Psalms of Ascent

Why God's People Rejoice in Gathering

john-cafazza-425904-unsplash-1.jpg

Imagine approaching your childhood home. You see a familiar sign on the front porch that reads, “Home is where the heart is,” though the “H” is missing, a couple other letters are broken, and others are so caked with pollen and dust they’re almost indiscernible. You’ve arrived at the house which was so full of life when you were a child, but years of vacancy and neglect make for a cold welcome. Where is the warmth that once filled this house?

We all long for a welcoming, safe home.

ABANDONED HOMES

While we may appreciate the aesthetic of a well-crafted house, what makes a house a home is the life within it. The same is true of the house of the Lord.

We see this clearly in Psalm 122, as the author begins with the invitation:

I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

Who is the "us" that invited him? It was the sojourners who would make their annual pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. This psalm would become one of many they would recite as they made their ascent to the holy city.

What a shock to be a pilgrim who, upon arrival, finds the house of the Lord was empty. He makes the journey through “many dangers, toils, and snares,” only to learn the house is vacant—there isn’t a single light on in the whole building, not one person in sight.

Would the weary traveler still be glad about his invitation? Hardly.

The rejoicing hinges on the personal invitation. He is glad to make the journey because he makes it with others and plans to meet others there (v. 4). It's a family reunion of sorts, in which traveling disciples meet with other disciples. Their rendezvous is overdue, so they are eager to reconnect.

God makes a disciple by bringing a man or a woman to Christ. But that is only part of the work. God also saves them into a family, the church. Disciples are meant to rejoice and long to reconnect with their extended family each Sunday in worship and throughout the week. It's not the building that makes the church but the people gathered before the Word of God.

BROKEN HOMES

Abandoned houses serve as a memento of the life that once existed within their walls. They remind us that things are not as they should be.

This reminder is even more painful for those currently living in a broken home. Their house may be full of life, but not firing on all cylinders. Maybe a divorce or an untimely death is a constant reminder that the dinner table has one empty chair.

Part of God’s design for his covenant people is that the spiritual family can make up for the parts of the nuclear family that are demolished by death, disease, and depravity. God’s family should be united (v. 3), and those brothers and sisters and friends (v. 8) that comprise it should pray for its well-being (v. 6), peace, security (v. 7), and prosperity (v. 9).

Some of the most moving testimonies in the church involve mothers and fathers who stood in as parental figures for those who never had them or who live far away from moms and dads. Beautiful stories unfold when those have been abandoned by or have left behind their families find a new family created by the shed blood of Christ.

God makes disciples as they come into relationship with Jesus, but they are matured in the community of the Church.

CHAOTIC HOMES

Others may not come from a broken home or ever experience the emptiness of returning to an abandoned house. Yet what family has not experienced a season of chaos?

Perhaps your home is free from glaring and unrepentant sin and God has blessed you with a house that has been passed down for generations. But the reality is we will all face sins of varying kinds (Heb. 12:1) and seasons of busyness that border on chaos.

Some Sundays it may be hard for the modern pilgrim to drag himself to church because he worked a sixty-hour week. A mom of small children is likely putting in even more hours on the regular, and coming to worship on Sunday might seem impossibly difficult.

In Psalm 122, the pilgrim’s feet are standing within the gates of Jerusalem (v. 2). Those feet must have been tired, sore, and blistered, but to paraphrase Mother Pollard, “his feet were tired but his soul was rested.”[1]

What is it that compels you to keep gathering with the saints?

Is it the chaos that seems to increase every time you get ready to head out the door to church on Sunday morning? Is it the weariness you feel after a long hard work week? Is it the spiritual apathy that creeps in?

Obstacles and temptations try to prevent us from gathering with God’s people, but push through and resolve to find nourishment for your soul. The body and its ailments will pass away, but God and his Word will last forever (Matt. 24:35).

The mature disciple begins to prioritize church, not just for her own needs, but because she recognizes she is called to multiply disciples and think beyond herself.

DWELLING PLACE OF THE LORD

To bring this all home (pun intended), a word has to be said about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants. It's commonplace to see preachers and theologians play fast and loose with the relationship between the Old Covenant temple and the New Covenant Church. To be sure, there are some commonalities. However, it is a mistake to draw a one-to-one comparison between the two.

