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Worship Message - Songs of Ascent #5

Songs of Ascent
Psalms 129-131


Songs of Ascent. Fifteen Old Testament Psalms that were recited by Old Testament people of God as they traveled to Jerusalem and then climbed steps leading to the Jewish Temple in that city. Psalms recited by those Old Testament people so their hearts and their minds would be prepared to worship when they arrived. Psalms we need to remember as well so our hearts and our minds can be ready and stay ready to worship. Psalms we are thinking about in this series of messages.

So far, we have thought about the first nine of the Psalms - Psalms 120 through 128. Today, three more - Psalms 129, 130, and 131 - the first two of which speak of suffering.

First, Psalm 129. Please read the first two verses of the Psalm. Notice how suffering is described.

Psalm 129. A Song of Ascents. “Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth,” let Israel now say. “Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.”

There are some descriptive words in what was just recited.

Sorely. The meaning is “to a very high degree or intensity.” What was suffered was not a minor irritant. What was suffered was major.

Afflicted. That refers to pain, suffering, humiliation.

So much affliction it felt to God’s people as if their backs were being plowed.

Of course, plowing, we know, is a good thing agriculturally. But here it refers to being broken, like soil is broken. Which was the case physically sometimes as God’s people were attacked. Other times it was done emotionally as trouble followed trouble.

Affliction that started at youth, which means the suffering had gone on for a very long time.

What was the suffering God’s Old Testament people, up to the time of this Psalm, faced?

I can think of a time of horrible famine that caused some early people of God to leave their homeland and go to Egypt to find food.

I can think of the eventual slavery the descendants of those people endured. Slavery that lasted for hundreds of years.

After being released from slavery, those people of God found themselves in a wilderness for many years.

At first they were faced with shortages of food and water. God provided what they needed to survive, but at first in the wilderness they suffered.

Later the people often argued among themselves. They also threatened Moses, their leader, doing that over and over again. That was a bad situation for Moses.

Eventually the Old Testament people of God made it to a land promised to them by God. But there they faced many wars. Interestingly, as often as the people of God obeyed Him, they were victorious in those wars. But sometimes they did not obey. At those times they suffered.

Even at the time of Psalm 129 there were threats from surrounding nations.

Personally and as a nation, the people of God had suffered affliction. They had suffered and were suffering sorely, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes both those ways.

I find it interesting David felt free to mention his suffering. I think that is so important as a reminder that when we suffer, it must be OK to share it with the LORD. But then the mood changes toward praising the LORD.

Actually, that was already stated with the words, “yet they have not prevailed against me.” David - this also applied to all the other Old Testament people of God, including those who recited this Psalm on their way to worship - was happy he and his people had survived. Yes, they had suffered and were suffering. No, the suffering was not at all pleasant. But yes, they had survived. The enemies had not prevailed.

Why?

The LORD is righteous; He has cut the cords of the wicked. May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward! Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand or the binder of sheaves his arms.

The LORD is righteous. That means He always does what is right according to His word. Therefore, He may allow His people to suffer, but He will make sure His people, at least ultimately, survive. As the Psalm proclaims, He will cut the cords of the wicked.

Thinking of the plowing analogy, a plow is attached to whatever moves it, be it a person or an animal. The attachment is by cords - or ropes. According to the Psalm, those cords or ropes will be cut, which means plowing cannot continue. The ground - in the analogy, the people of God - will therefore be saved.

What joy there is in that. But did you see it? David not only proclaimed salvation. He added a desire that the enemies of God’s people suffer.

That desire is expressed this way. “May all who hate Zion [Zion is the word that denotes God’s people] be put to shame.” Confounded is another word that fits. Confounded, confused, looking silly because of that. May all who hate Zion be put to shame “and turned backward.” Turned away from afflicting God’s people.

So confounded, turned away, and shamed they will be like grass on housetops. Some houses at that time had sod as roofs. At first the sod had grass, but being high - being in the full sun - the heat of the sun - caused the grass to wither.

Those who were enemies of Zion - those who were enemies of God’s people - must have felt superior to God’s people. That was especially the case when they were able to afflict God’s people. The request of David? Let those enemies, when their cords are cut, wither away to the point of being worth nothing. Not even worth mowing to gain a little feed for animals.

Psalm 129, as it was recited by people preparing to worship God, reminded them that throughout their history, there had been suffering.

Applying that to us, do you suffer - are you afflicted - in any of a number of ways? Do you have physical or emotional enemies? Do you have spiritual enemies? Is there anyone who has been or is unkind or unfair to you? Anyone - or maybe multiple anyones - who say words that poke or prod at your self-esteem? Anyone now or in the past? Maybe even in your childhood past?

If so, know what Psalm 129 also reminds us about. That it is God who has kept us - He is the only one who can keep us - from being overwhelmed to the point of being defeated.

And apparently it is, according to the Psalm, OK to look forward to - to pray for - the destruction of our enemies - personal enemies and enemies of the Christian church. It should be our hope the enemies of God will, at least eventually, end up worthless.

But read the last part of the Psalm.

