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​An Introduction to the Songs of Ascents

An abbreviated version of the first chapter of my book Although We Were Dreaming: A Commentary on the Songs of Ascents for Lent.

©Keith Ruckhaus

Listening to chanted scripture reading tends to at times lead to a kind of a sing-songy lullness like singing “swing low sweet chariot” to a child being held by a loving parent before bed.  The words dance off the listener like rain on a roof, all the while the child is descending into a trance-like state of comfort and security just before dozing off. 

For some who attend Orthodox prayer services, the experience cannot be described in such poetic terms since one is required to stand through the whole thing.  Tedious or even torturous may be a more apt description\  All this to say that it is quite easy to miss a whole lot of the meaning and force of the text when it is sung as a prayer along with a whole lot of other prayers and combined with candlelight and smoky incense.

During the Great Fast last year, I was able to chant the Third and Sixth hours at our church.  These services are packed with psalms, prayers, and readings from Isaiah.  As I continued daily to read these for five weeks, I became more aware of the great struggle of the ancient Israelites to comprehend their relationship with the Lord and their own survival against massive odds.

After the terrible and amazing events of Jesus’ passion, his followers struggled to understand the meaning of it especially in light of the growing separation from the Jewish community.  The praying of the Psalms had always been a part of Jewish worship, but the early Christians found great comfort in them as the realized the extraordinary way in which the Psalms connected with the Passion of their Lord. 

This is so because the gospel story was already genetically coded in the story of Israel.  Everything that Jesus said and did, everything that happened to Jesus relates to that story.  It relates not by way of comparison but by way of a continuum.

It is my desire here to explore and express some of that struggle of both Israel and Jesus into our experience of repentance. The hope is not just that we can connect own experiences with those of the ancient Israelites and Jews more readily.  It is also to help us as the Church to ground our participation in the Great Story.  We don’t use the ancient psalms of the Jew’s struggle to reconstitute a kingdom of God, we share in that struggle.  That history is our history and that liturgy of penance, anguish and struggle incorporates us into God’s ongoing encounter with His people and humanity.

The commentary on the Songs of Ascent here is primarily designed to enhance our understanding of penance during the Great Fast and our experience of the Presanctified Liturgy.  The liturgical setting in ancient Israel centered on the regional gathering of Jews in the land of Judah at a great harvest festival.  The songs accompanied the pilgrims not just from the outskirts of Jerusalem to the yulam, the main courtyard of the Temple, but were meant to walk us through the great “expedition” from Babylon to Zion.  The commentary also connects the life events of the ancient Jews in liturgical celebration with the life events of Jesus and worship of the early church, and finally to our corporate and personal journey in the Presanctified Liturgy and through the Great Fast.

Like the Psalms themselves or being “on the road again,” the commentary does not take the shortest distance from here to there.  It may meander or make awkward or abrupt shifts in perspective without qualification.    But most of all, it is meant to transport us through the great expedition from far off foreign lands to “the city of the Great King.”

Hope of a New Beginning
The Songs of Ascent fit well into the historical context of the early second temple period when many Jews had returned to the land of Judea, rebuilt the temple, and began the hard work of reconstituting “Israel.”  The challenge was to find a common rule without their own king and under the imperial oversight of Persia.  This set of songs fits especially well into the time frame of Nehemiah and Ezra, over sixty years since the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem and some four hundred years before Jesus. One would do well, in fact, to read the books of Nehemiah and Ezra in conjunction with the Songs of Ascent.

A brief description of the social, economic and political situation in and around the time of Nehemiah goes far in illuminating many of the general statements found in the songs.

A brief history from the exile.

At the time of the rebuilding of the temple (523-515 B.C.E), hopes of a resuscitated kingdom of Judah with a temple, a local Davidic king, and a penitent people living under Torah elevated.  After Darius II firmly establish Persian rule (518 B.C.E), however, nationalistic ideals of a David king were snuffed out.  Persia would be the undisputed imperial rule of the land and with that, the Jews in the land and dispersed throughout the empire would have to seriously reevaluate and reinterpret their traditions in order to reconstitute a “people of Israel” in the land of Judah.  Many of the high hopes and idealism generated in the dark years of exile were cause for serious soul-searching. 

Out of a partnership of leading Jewish groups a daring innovation was launched.  No longer would Israel define itself by kings and their royal apparatus, but by faith.  The agenda to primary define itself in terms of devotion to the Lord inspired critical religious, political and economic changes. 

