Psalm 120:1

THE SONG OF DEGREES OR THE GRADUAL PSALMS.

This little psalter within the psalter consists of fifteen brief songs. Why they are grouped together and what is meant by their generic name it would be hard to tell. The conjectures are very mary, but they are mere suppositions. Out of them all the conjecture of Dr. Jebb best commends itself to my own mind, though it would be quite consistent with this suggestion to believe that the series of songs arranged by David became the Pilgrim Psalms of after ages, and were chanted by the Lord's people as they went up to the temple. They are "Songs of the Goings Up;" so some read the word. Those who delight to spiritualize everything find here Ascents of the Soul, or language fitted to describe the rising of the heal t from the deepest grief to the highest delight. I have thought it well to indicate the methods by which learned men have tried to explain the term "Songs of Degrees," but the reader must select his own interpretation. -- C.H.S.

In the thirteenth chapter of the First Book of Chronicles, it is related, that David brought up the Ark from Kirjath-jearim to the house of Obed-edom. The word (hjlc) used in the seventh verse, for "bringing up" the Ark, is of the same etymology with, and cognate to that which is translated "degrees." And upon this occasion the great event was celebrated by the accompaniment of sacred music. "And David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets." Again, in the fifteenth chapter of the same book, in the fourteenth verse, the same term is employed for bringing up the Ark to Jerusalem; and the choral services of the Levites are mentioned in immediate connection. And in the fifth chapter of the Second Book of Chronicles (fifth verse), we are told that Solomon assembled the people at the dedication of the Temple, to bring up the Ark from Sion to the Temple of the Lord. --John Jebb.

I abide in the simple and plain sense as much as I may, and judge that these psalms are called The Psalms of Degrees because the Levites or priests were wont to sing them upon the stairs or some high place; even as with us he that begins the Psalms or preacheth, standeth in a place above the rest, that he may be the better seen and heard: For it seemeth not that these psalms were sung of the multitude which were in the Temple, or of the rest of the choir, but of certain which were appointed to sing them, or at least to begin them on the stairs to the rest, and so have their name; like as some other of the Psalms have their name and title from the singer. But how should a man know all their rites and ceremonies, especially after so long a time, whereby they are now clean worn out of the memory of all men? Seeing therefore among such a multitude of psalms, when the law was yet in his full force and power, some were wont to be sung with one manner of ceremony, and some with another, according to the time and place, as the use and custom then was, let this suffice us to think that this title pertaineth to no point of doctrine, but only to the ceremony of the singers, what manner of ceremony soever it was.

--Martin Luther, in "A Commentarie upon the Psalmes of Degrees," 1577.

There were fifteen steps by which the priests ascended into the Temple, on each of which they sang one of these fifteen psalms.

--David Kimchi.

Whatever view of the Songs of Degrees you may take besides, you cannot leave out some association of them with the steps, without ignoring the unanimous belief about them handed down from time immemorial amongst the people who gave them to us; without, in fact, implying that at some epoch or other this strange association of the steps with the psalms was gratuitously invented, and, being invented, secured general acceptance in the sacred literature of the Hebrew nation. It is quite impossible to believe such a thing, when we are dealing with a people so jealous of precedent and authority in religion as the Hebrews have always been. I see, in fact, no sufficient; reason why we should not follow the leading of the Mischna and feel that Songs of Degrees, Songs of the Steps, is as much as to say Songs in the sacred Orchestra.

--H.T. Armyqeld, in "The Gradual Psalms," 1874.

The great Carmelite expositor, Michael Ayguan, alleges that the fifteen psalms were divided by the Jews into three portions of five, with prayers intercalated, much as the Gregorian division of matins into three nocturns; and that each of the three grades of advance in the spiritual life is betokened by each quinary; the beginners, the progressors, and the perfect; or, in other terms, those who are severally in the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive way. And thus it will be noticed that in Psalms 120-124, there is constant reference to trouble and danger; in 125-129 to confidence in God; in 130-134, to direct communion with him in his house. And Genebrardus, a later commentator, defines the fifteen degrees of going up out of the valley of weeping to the presence of God to be

  1. affliction,
  2. looking to God,
  3. joy in communion,
  4. invocation,
  5. thanksgiving,
  6. confidence,
  7. patient waiting for deliverance,
  8. God's grace and favour,
  9. fear of the Lord, (1
  10. martyrdom, (1
  11. hatred of sins, (1
  12. humility, (1
  13. desire for the coming of Christ, (1
  14. concord and charity, (1
  15. constant blessing of God. -- Neale and Littledale.