While those who pass by do not say, “The blessing of the LORD be upon you!” we bless you in the name of the LORD.

You know, I am not exactly sure what those words mean. I studied them and still do not know for sure. However, could they be the promise that when those who are enemies of God do falter in ways Psalm 129 describe - when their work of painful plowing is over - we will pray for them?

Obviously we should not bless those intent on hurting us and the cause of God. But if they turn away from fighting God - away from hurting God’s people - can we pray God will then bless them? Which He will be able to do if they repent. Can we - should we - pray for those who turn away from their evil? That they will turn to God and be blessed? Blessed meaning we wish and pray for only good things to happen to them?

Psalm 129 is a reminder that people of God have suffered. And by the way, that is true not only for the Old Testament people of God. It is true even now. Even now there are many enemies of our one true God. That is certainly evident in groups like ISIS. It is true closer to home among those who at least seem to be intolerant of the teachings of God on any of a number of issues. Those enemies often take out their anger on God’s people now.

People of God suffer. But with the help of God, we can survive. That is because God will, at least eventually, cut the cords of our enemies, making them, at least ultimately, worth nothing. By reciting Psalm 129, we are reminded God is therefore worthy to be worshiped. Reciting the Psalm is part of our preparation to worship God.

Worship that continues in Psalm 130.

Psalm 130. A Song of Ascents. Out of the depths, I cry to Thee, o LORD!

Isn’t that interesting? In Psalm 129, David wrote he and other people of God had and would continue to prevail, that coming because of the LORD. Now in Psalm 130, David returns to crying out. Maybe that is a reminder that throughout life, we will or at least may always have problems with which we must deal.

Out of the depths, I cry to Thee, o LORD! LORD, hear my voice! Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

Do you cry to God when you are suffering? Do I do that? We certainly have permission to do that. We should do that since He, ultimately, is the only one with the answers we need and the strength we need to make it through whatever we suffer.

That is true even when our suffering is our own fault. When our suffering is the result of something we have done in the way of disobedience of what God teaches us and tells us. In fact, that is when we have nowhere to turn but to Him.

If thou, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?

Isn’t that a scary thought? The idea of God keeping track of our sins?

In last week’s message I mentioned that as I remember it, I was just about the most perfect child who ever lived. Of course I was exaggerating a bit. I remember the time I stole my sister’s crayons. There were probably a few times I disobeyed my parents.

Even now there is occasionally a bit of grumpiness that slips into my moods. As hard as I try, I still at times come up short of the glory of God in any number of ways.

How scary it would be to think of God keeping track of each and every sin I have committed or might commit. And hey, He knows everything, which means He remembers everything, so yes, He is aware of all the wrongs I have done.

But there is forgiveness with Thee, O LORD.

Forgiveness requires confession. It also requires repentance, which is the decision to not only turn away, but walk away, from what was done wrong. Repentance means making the decision to never do the bad thing again.

But concerning forgiveness, remember the wording elsewhere in the Bible. In Psalm 103 it is proclaimed that with forgiveness, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.” God will remember all we have done wrong, but once those things have been forgiven, He will remove them from us. From our record. We will never have to pay the penalty for them.

Can you see how positive Psalm 130 was for those who traveled to Jerusalem and up the steps to the Temple to worship? By reciting the Psalm, they were reminded God was worthy of worship, which included being cried out to. Worthy because, among other things, He is willing to forgive. Therefore, He is to be feared. Respected. Held in great awe.

David continued.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

I am interested to see one phrase stated twice. Did you see it? “My soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

When something is repeated in the Bible, there is emphasis added. What is repeated is often a point God really wants to make.

In this case, how about these two things?

First, night watchmen - men who spent their nights guarding the walls surrounding a city - had very important jobs, that must have been scary at times. Was a movement outside the walls an animal, or was it a thief trying to break in? Was a sound a bat or an owl flying by, or an arrow being shot into the city?

How happy watchmen would be to see morning come when things were clearer and brighter and their watchfulness could end.

So it is that problems we face can be scary, especially at night. Night physically or night emotionally. How good it is for us to look forward to the start of a new day in our lives. A time of feeling God’s clarity. His brightness.

Second, there is this, which I think God also wants us to get. Hence the repeating of the phrase. Never did watchmen wonder if morning was going to come. They knew that at a certain time each day, the sun would come up.

No matter how long the night got and no matter how scary a night was, night watchmen knew day would come. We are to know that as well, in a spiritual sense.

Therefore, we, like watchmen of old, are to wait, even when things are scary. We are to wait, hoping - hoping to the point of being assured - that day will come. That God’s blessings will come.

Hope that is to be based on the steadfast love of the LORD. Love that will redeem us from whatever has been done wrong.

I need to remind us that we have to do our parts, which are confessing and repenting of our sins. But when those things are done, God will redeem. He will redeem as He forgives.

And yes, we may still have problems and enemies. Full redemption, as in peace, may not come for a long time. Maybe peace will not be achieved until Heaven. But we are, according to Psalm 130, to wait.

