The songs of pious pilgrims are collected together in Psalms 120-134. These Songs of Ascent offer a glimpse into the ancient community of Israel: how faith and faithfulness infused their lives.
Imagine pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Imagine the gradual gathering of more and more travelers joining together as the roads drew closer to the Holy City. Imagine the final ascent up the hill of Zion where the Temple shone bright in the morning sun. Imagine the joy, the wonder and the deep sense of community these pilgrims must have experienced.
Now imagine them singing these psalms of ascent as they ascended toward Jerusalem, their shining city on a hill.
Ancient editors grouped the hymns into this collection near the end of Book Five toward the close of the psalter. They are short, easily memorized, often characterized by a call and response participation.
They sing of personal faith or family life or national pride.
And their pilgrim faith assumes God as the Source and Center of all.
The Ancient Feasts of Israel
Pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem for three holy feasts each year: in the spring and in the fall.
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths.
They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed; all shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.Deuteronomy 16
Spring brought the most holy celebration of Passover, the remembrance of their rescue from slavery in Egypt. Exactly seven weeks later, the celebration of First Fruits reminded them of the grace of living in a settled homeland. Fall brought Sukkot, a re-enactment of their wilderness wanderings that brought back vivid recollections of the Lord’s meticulous faithfulness.
The pilgrims’ anticipation of these high holy days was amplified by sharing together these traveling psalms, the gathering hymns found in the Songs of Ascent.
Psalms scholar, J. Clinton McCann considers the purpose of the ancient editors as they formed this collection of hymns.
This collection was likely used by ordinary persons on the way to or on arrival at Jerusalem. The juxtaposition of psalms reflecting the daily concerns (Psalm 123-126; 130-132; 134) makes sense in the context of festal celebrations, where individuals and families from all over would have been brought together by loyalties that transcended the personal and familial.
Modern day Jews – sans the Temple, priesthood and sacrificial system – continue to celebrate these ancient feasts with notable theological and national enlargements.
Along with the biblical feasts, numerous other high holy days have developed over the centuries, festal celebrations “where individuals and families from all over [are] brought together by loyalties that transcend the personal and familial.”
Time honored traditions and purposes find fresh expression in new generations, thus accomplishing the hopes of pilgrims sung across many ages.