We live in a fast-food, microwave culture; and there is a temptation for us to treat church life and spiritual disciplines in the same way. Attending church can become a quick-fix weekly inoculation against the world. Prayer and bible reading can become hurriedly snatched moments with God. But when these do little to ease our burdens or solve our problems, we can lose patience with the spiritual dimension of life. Spirituality can become at best a religious duty; and at worst we begin to drift away from following God altogether.
But there is hope. Rather than imbibe our culture’s demand for immediate solutions, we need to grasp that pursuing a Godly life involves a long apprenticeship with Jesus. Eugene Peterson stresses the importance of that patient pursuit of God in his devotional book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. He notes that Christian’s are not tourists taking fleeting glimpses at ancient monuments, rather we are pilgrims who “spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way Jesus Christ.” As Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life.” (John 14:5-6). Following Jesus is a passionate pursuit of Godliness through our relationship with Jesus.The Pilgrim Psalms
Eugene Peterson found that an excellent way to equip people for that pilgrimage pursuit is the Psalms, and in particular a small group of Psalms that he describes as “an old Dog-Eared Song Book.” In more contemporary language, we could call them a frequently used playlist. These are the Pilgrim Psalms or Songs of Ascent in Psalms 120-134. Through millennia, these fifteen ancient songs have provided comfort, encouragement and inspiration for millions of Christians following Jesus in their pilgrimage of faith.
Originally, the Songs of Ascent were sung as pilgrims made their way upwards towards Jerusalem to visit God’s temple three times a year. Right up to the time of Christ and beyond, the people of Israel travelled to Jerusalem, from all the nations where they had been scattered, to celebrate the yearly festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. These regular pilgrimage journeys originated in the Old Testament law and were practiced right through to New Testament times (see for example Leviticus 23; Duet 16:16; Luke 2:41-42; John 7:1-2, 10, 14, 37; Luke 22:1-13; Acts 2:1-13; and Acts 20:16.)Disorientation to Celebration
The order of the first three Pilgrims Psalms follows a pilgrimage journey beginning in a place far from God’s presence (Psalm 120), embarking on a journey towards Jerusalem (Psalm 121), and then arriving in that “City of Peace” to worship God (Psalms 122). This pattern of beginning in a place of disorientation, setting out on a pilgrimage journey, and then coming to a whole new place of joy and celebration is repeated in the next three Psalms (Psalm 123-125). Other Psalms in this ‘dog-eared song book’ also reflect different stages of the pilgrimage journey. The later Psalms in the song book rise to a crescendo as they emphasise celebration and praise to God in Jerusalem (Psalms 132-133). The last Psalm pictures the pilgrims returning to their local communities with an exhortation to pilgrim and priest to continue praising God at home and in the temple (Psalm 134).
Praying the Pilgrim Psalms with Jesus
Jesus would have prayed these Psalms regularly in his own journeys to Jerusalem. We can join him in that practice. Each Psalm is a beautiful expression of dependence on God for salvation. They have even greater poignancy and power when we pray them with Jesus by our side.
As they sang these songs, the ancient pilgrims were thanking God for all that he had been in the past. They were looking to him in prayer for help now and in the future. They were moving away from a world of fear, mistrust, slander and distress. Leaving all that behind, they were taking a pilgrimage towards Yahweh—towards peace, wholeness, peace, provision, forgiveness, and joy.
