22 July. Psalms 120-132
The fifteen psalms numbers 120 to 134 are known as the “songs of ascent”. They are presumed to have been said or sung by pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem (famously a city on a large hill).
Even today many popular pilgrimages involve difficult walking, whether to a mountain shrine such as Sinai or Montserrat, or across hills such as St Cuthbert’s Way in northern England. The physical challenge is intended to aid spiritual reflection, to “lift up” the pilgrim’s mind and heart to God.
These psalms use Jerusalem as a symbol of peace and security, and also of God’s presence. Ps. 121 in particular urges us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a prayer that is still much needed for a divided and disputed holy place. Ps. 120 complains of the problems of being a peace-living person among those who prefer conflict.
In order to ascend, you need to start off from a lower place. Physically, anyone starting their pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jericho would be below sea level – truly “from the depths” (130:1). But the psalm more likely refers to the depths of depression, guilt or pain. Sometimes it is necessary to sink below what one might term psychological sea level in order to recognise that one is in need of help. The psalmist here calls on God for forgiveness (130:3-4); in other psalms in the set he calls for mercy (123:2-3),or for joy to replace tears (126:5-6).
A couple of these psalms are particularly associated in Christian tradition with prayer at night. Psalm 121 tells of God who “never slumbers or sleeps” and who will protect us so that “the sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night”. Clearly sunburn or sunstroke is a risk in a hot country, but I have yet to work out what danger is posed by the moon – unless it is the association in some cultures between the full moon and madness. But the point is, that God will protect us even when we are not awake to ask for his protection or sense it. Ps. 132:3-5 is a vow not to go to sleep “until I find a place for the Lord”. Many people find it helpful to pray before going to bed, to release to God any bad experiences, guilt or frustrations of the day past, and to commit any worries about the following day to his care.