Preaching the Psalms of Ascent: A Soundtrack for the Pilgrimage of Faith

Psalms of Ascent PT

An article I wrote for Preaching Today on preaching the Psalms of Ascent came out last week. This article came to life through my own journey of preaching the Psalms of Ascent at Eastbrook Church in late 2017 through a series entitled “Ascend: The Psalms of Ascent.” Thanks to Andrew Finch and Matt Woodley at PT, who have been a great encouragement to me and continue to provide me opportunities to write. I’m including an excerpt of the article below, as well as a link here to one of the sermons I preached from that series, entitled “Our Journey with God,” that PT is including on their website as well.

Since our kids have been young, one of the highlights of our road trips has been listening to music. In the “old days,” everyone would bring a favorite CD or two on the trip so we could take turns listening to music. These days, we create playlists or switch out smartphones, letting everyone have a turn at picking a song to share with everyone else. We learn a lot about one another through the music, even as we enjoy the travel experiences, and the beauty of God’s creation matched by the soundtrack for the journey.

Now, one of the most cliché phrases about human existence is that “life is a journey.” Like many such phrases, however, it is so overused because it seems so resoundingly true. That concept is woven throughout Scripture about our lives as human beings: we are on a journey, or pilgrimage, through our days. Ideally, that pilgrimage is with God but, regardless, journey is an accurate description of the human way of experiencing life.

One portion of Scripture where this is particularly clear is in a grouping of psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134). While there are different ideas about what “ascent” is a reference to, the most widely supported idea is that these psalms were sung and prayed by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. These pilgrims traveled to the Temple in celebration of the three main festivals of the Hebrew people: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths (Exodus 23:14-17). No matter where they were, they would ascend toward Jerusalem because it was on the topographical heights, but also because it symbolized the spiritual high point where God dwells with human beings.

These journey prayers provided a soundtrack for the people of God, a spiritual soundtrack for the pilgrimage of faith. The Psalms of Ascent returned the Hebrew people to their nomadic faith roots in Abraham and the liberation journey of the Exodus with Moses. They served as a reminder that God’s people were a pilgrim people on the way with God.

Comprehensive Praise: some reflections on worship from Psalm 150

sunshine-dust-motesThe psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible, prayer-songs that were often used within the corporate and private worship of the people of Israel. They are also one of our strongest biblical resources for shaping our life of worship today within the Christian church. The entire psalter concludes with a summary psalm of worship, Psalm 150, and I would like to share some thoughts that leap out to me about worship from this psalm.

Worship is God-Centered
The beginning word of Psalm 150 is simple: Hallelujah, which means, “praise the Lord.” The theme and tone of this psalm, something which sums up the entire book of psalms, is God-directed praise. This word, hallelujah, sets our spiritual compass to true north in God. Here at the beginning of this psalm, yet at the end of the entire psalter, we remember that God is the center-point of attention for our worship and rooted anchor for our lives. An oft-repeated phrase about worship is: “its’ not about me.” Hallelujah is the personal and communal exclamation of that reality. When we conclude the final word in the psalms with an introductory word, “praise the Lord,” we are forced to remember that worship and life is not about me but about God.

The Intersection of the Mundane and the Holy
In the next verses of Psalm 150, we find location in worship within God’s sanctuary or tabernacle even as our imagination stretches up to the heavens or the firmament of the sky. The psalmist reminds us that worship simultaneously draws us near to God in a Read More »

God’s Multifaceted Word: reflecting on Psalm 119

In my own daily times of Scripture reading and prayer, I’ve been meditating on Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms by far with 176 verses. This psalm is an extended reflection on the delight and power of God’s word, structured as an acrostic poem with one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The psalm offers an expansive catalog of the diverse characteristics of God’s word that is impressive. When I read through Psalm 119, I feel like I am getting a multifaceted look at the word of God that is enlightening, stretching, and encouraging.

In the well-known passage Ephesians 6:10-24, we encounter Paul delineating the armor of God. The only offensive piece of that armor comes last: “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b). The Word of God is powerful and a vital piece of our armor in the spiritual conflict we face daily as God’s people. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Here is a brief list of some of the facets of God’s word outlined within Psalm 119. I’d encourage you to read through the list and, when one statement jumps out at you, to open your Bible to Psalm 119, read that verse, and then meditate on those words for the day. There is so much here in each verse to grow and deepen us with God.

