A Song of Ascents (ma‘alah). By David.
The word ma‘alah means ascent, step, or rising.
This is one of 15 psalms (120-134) that begin with this superscription. These psalms would have been sung by pilgrims ascending the road to Jerusalem (located on Mount Zion) for the three great festivals: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (which we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles. Levites may also have sung them as they ascended the fifteen steps to the temple.
This attributes authorship to David. If the references to Yahweh’s house (vv. 1, 9) refer to the temple, David couldn’t be the author, because Solomon built the temple after David’s death.
However, the tabernacle was the precursor of the temple. David brought the ark to Jerusalem, and housed it in a tent, as it had been housed in the wilderness wanderings (2 Samuel 6:17; 7:5-7). When Solomon later dedicated the temple (1 Kings 8), he transferred the holy vessels to the temple. So it is possible that the references to Yahweh’s house refer to the tabernacle, and David could most certainly have been the author of this psalm.
Psalm 121 has pilgrims contemplating (or having embarked on) the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It implicitly acknowledges the hardships and dangers involved in such a journey as it speaks of the importance of Yahweh’s help for the journey.
Now in Psalm 122, the pilgrims have arrived in Jerusalem, are preparing to go to the temple, and are looking agog at the wondrous city, so different from the villages where most Israelites live.
So many people today either live in cities or have spent considerable time there that we no longer experience wonder when we encounter a city. That is a recent phenomenon. I grew up in a small town in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On Saturdays, stores would stay open late, and people would throng to the little two-block business district. I remember my grandmother saying, “I just love to come here to watch the people (most of whom were dressed in overalls or cotton dresses). I thought, “That’s pitiful.” But I was free to find my own pleasures (within limits). I usually found those at the window of the town’s appliance store, where the owner had placed a new television (black and white, of course), where we could see (but not hear) whatever was playing at the moment. That was my idea of wonderment.
But occasionally my grandparents would take us to Kansas City, fifty miles distant, to see something wonderful on temporary display there. TWA (at that time one of the largest international airlines) was headquartered in Kansas City. On one occasion, TWA parked one of its Constellations (prop-powered, of course) at the local airport and invited the public to pay a visit––which we did. We climbed the long steps to the door at the front of the plane, walked the aisle from front to back through the empty seats, and descended the steps at the rear of the plane. I loved airplanes, and this was the first one I had ever touched. My sense of awe approached a religious experience.
I relate those stories to illustrate how little it required in those days to inspire overwhelming wonder. That would have been even more true in the case of Jewish residents of small villages when they finally entered the gates of Jerusalem––the place where Yahweh had decided to invite them into his presence.
PSALM 122:1-2. LET US GO TO YAHWEH’S HOUSE
1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let’s go to Yahweh’s house!”
2 Our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem;
“I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let’s go to Yahweh’s house!'” (v. 1). Jewish law prescribes the requirement for three annual pilgrimages––Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:16).
The Psalmist could have considered that requirement as a burden, because such pilgrimages were expensive both in time and money. But his attitude is the opposite. He is glad––even overjoyed––to receive this invitation to go to Yahweh’s house. He is thrilled to have his feet firmly planted within Jerusalem’s gates.
“Our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem” (v. 2). Walls and gates defined the boundaries of the city––and provided protection from Israel’s enemies, who have never been in short supply. Several large gates permitted access to the temple.
PSALM 122:3-5. A CITY THAT IS COMPACT TOGETHER
3 Jerusalem, that is built as a city that is compact together;
4 where the tribes go up, even Yah’s tribes,
according to an ordinance for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of Yahweh.
5 For there are set thrones for judgment,
the thrones of David’s house.
“Jerusalem, that is built as a city that is compact together” (Heb. habar yahad) (v. 3). The word habar means joined together or united. The word yahad conveys the sense of community or all together. So these words, used together, give us the sense of a city bound tightly together––in this case by common faith and practice.
But habar can also convey the idea of things brought into close proximity, so the idea of “compact altogether” is valid.
For the most part, pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem would have come from villages or small towns––quite rural in character. In those small town settings, there was room for villagers to have a yard––and a garden––and space for children to play.
Cities don’t afford the luxury of spaciousness. The contrast between the pilgrims’ daily world and that presented by urban Jerusalem inspired this verse, which reflects their wonder at the difference those two worlds.