Diminishing Hope against Internal Strife

By the time Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem (444 B.C.E) the city and the region are experiencing a social crisis that threatened the very future of the Jewish people, especially in the land of Yehud.   Certainly, there were many within or close to Judah’s borders who were not connected to Israel’s past and saw the reoccupation of Jews in the land as just one more group vying for space in the land.  They especially balked at any notion that land and properties forfeited over one hundred years ago were to be relinquished to some ethnic under- class in Mesopotamia claiming ancient rights to the land.   

Although there were external forces at play, the crisis was mainly contested within the Jewish community.  High hopes were turning into an abysmal situation.  Bitter disappointment heightened the fracturing of rival groups vying for economic and political control and survival.  Serious debates raged about the cause and meaning of the exile and its remedy and prevention.

Two deep fissures emerged mainly along economic lines.  It can simply be described by the well known phrase: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”  This situation, as usual, was grossly disproportionate.  The poor class was increasing and the rich consolidated into tighter and tighter circles of prosperity and influence.

Taxes owed to the Persian empire was partly responsible for this situation, but the primary driving force behind this disparity was the common, yet ruthless system of usury.  The small farmers’ livelihood was extremely vulnerable. 

A farmer or merchant could borrow money from a rich neighbor in hopes of turning one’s luck around.  Of course, the terms were steep, and the consequences for default were extreme.  First, one would hand over his children to slavery.  The irony of handing over one’s children was that one’s own labor force was greatly diminished, only compounding the inability to repay.  The next step was to conscript the owner and the rest of his family and seize ownership of the property. 

From this situation it is easy to see two things and go far to explain the polarity of “wicked” and “righteous” so evident in the SOA. 

First, this system of usury was a quick money proposition for those with wealth.  It became the primary way one obtained wealth, expanded it, and bought influence with the Persian Empire. The system was so profitable for some that a good deal of their business week was spent planning for the next default case.  This explains the often repeated complaint in the Psalms and the prophets about the conniving, deceitful ways of the rich.

The biblical term for “wicked” is often nearly synonymous with “rich,” and it was easy to see how explosive the situation could be between those struggling and the well-to-do.  This picture is described in Nehemiah 5 where many regional and local families aiding Nehemiah in the building of Jerusalem’s walls complain bitterly of the manipulation of the usury system even by their fellow countrymen. 

Nehemiah’s anger especially targeted wealthy Israelites because they ought to have known better.  They had the Torah, the prophets, and the bitterness of the exile to radically inform them otherwise.  The great vision of a reconstituted Israel was being greatly compromised by a “business as usual” mentality that superseded the demands of God’s covenant.  Tensions within the Jewish community between those struggling to survive and those who were thriving under a heartless system of economic disparity were deep, often breaking into near riots during festivals. 

It is no wonder how the covenant stipulations for social and economic equity took on an immense appeal for struggling farmers and merchants and even more so from those already marginalized by the system.  For many of these, the hope of Israel focused on Jerusalem’s ability to unite under one temple, one God, and one Torah. 

For many of the wealthy in Judea, both Jewish and foreign, the “Israel project” with its demands for equity was not welcomed.  And for many of these, simply ignoring it was a workable strategy.  Among the rich who were Jewish, one would simply give lip service to covenant talk merely as a vehicle to keep the current system operable.  Many argued that religion had nothing to do with economics and more aggressively resisted its intrusion in the market place.  They could, if necessary, play the trump card against too much push toward the temple and Torah.  They could warn Persia of rebellious “king” talk that always brooded among the faithful. 

Not all the wealthy, however, were of such a mind.  There were those, especially those who had returned from exile and still had regular contact with the exilic community, who sought solidarity with their poorer brother’s in the land.  They believed in the reconstitution of Israel and put much of their own resources at risk for the project.  They faced serious challenges on two fronts.

For one, they had to convince their poorer neighbors that they too were willing to come under Torah stipulations and advocate for economic justice.  They had to persuade them away from rebellion and to try and work with the system for change.  At times, they even had to defend those being taken to court.

On the other front, those of the wealthy class who were in solidarity with the Torah and with their fellow covenant members faced bitter opposition and aggressive tactics to undermine their own wealth and influence in the region.  Many saw solidarity with the poor as a recipe for economic ruin.  It was folly and madness.  The trouble was, this accusation proved to be a real possibility.  The rich, both in Judea and Babylon, exposed their wealth to great loss in following through with aiding the poor and advocating for equity.

