Songs of Degrees: Part 1

Psalm 120‑121  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Recovery, or The Return Journey
As typified by the "Songs of Degrees," Psalm 120-134
No doubt the Spirit of God has something special in the grouping of these Psalms under this heading; they were evidently written at different times and by different authors.
The word "degrees" means a "going up" or "ascent," and is used elsewhere in the sense of steps, as to Solomon's throne and as to the future temple, in Eze. 40 These Psalms then may be taken in a moral sense of going up.
If we take a glance at the last one of these Psalms, we find it speaking of those in the house of the Lord-in the sanctuary blessing the Lord, or as worshipers in His presence. We might say then that it is the path that leads to becoming a true worshiper. We find the Lord uses this very term in speaking to the poor outcast woman in John 4:2323But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. (John 4:23). He is speaking of the interval that was to take place between the casting off of Israel on account of His rejection, as we learn elsewhere, and their being received again (Rom. 11:15, 2515For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15)
25For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (Romans 11:25)
In John 4:2323But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. (John 4:23) the Father is seeking worshipers, and we learn that "God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." v. 24. In verse 23, two places of worship are spoken of-that of the Samaritans and that of the Jews. The first was not the truth, and the second was no longer of the Spirit.
These Psalms are evidently historical in their origin, or in some past application, and also prophetical as to a future application. No doubt there is a typical application for us; for "Every scripture is divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, fully fitted to every good work." 2 Tim. 3:16, 1716All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16‑17); J.N.D. Trans.
We have found where the path ends: a true worshiper in His presence. But from whence does it start? From John 4 we see that it can start from a very low beginning; this should be an encouragement to us, since none need be left out.
It is quite instructive to see that this series of Psalms begins just after the 119th, which, as we know, is the longest and is occupied in the setting forth of the Word of God. There are evidences in this long Psalm that the Word had been let slip, and it had lost its influence on the soul.
"I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies." v. 59.
"Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept Thy word." v. 67.
"It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Thy statutes." v. 71.
Then the last verse: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep: seek Thy servant; for I do not forget Thy commandments."
Some have thought that the Spirit of God used Ezra to group these Psalms as suitable to their state in journeying from Babylon to Jerusalem, and thus are prophetical of the remnant in the latter days.
"Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy word." Psalm 119:99BETH. Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. (Psalm 119:9).
If the Word of God has been let slip in our lives, we find ourselves in circumstances not in accordance with it; the realization of this would cause distress and exercise similar to that we have in Psalm 120:11<<A Song of degrees.>> In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me. (Psalm 120:1).
In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and He heard me."
His feet are in the wrong place, and he is surrounded by those whom he thought were his friends, but finds deceit on every hand. Such, no doubt, will be the case of the remnant in the day of apostasy that is to come when the Spirit of God first begins to work in their hearts. But could it not be true of everyone in all dispensations in similar circumstances?
"Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech." v. 5.
No doubt this refers to their being in captivity to the Gentiles.
"That I dwell in the tents of Kedar!"- that is; among those who would take that which God has set up as an approach to Himself and make it a mere thing of nature. All those who do this would come under this heading.
The term "Kedar" is applied to the Ishmaelites and to the Arabs generally. It was with the Arabs that Nehemiah had to contend; they sought in every way to gain an entrance among the Jews and did in Nehemiah's absence-into the very house of God! (The Arabs are now contending with the Jews for the land of Palestine.)
In Babylon there were Jews who had no exercise as to the return of the remnant in Ezra and Nehemiah's time; they were satisfied to remain where they were. It was a mere handful that came back, and verses 2-4 and 6, 7 could well be applied to those who had given up the true hope of Israel in that day, as it will be of those in the future who have allied themselves with the beast and the false prophet. It is also the attitude of those of all times, since the Church has been established, whose hope is in this world only; they see no reason for the deep exercise the Spirit of God has laid upon the hearts of the remnant.
"Deliver my soul, 0 LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue." v. 2.
"Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper." v. 4.
"My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace."
"I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war."
From their earliest history there had always been some among the children of Israel who had never gotten beyond looking at their place in this world as that which was by the way of nature, or a national relationship. They had not considered the longing of the Lord for them when in Deuteronomy 5 they had told Moses, "Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say;... and we will hear it, and do it." v. 27. The response of the Lord was, "Oh that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!" v. 29. There is a longing over them also in Deut. 32:28, 2928For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. 29O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end! (Deuteronomy 32:28‑29). Trace this similar sighing after them as voiced in Psalm 81:11-1611But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. 12So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels. 13Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! 14I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries. 15The haters of the Lord should have submitted themselves unto him: but their time should have endured for ever. 16He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat: and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee. (Psalm 81:11‑16), about five hundred years afterward. Then at a later period, in Isa. 48:16-1916Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord God, and his Spirit, hath sent me. 17Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go. 18O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea: 19Thy seed also had been as the sand, and the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me. (Isaiah 48:16‑19), but especially verse 18: "0 that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea." But it was too late; captivity was at hand. This prophecy was about three hundred years later than Psalm 81.
In Isaiah 48 they were given instructions to flee from Babylon with a voice of singing. In Psalm 126, the time had come; and their mouth was indeed filled with laughter, and their tongue with singing.
In the past they were never able to rise up to the fact that being a child of Abraham called for a life of faith; but in the future, "Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power" (Psalm 110:33Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth. (Psalm 110:3)). "I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people." Jer. 31:3333But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33).
In our Psalm, after being aroused, they learn that those with whom they had formerly been content to dwell, were really not true friends, but just the opposite. They can only count upon the Lord for deliverance from among them.
