Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteen psalms in the middle of Book Five of the Psalter, Psalms 120-134, all share a common superscription, “Songs of Ascents”.

July 8, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 123

Fifteen psalms in the middle of Book Five of the Psalter, Psalms 120-134, all share a common superscription, “Songs of Ascents”.

The verbal root of “ascents” is “to go up.” The frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion in this collection of psalms (Psalms 122:1, 6; 125:1, 2; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 134:3) may account for their superscriptions. Since Jerusalem sits on a hill, no matter where one comes from, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem. Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles may have sung the Songs of Ascents as they traveled along. 

Others speculate that the “ascents” referred to in Psalms 120-134 are the steps of the temple, which Ezekiel calls “ascents”. In Ezekiel 40:6, the prophet sees a man going into the gateway of the temple, “going up its steps.” The Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic traditions that date from 200 BCE to 200 CE, also called “The Second Torah”) states, “fifteen steps led up within [the Court of the Women] to the Court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen songs of the steps in the Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing.” And, “The Levites on harps, and on lyres, and with cymbals, and with trumpets and with other instruments of music without number upon the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to ‘The Fifteen Songs of Ascent’ in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns.”

Although these fifteen psalms most likely come from a variety of times and places in ancient Israel, the message of the collection as a whole is that Jerusalem is the place for the coming together of the people of God for celebrations and commemorations and for acknowledging the goodness and help of the God of the Israelites.

If we read the Songs of Ascents as a chronological whole, we may understand Psalm 120, the first Song of Ascents, as the lament of an individual who is far from the holy city and is besieged by falsehood, deceitfulness, and haters of well-being. Psalm 121, the second Song of Ascents, is a hymn of thanksgiving sung by the psalm singer on the approach to Jerusalem; the hills of Jerusalem are in view and God guides the singer’s feet.

Psalm 122, the third, is a song of thanksgiving sung in celebration as the pilgrim psalm singer arrives in Jerusalem and enters the city gates. Psalm 123, the fourth Song of Ascents, is categorized as a community lament, although it begins with the voice of an individual: “To you I lift up my eyes” (verse 1 — see Psalm 122). In verse 2, however, the community of pilgrims adds its voice, “thus our eyes (look) to the LORD our God” (verse 2). Once inside the city gates, the psalm singers  turn their eyes away from the world described in Psalm 120 — “the lip of falsehood and the deceitful tongue” (verse 2) — toward God and address God directly, asking the deity to show them favor.

Psalm 123 begins with the voice of the individual (“my eyes” — verse 1) and joins with the voice of the community (“the eyes of servants” — verse 2). The worshipers lift their eyes to the Lord, just as the psalm singer in Psalm 121 lifts the eyes to the hills. The “you who are enthroned in the heavens” is an epithet for the God of the Hebrew Bible (for references in the Psalter, see Psalms 2:4; 11:4; 115:3, 6).  

The pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem compare their trust in God to the trust servants place in their masters and mistresses. Servants look to their masters and mistresses and stretch out their hands to them in supplication. Masters and mistresses look upon their servants and stretch out their hands to show favor in kindness and generosity. In like manner the pilgrims stretch out their hands in supplication to God who must and will stretch out God’s hand to show favor to the servants.

The word translated “mercy” in the NRSV and NIV, comes from the Hebrew verbal root which means, literally, “to look favorably upon.”   The expression of trust in God’s mercy becomes a twice-repeated petition in verse 3, followed by the reason for the petition. As with most laments in the Psalter, the oppressors of the psalm singers are not named — they are simply identified as “those at ease” and “the proud.”  The psalmists feel overwhelmed with contempt and mockery.

The Hebrew word, from the root is repeated in verses 3 and 4, translated first, in verse 3, as “more than enough” and, in verse 4, as “more than its fill.” And interestingly, the word translated “scorn” in verse 4 is from the root which literally means “speak with a stammering tongue.”

The singer of Psalm 73 describes such oppressors:

Therefore their necklace is pride;
and violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes bulge out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven;
and their tongues range over the earth.  (73:6-9)

As the pilgrims enter Jerusalem, they turn their eyes toward God and away from those who scorn them and hold them in contempt. They begin with words of trust in God (verses 1-2), recalling times in the past when God showed them favor just as a mistress shows favor to her servants. 

Because of the past experience, the worshippers can approach God with words of complaint and petition to show favor to them once again in the midst of their oppression. Richard Clifford, in The Abingdon Old Testament Commentary, characterizes Psalm 123 as a “primer on prayer” in which the psalmist “lifts his or her eyes to heaven, symbolically forswearing every other means of support” and “embraces the status of servant and waits, eyes fixed on the hand of the Lord.”

May each of us, as we enter the sanctuary of God, turn our eyes away from the world and its distresses and distractions, and look anxiously to God for favor and compassion.