No trace in history, or authentic tradition, can be found of these steps, which owe their construction solely to the accommodating fancy of the Rabbins, who, as usual, imagined facts, in order to support their preconceived theories.

--John Jebb.

It is an additional objection to this Rabbinical conceit, that David, whose name several of these psalms bear -- and others of which have evident reference to his time and circumstances -- lived in the time of the tabernacle which had no steps.

--James Anderson's Note to Calvin in loc.

In the version of Theodotian, executed in the early part of the second century, with the express view of correcting the errors of the Septuagint, as well as in the translations by Aquila and by Symmachus, these psalms are rightly described as songs for the journeys up, and are thus at once referred to the stated pilgrimages to the Temple. The expressions, "Thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year" ( Exodus 39:24 ), "If this people go up to do sacrifice" ( 1 Kings 3:27 ) -- a form of expression constantly employed as often as these sacred journeys are mentioned -- is precisely that which the psalms themselves exhibit: "I was glad when it was said unto me, Go up unto the house of the Lord"; and while we may well adopt this view, for the additional reason that it is in harmony with the whole spirit and sentiment which they breathe throughout, we shall find these psalms to form at the same time one of the most admirable and instructive manuals of devotion with which the love of our heavenly Father, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, has been pleased to bless us.

--Robert Nisbet, in "The Songs of the Temple Pilgrims," 1863.

If the traditionary interpretation of the title, Song of Degrees, be accepted, that they were sung by devout pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to keep the great feasts of the Lord, we may suppose that companies toiling up this long ascent would relieve the tedium of the way by chanting some of them.

From the customs of Orientals still prevalent, I think it highly probable that such an explanation of the title may be substantially correct. Nothing is more common than to hear individuals and parties of natives, travelling together through the open country and along mountain paths, especially during the night, break out into singing some of their favourite songs. Once, descending from the top of Sunnin, above Beirut, with a large company of natives, they spontaneously began to sing in concert. The moon was shining brightly in the clear sky, and they kept up their chanting for a long time. I shall not soon forget the impression made by that moonlight concert, as we wound our way down the eastern side of Lebanon to the Buka'a, on the way to Ba'albek. Through the still midnight air of that lofty region the rough edge of their stentorian voices, softened into melody, rang out full and strong, waking the sleeping echoes far and wide down the rocky defiles of the mountain. Something like this may have often rendered vocal this dreary ascent to Jerusalem. It is common in this country to travel in the night during the summer, and we know that the Hebrew pilgrims journeyed in large companies. On his ascent along this road from Jericho to the Holy City, Jesus was attended not only by the twelve apostles, but by others, both men and women; and it would be strange indeed if sometimes they did not seek relief from this oppressive solitude by singing the beautiful songs of Zion. -- William M. Thomson, in "The Land and the Book," 1881.

When we consider the place in the psalter which these "Songs of Degrees, or of the goings up" occupy, we see good reason to accept the statement (of the Syriac version, and of S. Chrysostom, Theodoret, Euthymius, and other Fathers, and also of Symmachus, Aquila, and of Hammond, Ewald, and many moderns), that these psalms describe the feelings of those Israelites who went up with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and afterwards with Ezra, and still later with Nehemiah, from the land of their captivity and dispersion at Babylon, Susa, and other regions of the East, to the home of their fathers, Jerusalem. Hence, in some of the foregoing psalms, we have seen a reference to the dedication of the Second Temple, Psalm 118, and of the walls of Jerusalem Psalm 102, and to the building up of the nation itself on the old foundation of the law of God, given to their fathers at Sinai Psalm 119. --Christopher Wordsworth.

Gesenius has the merit of having first discerned the true meaning of the questioned inscription, inasmuch as first in 1812, and frequently since that time, he has taught that the fifteen songs have their name from the step like progressive rhythm of their thoughts, and that consequently the name, like the triolet (roundelay) in Western poetry, does not refer to the liturgical usage, but to the technical structure. The correctness of this view has been duly appraised more particularly by De Wette, who adduces this rhythm of steps or degrees, too, among the more artificial rhythms. The songs are called Songs of Degrees or Gradual Psalms as being songs that move onward towards a climax, and that by, means of plokh (epiplokh), i.e., a taking up again of the immediately preceding word by way of giving intensity to the expression; and they are placed together on account of this common characteristic, just like the Miehtammim, which bear that name from a similar characteristic. --Franz Delitzsch.

