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Reflections on the Psalms of Ascent

by | Jul 3, 2014 | Blog, Redemption, Worship

A guest post by Joy LaPrade…

Exodus Blog

Having grown up in Christian circles, I’ve heard many prayer requests for “traveling mercies” over the years. I think the Psalms of Ascent fit in this category too. More than just music for the road, they are prayers that helped sustain the Israelites along the way to Jerusalem.

But even though they fit in the same category, their prayers don’t sound quite the same as ours.

As the Israelites hiked long dusty miles through the mountains, they prayed about the dangers they faced in the heat of day and dark of night (Psalm 121:5-6), and called out “have mercy upon us, O Lord” (Psalm 123:4).

We ask for safety on the journey, then buckle our seatbelts, turn the key in the ignition and speed to our destination in air-conditioned comfort. If I pray before I leave, chances are I’ll forget to say thank you when I arrive.

And of course, I reserve my prayers for long journeys or flights overseas, not a run to the grocery store. In his book A Praying Life, Paul Miller explains this: “If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need.”

I might never say those words, but I live that way. There’s a disconnect between my prayer life and what I know to be true.

Reading the Psalms of Ascent, it seems the Israelites didn’t have this problem. Their road trip prayers were songs of dependence, describing the people’s need and God’s sovereign power. He is the creator and sovereign king enthroned in the heavens; they are calling out for mercy and in need of rescue, as fragile and helpless as birds (Psalm 124:7).

That’s the truth of my life too, but it’s so easy to forget. Is the solution to pray every time I get in the car, or perhaps strap the kids on my back and walk to Aldi instead, so I truly feel dependent and weak?

I don’t think so. Rather, the more I study the Psalms of Ascent, I see these prayers can help ground me in the truth.

Psalm 124 is a song about being delivered from certain death. Its images of enemy armies and floods could refer to the Red Sea crossing or battles against the Philistines. As the people sang, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,” they could think of specific events in Israel’s history.

The Israelites had seen God intervene miraculously on their behalf, and I imagine they sang with wonder and awe at His provision. I live a relatively safe, comfortable life compared to theirs, but I too can sing this song with the same kind of delight it was intended to convey.

If it had not been Christ who was on my side, I would have been swept away by the waters of God’s wrath. The fact I am trusting in Christ today is just as startling and miraculous as the bird’s escape from the snare. Despite modern medicine and technology, I live in helplessness each day. I am dependent not only for breath, but my moment-by-moment faith, on “the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8).

As easy as it is for us to forget our dependence and God’s goodness, it was something the Israelites struggled with too.

In good times, they rested in their own strength. In times of suffering, they doubted God’s character. But in these Psalms, they were able to rehearse great truths. They had been lost and near death, but God delivered them in ways they could never have imagined.

From our side of the cross, these Psalms take on even greater depth. As we remember our sin and complete inability to stand before God, our salvation should shock us, as something we can hardly believe to be true (Psalm 126:1).

And the more we reflect on the astonishing nature of our deliverance, the more we can sing with overflowing joy and delight, so that the nations will say “The Lord has done great things for them” (Psalm 126:2)!

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