At the time of the writing, editing, and compiling of the Songs of Ascent, those desiring to invest in the reconstitution of Israel lived in precarious and tense times.  Both poor and rich willing to “trust in the Lord” would be easily tempted to give up the project, to simply concede to the way things are and to denounce it as a silly pipe-dream.  Visions of a “kingdom come” of justice, righteousness, and fidelity under a loving, rescuing God too readily turned into heartbreaking nightmares.

Psalms, Songs, and Antiphons
It is helpful to have a basic familiarity with ancient Israelite prayer in its liturgical and literary contexts.

The word psalm sounds like song because it is simply a Greek word for song.  In Hebrew, the collection is called tehelim, which is taken for the word for praise.  The well-known word hallelujah derives from the same root word and simply means “praise the Lord.”  Along with or even perhaps before understanding the Psalms as prayers we should understand them as songs.  It has been that way from the time when Miriam sang her song of victory on the shores of the Red Sea (Ex 15) to the singing the psalms to folk tunes today. 

From the Gut – the origins of prayer

The origins of the song/hymn/prayer come from two different directions.  There is the top-down direction.  These are public songs inspired by a great military victory and are sung at the victory parade (the origins of our procession) of the returning army.  They employ boastful exaggerated language of conquest. 

What stands out about the prayers collected in the book of Psalms and scattered throughout the stories and writings of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures is the extent that the “bottom-up” prayers dominate.  The Bible places the origins of prayer not in the boastful shouts of victory over an enemy but more in the deep guttural crying out in the darkness of night, whether that darkness refers to the time when there is no sunlight or to the dark experiences of human existence.  The first mention of prayer in Genesis 4:26 gushes up from a deep anguish over two men bragging over how many people they have killed in revenge.  It was “at that time” that people began to “cry out” to the Lord.

The particular kind of song in the title is the word sir in Hebrew, and it mostly refers to the top-down songs of victory.  They are meant to be joyous and celebratory.  They are party songs.  With this in mind then, we might ask what songs of victory have to do with repentance.  Or for that matter, the Israelites might have asked what they have to do with the intense internal conflict surrounding the gathering of Israelites at the Temple? Singing a song with a heavy heart is compared in Proverbs to taking away someone’s coat on a cold day (Prov 25:22). 

Why are these joyous songs of victory and ascent congealed into the time of repentance during the Great Fast? 

For the Christian, one always has a kind of cheater repentance.  We already know the outcome.  Even in Lent, the resurrection is still present. Even as we usher in the Fast at the Vespers of Forgiveness with its shift of somber colors, minor tones, and sober prayers, the Easter songs are sung in anticipation.

Through the Fast and in the Antiphons of the Presactified Liturgy, however, we are jettisoned into the anguish of the Jewish people whose hope of God’s “kingdom come” languished under four great empires over six hundred years.  The outcome was nothing more than “precious dreams imprisoned underground.”[1] 

This speaks of one of the more profound mysteries of drawing near to the “Ineffable One.”  Part of ascending to God is a descent into our failure.  The Jews who reentered the land and began rebuilding “a people” insisted on one bottom line foundation—identification with the exile.  They insisted that those who had experienced exile best understood the failure of every group and individual involved.  Lamentation was the cornerstone for Israel’s reconstitution and not smug, finger-pointing exuberance. It is as one scholar put it: Israel didn’t just fail it failed completely. Something of this descent before ascent is found in the saying of the Eastern monk St. Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell, but despair not.”[2]

About the Songs of Ascent
The Songs of Ascent, Palms 120-134, are a particular group of psalms designed to be sung together.  The imagery and themes are artfully woven together into a rich tapestry conjuring up the sensual experiences, emotional gamut and deepest longings of a great “going up.”

The more one reads, sings, and meditates on these songs, the more recognizable certain themes and images become. The dominant theme and image is of course an ascent.

The basic Hebrew word in the title of these songs is alah to move upward, and the idea of climbing the steps to the temple area is certainly part of the reference for these psalms.  It is likely that choirs of Levitical singers lined the steps and sang back and forth to one another to spur on the ascending procession of congregants (Neh 12:27-43).