"Go up, go up, my soul!" must be the motto of one who would enter into the meaning of these psalms. They are a Jacob's ladder whose foot is fixed on the earth, but the top reaches up to the "heavenly Jerusalem."

The rhythmical structure of these psalms (in which one line is built up upon another stair wise) is a suitable outward accompaniment of the interior character of the psalms. Short, pointed lines fall in well with the flow of mystico allegorical thought: -- as in "Nearer, my God, to thee," or, "Jerusalem; the golden." --William Kay.

We may notice the following characteristics of nearly all these psalms: sweetness and tenderness; a sad pathetic tone; brevity; an absence generally of the ordinary parallelism; and something of a quick, trochaic rhythm. --"The Speaker's Commentary."

Though it may be they are so called because of their excellency; a song of degrees being an excellent song, as an excellent man is called a man of high degree ( 1 Chronicles 17:17 ); these being excellent ones for the matter of them, their manner of composure, and the brevity of them. --John Gill.

This being a matter of small moment, I am not disposed to make it the subject of elaborate investigation; but the probable conjecture is, that this title was given to these psalms because they were sung on a higher key than others. The Hebrew word for degrees being derived from the word, hlc tsalah, to ascend, or go up, I agree with those who are of opinion that it denotes the different musical notes rising in succession. --John Calvin.

Hezekiah liveth, these fifteen years, in safety and prosperity, having humbled himself before the Lord for his pride to the ambassadors of Babel. The degrees of the sun's reversing, and the fifteen years of Hezekiah's life prolonging, may call to our minds the fifteen Psalms of Degrees; viz. from Psalm 120 and forward. There were Hezekiah's songs that were sung to the stringed instruments in the house of the Lord ( Isaiah 38:20 ): whether these were picked out by him for that purpose may be left to conjecture. -- John Lightfoot, 1602--1675.

 

WORKS WRITTEN ABOUT PSALMS 120-134, COMMONLY CALLED THE PSALMS OF DEGREES. IN SPURGEON'S DAY

A Commentarie upon the Fifteene Psalmes, called "Psalmi traduum", that is, Psalmes of Degrees: Faithfully copied out of the Lectvres of D. Martin Luther, very fruitful and comfortable for all Christian afflicted consciences to reade. Translated out of Latine into English by HENRY BVI, L. London....1577. Quarto, Black Letter. Preface by John Fox, the Martyrologist. Another edition, 1615. Also 8vo., Lewes: 1823; and London: 1819.]

THE ASCENTS OF THE SOUL: OR, DAVID'S Mount Towards GOD'S House. Being Paraphrases on the Fifteen Psalms of Degrees. Written in Italian, By the Illustrious GEO. FRANCESCO LOREDANO, a Noble Venetian, 1656. Rendered in English, Anno Domi 1665. By Henry Hare, Lord Coleraine. London...1681. Small folio.

La Scala Santa: or, A Scale of Devotions, Musical and Gradual. Being Descants on the Fifteen Psalms of Degrees, in Metre; with Contemplations and Collects upon them, in Prose, 1670. By Henry Hare, Lord Coleraine. London...1681. Small folio.

The Pilgrim Psalms: an Exposition of the Songs of Degrees. Psalms 120-134. By the Rev. N. M'MICHAEL, D.D., Dunfermline... Edinburgh and London: 1860. Cr. 8vo.

The Songs of the Temple Pilgrims. An Exposition, Devotional and Practical, of the Psalms of Degrees. By ROBERT NISBET, D.D., Edinburgh. London: 1863. {12mo.]

The Gradual Psalms: a Treatise on the Fifteen Songs of Degrees, with Commentary, based on Ancient Hebrew, Chaldee, and Christian Authorities. By Rev. H. T. ARMFIELD, M.A., F.S.A. London; 1874. Cr. 8vo.]

The Pilgrim Psalms. An Exposition of the Songs of Degrees. By the Rev. SAMUEL COX. London: 1874. Cr. 8vo. In "The Golden Diary of Heart Converse with Jesus in the Book of Psalms"...By ALFRED EDERCHEIM, D.D., Ph.D., London, 1877, there are Expositions of Psalms 121, 124, 127, and 133.

The Caravan and the Temple, and Songs of the Pilgrims. Psalms 120-134. By EDWARD JEWITT ROBINSON. London... 1878.

