Tuesday, March 12, 2013
The Great Hallel and Songs of Ascents
The Great Hallel and Songs of Ascents
Psalms 120–137 form the next collection of psalms—in some Jewish traditions called the Great
Hallel (or “Praise”), distinct from the “Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113–118). It should be noted, however,
that the distinction of “Great Hallel” is sometimes applied to only Psalm 136 and in other sources to
Psalms 120–136 (though the desire for Jerusalem while in a foreign land in Psalm 137 fits with other
psalms of this section).
The first part of this grouping is a smaller collection of 15 psalms (120–134), each called in its
superscript title “A Song of Ascents” or “A Song of degrees” (KJV). The meaning of this terminology is a
matter of debate. The Hebrew word translated “ascents” or “degrees” here literally means “goings up.”
Some think this designates a higher musical key or lofty thinking or praise. Yet the same Hebrew word
elsewhere in Scripture designates “steps,” as the word could also be translated, as well as the “degrees” of
a sundial. Some have noted in this regard the use of the definite article in the original Hebrew: shir HAma’aloth,
“song of THE ascents,” “song of THE degrees” or “song of THE steps.”
Most see the meaning as “the ascents,” considering this to refer to “goings up” to the mountain of the
Lord—Jerusalem and its Temple Mount (compare 122:4). It is thought that pilgrims sang these hymns as
they traveled to Jerusalem, the city of highest elevation in the Holy Land, to observe the annual festivals.
(Even today, Jewish immigration to the state of Israel is known as aliyah, “ascent.”) For this reason, the
collection is sometimes designated as the “Pilgrim Songs.” Indeed, there is a thematic progression in
these psalms of leaving the present evil world to join in worship at God’s temple in Zion.
The Mishnah, the Jewish Oral Law, maintains that the psalm titles refer to the steps of the temple
(Middoth 2.5), relating the tradition of these psalms being performed by Levites in the second temple
complex on 15 semicircular steps leading up from an area known as the Court of the Women (as this was
as far as women could go) to the gateway to the court of the Israelites (immediately preceding the
sacrificial area). It is interesting to note particularly the tradition of these songs being played and sung by
Levites during nighttime celebration through the Feast of Tabernacles—as Psalm 134 explicitly mentions
such nighttime temple worship (compare Isaiah 30:29).
Some propose a combination of these two explanations. It could be that these songs were intended
both for pilgrim journey and for performance at the pilgrim feasts—or perhaps they were first used one
way and then for both. It is easy to see how these songs portraying deliverance from this world and
coming to worship in God’s house would fit pilgrimage as well as “reenacted pilgrimage” at the temple
steps—or how festival songs at the temple would become the traveling songs sung on the way to
observing the festivals.
We may also look in a prophetic sense to the future millennial temple described at the end of the
book of Ezekiel. Seven steps will lead up to the gates of the outer court (40:22, 26) and eight steps will
lead from the outer court up to the gates of the inner court (verses 31, 34, 37)—so that a total of 15 steps
will bring one from outside the temple complex to the area of sacrificial worship before the temple.
Then again, some believe the word in the psalm titles should be understood as “degrees,” seeing the
degrees as referring to the only other degrees mentioned in Scripture—those on the sundial of Ahaz.
Recall that Judah’s King Hezekiah prayed that the shadow would go back on the sundial 10 degrees as a
sign that God would heal him and extend his life 15 years (see 2 Kings 20:1-11; Isaiah 38:1-8). Of the 15
psalms in question, only five are attributed—four to David and one to Solomon. That leaves 10 without
attribution. Hezekiah is known to have written psalms, having declared, “We will sing my songs with
stringed instruments all the days of our life, in the house of the LORD” (Isaiah 38:20). Yet his name
appears nowhere in the psalm titles within the book of Psalms. Some have speculated that Hezekiah
composed the 10 unattributed “songs of the degrees” in honor of the sundial shadow going back 10
degrees and grouped them with five psalms of his ancestors, David and Solomon, producing a set of 15 in
honor of his life’s extension of 15 years.
The Good News Bible Reading Program February 2006
This is an interesting idea, but Psalm 126 appears to have been composed after the Jewish exile to
Babylon. It is, however, possible that the psalm was written earlier as prophetic of future return from
captivity, perhaps modeled on Isaiah’s prophecies. And it is plausible that the psalm could have been
written earlier and modified in the postexilic period. In any case, there is nothing that precludes Hezekiah
from having written the other unattributed psalms in this collection. His own circumstance was one of
emerging from personal trial to blessing and fellowship with God and His people—consistent with the
overall theme of these psalms. Consider also that Hezekiah restored the nation’s temple worship after a
period of apostasy, so it would be fitting for him to have put together a set of psalms intended for festival
pilgrimage and worship. Still, this remains a matter of conjecture.
Of course, even if this was the originally intended meaning of “songs of the degrees,” we can see
how they could later have come to be looked upon as “songs of the steps” and “songs of the ascents”—for
not only does the Hebrew allow for these particular meanings, but the themes and wording of a number of
the psalms clearly associate them with worship in Jerusalem.
Besides taking note of the overall themes of these 15 psalms, it is interesting to consider how the
themes are structured within the collection. As one source explains: “There are five groups consisting of
three psalms each. The first of each group has Distress for its subject; the second has Trust in Jehovah;
while the third has Blessing and peace in Zion” (E.W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible, Appendix 67).
As we read through these psalms, which we will refer to as the songs of ascents for the sake of
convention and consistency, we should not restrict their meaning to festival worship. We should also
apply them to our everyday lives as well as to our lifelong Christian journey. In the latter vein, we should
realize that the festivals themselves lay out God’s plan for the redemption and salvation of humanity. In
that sense, we should see going up to the feasts, as pictured in these psalms, as representative not merely
of regular worship but also, in an ultimate sense, of being saved out of this wicked world and going to
dwell with God in His family for eternity to come. http://bible.ucg.org/bible-reading-program/pdf/brp0602.pdf