One noun form, maalah, refers to steps or a stair case, but also takes on the meaning of a long arduous journey of no return, like a passage.  We can picture climbing a mountain pass in order to pass to the other side.  One scholar believes “expedition” best depicts the notion especially in relationship to Ezra and Nehemiah’s going up to Jerusalem from far off Babylon (Ezra 1:11, 7:9). 

In this sense, a climbing expedition provides an apt comparison.

A climbing expedition starts with one base, but domineering desire—to reach the top.  This desire supersedes and overtakes all other concerns, fears, barriers, or objections.  It requires extensive planning, logistics, and along with these, the shedding of all luxury, excess, amenities, or comforts. One must reduce to bare essentials.  An expedition demands participation and cooperation with a network of skilled people willing to support the effort, for it is never done alone. One speaks of a climbing expedition in aggressive combative terms.  Here, the “ascent” is near synonymous with an “assault,” for it is fully aware of the enemy, both from within and without, who seeks to thwart the mission.

In one way, however, the climbing expedition analogy breaks down.  One climbs a peak because one has not been there before, and once at the top, one descends and returns to his home.  But the ascent of the exiles in Babylon or of regional pilgrims struggling in the land of Yehud, or of the Church in its season of repentance is a return to one’s home, to its roots.  The return is not to get back to the way things used to be.  Those striving to rebuild Israel from the rubble understood all too well the misguided failures of their ancestors.  Going back was the only way forward.  This is the way of repentance, what the Bible calls “lamentation.”  Only by reliving, remembering and reminded of the failure of God’s people to live up to its calling, can they, and we, open ourselves up to a real, genuine in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

There is also a rich spiritual history of comparing our relationship with God to a mountain or a great ladder to be climbed.  On one of the Lenten Sundays, a famous icon of St. John of the Ladder is displayed.  It depicts the arduous and perilous ascent of the monk as he struggles against demons toward God.  In St. Ephrem’s Hymns of Paradise, Ephem playfully creates a composite image of paradise as both a garden and a great mountain. He sees every human soul in some proximity to it and moving upward.

In the Songs of Ascent, only one mountain looms over and pervades every verse—Mount Zion.  Zion is a composite icon evoking God’s covenantal Presence, especially for those given over to the “Israel project” after the exile. Zion has several geographic points of contact that bleed into each other.  It refers to the mound on which the temple is built, but it also refers to whole hill country of Jerusalem, the city buildings, the inhabitants of the city, the worshipping community ascending in liturgical procession, and the hope of a new David.  Ultimately Zion evokes that point of contact between an Almighty loving God and his creatures.  Before the advent of Jesus, Zion was the most dominant icon for God’s relentless drive, indeed His dogged insistence on meeting up with and encountering us humans.

Glimpses of the Top
As we embark on our own expedition through the Songs of Ascent, we will encounter other prominent images that give a window into the songwriter’s particular hope and perspective, all of which are related to Zion. 

One theme is mentioned only once in the SOA, but it permeates nearly every verse.  None of the inconvenience, exertion, and stress of an expedition need be experienced if it were not for one giant annoyance—the dream (Ps 126:1).  We could have been eating sweet cool melons in Egypt or rich, fancy foods in Babylon if it were not for the dream.  I could have pursued a “happy life” without reference to the needs of others had I not become a Christian, had I not caught wind of a kingdom coming. 

It is, then, like my brothers and I going on our weekly climbing and skiing ventures as children.  Whether you think it is fun or not, whether you have a strong internal drive toward the top or not, you are getting up at five o’clock in the morning on the weekend, slamming down some oatmeal, putting on your wool clothes, packing into a station wagon while it is still dark and heading for the mountains.  You are going simply because you are a part of this family and not some other family.

The dream, as we shall encounter, is both the imaginings of the top of the mountain as well as partial realizations of it.  “The dream” has to do with reaching the top, of one’s final goal and destination.

Other reoccurring images relate to the “Israel project.”  They refer to the great faith effort to reconstitute or resurrect Israel.  Ideally, they offer glimpses into the kingdom of God—what it would look like if’n God ran the place—but they are blended into the actual life and hardships of struggling Jews in the land of Yehud in the fifth century B.C.E. 