PSALM 120 OVERVIEW.

Suddenly we have left the continent of the vast Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm for the islands and islets of the Songs of Degrees. It may be well to engage in protracted devotion upon a special occasion, but this must cast no slur upon the sacred brevities which sanctify the godly life day by day. He who inspired the longest psalm was equally the author of the short compositions which follow it.

Title. -- A SONG OF DEGREES. -- We have already devoted a sufficient space to the consideration of this title in its application to this psalm and the fourteen compositions which succeed it. These appear to us to be Pilgrim Psalms, but we are not sure that they were always sung in company; for many of them are in the first person singular. No doubt there were solitary pilgrims as well as troops who went to the house of God in company, and for these lonely ones hymns were prepared.

Subject. -- A certain author supposes that this hymn was sung by an Israelite upon leaving his house to go up to Jerusalem. He thinks that the good man had suffered from the slander of his neighbours, and was glad to get away from their gossip, and spend his time in the happier engagements of the holy feasts. It may be so, but we hope that pious people were not so foolish as to sing about their bad neighbours when they were leaving them, for a few days. If they wished to leave their houses in safety, and to come home to kind surroundings, it would have been the height of folly to provoke those whom they were leaving behind by singing aloud a psalm of complaint against them. We do not know why this ode is placed first among the Psalms of Degrees, and we had rather hazard no conjecture of our own. We prefer the old summary of the translators -- "David prayeth against Doeg" -- to any far fetched supposition: and if this be the scope of the psalm, we see at once why it suggested itself to David at the station where the ark abode, and from which he had come to remove it. He came to fetch away the ark, and at the place where he found it he thought of Doeg, and poured out his complaint concerning him. The author had been grievously calumniated, and had been tortured into bitterness by the false charges of his persecutors, and here is his appeal to the great Arbiter of right and wrong before whose judgment seal no man shall suffer from slanderous tongues.

 

EXPOSITION

Verse 1. In my distress. Slander occasions distress of the most grievous kind. Those who have felt the edge of a cruel tongue know assuredly that it is sharper than the sword. Calumny rouses our indignation by a sense of injustice, and yet we find ourselves helpless to fight with the evil, or to act in our own defence. We could ward off the strokes of a cutlass, but we have no shield against a liar's tongue. We do not know who was the father of the falsehood, nor where it was born, nor where it has gone, nor how to follow it, nor how to stay its withering influence. We are perplexed, and know not which way to turn. Like the plague of flies in Egypt, it baffles opposition, and few can stand before it. Detraction touches us in the most tender point, cuts to the quick, and leaves a venom behind which it is difficult to extract. In all ways it is a sore distress to come under the power of "slander, the foulest whelp of sin." Even in such distress we need not hesitate to cry unto the Lord. Silence to man and prayer to God are the best cures for the evil of slander.

I cried unto the LORD (or Jehovah). The wisest course that he could follow. It is of little use to appeal to our fellows on the matter of slander, for the more we stir in it the more it spreads; it is of no avail to appeal to the honour of the slanderers, for they have none, and the most piteous demands for justice will only increase their malignity and encourage them to fresh insult. As well plead with panthers and wolves as with black hearted traducers. However, when cries to man would be our weakness, cries to God will be our strength. To whom should children cry but to their father? Does not some good come even out of that vile thing, falsehood, when it drives us to our knees and to our God? "And he heard me". Yes, Jehovah hears. He is the living God, and hence prayer to him is reasonable and profitable. The Psalmist remembered and recorded this instance of prayer hearing, for it had evidently much affected him; and now he rehearses it for the glory of God and the good of his brethren. "The righteous cry and the Lord heareth them". The ear of our God is not deaf, nor even heavy. He listens attentively, he catches the first accent of supplication; he makes each of his children confess, -- "he heard me". When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness: he will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie.

If these psalms were sung at the ascent of the ark to Mount Zion, and then afterwards by the pilgrims to Jerusalem at the annual festivals and at the return from Babylon, we shall find in the life of David a reason for this being made the first of them. Did not this servant of God meet with Doeg the Edomite when he enquired of the oracle by Abiathar, and did not that wretched creature believe him and betray him to Saul? This made a very painful and permanent impression upon David's memory, and therefore in commencing the ark journey he poured out his lament before the Lord, concerning the great and monstrous wrong of "that dog of a Doeg", as Trapp wittily calls him. The poet, like the preacher, may find it to his advantage to "begin low," for then he has the more room to rise: the next Psalm is a full octave above the present mournful hymn. Whenever we are abused it may console us to see that we are not alone in our misery we are traversing a road upon which David left his footprints.

