I’ve been reading the Psalms of Ascent of late. These are the collection of psalms that were likely sung by pilgrims in the latter half of the first millennium BC as they made there way up to the temple in Jerusalem for the great feasts such as Passover.
That may seem a strange choice given that we are a few days into Advent, associated as it is with the two comings of Christ. But that is exactly the point; These are the psalms which inspire the thirst and hunger for ‘Emmanuel to ransom captive Israel’. Psalms 120—134 capture the rootlessness, the alienated identity the Advent seasons reminds us of without apology. These are the poignant prayers of exile, the hymns of those who paradoxically find themselves at home and not at home in the world. These are the words of pilgrims, waiting for God to arrive so that they might sojourn no more.
It seems plausible that this collection was pulled together sometime during the Second Temple period, giving voice to the anguish of exile that was experience long after Judah had ‘returned’ to their land. Some of these psalms (122, 124, 127, 131, 133) evidently originate from the monarchy, but have now been re-appropriated as prayers for Jerusalem and the restoration of David’s throne. Others speaks of the pilgrim’s perception of his/her situation: living in far-flung places, offering to their neighbours the peace commanded by Jeremiah but being met by continued hostility (120.5ff.), protected on his/her journey by the creator of the heavens and the earth who guards ones comings and goings (121.8),experiencing God’s protection as though he were in Zion itself (125.1). Their oppression must be patiently borne (125.3), because the supposed restoration of 538 BC has proven to illusory and inconclusive (126). Indeed, this has been the pattern of Israel’s history — oppression alleviated by God’s protection (129.1—4; 124.7). For Israel, faithfulness will be expressed through hope that God would redeem the nation from the result of their sins.
This is the paradigm for those who faithfully answer Jeremiah’s call to seek the shalom of the city (or follow the Western tradition and Augustine’s reading of Jeremiah 29.7) but find themselves living in two cities (or social spaces): Israel and Babylon; and living under two sets of rules: Babylon and YHWH’s. This is the paradigm for those who struggled to comply with their captors request to sing, ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ (137), yet still manage to draw breath to sing that God’s ‘steadfast love endures for ever’ (136). These psalms know what it is to long for the day when righteousness makes its home on earth, for the world to be made new, but to experience tears and affliction, vanity and anxiety, sleepless nights and being the object of gossip, of unfulfilled and unrealized promises and dreams
For those of us today who find ourselves holding a different but not dissimilar perspective to the remnant of Israel by virtue of the stretching of these last days between the now and the not yet, the Psalms of Ascent complete the picture of what it means to hope against hope. They pick up on the uncertainties of this age. They capture the reality of being rejected and yet still seeking the peace of that place. In Christ, the Psalms of Ascent become the songs of those who sojourn now as aliens and strangers. They become the songs for those hungering and thirsting for the the righteous King who came at Christmas in humility but will come again in glory.
These songs exile continue to be the songs for us exiles, because the Son of God made our exile his own. He journeyed into the far country, seeking the good of the city (122.9) but meeting those who hate peace (120.5—6). He made our exile his own, he entered into our mess, so that (to paraphrase Tolkien) whilst we still wander we would no longer be lost. These Psalms of Ascent fire the holy discontent of those who have tasted Christ’s first advent and long for his second.