The songwriter is especially tuned into the struggling farmer; thus depictions of plowing, sowing, tilling, waiting, and reaping are employed.  Images of building a “life together” similar to what a young married couple might envision also seep in.  The lyricist evokes images of building a house, a home, a family, a livelihood and an inheritance.  He dreams of enjoying “the good life” where one is settled in.  He or she partakes of the fruits of his or her labors, neighborly cooperation, a sense of community and a good night’s sleep. 

There is one other “image” that dominates the SOA.  Perhaps the better word is not image or theme, but presence.  Throughout these songs, our singers are ever aware of and tormented by a threatening enemy, sometimes just referred to as “they.”  “They” are variously called the wicked, liars, haters of peace and of Zion, war-mongers, taunters, proud, haughty, contemptuous, a devouring predator, a ruthless plowman.  They are ever present as if accompanying the processing expedition from far off Babylon to the very temple itself, impeding and opposing the entourage every step of the way.  Indeed, their threatening presence appears to be one of the generating forces for the composition as reflected in the first line:  “Lord, in my distress I cry to you!”

Generators of the Text
Due to the cumbersome and expensive process of producing a “scroll” in the ancient world, the lines between an author, a compiler or researcher, an editor, a transcriber, and a publisher were quite blurred.  It is better to understand the faith community or tradition that influenced and generated it than to isolate a single author. 

With this in mind, it is likely that the Songs of Ascent collection was the product of the Levites serving in the temple during the attempted reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Some scholars have suggested that Nehemiah was the driving inspiration for its composition, recounting not only a pilgrimage from the surrounding region, but the long “expedition” from exile even.[3] 

Similar to its use in the Presanctified Liturgy, they were songs of entrance for the faithful ascending from the region and the city to the temple precinct.  The Levites were both the songwriters and performers as they lined the steps on and spurred the congregants upward in song.

 Since the SOA became fixed in written form, it is quite possible that these songs made their way back to the exiles still in Babylon in the hope of encouraging those who had “settled down” in a foreign land to come home.  Even more so, the SOA intend to strengthen the resolve of those who had abandoned their home away from home in Babylon, packed up their belongings and set out at great risk to “come home.”

In a very real sense, this is what the season of repentance known to us as Lent or the Great Fast is calling us to.  We all have settled down into cozy situations of existence.  The problem is that that existence is in a foreign land.  To varying degrees, we all have acquiesced to a human condition chronically diseased by sin. For some, the home away from home is plenty sufficient and the vision of a true home becomes too implausible so it fades from memory.  For others, the memory of home still lives, but the risk of the expedition is overwhelming fraught with danger and uncertainty.  Truly, one could lose it all in such a venture.  There are no guarantees of success.  There are others who have made the decisive step.  They packed the family and are on the way with the bumper sticker “The kingdom of God or bust.”  But as the hardships of the expedition become real, the temptation is to turn around and go back before it is too late.  Finally, there are those who left, made the journey, settled into the land and are overtaken by bitter regret and resentment caused by internal bickering, favoritism, corruption, and incompetence.

The Levites were in a similar situation to the struggling farmer or merchant.  Their livelihood was equally precarious because the community was at odds over how the Levites should be compensated.  Some advocated for the old tribal ideal that they should be without land and completely dependent on generosity.  This easily turned into a situation of near homelessness similar to the most marginalized people in the land.  Their lives teetered on homeless or emigrant status. 

The Levites, however, were still priests, and that perspective also comes out in the SOA.  They understood that politics alone cannot move people toward love and responsibility toward others.  It also depended on a deep sense of being esteemed as a beloved creature by the Creator.  God’s love is equally experienced through the joy of a newborn child, a much anticipated rainy season, or a successful harvest.  God’s “favor” is not just grounded in the exodus, but also in nature itself.

The lyrical beauty and masterful weaving of images and themes found in the Songs of Ascent are best explained as having been generated by those of the Levitical priestly class during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.  They were after all, the skilled singers, songwriters, archivists, and scribes employed at the temple.  They were best suited to expresses the balance and tension between rich and poor, urban and rural, covenant and priestly, prophet and scribe, ritual and expository.  They experienced on a regular basis in the festivals and Sabbaths generative times of exuberant hope of “thy kingdom come.”  They knew how true and real the proclamation was: “Taste and see that the Lord is good. His mercy endures forever.”

[1] This is a line taken from the song “    “ and sung by Al Jar.  I use this song often in introductions for the Psalms.

[2] The Enlargement of the Heart, pg 64