The distinguishing mark of the Old Covenant temple was that it was indwelt by the presence of the Lord. The God of Israel himself inhabited their building of high worship.

The arrival of Jesus in the first century A.D. flipped this whole paradigm on its head. He was indwelt personally by the Spirit of God (Matt. 12:18) and referred to himself as the new and better temple (Jn. 2:19; Matt. 12:6). What’s more, he promised that when he departed he would send that same Spirit to indwell his followers.

The New Covenant equivalent of the Temple is the church, to be sure, but only when we correctly define the Church—the people of God, the living stones (1 Pet. 2:5) that are built up into a spiritual house.

REJOICE TO GO TO THE HOUSE OF THE LORD

Do you rejoice to go to the house of the Lord? I hope you do. But hopefully it’s not because the music is superior or the aesthetics are amazing. The right reason to rejoice in going up to the Lord’s house is that his presence is there.

The house of the Lord is found in the midst of his people. There, Jesus is present and glorified.

Otherwise, it’s like walking into an abandoned house.


Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Clarks Summit University) was born and raised in Upstate New York where he is now working to plant Engage Albany, a church in the heart of the capital. Prior to that, he served at churches in Troy and Maryland and taught hermeneutics. He and his wife, Hannah, are raising three kids: Knox, Hazel, and Ransom. You can read all of Sean’s articles here.

[1] Quoted in The Montgomery Bus Boycott: A History and Reference Guide, Cheryl Phibbs, 2009.

God Will Help You

iyan-kurnia-539716-unsplash-1.jpg

I once survived a season of life when three of my daughters were ages three and under. It was nonstop sippy cups and naptimes and potty training and diaper changes and “Hey, that’s mine!” and “Share that toy right now or Mommy is going to take it away” My husband was pastoring a community of young adults at the time; he was gone almost every night. My best friend’s husband was a youth pastor and he also was gone almost every night. Her three kids were each two years ahead of mine. So nearly every evening was spent at the park, where two moms wrangled a total of six kids, running the children into exhaustion until we moms crossed the bedtime finish line.

Because my best friend was just ahead of me in the parenting marathon, I had the benefit of watching from behind how she handled the ages ahead. Each evening at the park I saw how she dealt with the fours and fives and sixes of her own kids.

As I watched her interact with her kids at the park, here’s what I heard her say over and over and over: “God will help you.” It was their family’s refrain, her motherly chorus.

A PARENTAL REFRAIN

“But, it's my turn!” God will help you.

“She pushed me!” God will help you.

“No! I don’t want to go home!” God will help you.

It probably sounds a little silly out of context like that. Of course she said many other instructive and helpful words. Of course she gave commands, doled out discipline, lavished warm hugs, and physically removed her children from harm.

God will help you” wasn’t all she said. But she always said it.

I heard this truth so often that I began picking it up, too. It stuck in my mouth and sunk into my heart because nothing is truer. It’s no pithy, “Be nice . . .” or, “You can do it!” or, “Just obey, kid.” It’s real, robust truth.

There’s nothing I could say to my child, age one or twenty-one, that would be truer than the statement, “God will help you.” It turns out my friend was following the example of the Israelites.

Where Israels Help Came From

“God will help you” is the banner of Psalm 121, a Psalm of Ascent, which was corporately rehearsed by the Israelite pilgrims as they ascended the hill to the temple mount in Jerusalem for feasts three times a year.

Together, they sang, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:1-2).

As they climbed, they confessed. The Lord—and the Lord alone—was the source of their help. He was there, in the temple above, and they looked up, seeking him, and remembering how he made heaven and earth and that he would help them, too.

Their confession of need and call for help morphed into a reminder of truth to each other. They moved from speaking in the first person to the second person, and proclaiming to each another,

“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night” (Ps. 121: 3-6).

It’s as if the pilgrims were first reminding themselves, and then one another, this is who our God is! He is our helper. He made the earth. He keeps our feet on the path. He never sleeps. Day and night he keeps us. God will help you.

The benediction is future-focused: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 121:7-8).

Those ascending the hill were rehearsing these truths truth to one another. The Lord has kept you. He is keeping you. He will continue to keep you. He’s not changing. God will help you.

