Summary: A message of encouragement for hurting, lonely, struggling people

A Song of Ascents

Text: Psalm 121

Twisted hands opened

the rough, wooden window

and the aged Jew to whom the hands belonged backed again

into the stuffy shadows

of his sparsely furnished mud hut.

The window afforded a narrow view

of many other such huts,

cramped together in the Jewish quarter

of the ancient city of Babylon.


were only the sands of the desert,

stretching for miles.

But beyond that,

hundreds and hundreds of miles removed from mighty Babylon,

was Jerusalem,

Mount Zion,

the city where the Temple had once stood,

the city that had once been the political

and spiritual


of the Jewish exiles

who had been carried away into captivity

in distant, foreign Babylon.

So the Jew opened his window in the direction

of Jerusalem,

pressed his knees and his forehead

to the crude floor

of this home that was not his home,

and began to pray.

That scene, if you can picture it,

is very likely the sort of scene

that forms the background

of the psalm which is our text


So, if you will please turn

in your Bibles to Psalm 121,

we will conclude the series of sermons

we have called “Songs of the Soul,”

by looking at his “Song of Ascent,” as it is inscribed.

But before we do that,

I’d like to ask you to please

bow your heads and pray with me:

Once again, Father,

we come to you in prayer,

asking that you will fill these sacred moments;

make them an oasis

for the refreshment of our souls,

make them a fountain

for the cleansing of our hearts,

and a cool spring

for the renewing and strengthening of our spirits. Amen.

If you look at the top of this psalm in your Bible, you’re likely to see an inscription somewhere above the first verse. It’s a Hebrew phrase, something like Shir ha-maaloth,

an inscription which,

• In the King James Version is translated,

“A song of degrees.”

• In the NIV and New American Standard, as well as the ASV and RSV (which only an old-timer like Mick Pechan will remember), it is inscribed,

“A song of ascents.”

• And Moffatt, in his translation, renders it,

“A pilgrim song.”

However your Bible inscribes it,

the same phrase is likely to appear over

Psalm 120 through 134,

the so-called “pilgrim songs”

of the Hebrew hymnal.

This inscription has been generally thought to mean that the psalm came to be used by travelers—Jewish pilgrims—as they “went up” to worship in Jerusalem.

One Old Testament scholar, however, has argued that the inscription (which differs slightly than the usual in the case of this particular psalm, Psalm 121), may also refer to the structure of the psalm, as it contains a number of distinct “steps,” from verse to verse or phrase to phrase.

However, regardless of whether the inscription refers to the steps a pilgrim would take in ascending the slope that led to the place of worship in Jerusalem

OR to the “steps” that are built into the structure of the psalm,

this particular “Song of the Soul” has a great deal to say to us—to you—today.

Look at the psalm in your Bible. The psalmist begins with the cry of the first verse:

I lift up my eyes to the hills— where does my help come from?

Now, just in case you’re reading from the King James Version, I should mention that the King James translation of that verse is an unfortunate one. For generations, readers of the King James have been led to believe, from the translation of the first verse, that the psalmist regards his help as coming from the hills:

I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help. . .

But the psalm is more accurately rendered

and much better understood

if the second clause is phrase

as a question:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—

where does my help come from?

Now, the exile in Babylon is not lifting his eyes

to any hills in his sight.

No, he is lifting his eyes in the direction of the

mountains of his native land.

He is raising his vision in the direction of Mount


He is very likely praying after the fashion of Daniel, another Babylonian exile, who, the Scriptures record:

. . . went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem [and] Three times a day . . . got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God. . .

Do you see what is happening here?

This is a song of a hurting soul. . . .

It’s the song of someone far from home,

the song of a soul who is in trouble,

in need,

in distress.

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