Songs of Degrees – Historical Introduction


Following the Hallel psalms (113-118) and the great exposition on the practical blessings of the Word of God (119), we now come to a group of 15 psalms, all entitled ‘Song of Degrees’, or in some translations ‘Song of Ascents’.

We have no clear understanding as to the specific historical context that gave rise to this group of psalms being compiled, though commentators have put forward a number of possible suggestions.

1) Sung during the going up to Jerusalem of the pilgrims at the times of the great festivals.

2) Sung at the return from Babylon, as the exiles went up to Jerusalem for the first time.

3) Sung as worshippers were ascending the 15 steps of the temple from the court of the women to the court of the men.

4) Some suggest the term ‘song of degrees’ has to do with the set rhythm of the poetry, or with the structure of the psalms, each phrase building upon the last, ascending to a crescendo.

5) Compiled in relation to the 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life, the degrees referring to the miracle by which the sun went backward.

Explanation one has the most support, and much has been written from this point of view. I would therefore like to explore these psalms from the viewpoint of explanation five, in connection with King Hezekiah, as I think there is a lot of merit to this idea.

First, let me highlight the connection more specifically. The title over these psalms, ‘A Song of Degrees’, is in the Hebrew ‘Shir hammaalowt’ (from ma’alah which means step or stair).

Turning to the relevant part of the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38, we find this very word used five times in one verse (highlighted):

‘Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.’

(Isaiah 38:8)

You will note here that both the word ‘degrees’ and ‘sun dial’ are the same Hebrew word that means ‘steps’. So you could translate this verse: ‘behold, I will bring again the shadow on the steps, which has gone down the steps of Ahaz, to return back up ten steps …’

The Steps of Ahaz

And the covert for the sabbath that they had built in the house, and the king’s entry without, turned he from the house of the LORD for the king of Assyria.’

(2 Kings 16:18)

This verse, referring to the actions of King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, mentions what seems to be a covered walk-way from the palace into the temple, that the Kings of Judah would have used for the Sabbath observances. Ahaz, a most wicked King of Judah, having spoilt the temple in verse 17, now ‘turns’ or redirects this walkway from the temple, for he has no need of that.

Instead, his trust is in the King of Assyria. We are not told where he redirects this walkway to, only that it was done ‘for the King of Assyria’. Could it be, with reference to Isaiah 38, that this passageway was redirected east from the palace, down to the Horse Gate? Could it be that which had once been dedicated to the Kings relationship with the Lord God, was now dedicated to the King’s relationship with Assyria?

If this is so, then as Hezekiah would look out of his palace eastward on an afternoon, he would see these stairs gradually enter into shadow from the top step downward.

Who was Hezekiah?

Hezekiah lived between 740BC and 686BC, give or take a year. We can be this accurate because of detail given in Isaiah 36:1, linking the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign with the besieging of the towns of Judah by Sennacherib, the King of Assyria. Archeological discoveries, particularly the Sennacherib Stele, verify the historicity of these Biblical details, and allow us to date this attack upon Jerusalem to the year 701BC.

The record of Isaiah chapters 36-39 show us that this particular year was Hezekiah’s 39th year. It was a most significant year in his life, for not only did Sennacherib mount his failed attempt to overthrow Jerusalem, but Hezekiah becomes sick unto death, calls upon the Lord for mercy, is healed and given the miraculous sign we discussed earlier, and then in pride welcomes a delegation from Babylon to view all the treasures of Jerusalem.

It was a rollercoaster year of spiritual experience that included great faith but also failure. The failure which would have catastrophic results later on, was in many ways the aberration in the life of Hezekiah. While the son of a wicked Ahaz, and the father of an even more heinous Manasseh, Hezekiah himself was that most rare of things – he was a good king, who ‘did that which was right in the sight of the Lord’ (2 Chron 29:2).

Out of the 42 kings who reigned over Israel and/or Judah, only 6 of them can be counted as being faithful and righteous throughout their reigns, and Hezekiah is the penultimate of this number (David, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jotham, Hezekiah & Josiah).

Prior to his 39th year, Hezekiah has already reopened and cleansed the temple; restored temple worship; reestablished the Passover celebration; and reappointed the courses of the priests and Levites. In summary, he has done much to bring spiritual revival to the land of Judah. You can read the details in 2 Chronicles 29-31.

However, we often find that after great spiritual success comes a time of testing, and we must be prepared and ready, always trusting the Lord, for our enemy is a wily operator.

‘Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.’

(Ephesians 6:10,11)

At times he comes ‘as a roaring lion’ (1 Peter 5:8), and we see this in the attack of Sennacherib: the opposition obvious and violent. In this Hezekiah stood firm, recognised his weakness, and put his trust wholly in the Lord.

Later that same year, Satan returned with another attack, this time coming, we might say, as ‘an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14). The delegation from Babylon came showing care and concern for Hezekiah’s health, and interest in the miraculous events. However, as Isaiah makes clear (39:6), this delegation had ulterior motives, and Hezekiah was taken in by it. He fell to their sweet overtures, became big-headed, and showed them all his precious things … his treasures … his house … his dominion’ (39:2). Let us learn the lesson and be just as wary of the friendship of the world, as it’s opposition.

Hezekiah forgot that none of it was ‘his’, but all had been given to him by the Lord. Isaiah had to rebuke the king and remind him that the Lord takes as well as gives: ‘all that is in thine house … shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left.’ (39:6). As to a son, yes, he would have a son and grandsons etc, but how tragic for Hezekiah to hear that they would be carried into captivity to serve the king of Babylon.

This was indeed a bleak outlook, and yet we see the spirituality of a man who has learnt his lesson when we hear his response: ‘Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken. He said moreover, For there shall be peace and truth in my days.’ (39:40)

Spiritual Recovery

Having set the scene, we turn to consider the Songs of Degrees as Hezekiah’s response to these things. We are going to see Hezekiah metaphorically at the bottom step of the stairs. His desire and goal is to climb the steps, and make the ascent, from this low point in his life until he comes again into the sanctuary to worship his LORD.

Perhaps as you read this you have likewise known failure in your life. May these following meditations through the Songs of Degrees help you to ascend with Hezekiah back into the enjoyment of the Lord’s presence.

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