TODAY’S READING: Psalm 121, 123–125, 128–130
The psalms of ascent were used by those making pilgrimages from Israel and beyond, up from the low coastal plains to the mountains of Judea that surrounded Jerusalem. Some of the psalms are attributed to David and they certainly reflect this season of his life. From the coastal exile of Philistia and from the desert harshness of fugitive existence in the wilderness, David ascended to the throne, ascending up to Jerusalem to rule. In the larger sense, we too ascend from the dusty plains of earth towards heaven’s higher ground. “We’re pressing on the upward way, new heights we’re gaining every day, still praising as we onward bound, Lord, plant our feet on higher ground.” Think of these Psalms in the same sense that God views them over time and space: peoples from every tribe and nation, coming up out of the bondages of false religions and sin, from every corner of earth, “marching upwards to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion…we’re marching to Zion, the beautiful city of God.”
The biblical theology of missions includes apocalyptic eschatology. The King of kings is coming back to rule and reign. There is a great and terrible day of the Lord. There will be a resurrection of the living and the dead. There is an eternal heaven and hell. All nations will be represented in the King’s eternal heaven. History itself is climbing the hill of time to that great and terrible day when the trumpet sounds and the Son of Man descends in glory. Every day that passes brings us closer. Every trial that assails us, we step higher. Every people group reached with the gospel, we draw nearer. Every prayer, every martyr, every sacrificial dollar to speed the light is a step of ascent, and we draw near in these last days to the temple mount. So whether it was David ascending to the throne, the Israelites ascending to the temple, missionaries extending the gospel into the heart of unreached places and peoples, or the body of Christ ascending to the day of the Lord, we all press forward singing, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.”
All pilgrims can take comfort in the psalms of ascent:
- “He [God] will not allow [our] foot to be moved” (Psalm 121:3).
Some versions translate this line of the psalm as “He will not allow your foot to slip.” We lift our eyes up to the hills that hold danger, murderers, and thieves. Where will our help come from? Certainly not the mountains. As the pilgrims drew near Jerusalem, their bodies were tired. Their legs weary from many days of travel. Muscles did not respond as they first did. Sometimes the path twisted around ravines and loose gravel made the way dangerous. It could have proved terrible to slip at the wrong moment, at the wrong time. And God responds to this danger by saying He will not allow it. To the pilgrim God promises that when we are tired and most vulnerable to temptation, He will not let us slip.
- “He who keeps you will not slumber” (v. 3).
At the end of a long day of walking, camp was set up, a simple meal prepared, and the pilgrims bedded down for an uncomfortable night. They took turns to keep watch for the bandits and wolves that lurked just beyond the safety of the firelight. It was not unusual for a bone-weary traveler to fall asleep at his post. If he did, the thieves would steal in and plunder. And God responds to this danger of pilgrimaging with those who fail us and with us who fail others by saying that He will never fall asleep, He will never fail us.
- “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” (v. 6).
There was a belief common in Palestine (and in various forms and cultures is still believed today) that exposure to the moon could make you loopy. Our English word “lunatic” comes from “lunar” or moon. In Matthew 17:15, when a father tells Jesus that his son is a lunatic (or epileptic), the original Greek reads “he is moonstruck.” Some travelers believed constant exposure to the moon affected one’s mind. And God responds that He will protect our minds. Day and night, God will get us safely home. God will be with us when we are sent out and when we come in (vv. 7–8). God will protect His pilgrims from all evil.
 From the hymn “I’m Pressing on the Upward Way” by Johnson Oatman, Jr.
 From the hymn “We’re Marching to Zion” by Isaac Watts.
 From the hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton.