Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 14, 2013

2013.07.14 Psalm 122 – A Psalm for Pilgrims

Central United Methodist Church

Psalm 122 – A Psalm for Pilgrims

Pastor David L. Haley

July 14th, 2013

Psalm 122


Psalm 122 (Grail Version)

I rejoiced when they said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the LORD.”

And now our feet are standing

within your gates, O Jerusalem.


Jerusalem is built as a city

bonded as one together.

It is there that the tribes go up,

the tribes of the LORD.

For Israel’s witness it is

to praise the name of the LORD.

There were set the thrones for judgment,

the thrones of the house of David.


For the peace of Jerusalem pray,

“May they prosper, those who love you.”

May peace abide in your walls,

and security be in your towers.


For the sake of my family and friends,

let me say, “Peace upon you.”

For the sake of the house of the LORD,

our God, I will seek good things for you.


As I look back upon my life, apart from my family, two of the most significant events were travel-related.  In 1968, when I was a Junior in high school, I went on a church sponsored youth trip to New York and Washington. Apart from our annual vacation to St. Louis to see the St. Louis Cardinals, that was the farthest I’d ever been from Hardin, KY, the small town in West Kentucky where I grew up.  As they say, after you’ve seen the bright lights of the big city, how are you going to keep them down on the farm?

It would be another ten years before I made my first international trip, when I was around 27 years old. One of my best friends from seminary was studying at Cambridge University in Northern Ireland, was going to visit him, and invited me.  I will never forget the excitement I felt as the plane broke through the clouds approaching Heathrow, and for the first time I saw England, the country I had read about for so long. After that, international travel – seeing other places and other cultures – would be one of my favorite things in life.

I tell you this because this week, God willing, I look forward to fulfilling a third lifelong dream, to visit the Holy Land, the place I have envisioned and talked about for so long.  As we approach Tel Aviv, I anticipate perhaps an even greater sense of excitement than I felt on that first trip to England.

In light of this, in our summer of Psalms, today seemed the perfect time to look at those ancient Psalms of anticipation known as the Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120 – 134, a collection of fifteen Psalms within the book of Psalms.

That’s what the superscription of each says, “A Psalm of Ascent.”  As in previous weeks, no one knows exactly what that means, but there are various theories, one rabbinic commentary I read suggested seven:

That they were sung in an ultra-wide stairway that ascended into the inner section of the courtyard, which consisted of 15 steps, on which the Levites would stand and sing these 15 psalms; or that these psalms were sung on an “ascendant” musical note; that these psalms praise, exult, and “elevate” God; or finally, the most popular and widely accepted, that these psalms were sung by Jewish pilgrims when they would “ascend” to Jerusalem to visit the temple there, three times annually as required.

When you read them, these Psalms do seem to reflect the concerns and hopes of everyday life that might occupy the minds of pilgrims: neighborhoods, routines, relatives and friends, successful work and fruitful families, people coexisting in peace.

Indeed, they are some of our favorite Psalms.  Consider Psalm 121 (which I personally use at almost every graveside committal service):

I lift up my eyes to the hills—

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

Or Psalm 126, a Psalm of restored fortune:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;

Or Psalm 127:

Unless the Lord builds the house,

those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.

Psalm 120, known in Latin as De Profundis:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

Or consider our Psalm today: I wonder how many times since it was written has it been used in Jewish and Christian worship:

I was glad when they said to me,

         “Let us go to the house of the Lord.

(Please note, preteens and teens, not I was sad, or I was mad, but I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”)

One week from today, I hope to recite the second verse myself in my own psalm of Ascent, a modern pilgrim:

         “My feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”

Through the centuries, Psalm 122 overflows with joy over Jerusalem – being there, contemplating its significance, praying for its peace.  We understand, because the truth is, even if Jerusalem is not “our” holy city, we understand holy places and sacred spaces, we understand what it it to journey through life as a pilgrim.