 

EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS

Title. -- "A Song of Degrees". A most excellent song, Tremellius rendereth it; and so indeed this and the fourteen following are, both for the matter, and for the form or manner of expression, which is wondrous short and sweet, as the very epigrams of the Holy Ghost himself, wherein each verse may well stand for an oracle. And in this sense, "adam hammahalah", or, a man of degrees, is put for an eminent or excellent man: 1 Chronicles 17:17 . Others understand it otherwise; wherein they have good leave to abound in their own sense; an error here is not dangerous. --John Trapp.

Whole Psalm. -- In the interpretation of these psalms, which sees in them the "degrees" of Christian virtues, this psalm aptly describes the first of such steps -- the renunciation of the evil and vanity of the world. It thus divides itself into two parts.

  1. The Psalmist, in the person of one beginning the grades of virtue, finds many opponents in the shape of slanderers and ill advisers.
  2. He laments the admixture of evil -- "Woe is me". --H.T. Armfield.

Whole Psalm. -- It is a painful but useful lesson which is taught by this first of the Pilgrim Psalms, that all who manifest a resolution to obey the commands and seek the favour of God, may expect to encounter opposition and reproach in such a course... This these worshippers of old found when preparing to seek the Lord in his Temple. They were watched in their preparation by malignant eyes; they were followed to the house of prayer by the contempt and insinuations of bitter tongues. But their refuge is in him they worship; and, firmly convinced that he never can forsake his servants, they look up through the cloud of obloquy to his throne, and implore the succour which they know that his children shall ever find there. "O Lord, in this my trouble deliver my soul". -- Robert Nisbet.

Whole Psalm. -- The pilgrims were leaving home; and lying lips commonly attack the absent. They were about to join the pilgrim caravan; and in the excitements of social intercourse their own lips might easily deviate from truth. The psalm, moreover, breathes an intense longing for peace; and in this world of strife and confusion, when is that longing inappropriate? Is it any marvel that a Hebrew, with a deep spiritual longing for peace, should cry as he started for the Temple, "Let me get out of all that, at least for a time. Let me be quit of this fever and strain, free from the vain turbulence and conflicting noises of the world. Let me rest and recreate myself a while in the sacred asylum and sanctuary of the God of peace. God of peace, grant me thy peace as I worship in thy presence; and let me find a bettered world when I come back to it, or at least bring a bettered and more patient heart to its duties and strifes". --Samuel Cox.

Verse 1. -- In my distress I cried unto the Lord, etc. See the wondrous advantage of trouble, -- that it makes us call upon God; and again see the wondrous readiness of mercy, that when we call he heareth us! Very blessed are they that mourn while they are travelling the long upward journey from the Galilee of the Gentiles of this lower world to the heavenly Jerusalem, the high and holy city of the saints of God. --J.W. Burgon, in "A Plain Commentary".

Verse 1. -- In my distress. God's help is seasonable; it comes when we need it. Christ is a seasonable good... For the soul to be dark, and for Christ to enlighten it; for the soul to be dead, and Christ to enliven it; for the soul to be doubting, and for Christ to resolve it; and for the soul to be distressed, and for Christ to relieve it; is not this in season? For a soul to be hard, and for Christ to soften it; for a soul to be haughty, and for Christ to humble it; for a soul to be tempted, and for Christ to succour it; and for a soul to be wounded, and for Christ to heal it? Is not this in season? --R. Mayhew, 1679.

Verse 1. -- Cried. Heard. The verbs are in the past tense, but do not refer merely to a past occasion. Past experience and present are here combined. From the past he draws encouragement for the present. --J.J. Stewart Perowne.

Verse 1. -- And he heard me. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much: James 5:16 ; Zechariah 13:9 . He that prayeth ardently, speeds assuredly ( Psalms 91:15 ); and the delayed return of prayer should be carefully observed and thankfully improved: Psalms 66:20 . --John Trapp.

 

HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS

Verse 1. -- A reminiscence.

  1. It is threefold; distress, prayer, deliverance.
  2. It has a threefold bearing: it excites my hope, stimulates my petitions, and arouses my gratitude.

Verse 1. --

  1. Special trouble: "In my distress."
  2. Special prayer: "I cried unto the Lord."
  3. Special favour: "He heard me." --G.R.