The historical use of the Psalms
These Psalms possibly pertain to the degrees on the sun-dial at Jerusalem that was used as a sign to King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:8-11). We know that King Hezekiah wrote songs (Isaiah 38:20). Perhaps he added the Psalms of David (Psa. 122, 124, 131, 133) and Solomon (Psa. 127) to his own songs to form this collection. Hezekiah restored the temple worship and the temple music according to the Davidic pattern and precepts (2 Chron. 29:25-30).
“Degrees” also means “ascent.” The Hebrew word maalah is translated “steps” (1 Ki. 10:19), “stairs” (2 Ki. 9:13), and “go up” (Ezr. 7:9). It is stated in the Mishnah (rabbinical tradition) that these Psalms were sung by priests during the annual feasts (Deut. 16:16). According to this tradition, the Levites stood on 15 steps leading from the Women’s Court to the Court of Israel. Internal evidence from the songs of descent themselves indicate that they were sung by pilgrims on their approach to the Temple (Psa. 122:1-4; 132:7). From 1968-78, archaeologist Benjamin Mazar excavated the Southern Steps after they had lain hidden beneath dirt and rubble for more than a millennium. The steps led up to the double Huldah Gate and the triple Beautiful Gate entrances to the south side of the Temple Mount. The stairs were at the northern end of the Pilgrim Way which led up to the Temple along the western side of the City of David. The Southern Stairs are 210 feet wide and the steps alternate in width, with a long one of 32 inches followed by a short one of 12 inches, and there are 15 of the long ones. This would force worshipers to approach the Temple with a “steady, unrushed pace.”
Some have theorized that the Hebrew term “ascent” also refers to rhythm, and there is a steady rhythm to the Songs of Degrees that would fit their use as pilgrim songs.
The Psalms could have been sung by the priests, as we see in 1 Chron. 15:16-22 when David brought the ark to Jerusalem.
The major theme of the Songs of Degrees
These Psalms begin with the theme of Israel’s preservation in and through trouble (Psa. 120:1; 121:1-8; 124:1-8), followed by her conversion and restoration to Zion (Psa. 126:1-3; 130:7-8).
“Zion” and “Jerusalem” are mentioned 12 times (122:2, 3, 6; 125:1, 2; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 134:3). The “house of the Lord” is mentioned three times (122:1, 9; 134:1).
The Songs of Degrees look ahead to the time when Christ will dwell in the Millennial Temple and will be worshiped by Israel (Psa. 132:7-18; 134:1-3). Israel then will dwell in unity and Christ will be their High Priest (Psa. 133:1-3).
Spiritual lessons for New Testament believers
The Songs of Degrees are for Israel, but they also contain lessons for the Christian (Rom. 15:4).
- Troubles come to the child of God in this world, and he must pray in time of trouble (Psa. 120:1-2; 130:1-2)
- The lies and evil speaking and hatred of the wicked toward the righteous (Psa. 120:2-7; 123:3-4)
- Trust in God (Psa. 121:1; 123:1-2; 125:1)
- God as all-powerful Creator (Psa. 121:2; 124:8)
- God’s protection of His people (Psa. 121:3-8; 124:6-8; 125:2)
- Eternal life (Psa. 121:8; 125:2); compare John 3:16
- The importance of the house of God (Psa. 122:1); compare 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 10:25
- The importance of thanksgiving (Psa. 122:4); compare 1 Th. 5:18; Heb. 13:15
- The coming kingdom (Psa. 122:5); compare 2 Tim. 4:1
- Love for Israel (Psa. 122:6-9); compare Gen. 12:3
- Seeking the mercy of God (Psa. 123:3); compare Heb. 4:12
- The importance of doing good (Psa. 125:4); compare Rom. 12:9; 2 Cor. 9:8; Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:10; 2 Th. 2:17
- The importance of uprightness of heart (Psa. 125:4); compare Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:22
- The importance of steadfastness in faith and perseverance (Psa. 125:5); compare Heb. 10:38-39
- Remembrance of God’s blessings (Psa. 126:3); “count your blessings, name them one by one”
- Sowing the gospel with tears results in fruit (Psa. 126:5-6)
- God is the only sure Protector and our confidence must be in Him rather than in our own labors (Psa. 127:1-2); labor is important, but it must be the labor that also rests in Christ (Mat. 11:28-30)
- Children are the heritage of the Lord and are to be raised for the Lord’s service (Psa. 127:3-5); compare Eph. 6:4; Tit. 2:4
- Importance of the fear of God (Psa. 128:1); compare Heb. 12:28-29
- The Lord is righteous (Psa. 129:4), which means that He keeps His promises; compare Heb. 6:10; 1 John 1:9
- The Lord is merciful (Psa. 130:3-4); compare Eph. 2:4
- The believer’s hope comes from God’s Word (Psa. 130:5-6); compare Rom. 10:17
- The Lord’s redemption is plenteous (Psa. 130:7); compare Eph. 1:3, 7; 2 Pet. 1:3
- The importance of humility, submission, and trust (Psa. 131:1-2); compare 1 Cor. 8:2; Prov. 3:5-6; 30:2-3
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