The Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) are one of my favorite sections of Scripture. And if you ever get to go to Israel, there are several places where they will come alive to you and change the way you understand them. This happened to me at least three different times when I went.
The first was in the Golan Heights, at the far north of Israel. It’s a very mountainous area (think Blue Ridge, not Rockies). I was walking down a dirt path looking up at the hills, and I imagined pilgrims setting out toward Jerusalem, singing Psalm. 121:
“I lift my eyes up to the hills. From where does my help come?”
I imagined them thinking about the long journey ahead, and praying they would have the strength for it.
The second was a few miles outside Jerusalem. We were driving through a really rocky, canyon-y area, with high cliff walls in either side. It’s actually the old road from Jericho to Jerusalem, and it was a favorite hiding place for bandits and robbers (remember the Good Samaritan story?). And I imagined those pilgrims, nervously looking up at the rocks, praying for protection. And when they made it through the valley, I pictured them singing 124:6-7:
“Blessed is the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken and we have escaped!”
And finally, Jerusalem itself. The Southern Steps is one of the places where you can be confident you are literally walking where Jesus walked. As you ascend the Steps, there are fifteen wider landings spaced about every third step. Scholars suggest that pilgrims would stop on each of these landings and recite one of the 15 Songs of Ascent (you can read the article below if you like). If this is true, then on the last landing, with the temple just ahead and within earshot of the priests who ministered there, I can imagine the pilgrims shouting out the final Psalm of Ascent— 134:
“Blessed are all the servants of the Lord, who minister by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord!”
Scholars have also pointed out that the Psalms of Ascent fall neatly into five groups of three. The first Psalm in each triad deals with the theme of trouble, the second of trust, and the third triumph. So it looks like this:
So, two takeaways: first, realize that God’s Word is beautiful, and real, and perfect, and that it has a word to speak for every stage of your journey.
And second, go to Israel. Just do it. You will never read the Bible in the same way again.
Stiles, Wayne: “The Southern Steps and the Songs of The High Holidays,” Jerusalem Post (online), 19 September 2011. Accessed 20 April, 2021,