The Songs of Degrees

The Psalms bearing this title are fifteen in number (Ps. 120 - 134), and, while diversified in their contents, are manifestly bound intimately together, and make progress towards a desired goal. They have afforded much interest and instruction to God's people in all ages, even if imperfectly understood and applied; and the interest and instruction will rather be deepened, if their divine intent and object are apprehended. The significance of the title, which these Psalms bear, has been much discussed; but almost all the various opinions offered may be included in what undoubtedly is the true solution. For example, the word translated "degrees" is almost universally allowed to be that used of the recurring journeys of Israel up to Jerusalem for the several festivals, and some accordingly have maintained that these songs were sung by the godly at the various stages of their route. Others seeing references to a later period, to the turning again of the captivity of Zion (Ps. 126) have concluded that they were used on the pilgrim-journey from Babylon to Jerusalem for the rebuilding of the temple. (Ezra 1-3.) Another class of interpreters assert that the whole of the fifteen Psalms were sung on "the fifteen steps between the court of the men and the court of the women," as the pilgrim bands were actually entering the precincts of the sacred building. Without discussing these several theories, it will suffice to point out that all alike coincide in making the temple the object, or goal, to which the faces of the pilgrims were turned; and secondly, that all alike fail to perceive the prophetical character of these Psalms. It is in the combination of these two points that the truth will be found.

To take the latter point first, it is easy from many allusions to prove that the Psalms are mainly prophetical. Reference has already been made to Psalm 126, where it is said, "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them," etc. (vv. 1, 2.) That the restoration from Babylon was a shadow of a larger fulfilment may be readily conceded; but to those who are acquainted with the predictions of the prophets concerning the establishment of the kingdom under the glorious Messiah, nothing short of the future deliverance and glory of Zion could be accepted as answering to this description. The last verse of the Psalm, indeed, will only find its complete fulfilment in Christ as King in Zion. Predictions, only to be realized after the Lord has restored His earthly people to blessing, under His own sway, are as plainly found in Psalms 124, 125, 128, 130, 132-134.

The last three Psalms of the series undoubtedly justify the contention that the temple, the habitation of the Mighty One of Jacob, is the longed-for end, or consummation. If, however, the prophetic interpretation of these Psalms be allowed, the temple will not be that which Solomon, or Zerubbabel, built, but that which the Man, whose name is the BRANCH, will build, even He who shall bear the glory, and shall sit, and rule, a priest upon His throne; that is, Christ Himself.

Another point must be mentioned; viz., that it is clear from many parts of these Psalms that Israel is viewed as in the land, after their having been scattered, and yet not finally delivered from the power of their oppressors. The reader should notice the recurrence of the word Israel, as showing that it is not only the presence of the two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) in the land, but that also the ten tribes have been restored; that, moreover, they now once again form but one nation (see Ezekiel 37:18-28), and that Zion and the temple form the centre, as the seat of government and blessing for all. Still, as already said, they are not yet finally delivered from their adversaries. They thus cry "Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us: for we are exceedingly filled with contempt. Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud." (Psalm 123:3-4; also Psalm 124.)

What we have, then, in these Songs of Degrees is the progress and experience of Israel, after their restoration, while waiting for the interposition of Jehovah to deliver them from all their enemies, and to establish them in security and blessing. It is not, therefore, Christianity, or Christian experience, which must be sought for in these Psalms; but, inasmuch as the principles of the divine life, or of the divine nature, in souls, are the same in every dispensation, much instruction may be here gleaned by Christians. Two things are never found in the Psalms, nor, indeed, in the Old Testament - the revelation of the Father, and, consequently, the Spirit of adoption. They are only known after Pentecost, though our blessed Lord revealed the Father when with His disciples. (John 14:9-11.) It was not possible, however, for them to apprehend the revelation made until they had received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Unless we bear in mind this distinction, when reading the Psalms, we are apt to lose sight of the heavenly calling, and the heavenly character of Christianity.

A few words may be added concerning the structure of this interesting group of Psalms. "All are grouped," says a pious expositor, "around Psalm 127, which was written by Solomon On both sides there stands a heptad (i.e., seven) of pilgrim songs, consisting of two Psalms written by David, and five others, which have no name attached. Both sevens are divided into four and three.* Each heptad (seven) contains the name of Jehovah twenty-four times; each of the connected groups (Psalms 120 - 123, 124 - 126, 128 - 131, 132 - 134) twelve times." Surely the facts here stated show the impress of a divine Hand, the Hand which guided and controlled those who have been thus used as vehicles both of a divine design, and of divine thoughts. To cite once again, "the unity (of these Psalms) is not one merely of form, it also refers to the thoughts," for while different servants were chosen to express them, the Author of all alike is the Spirit of God.