God’s word is:

  • to be fully obeyed (4)
  • righteous (7, 61, 106, 123, 137, 144, 164, 172)
  • a guide for purity of life (9)
  • a way to keep from sin (11)
  • from the Lord’s mouth (13, 88)
  • full of wonderful things (18)
  • a delight (24, 35, 70, 77, 143, 162, 174)
  • a counselor (24)
  • a revelation of God’s wonderful deeds (27)
  • a picture of the way of faithfulness (30)
  • good (39, 68)
  • a revelation of God’s salvation promises (41)
  • a bringer of freedom (45)
  • a promise to preserve our life (50)
  • ancient (52)
  • a comforter (52)
  • precious (72)
  • a pathway away from shame (80)
  • completely trustworthy (86, 138)
  • eternal (89, 152, 160)
  • firm in the heavens (89)
  • boundless in its perfection (90)
  • what makes us wiser than our enemies and our teachers (98, 99, 100)
  • sweet like honey (103)
  • a lamp and light for our path (105, 130)
  • the joy of our heart (111)
  • wonderful (129)
  • thoroughly tested (140)
  • true (142, 151, 160)
  • a bringer of peace (165)
  • sustenance (175)

Why Does God Seem Distant?: The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

Distance of God

There are times when God feels distant. There are moments, particularly in times of suffering, when God seems silent. To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience.

God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is sometimes like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing.  Jesus told us that if we ask it will be given, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not ours to demand. That God will answer prayer happen is guaranteed, but when God will answer is not determined by the one who asks. The timing is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals, and opens.

I believe this is at least part of the meaning behind Psalm 40:1, which says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” There is waiting in prayer and with God, who sometimes seems still and quiet from our perspective. This is echoed in 2 Peter 3:8-9, which addresses the timing of the parousia:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

It is actually God’s patience that causes the apparent delay here; a patience motivated by love for human lives. This reminds us that God’s distance, whether measured in minutes or miles, aims to stir something up within us.

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Sometimes that distance of God that we feel personally as waiting is an effort of God to bring a change within our lives, situation, or world. The Hebrew word most connected with the idea of change is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). It is a highly relation concept, often paralleled by the word repentance, conveying that something is wrong between two parties that needs to be repaired; a breach that needs to be retraced through return. The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God, is not random, as we often experience it, but has intention behind it. God aims to stir up our lives toward change and a longing for Him that outpaces anything else. It is a longing that should grip us so deeply that we feel dry and deadened without God. This is why the psalmist describes his longing for God in terms of dehydration in Psalm 42:1-2:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.

When we wait upon God in His apparent distance, we often find ourselves feeling increasingly helpless. Our crutches are stripped away and we become more and more in need. God is bringing us back to the humble naivety witnessed in a child who is not even aware of its utter dependence upon an adult. The psalmist once describes the soul as “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2), and Jesus called His followers to receive God’s kingdom “like a little child” (Luke 18:15-17).

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While it may not feel like it, waiting on God—looking for God in His apparent distance—is a work of grace from God. In a world where we used to believe we were capable and held power in the palm of our hands, God’s distance brings us into the necessary desperation by which we recognize our utter need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). We spend a good deal of our life trying to avoid recognizing our utter powerlessness and only God, the almighty One, has both the power and tenaciousness to work us into the place of facing into our need. It is in that place, where we recognize that nothing and no one else can satisfy our deepest desires. When God taps into this hungry need it keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It eventually burns us with awareness of our sin that sends shivers of regret through our broken souls that rises in longing for wholeness (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10).

The distance of God and the waiting we experience is a gracious gift that leads us back to an encounter with the living God. It is the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us that spurs on in these times:

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. Over time the destination becomes less about a place and more about a being; that is, God Himself. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy God, who is both loving and sometimes apparently hidden. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.

Joining Jesus in Prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

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One of my favorite theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of Discipleship and Life Together. I encountered his writing very early in my life of faith when my older brother came home from college with Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Shortly after that, I found a short book by him entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible, which transformed my reading of the Psalms by setting me on a journey of praying the psalms. Here are a few of Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks on the psalms and prayer from that book, as a follow-up to my video update on the same topic from yesterday.

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ….

If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words….

In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayer, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ….

The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ….

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.

[Quotations from “Introduction” of The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, pages 155-162.]