Where Does Our Help Come From?

My friend knew that her children needed the Lord’s help. She knew they were like the Israelites, helpless on their own. She knew that they most centrally needed help from God above, their maker, sustainer, and redeemer.

She knew that if she only demanded good, achievable behavior, then she would raise pharisaical children—children who would become adults who would rely on their own efforts to produce outward results rather than inner change. She knew their human efforts would eventually ring hollow, that they would be unable to do more or try harder. She rehearsed to them from a young age the truth that they would need God’s help. She taught them their help must come from the Lord.

We live in an age of self. Self-help, self-empowerment, do-it-yourself. We want to be self-made men and women who reach down and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In this self-absorbed and self-reliant age, we need to be reminded that this same reality applies to us. You and I need to return to the truth of Psalm 121. It is God who made us. It is God who made heaven and earth. It is God who keeps us. It is God who will help us.

Self-esteem psychology says look within. The psalmist says look up.

Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28-30). He harkens back to the psalm. The Son’s offer of rest reminds us that he is God saying to us, “I am the maker of heaven and earth. I hold your feet to the path. I keep your life. I never sleep. Come to me.

Good News for a Weary Age

What do we need help with right now? Where are we striving after with our own efforts and energy? Where have we run dry, come to the end of ourselves? Where do we need to stop looking within and start looking up?

Both this psalm and the gospel of grace say, “behold” (v.4), not “behave.”[i] The call of Scripture is to look up—look up to where our help comes from. It comes from the Lord.

God, through his Son and by his Spirit, will help you.

The words “God will help you” never grow old and never fall short. They are true and they are able.

To the woman in my church whose husband is unfaithful: God will help you heal. To the young man oppressed by addiction: God will help you be free. To the adult daughter whose mother is dying: God will help you let go. To the pastor whose faith feels burnt-out and dry: God will help you be refreshed. To the lonely single: God will help you rejoice. To the poor, the sick, the needy, the sad, the desperate: God will help you.

As you and I ascend, as we climb, as we journey like pilgrims in this life, let’s remember Israel and her song. Let’s lift our eyes to the hills. Let’s remember that God made heaven and earth. He holds our feet to the path. He does not sleep. He will keep us. He delights to help his children.

In this age of self, let’s return to the rhythms of the covenant community ascending the temple mount. Let’s confess that we are not enough on our own, but the Lord is. Let’s remind ourselves and each other, God will help you.


Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for 17 years on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.

[i]I am indebted to Jared Wilson’s book The Imperfect Disciple for this phrase.

The Blessing of Being Wrong

pexels-photo-840667.jpeg

“YOU’RE WRONG!” Several middle school students I once ministered to competed in regional debate tournaments twice a year. They were well prepared on the topic of debate: they knew the rebuttals and oratory tactics to land their points, and how to demonstrate the logical flaws in their opponents’ arguments. Neatly dressed and armed with little index cards of research—and cut-throat for winning the competitions—these students were preparing for debating and defeating contrasting world-views.

When it was time for a tournament, I would famously offer any student debating in the competition $20 in hard cash if they would, in the midst of their debate, stand up, point at the other side, and yell “YOU’RE WRONG!” and then quietly sit down again, thus ending the debate.

Whether they wanted to avoid the scolding and potential embarrassment of losing the tournament for such a brash tactic, or whether they were unsure of my ability to pay, I don't know. But no one ever took the risk.

Hearing “YOU’RE WRONG!” is an awakening. I for one don’t like it. But I need to hear it. “You’re wrong!” forces me to look at my situation or point of view and assess where I may have missed a turn. Sometimes, being told I’m wrong leads me to hunker down into my convictions and stand my ground. No matter what, it’s always an awakening moment. There’s a blessing in being wrong.

Painfully Aware

The poet of Psalm 120 had a moment of awakening: “In my distress I called out to the Lord.” The weight of discovering he’d been wrong was startling and traumatic; it crushed his soul. He felt misery and anguish, a blend he called “distress.” Before we can appreciate the psalmist’s awakening, we have to understand his story.