*The reader may recall that this division is also found in the New Testament, as, for example, in the seven parables of Matthew 13, in the seven churches, the seven seals, the seven trumpets, etc., of the Apocalypse.

Psalm 120.

A Song of Degrees.

1 In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and He heard me.
2 Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
3 What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
4 Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
5 Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
6 My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
7 I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.

As is seen in many of the Psalms, the result of the exercises through which the soul has passed is first stated. "In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and He heard me"; and then the character of the distress is described. According to the interpretation of these Psalms already given, this distress is that through which Israel will have to pass after their restoration. He that scattered Israel will, in His infallible faithfulness, gather him (Jer. 31:10); but there will be enemies still in existence at the commencement of the kingdom (see Jer. 41:20-23), whereby Jehovah will test His people; and then, He will manifest Himself to them as their Messiah and Deliverer, so that once again they will sing, "The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation." (Psalm 118:14; compare Exodus 15:2.)

Who the particular enemy alluded to here is, it may not be easy to decide. One of his characteristics is a deceitful tongue, combined with lying lips. Some have thought that it is a prophetical reference to the little horn of Daniel 8, that is, to the king of the north in the last days. A well-known writer thus says, "It does not seem to me to be the oppression of Antichrist, or the beast at Jerusalem, but to apply to those who, in the land, found themselves where the last hostile power which had pretended to favour them, and had led many to apostatize for quietness and prosperity, now showed himself as only a deceitful oppressor." In Daniel it says of this personage, that "he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people. And through his policy also, he shall cause craft to prosper in his hand."

(Chap. 8:24-25.) If this be the adversary in view, the Psalm goes back to a time anterior to the restoration of all Israel; but Israel, recounting the Lord's mercies in becoming his salvation, might well identify themselves with the sorrows which Judah had first undergone in the land. The people will, at this period, be once more united; and they will consequently claim the "distress" of any portion of the nation as their own.

*Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, vol. 2 p. 232.

Some difficulty has been felt concerning the mention of Mesech and Kedar as the place of sojourn (v. 5) inasmuch as they would seem to have been widely sundered. Meshech is mentioned in connection with Gog (Ezekiel 39), whereas Kedar was a descendant of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13), and he evidently became the founder of a well-known Arab tribe. (See also Canticles 1:5.) They are probably moral expressions, indicative of the hostility of the enemies of God's people. The Christian can in measure enter into this sorrow, for he is hated by the world, and is also the object of Satan's enmity, only he has the consolation of knowing that Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33); and that since Satan is a defeated enemy, he will ever flee if resisted in the power of the Holy Ghost (James 4:7).

It is interesting to notice that there are, in this short Psalm, the three forms of the flesh which are developed in the epistle to the Colossians. In Genesis 6, two of these are found, corruption and violence (v. 11), and after Satan is exposed as a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44), the third form, falsehood, is added. [See Colossians 3:5 (corruption), 8 (violence), and 9 (falsehood)]. So in our Psalm we have lying and deceit, which is moral corruption, in v. 2, and violence in v. 7.

Such were the circumstances of this pious soul who is taken up by the Spirit of Christ and made the mouth-piece - the vessel of the sorrows - of His earthly people in a later day. And thus surrounded by these various forms of evil, and having long dwelt with him that hated peace, what was his consolation? In what way was he sustained? By the assurance that Jehovah had heard his cry. He had the sense that God had heard his cry, and this pacified his alarms; for, as the apostle John has written, "If we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him." (1 John 5:15.) Hence it is that the psalmist anticipates with certainty deliverance through divine judgment upon the enemy. "What," he cries, "shall be given unto thee? Or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty" - the arrows of the King, which will soon pierce through the hearts of His enemies (Psalm 45:5), and these, combined "with coals of juniper,"* coals kindled with the fires of holiness, wherewith Jehovah will search, and judge, all the workers of iniquity.

*"Juniper" would seem to be a mistaken translation. It is said to be a shrub called "Genista," the roots of which were famed as making the best charcoal. The figure, therefore, will denote the intensity of the fire of judgment.

In conclusion, it may be noted that, while it is not the circumstances of the Christian which are here presented, the resource of God's people in all dispensations is in God Himself, and in His interposition, with delivering power, on their behalf.

Psalm 121.

