A Vital Introduction
Our world whirls and spins without thinking. On hyperdrive, society cruises ahead at breakneck speed. We move fast to get what we want fast. Like Veruca Salt, we want it, and we want it now! Gone are the days of slowness, the days when the journey was just as beautiful as the destination. We often think any shortcut worth taking, that the quickest route is the best route.
We dream of lottery wins -- financial security for which we did not struggle. We want romantic magic -- relationships which click without effort or sacrifice. We crave overnight success -- for the first invention to be the multi-million dollar winner. The world speeds along in this line of thinking. A little more, a little better, a little faster -- and then, surely, happiness will come. But this is a mirage. There is no truth in it. Sure, there are pockets of slow, Sabbath-like life around us, but for many of us the world is buzzing.
Amid the noise, however, some have found a subversively different brand of life. A small remnant has seen a beautiful and contradictory way forward. This new way is an old one and is a paradox to the imaginations of the societies and cultures which dominate people's thinking. It is the life of pilgrimage. It is the life of faith, a life set apart for God, devoted to Him, playing by His new, yet ancient, rules. Eons ago, He designed these dictates so that we might flourish. We are wired to succeed when submitting to them.
The life He's designed is the good life, the best life possible while still in this broken and fallen world. It might be slow. It might be different. It might be a process. But it is good, so very good.
The Need For Pilgrimage
This good life is pictured for us in Psalm 120-134, ancient Israel’s Songs of Ascents. Also known as the Songs of Steps or Degrees, these songs describe the attitudes needed to endure the thrice-annual climb to Jerusalem for the worship of God. The Hebrews who sang these lyrics and knew these melodies had decided to follow God and His counterintuitive processes for their lives. Much of what they did would make no human sense, but God involved Himself in their lives and proved that pilgrimage works because He works.
God had asked Israel to come to the temple three times each year for worship. First, they would go to Jerusalem for the Passover, a feast designed to commemorate the great exodus from Egypt. Then, fifty days later, they were to go to Jerusalem again for the Feast of Firstfruits, devised to recognize God’s provision for them when He brought them into Canaan. Finally, each fall, they would celebrate the Feast of Booths, intended to celebrate the faithfulness of God during Israel's wilderness wandering between Egypt and Canaan. Three times each year the people would ascend to Jerusalem and remember His past faithfulness in their lives.
God’s ways with humankind have progressed since those days, and the church has something fuller and richer today, but those days are still highly instructive for the modern church. Each feast was rich with imagery, but it is the act of climbing to Jerusalem that will capture our attention in this book. By going up, a Hebrew man or woman was making a statement about their lives. They were declaring their devotion to God, their willingness to follow Him with their lives.
To climb to Jerusalem thrice annually was a way for them to put God at the center of their lives. Surrounded by other Israelites who might say God held first place -- "our top priority" -- these pilgrims lived as if God were first. The temptation to avoid pilgrimage must have been strong, for leaving your home and hometown unprotected at predictable intervals every year would have been a scary thought. All that time off from working the land would have also been a tough sell. For their fears, the pilgrims had a promise from God -- “For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year” (Exodus 34:24). The sojourners had a guarantee that God would care for them during, if not because of, their pilgrimage. So these annual ventures to God’s house stood as a way for Israelites to put God at the center of their lives, to prioritize Him.
To climb to Jerusalem thrice annually was a way for them to battle for holiness. Peter tells the church to “as sojourners and exiles, abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). It seems the sojourning mindset is one which helps in the ongoing battle for holiness in an individual believers life. Ancient Israelites understood this reality. Every believer must make the personal decision to pursue holiness, and the life of pilgrimage is required to get there. One cannot go on living just like the modern age and expect holiness to result. We must be conformed to the image of Christ. This takes, as we shall observe, steps, a process, a pursuit.
To climb to Jerusalem thrice annually was a way for them to adopt the unconventional life of faith. As mentioned earlier, to go to Jerusalem might have grated against their senses. To leave families or lands behind could have been seen as dangerous or foolish. But what seems dangerous or foolish is quite often the life of faith. Of the great figures of faith in Hebrews 11, we learn, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). There is a different way of living life, a method neglected by the flow of this age, and it is the life of the pilgrim, the sojourner, the exile. It is a life of faith.
The Need For Pilgrim Songs
To aid them on their climbs to Jerusalem, the Hebrew people had songs. Found in Psalm 120-134, each song is unique, filled with a different theme or philosophy required to take additional steps. The lyrics of these songs can produce the same hope for the church today. These ancient philosophies and melodies can help us in our contemporary climb. In short, we need these old songs to become our songs.
These Songs of Ascents are a life source to the modern believer. We too are pilgrims, sojourners, looking for permanency. We too are living a sort of exile -- temporary residents in a strange world, far from our home in God. As Israel sang, the lyrics became their own. And as we learn to sing these songs, these songs will sing to us. Their lyrics will invade our brain space and rewire the synapses therein.
We will stand strengthened for the fight, for these Psalms affirm us in our pursuit of life with God at the center. The lyrics will embolden us against the struggle with evil and affirm us in our battle for holiness. Each line will strengthen us against the urges of the flesh. These Psalms will embolden us in our conviction to live the unconventional life of faith. The lyrics will solidify us to walk by faith and not by sight.
Each song is essential to the whole, individual pillars securing the strength of the building. When the theme found in each song permeates our hearts and minds, we become bolstered for our journey to God, and we become better exiles.
I wrote this book on the Psalms of Ascents because I believe they hold powerful lessons for modern life. I have often moved too quickly and wanted it all right now. However, my best moments and seasons have come when I have adopted God’s pace, His rhythm. I believe the days in front of modern believers are brimming with potential. We have a glorious opportunity, but it is one we will squander if we do not live a pilgrim life. We are called to come out of the world system, separated unto God. We must. We cannot afford to operate precisely as our society does. We cannot leave our world, nor should we necessarily want to, but we also cannot be absorbed by our world. We must, as the saying goes, “be in the world yet not of it.” We need a different set of rules. This is where the pilgrim life and the pilgrim songs enter in.
To adopt this brand of life is to choose the best life, but there is nothing quick or speedy about it. It takes an ascent of steps, degree after degree of vertical climb. But it is the best climb, the most glorious destination, the holiest of hills. To live this life leads to friendship with God, and your best you. Let’s explore the songs, the themes, which accompany such a noble journey.
I believe the beauty and themes in the Songs of Ascents illustrate for us today’s life of pilgrimage in a powerful way. As you study each song I hope you will be able to -- more and more -- sing each song, for each one is powerful for pilgrimage. Each one builds upon the other. Each one gives us a guide -- a guide for the climb.