Rules Aren’t Enough (No Matter What You Call Them) – Psalms of Ascent #2

Fellow travelers,

Last week I introduced a weekly series on the “Psalms of Ascent”, grouped together from 120-134 and used as a liturgy for pilgrims going to Jerusalem for annual festivals.  Before jumping into Psalm 120 next week, today we consider what it might mean that Psalm 119 precedes it.  Was this order intentional (as the grouping of Psalms 120-134 was) and for what reason?

Laws, Precepts, Statutes, Rules, and More
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, with 22 sections, or stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In it, the Psalmist poetically praises God’s moral law, using 8 different words to describe it, and including at least 6 of these in every stanza.[1]  It seems repetitive, but by approaching it from so many angles, the Psalmist is saying “no matter how you look at it, everyone is better off if they know and follow this law.”  For example, verse 105 – “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” – says that not knowing the law is like walking in darkness, but that following the law keeps you on the right path.  Verse 98 – “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me” says the law is a reliable source of wisdom, and better than the rules of God’s enemies.  There are many such examples in the 176 verses.

But, while declaring that following the right moral law is good for us, Psalm 119 also declares that none keep it regularly.  The Psalmist says “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” in verse 136, and also that “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” in verse 176.  God’s word may be a lamp to our feet, but our feet go elsewhere anyway.  Therefore, we mourn sin – that of us and that of others – because we are all guilty and we all suffer the consequences[2].  We take no joy in other’s misfortune because we are not immune.  Any moral law – including a perfect one from God – always shows us how far short we fall.  Rules cannot make us perfect; they can only define perfection.

Christ Crucified
Therefore, there is another part of God’s law – the ceremonial law – which is never mentioned in Psalm 119 unless you want to include the “freewill offerings of praise” mentioned in verse 108.  The Psalms of Ascent follow a Psalm praising God’s moral law because, although His law is good, it is not enough.  Only by going to the temple regularly could God’s people see what sacrifices God prescribed to compensate for their failures and satisfy His justice.  While these ceremonial sacrifices were insufficient, they always pointed forward to the ultimate, perfect sacrifice of Christ which would fully cover our sin, empower us to grow in obedience to His good moral law over time, but also make the temple sacrifices irrelevant and unnecessary from that time forward.

To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation.  As these Psalms provided instruction on what Israelites should have been thinking about along the way to the temple in Jerusalem, we can benefit from them also as we travel to congregate with other sinners seeking our only hope together.  God’s people didn’t just arrive in Jerusalem and become magically transformed by ceremonies.  The Psalms of Ascent encouraged them to prepare and participate.

This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here.

[1] As noted in the Reformation Study Bible.
[2] See this blog’s series on “Blessed are those who mourn,” which starts here.

Worship Does Not Come Naturally: Intro to the “Psalms of Ascent”

Today begins a weekly, Sunday-only series on the “Psalms of Ascent.”  But what are they and why write about them?

Each Psalm from 120 to 134 is titled as a “Psalm of Ascent,” referring to pilgrimages to the three annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths, where every male (often bringing their extended families) was required to “ascend” up to Jerusalem.  Together, these Psalms form a type of hymnal or liturgy that these groups could sing or recite on their way to these festivals from the sometimes-distant areas where they lived.

These were reminders that their well-being depended on God’s blessing, that even though they were living in the “Promised Land” they were still pilgrims in this world, and that in spite of affliction and persecution they could rely on God to deliver them, if they worshiped Him faithfully.

Driving Toward Morning is a place to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2), and also about encouragement “to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).  Local churches are the ideal place to do the same and discussing these Psalms here will hopefully prepare pilgrims everywhere for their weekly (and daily) worship and fellowship.

Just like the travelers in ancient Judah and Israel, who could not just show up at the temple in Jerusalem and expect God to magically transform them, the church today does not benefit from merely physically showing up to church.  The three annual pilgrimages were time-consuming, costly, and deliberate.  They provide us a model for intentional preparation for group worship.

In the words of early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car”

This post is the beginning of a series on the Psalms of Ascent. The next post in the series can be found here.

Announcement: New Sunday Series on the “Psalms of Ascent”

Prodded by a couple of different sources, I’ve decided to create a Sunday-only series on the “Psalms of Ascent”.  This refers to Psalms 120-134, which were sung or recited by Jews while journeying to the Temple for annual festivals.  There are 15 of them, but there will be more than 15 posts as I want to limit each one to only one idea.

In a modern context, I see these Psalms as a call to prepare for worship, to rejoice in the Sabbath, and to answer a call to serve God’s church on earth.  Regular church attendance has sometimes been a struggle for me and my family, and there are many out there who have been hurt by the organized church and therefore Sundays can be a painful reminder.  This pain was real even to King David, who in Psalm 133:1 wrote: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” while his own children warred among themselves.  God calls us to gather anyway.

But don’t worry, I’m not abandoning Monday-Saturday.  The Beatitudes series will continue, along with some other ideas.  However, I found out that many things I’ve had on my list to write about are in this series of Psalms.

I pray that this series will encourage myself and others to approach Sunday worship not as a box to check, but as a joyful sacrifice to the God who loves us and as a way to connect with His family.