In the preceding Psalm, distress and conflict mark the condition of God's people; whereas here, while the pressure is still upon them, we are permitted to see what the Lord is on their behalf in their special circumstances. The greater the sense of need, the greater the discovery of what God is for us; and hence it is that, like these saints of a future day, we are often put to the test, in order that, learning our own helplessness, we may realize that our help and succour are to be found alone in God. This will explain the connection between these two Psalms. In the last verse of the 120, the Psalmist cries, "I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war." What, then, is his resource? The answer is found in the first two verses of the 121st Psalm:

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

"My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth." (vv. 1, 2.)

The beauty of the connection will be more fully seen if a slight rectification is made in the rendering of the first verse. Many read as follows: "I will lift up my eyes to the hills: from whence shall my help come?" And then the second verse is taken as the answer to this question.* Adopting this change, it will be perceived that faith is in activity; for no sooner does the soul cry in its sorrow, "From whence shall my help come?" than the answer springs forth, "My help cometh from the Lord," etc. This part illustrates a principle found everywhere in the Scriptures. If God works for the succour and deliverance of His people, He acts in connection with, and in response to, their faith. For example, when Peter writes of the inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for believers, he adds, "Who are kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." (1 Peter 1:4-5.) Truly, faith itself is produced and sustained in the soul by divine power, but none the less is it the living link between the soul and God, and that which secures His intervention, brings Him in for our aid and deliverance. (See Mark 9:23; Hebrews, 11, etc.)

*See the Revised Version of the Old Testament, also J. N. Darby's French Bible, in which he gives the above as an alternative rendering.

It is to be remarked, as pointed out in the last paper, that God is here known as Jehovah, the covenant name of God as in relationship with Israel; and also that the words - "Which made heaven and earth"  - are appended; for this was according to the revelation God made of Himself to His earthly people. So Jonah confessed to the mariners, "I am an Hebrew: and I fear the Lord (Jehovah), the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land." (Chap. 1:9.) Of this creation, Jehovah revealed Himself to His ancient people as the Creator, although He discovered much more than this to Moses (Exodus 34:5-7), when He announced the sovereignty of His grace and mercy as the foundation on which He could spare His guilty people after the sin of the golden calf. The Christian is in the light as God is in the light, for God is now fully revealed in and through the Lord Jesus Christ; and the believer is, moreover, in accordance with God's counsels, brought, through association with Christ, into His own place and relationship. We know God, therefore, in a far more intimate manner, inasmuch as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is our God and Father. (John 20:17; Ephesians 1:3-5.) This difference must ever be borne in mind when reading the Old Testament Scriptures.

Passing now to v. 3, we have the divine response, through the Spirit, to the faith expressed in the second verse. Turning in the confidence of faith to Jehovah, who made heaven and earth, the soul is assured of the support and protection of its Omnipotent Keeper:

"He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber." (v. 3.)

Two things are brought before us in this assurance, first, that whatever the dangers, or the slippery character of the path, the Lord will not suffer the foot of one trusting in Him to be moved, or, perhaps, to slide; and, secondly, that there is never a moment when the eyes of the Lord are not upon His people, when He does not maintain unceasing and constant vigilance on their behalf. The night may be never so dark round about us, but for Him the night shineth as the day, and even as Jesus saw from the mountaintop His disciples toiling in the rowing, so God withdraweth not His eyes from the righteous, but ever beholdeth them in all their circumstances of trial and sorrow. And, let it be observed, that He who thus watches over His saints, is their Keeper, the One who guards, keeps safe, preserves  - for such is the force of the word here used. What encouragement is thus ministered to God's tried and suffering people! And what an invitation to unwavering repose in Himself in the midst of surrounding trials and agitations!

The next verse seems to proceed from another speaker, as v. 5 resumes the address to the individual soul, though he is undoubtedly the representative of the people. Still, v. 4 appears as an emphatic endorsement of the assurance of v. 3, and, at the same time, giving it a wider application. In the structure of the Psalm, it may be a chorus breaking forth at this point, all the people uniting in the song

"Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." (v. 4.)

It is not, therefore, merely that Jehovah will preserve His people in their special difficulties; but He is introduced as Israel's Keeper. It is a characteristic relationship; and, consequently, additional force is given to Jehovah's not slumbering, by the words "nor sleep"; that is, He is ever wakeful; He never at any moment forgets His own; and there is, therefore, no intermission in His watchful care and keeping. Nor should the shadowing forth of the unity of God's people be overlooked. He is not only the keeper of the believer, but He is also the keeper of Israel. There are many touching illustrations of this unity in the Old Testament, showing how even the people themselves rose sometimes to the level of God's thoughts, and were thus enabled to embrace their oneness as the chosen nation. Much more should this be the case with us, who have been taught the blessed truth of union with Christ, and, consequently with all the members of His body. Not that the individual aspects of blessing are to be forgotten, but rather that we should be in communion with the mind of Christ as to all His own, who together, corporately, form His body, and will be His bride. It is when we enter into this, in the power of the Holy Ghost, that the affections of Christ for His people are reproduced in us, if but feebly, and we behold them with His own vision, as robed in His own beauty and excellencies.