Derek Thomas, a pastor in Mississippi, once introduced Psalm 122 to his congregation this way: “Imagine . . . that the only place where you can hear the Word of God being proclaimed, the only place you can fully experience the presence of God, and the only place you can get the assurance that your sins are truly forgiven, is Washington, D.C. Imagine that the only place where you can gather with the Lord’s people and experience worship on a grand scale, as it is meant to be experienced in the holiest place on earth, is in Washington.” Wouldn’t you want to go there, like Muslims go to Mecca or Mormons to Salt Lake City?

To us this may seem strange, but to ancient Jews, it was reality. Jerusalem, and the Temple, was the place where God was revealed, where God was rightly worshiped, where sacrifices were made, and so pilgrimage to Jerusalem was filled with excitement and enthusiasm in anticipation of finally arriving in the Holy City.

For some, their anticipation and excitement was not just for religious reasons.  Because not only was Jerusalem a place of refuge, a place of praise, and a place of prayer, it was a place of justice.  As the Psalm says, “There were set the thrones of judgement, the thrones of the House of David.  (Yes, the original “Game of Thrones.”) Pilgrimage season was a time when conflicts and disputes unsettled in the country courts were brought to the royal officials, like appeal courts today. Why? Because the peace of country and community depended upon justice. Without justice, there can be no peace. Without peace, even justice would be lacking.

Because of this, no wonder pilgrims invoked peace upon Jerusalem.  In Psalm 122, it is as if Jerusalem is a person greeted by each pilgrim with the traditional question of greeeting:  “Is it well (shalom) with you (name)?; much like we might say, “How are you?”  As James Mays puts it, “The peace the pilgrims seek is calm undisturbed by social conflict within and dread of enemies without. It is the well-being that is composed of both well-doing and doing well.”  ((James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation Commentary, p. 393).

Isn’t there a lesson here for all of us? The welfare of government, of church and temple, even of the city is connected to our own.  Whether that city is Jerusalem, or Washington, or Kabul or Baghdad or Chicago, when there is no justice and no peace, when war and strife and violence reigns, all suffer and all life – even our own – is diminished.  Of course it is bad for those who suffer now, but if there peace and justice are diminished anywhere, peace and justice are inevitably diminished everywhere.

And so it was with Jerusalem.  Though a Holy City it may be to three religions, sadly, tragically, there are few cities in the world which have seen less peace, and in whose streets more blood has flowed.

Some four centuries after King David, in 586 BCE the Babylonians would destroy the city, tearing down it’s walls and also David’s line; no king in David’s line would ever again sit on a throne again in Jerusalem.  As a result, he old “songs of Zion” became material for mockery. Even the prophets of Israel said that Jerusalem’s destruction had come about because it was not a place of justice, but had become a city of violence, oppression, and idolatry.

Eventually the city was rebuilt, along with a second Temple, but that would be destroyed again, completely, by the Romans, in 70 CE, the only remnant today being the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. No longer would be presence of God be celebrated in the Temple, but in every Jewish synagogue, every Jewish home.  Even then and even now, at the end of every Passover Seder still comes the words, “Leshana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,”  “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Before the city and the temple were destroyed, one day another pilgrim would come. I cant help but wonder if he did so with great anticipation, singing these same Psalms of Ascent. But as this pilgrim drew near the city, as he came down the Mt. of Olives and saw the holy city spread out before, the Gospels tell us he wept, not with tears of joy but tears of sorrow, also addressing the city like an old friend: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that stones the prophets and kills those sent to it . . . If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Matthew 23: 37 – 37; Luke 19: 41 – 44)

As Christians, we now read and sing Psalm 122 tutored by Jesus’ questions.  How shall we join our prayers with those of these ancient pilgrims? In psalms of praise, and in prayers for peace, not just for Jerusalem, but all cities; but also by asking ourselves Jesus’ question: in church, in home, in life, do we recognize and are we practicing, the things that make for peace? Is the faith we preach and practice a refuge for the oppressed, a place of praise and prayer for seekers, a place which promotes justice and peace for all people?

“For the sake of my family and friends,

let me say, “Peace upon you.”

For the sake of the house of the LORD,

our God, I will seek good things for you.”


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