches down to us and teaches us his ways. Ultimately, in Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—we encounter the sure blessing of God. When we remember how great the blessings of God are toward us, it helps us know where we are on the journey and where we are going next. We enter into those great words of Psalm 103:1-5:
(Read Psalm 103:1-5)
This does not mean that we quit our jobs and sit around playing worship music all day long. However, it does mean that we let blessing infuse our days as we choose to praise God and also thank God for his blessings.
When my children were younger, we spent a week in the San Juan mountains in southern Colorado. I needed to remember the blessing of God, and so I told our children that at the end of each day, we were going to walk outside and find a rock. Then we would drop that rock in a pile and say something we were thankful for. This was not always very profound because the kids were younger, but it was meaningful. Although at the end of the week we had not left some gargantuan mount of stones, there was a little pile that spoke of God’s blessing upon us and our decision to bless him in return.
Maybe you will not make an actual pile of stones, but perhaps we can make the decision to build an altar in our lives as part of blessing God. So, let’s mark our journey—let’s remember where we are and where we’re going—by living to bless God and in the blessing of God.
Living the Call and Living the Response
Then there’s this second activity that is critical to living well on the journey with God: call and response. The Psalms of Ascent are a community journey. Remember that men and women, boys and girls, multi-generational families, and neighbors would all join together on the journey to worship in Jerusalem. That is a picture of our journey today as God’s people.
We need one another, but that’s not some sappy slogan that we throw around. It is a deep truth of the life with God. Every image of the church, the people of God, in the New Testament is an interactive, interdependent, relational image: a body, a family, a building, household, a flock, an army, a bride with her bridegroom. We need one another in a deep interdependent way so that we can stay on the pathway with God, not falling off the pathway or giving up along the pathway. We need one another so that we can keep going.
One of the most important activities we can do as the people of God—the family of God, the body of Christ—is to live the call and response. We call one to another that it is time to “Come, praise the Lord.”
As is true with call and response, when we echo that back to one another, we bring something new to reality. On this journey with God we call forth faith in each other so that we actually step together into that new reality of the kingdom of God which marks our journey by the power of the Holy Spirit from the moment of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ until the fullness of the new heaven and new earth with God forever.
But we have to call one to another. When we gather for worship, we live the call and we live the response. When someone is grieving, we call to them and urge them to live the response of faith into the comfort of Christ. When someone is joyful, we call to them and share together the joy of the Lord which is our strength. When someone falls into temptation and sin, we call to them and encourage them to choose the light of Christ instead of the darkness of the evil one. When someone breaks free from addiction, we call them to share their story and we shout back a response of praise to our delivering God. The call and the response help us know where we are and where we are going next in the journey of faith.
So, I say, “Come bless the Lord,” and you say, “all you servants of the Lord,” and I say, “All you servants of the Lord,” and you say, “Come bless the Lord!” As we seek to journey with God in life, as we walk the pilgrimage of Ascents, let us be those propelled forward with the words we hear from Hebrews 12:1-3.
(Read Heb. 12:1-3)
May we be trailblazers through life with God until the day we see him face-to-face. Brothers and sisters, let’s ascend.
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.