Would not the application of "I dwell in the tents of Kedar" be analogous with Eph. 5:1414Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Ephesians 5:14)? "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" (or, "Christ shall shine upon thee"; J.N.D. Trans.). The shining upon him discovers to him where he is-sunken down to the level of the world-and the result is, such a one is in deep distress!
In Psalm 121 There is a realization of the fact, that to get to the place of blessing, a long journey lies ahead-a journey beset with dangers, for the enemy of our souls does not give up easily.
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." v. 1.
The one who has these deep exercises, in looking around seems to see no direct pathway out; the way looks all closed in on every side. Then there comes the realization that his help comes from the Lord.
"My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth." v. 2
He then has the assurance of care all along the journey from the One who has made the heavens and the earth.
"He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber." v. 3.
"Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." v. 4.
"The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night." v. 6.
"The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve... thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore." vv. 7, 8.
The remnant in the future day will be under the special protection of the Lord (Rev. 7). Though for the most part they are unconscious of it, they are protected from the judgment falling upon the earth. They do however suffer from the persecutions of the beast and the antichrist. There is at this present time an angelic care exercised over those who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1414Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? (Hebrews 1:14)). Both classes would seem to be covered by Psalm 91:11He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. (Psalm 91:1). "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty." It does not say, he that hath the knowledge of the secret place, but he that dwelleth there. We may have the knowledge, but are we really dwelling there? One has thought that the abiding under the shadow of the Almighty, might be said to be exercised in an especial way when His own are gathered together waiting upon Him.
When in the place of blessing, there is a going "in" (communion) and "out" (for service) that is of Him. John 10:99I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. (John 10:9): "in and out, and find pasture."
In Psalm 122 we find the end of the journey set before us. It is the house of the Lord in Jerusalem—the city that the Lord had chosen to place His name there, where was His sanctuary (Psalm 78:67-6967Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim: 68But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved. 69And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever. (Psalm 78:67‑69)).
There is companionship too in this journey. When we were led in true exercise by the Spirit of God, we found others exercised by the Spirit desirous also to go on in the same path of faith.
"I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD." V. 1.
Then faith looks off to the time when one's feet will stand in Jerusalem.
"Our feet shall stand within Thy gates, 0 Jerusalem." v. 2.
This is followed by meditation as to what is to be found there. "Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together." v. 3.
"Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD." V. 4.
"For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David." v. 5.
When building the wall, Nehemiah said, "The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall." Chap. 4:19. Those were remnant days-the beginning of a recovery from what carelessness and disobedience had brought in. See 2 Chron. 36:1414Moreover all the chief of the priests, and the people, transgressed very much after all the abominations of the heathen; and polluted the house of the Lord which he had hallowed in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 36:14).
Faith sees Jerusalem "compact together," when in reality it lay in ruins at the time when the journey began; but the energy of faith could change all this. "Compact together" makes one think of what we have in the New Testament, "gathered together" and "fitly joined together and compacted" (Eph. 4:1616From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:16)), the result of the unity and operation of the Spirit of God in producing the unity (Eph. 4:33Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)), which is far beyond anything that man can bring about.
Another thing: it is not simply where the feeble remnant was going, but "whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord"! Faith takes in the whole of Israel, though the greater part were long since lost among the nations. Faith embraces the whole, and so now the Lord would not have us stop short of the whole body of Christ, the Church. Our faith must realize that anything short of this is sectarian and stops short of what is outlined for us in the path of faith according to the scripture (Eph. 4:44There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; (Ephesians 4:4); 1 Cor. 12:1313For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)).
"Unto the testimony of Israel." This brings before us the Ark of God which contained the tables of the law, which was spoken of as the dwelling place of the Lord God. It was also the true gathering center for all Israel (1 Chron. 13:6; 23:256And David went up, and all Israel, to Baalah, that is, to Kirjath-jearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up thence the ark of God the Lord, that dwelleth between the cherubims, whose name is called on it. (1 Chronicles 13:6)
25For David said, The Lord God of Israel hath given rest unto his people, that they may dwell in Jerusalem for ever: (1 Chronicles 23:25)
). This should bring before us the One who is now the true Center of the Church-the One of whom it could truly be said, "Thy law have I hid in my heart." In such a place one is in the position where thanks can be given unto the Lord-"To give thanks unto the name of the LORD." This is what He desires, as we shall see as we proceed with these Songs of Degrees.
"For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David"-the place where justice was administered. Absalom sought craftily to usurp the throne on the plea that justice was not being done. He declared that failure had come in; but, though there was failure present, yet it was not as extensive as he sought to make out. This world has yet to wait for the "King" to "reign in righteousness" (Isa. 32:11Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. (Isaiah 32:1)). He was here once, but was rejected (Luke 19:41-4441And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, 42Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. 43For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, 44And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation. (Luke 19:41‑44)). The setting aside of David was not allowed, and Absalom lost his life in attempting to do so.
The true effect of the unity that is of the Spirit is the exercise that peace might be there. "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." Should not the need of collective peace exercise our hearts now? How often has individual responsibility been unduly pressed with sad results. The same one that could speak of conferring "not with flesh and blood," afterward speaks of going to see Peter and abiding with him fifteen days, and again going up and communicating privately to them of reputation, lest by any means he had run or should run in vain (Gal. 1 and 2).
"For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee." v. 8.
The one who has been voicing these godly exercises has now learned to speak of those whom he has found to have like precious faith as himself, as his brethren. A relationship has been formed by the Spirit of God with these and God's chosen center, and its peace is their one consuming thought and objective.