Are you in a time of waiting? Waiting to fully feel God’s blessings? Do not turn away from Him. Do not run away in shame if your problems are your own fault. Instead, be like the Old Testament people of God who made the journey to Jerusalem and then up the steps to the Temple, doing both so they could worship God. Stay strong. Worship God even in your waiting. Make crying out to Him part of your worship. That is what is taught in Psalm 130.

Psalms 129 and 130 address the issue of suffering. Of sore affliction and being in the depths. The depths of despair. Those two Psalms also proclaim hope, but they deal with the issue of suffering.

Psalm 131 shifts to a teaching about humility

Psalm 131. A Song of Ascents. Of David. O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high.

By the way, two earlier Psalms in the Songs of Ascent lead to an interesting point.

Psalm 121 has, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” The challenge there is to lift our eyes to the one who made the hills, including the hill where the Jewish Temple stood, that being God. There we are instructed we are supposed to lift up our eyes.

Psalm 123 has, “To Thee [to God] I lift up my eyes.” There we are again instructed to lift our eyes, in that case lifting them as to a king so we will know what He wants, which we are to obey right away.

Now, in Psalm 131, it would seem we are being instructed to not lift our eyes.

What’s with that? Let me suggest the answer lies in the last two words of what was just read. LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised “too high.”

The teaching, I think, is that David was reminding his fellow Old Testament people of God - and he is reminding us - to be humble.

That can be a problem, can it not? The problem that when things are going well, we can get to feeling it is we ourselves who are responsible.

However, that is not the case. It never has been. It never will be. God is the giver of blessings. He is the one responsible for all the good things that happen. Him and Him alone.

Therefore, may we not become proud. May our hearts and our eyes not be lifted so high they look beyond God. May we look to Him. May we rely on Him.

Which was David’s goal, which is pretty amazing. I mean, he was the king of God’s people, so he had power and authority. He had for many years achieved many great victories, so he had a reputation as a mighty warrior. His victories must have at least moved him toward great confidence in his abilities.

But David taught against being proud. Perhaps “arrogant” would be a better word.

David continued.

I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and for evermore.

* * * * *

Here is something I read that I think is cool. I think this applies very well to the gist of the Songs of Ascent which, when a group of God’s people was traveling to worship in Jerusalem, would have been recited together. And the point has been made that we are to not only recite the Psalms by ourselves - to ourselves - but with others. Here is what I read, which was a reminder of the game Red Rover.

Remember it? There would be two lines. One line would call out the name of someone in the other line. The named person would run toward the first line and try to break through, which should be difficult to do because those in the line would hold hands. Hands would be interlocked with one another.

If he or she was able to break through, he or she would return to his or her line. But if he or she could not break through, he or she stayed with the other line. The more people caught in one line, the less the other line had. The goal was to deplete the other line.

We who are Christians want others to be with us, do we not? Sometimes we call other people’s names, inviting them to come to our line. The Christian line.

When that happens - when they come - either they might slip on by, or we might catch them. Catch them to the point of them joining hands with us, which can help attract and catch others.

How can we more apt to catch people? And yes, it is God, working through the Holy Spirit, who adds people to churches. But we can help the process by locking hands. Not physically necessarily, but spiritually. One way to do that is to - together - recite the teachings of today’s Psalms.

Including that afflictions do come, but with God’s help we can survive. That thought ought to be encouraging to everyone. It ought to be attractive to those we invite to join us in our faith.

That when we suffer, it is OK to cry out to the LORD.

That it is OK to wait for the LORD, knowing His blessings will follow our suffering, just as morning will follow night. That hope should help keep others who join us.

That we can be calm as we humbly rely on God.

Let’s play Red Rover spiritually. Let’s keep reciting Psalms 129 through 131. Let’s do that together, doing so to attract others to our faith and to keep them in the faith.

Our closing song for today is the hymn None Is Like God Who Reigns Above. As we sing, let’s be thankful for God’s care. Wherever we are, whatever we are going through, may we be thankful for His blessings.

None is like God, who reigns above,
So great, so pure, so high;
None is like God, whose name is Love,
And who is always nigh.

In all the earth there is no spot
Excluded from His care;
We cannot go where God is not,
For He is everywhere.

He is our best and kindest Friend,
And guards us night and day;
To all our wants He will attend,
And answer when we pray.

O if we love Him as we ought,
And on His grace rely,
We shall be joyful at the thought
That God is always nigh.

Today’s benediction will be a responsive reading that highlights much of what is taught in today’s Psalms. I will say my part, which is the first line of each section. Please respond with your part, which is the second line of each section.

Sorely they have afflicted me from my youth.
The LORD is righteous. He has cut the cords of the wicked.

Out of the depths I cry to Thee, o LORD.
LORD, hear my voice.

I wait for the LORD, and in His word I hope.
Hope in the LORD, for with the LORD there is steadfast love.

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high.
Hope in the LORD, from this time forth and forevermore.

The blessing of the LORD be upon you.
Bless you in the name of the LORD.

May those words, as they are recited - as they are repeated over and over again - prepare our hearts and our minds to worship God, today and always. Amen.

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