The chorus having been sung, the address to the representative individual is resumed:

"The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

"The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night." (vv. 5, 6.)

The first sentence, the reiteration of the truth at the close of verse 3, is the foundation on which are built up the following pledges of security. "The Lord is thy keeper" means nothing less than that He is an absolute and perfect keeper, and the subsequent details are but the consequences of this, or the application of the general truth. In itself, however, it is an immense thing to know that the Lord is our keeper. In dangers, difficulties, and trials, it would calm our fears immediately, as well as dispel our anxieties, if this assurance were held in power. That it is true, whatever our state of soul, is undeniable, but it must be remembered that faith alone can avail itself of the blessedness of being kept by God, or can turn to Him for succour at the moment of need and pressure.

After the statement that "the Lord is thy keeper," it is said "the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand." "Shade" may be understood, from what follows, as protection, even as we read in Isaiah, "Thou hast been … a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall." The force of "at thy right hand" may, perhaps, be gathered from another Psalm, where we read, "Because He (Jehovah) is at my right hand I shall not be moved." (Psalm 16:8.) The expression would thus seem to signify that the Lord's protection is ever available, always, to use a common phrase, "at hand" for His people. This protection is manifestly spoken of in reference to what follows:

"The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night." (v. 6.)

The rays, both of the one and of the other, would be necessarily obstructed by "the shadow of the Almighty," wherewith He surrounds His people, and under which they for ever safely abide. The "sun" and the "moon" are but emblems of the evil influences of the day and the night, of which these luminaries are the respective rulers. Both the scorching rays of the glaring day and the noxious evils of the night will be powerless to affect those who repose under Jehovah's overshadowing care. How fearless, therefore, God's people may be, and would be, if they did but realise how perfectly they are guarded on every hand! These promises, it will be remembered, are for the earthly people in their primary application, but they are also available, in even a higher sense, for the christian. Thus, the Apostle could say, "The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto His heavenly kingdom." (2 Timothy 4:18.)

The last two verses do but amplify the assurance contained in verse 6,

"The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul.

"The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore." (vv. 7, 8.)

The promise, "The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil," must not, we apprehend, be taken as applicable independently of the state of soul. As before remarked, the living link between the soul and God is faith, and God works through it to bless and protect the believer. Faith can thus take up, and repose upon, this word of consolation in the darkest days, when Satan's power is demonstrated on all sides. The believer, moreover, will remember that, when the Lord presented His own before the Father, He said, "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil." The Apostle Paul also assures the Thessalonian saints that "the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil." (2 Thess. 3:3.) All these scriptures show us God's care over His people, and how abhorrent the thought of evil is to Him who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. How solicitous we should be, therefore, to answer to His mind in this respect, and the more in that both His love and His power are engaged to keep us undefiled as we walk in His ways.

The next clause is, "He shall preserve thy soul." The word rendered "soul" is, as in Greek also, a little ambiguous. It is sometimes translated "life," and, inasmuch as preservation for blessings in Messiah's kingdom is a characteristic Jewish promise, it is possible that this is its significance in this place,

Lastly, Jehovah's overshadowing care includes the going out, and the coming in, of His people "from this time forth, and even for evermore," on through the thousand years, to the close of the millennial kingdom. Everything is thought of, and we are thus permitted to have a glimpse into the heart of God for His people, as expressed in the daily and unwearying watchfulness which He exercises over them for their preservation and blessing. It is well to ponder it, and to observe that the foundation of all our security lies in what God is for His people. We need to remember this at all times, for, in the wretched legality of our hearts, if we are not established in grace, we are tempted to think that something depends on ourselves. No! we are wholly cast upon God, upon what He is as revealed in Christ. "But must we not watch and pray, and the like?" Even for the power to watch and pray we are dependent on the Lord, and it is as we realize this, that we repose quietly and peacefully upon Him, that faith is called forth into constant activity; and, consequently, understanding what God is for us, we can exclaim, with the Apostle, "If God be for us, who can be against us? … I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." May our eyes be ever kept upon Him from whom alone cometh our help!