When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we can enter into an even greater experience of peace, forgiveness and joy as we find our salvation in him. Our pilgrimage journey responds to the call to experience God in Christ and in unity with other believers. And these songs, the Pilgrim Psalms, are an ancient song book that can infuse our journey with courage and hope as we passionately pursue God through Jesus.Psalm 120 – A Psalm for Repentance
So let’s begin our pilgrimage journey through the Psalms of Ascent at Psalm 120. This lament psalm expresses the pilgrims’ deep dissatisfaction with their current circumstances and world. That unsettled disorientation leads them to seek God’s presence. The lament is a first step in a change of mind and heart—thus Eugene Peterson calls it a psalm of repentance (see also Matthew 3:2, 4:17; Acts 2:38; Revelations 3:19).Psalm 120 (The Message)1-2 I’m in trouble. I cry to GOD, desperate for an answer “Deliver me from the liars, GOD! They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”3–4 Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming, all you barefaced liars? Pointed arrows and burning coals will be your reward.5–7 I’m doomed to live in Meshech, cursed with a home in Kedar, My whole life lived camping among quarreling neighbors. I’m all for peace, but the minute I tell them so, they go to war!
The pilgrim has had a moment of clarity. He or she has reached a fork in the road. Their heart and mind is turning away from the lies and violence of Meshech and Kedar, and they are beginning to look towards Jerusalem. Meshech was a place far away from Jerusalem in what today is southern Russia. Kedar was a wandering Bedouin tribe with a barbaric reputation. Recognition of the lies and violence where they are living was the pilgrim’s first step towards on a journey that leads eventually to the far away city of Jerusalem—the City of Peace.
For us, Meshech and Kedar represent distance from God and hostility to others—something that we see today in our modern world as we encounter a fallen reality. If we want relief from this fallen world, we must first repent – make an active decision to turn away lies and violence and turn towards God. We need a change of heart and mind, a time and space of repentance that compels us towards Jesus and our Prince of Peace
At different stages of our life journey there are moments of disorientation where we might have deep questions about what is happening. These challenging moments can be times of significant change and growth if we allow it. At those times, God does not leave us, he relentlessly pursues us to bring us back to him. So deep challenges have the potential to bring us closer to God and find in him comfort, wisdom and strength. Where he pursued us we now begin to pursue him. As that happens we grow in our relationship with him, and in our inner character, spiritually, emotionally and mentally. Like a cyclist in a team pursuit we follow hard after God; and we also grow stronger as he leads the way and eases our burden.Conclusion
Where most of the Bible is God talking to us, the Psalms are a supreme example of how we can share our hearts with God. They cover every range of human emotion and experience; and nowhere more so that in the Pilgrim Psalms. This short but well-used playlist contains psalms of lament and psalms of joy, psalms for times where we are disoriented and confused, and psalms for times when we at peace or even overwhelmed by God goodness and love. Because of their sensitivity to the realities of human experience, one of the most powerful spiritual practices that we can do is reflect on, then pray and even sing the Psalms. The Psalms provide on-going motivation and inspiration for our passionate pursuit of God.Discussion QuestionsSongs for the Journey:
Share with each your favourite songs and psalms
1. Why are those particular psalms and/or songs so meaningful to you?
2. Why do you think songs and poetry such as the Psalms have such a capacity to move our hearts and minds towards God?
3. Can you think of Psalms that are relevant for different seasons? For example:
• What Psalms speak to you in times of difficulty?
• What Psalms speak to you in times of joy and celebration?
4. How do you think we can use the Psalms to strengthen us in our spiritual journey?Song of Lament:
Read through Psalm 120 together. Try and imagine the emotions of the writer as you read. Discuss the following questions.
1. As you read the Psalm together, what emotions if any does it generate for you?
2. Why do you think the Psalms such as these are included in the Bible?
3. If you are comfortable, share a time when you needed to cry out to God?
4. In what ways were music, poetry, prayer and scripture helpful in these times?
5. Eugene Peterson describes this Psalm as a song of repentance. In what ways to you think this is true?
6. Share ways your heart and mind have been transformed as you cried out to God.
7. How do you think we can better use the Psalms to strengthen, encourage and transform our hearts and minds in times of confusion and disorientation?
H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same
Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
, Commemorative Edition
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2019. This is Eugene Peterson’s classical
devotional reflections on the Pilgrim Psalms.
Join Andrew Chisholm and Brisita Rojas in this week's The Conversation as they discuss the Psalms and how songs can help us lean in to God,.
Watch the full episode here