Songs of Degrees – Literary Introduction

Before we get into the psalms themselves, I want to examine these 15 psalms as a whole, for it is clear these psalms were compiled with thought and care. While there is linear progression from the ‘distress’ of Psalm 120 to the ultimate ‘blessing’ of the sanctuary in Psalm 134, there is also the repetition of key themes, and a pleasing symmetry around the central Psalm 127.

At the heart of this collection

The content of this central psalm is twofold: the house and the heritage of the LORD, or we might say, the sanctuary and the Son. It is appropriate that this psalm is one of Solomon’s: the son who built the sanctuary.

These subjects, as we saw in our previous article, were the focus of Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment (Isa 39), and both were close to Hezekiah’s heart. To hear of their demise at the hands of the Babylonians would have filled him with grief, yet he says: ‘Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken. He said moreover, For there shall be peace and truth in my days.’ (Isa39:8)

I believe Hezekiah was able to have such a positive outlook because being a king who followed in the footsteps of David (‘he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done.’ (2 Chron 29:2)) he had great faith that the LORD (Yahweh) would ultimately keep the covenant He made with David to all the house of Israel.

Therefore, this collection can only really be understood from an eschatological or prophetic perspective. Yes, the city would be destroyed, and Hezekiah’s children carried off, but these psalms are compiled looking forward to Christ Himself, great David’s greater Son, who will restore the city to it’s proper place as the place of the LORD’s presence.

The Place and the Person

On either side of this central psalm we find seven psalms. These seven, on both sides, comprise 2 psalms of David interspersed with 5 that are anonymous. These Davidic psalms act as anchor points of confidence and hope around which the compiler adds his own thoughts of despair and delight.

In the first half the focus is primarily the place, the city: Jerusalem, Zion. It is in this section we have the phrase, ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (122:6). We’ll come back to this thought in a moment.

In the second half, our focus is turned to consider the children, and in particular The Son through whom peace would be established. We are given insight into how this will be accomplished when we read, ‘the plowers plowed upon my back, they made long their furrows’ (129:3).

Prospect of Peace

While Hezekiah rejoiced in the peace of his day (Isa 39:8), he knew it would not last, but through these psalms the people of God are encouraged to look forward to a day when peace will reign, and this is a recurring theme throughout.

We begin in Psalm 120 with the psalmist saying: ‘I am for peace, but … they are for war’ (v7). At the bottom of the steps, though the godly desire peace, they do not enjoy it. It is only by ascending back to sanctuary, through the promised Son, that peace becomes a reality.

In 122, we hear the exhortation: ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (v6). Then in 125, we have the confirmation: ‘peace shall be upon Israel’ (v5). In 128, this confirmation becomes a personal promise: ‘thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel’ (v6).

You will note that these last three references occur every third psalm, and it has been noted by others that these 15 psalms can divide into 5 groups of 3. Each of these triads follows a similar structure beginning with some thought of affliction or hardship, leading to a confidence in the LORD, and concluding with a reassurance of deliverance and blessing.

We noted that the first three triads ended on the thought of peace. When we turn to 131, we conclude with hope: ‘Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.’ (v3), and when we reach the pinnacle in 134, we ‘bless the LORD’ (v1,2), because the LORD blesses us (v3).

The LORD’s blessing for all

I have already mentioned Hezekiah’s faith in the LORD – Yahweh – that name so intimately connected with God’s covenant faithfulness, and now we notice how frequently it is used in these psalms.

In the central psalm 127, we find the name three times, linked with three different actions that is a clear allusion to the eternal triunity of our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Then, in the seven psalms, both preceding and following, we read the name of Yahweh no less than 24 times. That’s 51 times in 15 psalms. What beautiful symmetry!

Considering Bible numerics, we remember there were 12 tribes of Israel, as well as 12 disciples, so we understand that 12 is the number of administration. How precious that with the threat of exile that loomed before Hezekiah, he could be encouraged of a day coming when a divided Israel would once again be united under the administration of the King! His administration of course is not just over an earthly people, but also a heavenly people: Israel and the church, all under Christ! 12×2=24

We also consider that 6 and 4 are factors of 24, and in this we are reminded that Christ will not just be Head of the church and King over Israel, but His Kingdom will be universal in its extent, and we remember the words of Paul, ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Phil 2:10,11)

Then there is 8 and 3, and this brings our thoughts back to our triune LORD (3): the God of covenant. Hezekiah operated under the Old Covenant and sought to faithfully keep it, but all around him there was a failure to keep the law, and this would result in exile for the people. What then was the basis of the hope that he had?

It was in a new covenant, of which the number 8 always speaks. Whether Hezekiah appreciated the detail of this cannot be known for sure, but certainly his contemporary, the prophet Isaiah wrote of this new covenant (Isaiah 42:6), through God’s holy and suffering servant.

And as we noted earlier, our psalms do speak prophetically to the crucifixion of Christ (Psalm 129) as the righteous basis of our redemption (Psalm 130).

Truly, whatever oppression, affliction, hardship or failure we face, let us look up from this bottom step towards the sanctuary of God at the top, and let us now begin to ascend these steps of Ahaz with a certain hope in the blessing of the LORD.

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