Theme: The Meaning of the Title
In this week’s lessons we look at what it means to be a pilgrim, whose true home is not in this world, but in heaven.
Scripture: Psalm 120:1-7
These fifteen psalms (Psalms 120-134) seem to have been used by pilgrims who were making their way to Jerusalem for the three great annual feasts. Joseph and Mary would have sung these psalms as they made their way to the city with the young Jesus (Luke 2:41), and Jesus would have sung them himself when he went up to Jerusalem with his disciples.
There has been a great deal of debate about what the title of these psalms means. It is because the Hebrew phrase (shir hama’aloth) allows for several interpretations. The first word, shir, means a hymn or song. But the second word, ma’alah (the singular of ma‘aloth) means both a step or stair and, by extension, a “going up.” But “going up” where? Or how? Or when? To complicate matters, the Latin (Vulgate) translation is canticum graduum, that is, “the gradual (or graded) songs.” But what does that mean? Scholars have come up with four explanations.
1. “Steps” (or gradations) within the psalms. This view was put forward nearly two hundred years ago (in 1812) by Gesenius, the author of the great Hebrew dictionary and grammar (with Kautsch and Cowley), and it has been argued since by Franz Delitzsch.1 It says that ma’aloth comes from a pattern within the psalms by which an idea introduced in one verse is picked up and developed in the next verse, and so on, so that there is a steplike or constantly upward moving progression of ideas. A good example is Psalm 121. In that psalm, “help” in verse 1 is picked up and developed in verse 2; “watches over” in verse 3 is picked up in verses 4 and 5; and “harm” in verse 5 reoccurs in verse 7.
There are two problems with this interpretation. First, although this feature is noticeable in some of the psalms, like Psalm 121, it is absent in others. Second, this steplike feature is also found in psalms not in the collection. Thus, as H. C. Leupold writes, “What is regarded as the chief requirement of this interpretation is a bit more conspicuous by its absence than by its presence.”2
2. “Steps” leading up to the sanctuary. This starts with the same meaning for the Hebrew word but regards it as referring to the fifteen steps leading from the courtyard of the women to the courtyard of the men outside the Jerusalem temple. It is because of an observation in the Talmud that the fifteen “songs” correspond to the fifteen steps between these courtyards (Middoth ii. 5; Succa 51b). Some have even supposed that they were sung by the Levites from these steps. All this is pure speculation. There is no evidence that this was ever done, and even the Talmud does not say it was. The Talmud only notes a correspondence in the number fifteen—fifteen songs and fifteen steps—which is a typical way of thinking among the rabbis.
3. The “going up” from Babylon to Israel at the end of the Exile. The strength of this position is that the singular form of ma’aloth was used of the return of the people from Babylon to Israel at the restoration in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. This meaning appears in Ezra 7:9 (translated “journey,” NIV). It is a reasonable way to describe a trip from the lowlands of Babylon to the highlands of Israel, and the “Songs of Ascents” could well have been sung on such a journey. Psalm 126 even refers to the return. The problem with this view is that the word is plural in these titles, “goings up” not “going up.” And that seems to mean that it is referring to repeated trips to Jerusalem and not just to the return from exile.
1See Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), pp. 264-268.
2H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 862.
When were Psalms 120-134 sung?
What are three explanations for the phrase shir hama‘aloth?
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