Scripture Notes

Notes on This Week’s Scripture Reading, April 22: Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is the seventh in a series of fifteen psalms that begin with the superscription הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת שִׁ֗יר (pronounced šîr ham·ma·‘ă·lō·wṯ). The phrase is most often translated “a song of ascents” though a few translations render it “a song of degrees.” The exact meaning of the phrase is elusive and various meanings have been proposed, but most scholars believe that “ascents,” as used here, refers to pilgrimages up to Jerusalem. In support of this view, Robert Alter points out that the Hebrew verb meaning “ascend” or “go up” is “the technical term used for pilgrimage.” Walter Brueggemann, adopting a like view, posits that these songs were at one time “pilgrim songs initially sung by those in religious procession on their way to the temple.” A few modern English bibles capture this understanding of the songs of ascents by rendering the superscription “a pilgrim song” (The Message), “a song for going up to worship” (New Century Version), or “a song for going up to the Temple” (Easy to Read Version). Brueggemann goes on to say that many of the songs “bear the residue of actual liturgical practice.” Evidence of the role the songs played during worship in ancient Jerusalem is found in the Mishnah Sukkah, a tract that deals with laws and practices relating to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. According to the Mishnah, during Sukkot the Levites would stand on “the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to ‘The Fifteen Songs of Ascent’ in the Psalms,” and they would play “musical instruments and sing hymns.”

According to Marc Zvi Brettler, Psalm 126, like the other songs of ascents, speaks of the (much hoped-for) return to Jerusalem of the Babylonian exiles and the (even more hoped-for) restoration of the community in Judah. It is not clear whether the psalmist regards the start of the return as a past event (as in the NRSV) or as a future event (as in the Jewish Study Bible), but, either way, it is seen as a cause for laughter, joy, and singing. Like the author of the book of Joel (2:20, 21), the psalmist tells the exiles to “rejoice” because of the “great things” that “the Lord has done” (or “will do”) for them. As the psalmist’s petition in verse four indicates, the restoration of the community’s fortunes has yet to take place, but when it does it will be “like the watercourses in the Negeb”: that is, like riverbeds in the desert that are empty of water except as a result of sudden and heavy rain. “It is an apt image,” writes Alter, “for restoring the previous condition of a desolate Zion, and the idea of rushing water after aridity prepares the ground for the image of sowing and reaping in the last two verses of the psalm.” Unfortunately, the historical reality for the returnees did not match their hopes and expectations. “Judah,” Zvi Brettler writes, “was not independent, the Davidic dynasty was not reinstituted, and the economic and political problems of re-establishing the community were many.” Nonetheless, even though the song was written for people in an ancient time and place—many of whom, upon their return to Zion, experienced not joy but deep disappointment—Jews today continue to recite Psalm 126 after meals on Sabbath and holidays, the song now emblematic of a general attitude of hope for the future and unwavering faith in God’s covenant promise and perfect love.

Lou Suarez, Adult Christian Education Team

Scripture notes for April 15: Psalm 100

Probably to parallel the five books of the Torah (what Christians call the Pentateuch), the book of Psalms is divided into five “books.” The ending of each is marked by a closing doxology, a short hymn of praise to God that begins with the phrase “Blessed is the Lord.” (The exception is Psalm 150, the concluding doxology for the book as a whole, which begins with “Hallelujah.”) Psalm 100, this week’s scripture reading, appears in Book IV, which starts with Psalm 90, “a prayer of Moses, the man of God,” and ends with Psalm 106. (The one-verse doxology that ends Book IV, 106:48, probably was not original to the psalm but was inserted by a later editor when the book was divided into five “books.”) Psalm 100 may also be viewed as the conclusion of a smaller collection of psalms within Book IV. These so-called “enthronement psalms” (93-99) celebrate Yahweh’s role as the sole king of the universe. Psalm 100, although it doesn’t make explicit reference to Yahweh’s kingship, echoes much of the language and imagery of the previous seven psalms. Like the enthronement psalms, for example, the psalmist calls on “all the earth” (96:1; 97:1; 98:4) to “worship” Yahweh (96:9; 97:7; 99:5) with rejoicing (90:14; 96:11; 97:1), “singing” (92:1; 95:1; 96:1; 98:1), and even shouting (Hebrew rua, 95:1, 2; 98:6; 100:1). Even the structure of the psalm, says Marc Zvi Brettler, is the same as that found in Psalms 95-97: “a call to worship followed by a reason introduced by ki, ‘for’.”

According to Robert Alter, there is a “strong cultic emphasis” in Psalm 100. Throughout, the psalmist calls the nations to the temple at Mount Zion, the place, says Alter, “where God’s presence is conceived to dwell.” This idea is further developed in verse 4, where worshippers are invited to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and [God’s] courts with praise.” Alter writes, “The gates are the threshold, the point where the pilgrim crosses the zone of the profane into the sacred precincts of the temple.” Like Isaiah, who urges Israel to “sing to the Lord a new song” (42:10) and to be “a light to the nations” (42:6) so that they “shall stream” to Zion (2:2, also 55:18), the psalmist aims to show the whole world that “the Lord [i.e., Yahweh] is God,” the one and only true God. In this way, the psalm is universalistic: “all the earth” is meant to acknowledge that it is God “that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Of course, God is often portrayed as the “shepherd” of his “flock” in the Hebrew Bible. (e.g., Gen. 48:15, Pss. 23, 28, 80, 95, Jer. 31, Ezek. 34). Juxtaposed against this image of God as the compassionate care-giver for his people are the human “shepherds” who, according to the prophets, routinely fail them: the “worthless” (Zech. 11:17) and “stupid” (Jer. 10:21) shepherds who “have not attended to” their flock (Jer. 23:2), who “have all turned to their own way, to their own gain” (Isa. 56:11), who feed themselves instead of feeding their sheep (Ezek. 34:2). Again and again, the prophets complain that the sheep are “lost” and “scattered” because the shepherd has led them astray or is absent (Jer. 50:6, Ezek. 34:5, Zech. 10:2, Nah. 3:18; also Mt. 9:36, Mk. 6:34). By contrast, God, the psalmist insists, is a good and “steadfast” shepherd, whose “love” and “faithfulness” will endure forever.

Lou Suarez, Adult Christian Education Team