Three times a year the Hebrews were required to leave their homes and journey to Jerusalem holy days of festival celebration. Their pilgrimage was an embodiment of the life of faith. Moving to Jerusalem was “ascending the hill of the Lord,” all the while asking, “Who can do this?” (Ps. 15; 24). As they traveled, a liturgy took shape to remind and provide “a guidebook and map” for the journey of faith, as Eugene Peterson would say. This liturgy was captured in fifteen Psalms—Psalms 120-134—affectionately known as the “Psalms of Ascent.”

Every so often I realize that an important date is so quickly approaching that unless I shift into high gear, there is simply no way I’ll be prepared. I’ve never waited to buy Christmas presents until Christmas Eve, but there have been a few close calls for birthdays and other holidays. The thought of missing the date gives me a much-needed awakening.

I imagine there were some busy Jewish families that would share that moment of sheer fright when they realized the festival was merely a day or two away. Pulling together a few essentials and getting out of the house was hectic and hurried. The frustration of living so far away and making the journey is heard in the psalmist’s cries: “I have stayed in Meshech . . . I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” as if to say, “I am so far from the city, so far from God’s place, so far away from being who I should be.”

The journey to Jerusalem was hard and perhaps painful, but necessary. Realizing our distance from God can get us moving. We hear “YOU’RE WRONG!” and realize we’re so far in the wrong direction that unless we get moving right now, we’ll never catch up. Welcome to repentance.

Becoming aware of his distance from God was the only way the psalmist could be changed. Awakening to his reality was the only way he could be moved. This is exactly what God wants for us.

The Refreshment of Repentance

Repentance is described by many as an emotion. We often hear of repentance in terms of sorrow, anguish, or contrition. While the awakened sense of wrongness that comes with repentance does bring true sorrow, repentance isn’t merely an emotional response. In the psalmist’s case, there is anger at his own decisions, disgust over his apathy, and desire for a new life. But his emotions don’t tell us he’s repenting. His actions do.

The singular verb, “called,” of Psalm 120 tells us how to respond to God when awakened to our sin. It directs us to action. After hearing “YOU’RE WRONG!” he realized the sinfulness of his hometown had worn off on him, and he called out for help: “In my distress I called to the Lord.”

Left to himself, he’d always be stuck, always be distant from God, always among those who love war. That was the painful realization of his heart and soul. He longed for peace, for justice, and for nearness to God.

Repentance must be an action for us too. We have restitution to make, changes to implement, steps to take. But repentance cannot and will not be real and refreshing until we make the first step—crying out for help.

So many self-help systems are geared around willpower; washing your face, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and other simple strategies. But growing near to God though takes another path—helplessness. The false notion that “God helps those who help themselves” falls short. God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so they cry out to him in desperation.

The refreshment of repentance is not in the actions we take or the sorrow we feel. The refreshment of repentance starts with the awareness that “YOU’RE WRONG!” coupled with the cry “GOD, HELP!” We can’t fix our wrongness but we can cry out for help.

Promised Reprieve

The full opening verse of Psalm 120 speaks for the whole: “I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me.” He was wrong and weary, misguided and messy. Far from home and far from God. Yet God answered him. This is the blessing of being wrong. But it’s only for those who are aware they are wrong and need some help. God answers those who realize they’re wrong and cry out to him.

What resounding hope and help this is for stagnated and sedentary disciples like you and me! No matter how wrong we are, no matter how painful the awareness of our sinfulness, God is there to meet us when we cry out. He’s there to bring a blessing when we are wrong.

Instead of self-importance or righteousness or religious performance, all we have to offer God is a cry for his help. He meets all our weakness with all his strength. This is the promise for those of us who hear, “YOU’RE WRONG!” and answer, “Yes, it’s true! God help me!” For those who will cry out in need and desperation for help and rescue from their sin, God promises he will answer. His answer gets us moving. His grace silences the shout of “YOU’RE WRONG” and tells us “Come, home!”

What are we waiting for? The loving, open arms of the Father are open to us. Let’s allow the painful awareness of our sin to urge us to cry out for his help, and let’s start on the road to God. He’ll not only meet us on the way, but he will also bring us the whole way there.


Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and That Word Above All Earthly Powers. He writes personally at jwritebol.net. You can read all of Jeremy’s articles for GCD here.