Summary: "I rejoiced with those who said to me, ’Let us go to the house of the Lord.’"
This morning, we continue our study of Psalms 120-134, the "songs of ascents". Another name for them might be "songs for the road", or "songs for the journey". In ancient Israel, they were sung by travelers making their way to Jerusalem for the annual feasts of Pentecost, and Tabernacles and Passover. Three times a year, all observant Jews would make the pilgrimage to the capital city for these great religious festivals. Jerusalem was the highest point in the land of Palestine, and so as they journeyed, they were literally "ascending," thus the name "songs of ascents". And they were also ascending spiritually, as they joined together in song and prepared their hearts to worship the Lord.
One can almost imagine the scene as it was played out in towns and villages all over Israel: a few dozen people, setting off together early in the morning. Just a handful of families; some of the women carrying infants on their backs; the men leading donkeys loaded down with provisions; the very young and the very old riding in carts. As they begin walking, there’s the usual chatter -- talk about children, the weather, the crops. Then after a while, someone begins to sing, and one by one, the others join in. A few miles down the road, they meet up with a group from the next village, more sons and daughters of Abraham, traveling to the same destination. Their convoy grows larger; their singing louder and more exuberant. As the miles pass by, more and more groups come alongside them, walking and talking and singing, until at last, as they come into view of the city, they see every road, in every direction, filled, thronged with pilgrims, all converging on Jerusalem. And then they hear the voices -- thousands of voices -- all singing, all raised together in praise and worship to God. It must have been absolutely thrilling.
Today, we’re looking at Psalm 122, and the very first verse captures some of the excitement, the anticipation, of someone preparing for such a journey. "I rejoiced with those who said to me, ’Let us go to the house of the Lord.’" (Psalm 122:1) Now, the Law of Moses required that every adult male make this journey three times a year. It was not optional. Everyone had to go, whether they wanted to or not. And yet, there is no hint of reluctance here, no indication that the author is setting out grudgingly, or against his will. He’s not being compelled; he’s not doing this merely out of a sense of duty or religious obligation. On the contrary, his heart is filled with gladness. He’s looking forward to the journey with great enthusiasm. He’s not dreading the long hours on the road; he’s not lamenting the fact that he can’t stay home and relax; but instead, everything within him is rejoicing. If I were to describe his feelings in one word, it would be, "Yahoo!".
Let me pause for a moment and ask you a question: Is that how you feel? Is that how you feel on Sunday morning when the alarm goes off and you realize what day it is? Is that how you feel on Saturday night when you think about the activities of the next day? If not, it can be. God’s intention, and his desire, is that each one of us have this same attitude toward worship; that it be something we look forward to with eager anticipation.
Now, as we try to understand the author’s reason for rejoicing, we know it couldn’t have been that he was anticipating the pleasures of traveling. In those days, there were no planes, or trains, or automobiles; no interstate highways; no Holiday Inn’s with clean sheets and hot showers at the end of the day. No Wendy’s or McDonald’s. Just mile after mile of hot, dusty, dirt roads. And then, once you reached Jerusalem, there would be huge, noisy, dangerous crowds to contend with; thieves, robbers, pickpockets. For parents of small children, the place must have been a nightmare, always watching to make sure they didn’t run off, or get stepped on by a donkey, or run over by a cart. [In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, we read that when he was twelve years old, his family went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. When they all left, Jesus stayed behind. It took his parents a full day to realize that he wasn’t traveling with their party, and then three more days of searching to finally locate him, sitting in the Temple, debating with the teachers.] And on top of all that, there was the expense of making such a trip; the lost productivity, then cost of purchasing animals for sacrifices, the money for food and lodging. Certainly he could have thought of dozens of reasons not to go. So can we. But the reasons for going are really only one. To meet with God. To stand in the presence of the Lord, singing praises to his name. To join together with the people of God as they worship him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. To reaffirm our identity as one of the faithful, one of those who belong to God, and believe in Him, and trust in Him. And to offer up to God once again, not just our offerings and sacrifices, but ourselves, utterly and completely. That’s why the Psalmist rejoiced at the thought of going up to worship. And it’s ours, as well.