“where the tribes (sebet) go up, even Yah’s tribes,
according to an ordinance for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of Yahweh” (v. 4). The word sebet has several meanings, including tribes or Israel as a whole.
Ephraim and Manasseh were sons of Joseph, Jacob/Israel’s son. The twelve tribes of the nation of Israel included ten of Jacob’s twelve sons plus Ephraim and Manasseh. The two sons of Jacob/Israel not included among the twelve tribes were Joseph (represented by Ephraim and Manasseh) and Levi (commissioned to carry on religious duties and supported by sacrifices offered by the other tribes instead of produce from their own lands, of which they had none).
This verse expresses the mandate (“according to an ordinance for Israel”) and the purpose (to give thanks to the name of Yahweh”) for the gathering of the tribes.
Keep in mind that the three required pilgrimages were related to harvests. Yahweh was requiring that the people give thanks for the bounty that he had bestowed on them.
“For there are set thrones for judgment,
the thrones of David’s house” (v. 5). This verse has puzzled many a biblical scholar. For instance, why the plural “thrones”? Wasn’t there one king and one throne? Perhaps this referred to the thrones of David and Solomon, his son––but that is speculation.
Why introduce the idea of judgment into a setting that emphasizes thanksgiving and prayer. Perhaps the pilgrimage festivals provided the king the opportunity to judge cases that would otherwise never have reached him. This would be in keeping with Yahweh’s dictate to the king of Judah: “Execute justice and righteousness, and deliver him who is robbed out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence, to the foreigner, the fatherless, nor the widow; neither shed innocent blood in this place: (Jeremiah 22:3).
PSALM 122:6-9. PRAY FOR THE PEACE OF JERUSALEM
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Those who love you will prosper.
7 Peace be within your walls,
and prosperity within your palaces.
8 For my brothers’ and companions’ sakes,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of Yahweh our God,
I will seek your good.
“Pray for the peace (Heb. salom) of Jerusalem.
Those who love you will prosper” (v. 6). The idea of peace or tranquility is central to Hebrew thought. The word salom was used as a greeting (“Peace to you”) and a blessing (“Go in peace”). People assumed that peace was a blessing from God to the faithful and denied to the wicked.
Salom (peace) was more than the absence of armed conflict. It implied a centeredness that would buffer a person from the difficulties of life. It included the ideas of health and well-being.
The call from this verse is to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” As today, Israel was almost always surrounded by enemies––including great powers such as Egypt or Babylonia or Assyria. God’s help was essential to Jerusalem’s (and Israel’s) survival.
And the promise of this verse is that those who love Jerusalem will prosper.
The question is whether this verse imposes any obligation on Christians, who have the church rather than Jerusalem as their formal meeting place with God (1 Corinthians 3:16-7; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16)––and who believe that the old temple has passed away and Christ is the new temple (John 2:19-21; Revelation 21:22).
It would be quite possible to understand prayers for Jerusalem as anachronistic (belonging to an earlier time), but I believe that they are perfectly appropriate for today.
- Modern Jerusalem (and Israel in general) are under constant siege by neighboring countries united by only one thing––their hatred of Israel. We can pray for God to sustain them through this struggle.
- We can pray that Israel’s people will come to know Jesus as the messiah for whom they have waited so long.
- Since we understand the church as our formal meeting place with God, we can pray for the church as ancient Jews prayed for Jerusalem.
“Peace (Heb. salom) be within your walls,
and prosperity (Heb. salwah) within your palaces” (v. 7). These two words, salom and salwah represent a range of blessings that we all desire. Salom, of course, means peace. Salwah means security, prosperity, and quietness. In a turbulent world, these typify the yearnings of almost everyone’s heart.
“For my brothers’ and companions’ sakes,
I will now say, ‘Peace be within you'” (v. 8). The psalmist narrows the focus––from Jerusalem’s walls and cities to his brothers and companions. He conveys the same blessing for peace on them.
“For the sake of the house of Yahweh our God,
I will seek your good” (v. 9). Now the psalmist circles back to his overwhelming concern––”the house of Yahweh our God.” Because God has chosen to establish his house in Jerusalem, the whole fabric of the city needs the blessings of peace to provide a peaceful setting for the Lord’s house.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2019, Richard Niell Donovan