The Psalms of Ascent, chapters 120-134, are fifteen hymns for pilgrims journeying to the Holy City, Jerusalem. From the very beginning, these sacred travelers are aware that their path is hazardous; danger surrounds them. But throughout their journey, the pilgrims are certain of one thing – their God, the One enthroned in heaven, is with them.
I lift my eyes to You, the One enthroned in heaven. Like a servant’s eyes on her mistress’s hand, so our eyes are on the Lord our God until He shows us favor. - Psalm 123:1-2
The pilgrims of ancient Israel are like today’s disciples. We too are on a journey, a step-by-step course to the new Jerusalem, our heavenly home. The Psalms of Ascent are so real, so honest about every emotion we feel along the way – the good times when our mouths are filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy (Psalm 126), the painful when woe is me that I dwell among people who hate peace (Psalm 120), and every feeling in between. Reading and meditating on them is essential as we proceed through our own pilgrimage. They provide encouragement for each step, strength to keep moving, and, most importantly, a focus on the One enthroned in heaven.
This world is not easy; it’s not safe. As pilgrims we’re surrounded by pain, danger, disappointment, and brokenness--all of which can cripple us with fear. Over and over, I find myself resonating with the ancient Israelites as they declare the Lord’s protection.
I raise my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; your Protector will not slumber. – Psalm 121:1-3
Recently, God called me to move from rural North Dakota to an underserved neighborhood in Memphis. Through relocating, God has shown me that He, the maker of heaven and earth, is my protector from all harm; He is the only one worthy of my focus and trust.
My default is to focus on myself, putting my hope in myself and what I can do for God. In my sinful and prideful arrogance, I think that I’m going to save the world, putting me under unnecessary pressure. If I’m not concentrating on myself, then I focus on the reality of the world around me, leaving me filled with discouragement. My neighbors are smoking more than cigarettes, the children across the street are growing up fatherless, and patients are still leaving the clinic I work at without knowing Jesus. Trauma, abuse, teenage pregnancy, drugs, and poverty are all too normal in this city I now call home. The brokenness of the world can become so overwhelming that I simply want to stop the journey, to not take another step. Instead, I want to lock my door, lay on my bed, cover my head with a blanket, and forget the reality of the world around me.
Weary from being a pilgrim, the picture that comes to mind is Jesus cupping my face in His strong hands and gently lifting my chin so my eyes can gaze upon His. As He does this, I can hear Him saying, “It’s ok, I love you. I know you are weak and this world is crazy, but in your weakness, let Me be your strength. Gaze upon Me and what I have accomplished for you on the cross.”
With tear-filled eyes, I nod my head. Jesus, help me. Help me to fix my eyes on You, to keep moving step-by step, until one day I am in your arms forever.
God is patient and faithful to show me that He, the One enthroned in heaven, is with me--just as He was with the ancient pilgrims--giving me the strength to keep moving. He is also fighting for me.
If the Lord had not been on our side – let Israel say – If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, then they would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger against us. Then the waters would have engulfed us; the torrent raging waters would have swept over us. Praise the Lord, who has not let us be ripped apart by their teeth. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. – Psalm 124:1-4,6,8
Jesus is victorious. He’s making all things new. He’ll wipe away every tear, and there will be no more death, sorrow, or pain. Focusing on the One enthroned in heaven, I can take a stand in this world. I can be a part of His rescue mission of calling people to Himself. No longer is there pressure to accomplish something for God. No longer do I need to figure out a plan to fix the world’s brokenness. The One enthroned in heaven is in control, and I can be confident and secure even in this unstable world.
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion. It cannot be shaken; it remains forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, the Lord surrounds His people, both now and forever. – Psalm 125:1-2
As I live in this fractured world, as I seek to love people like Jesus loves, I can be confident that the Lord surrounds me. I’m the pilgrim; He’s the protector. He’s faithful and will watch over me always, even when I take my gaze off Him, even when I am ready to quit my journey. He surrounds me, holding me close, reminding me of what He has already accomplished.
Lord, if you considered sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, I wait, and put my hope in His word. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning. Israel, put your hope in the Lord. For there is faithful love with the Lord, and with Him is redemption in abundance. And He will redeem Israel from all their sins. – Psalm 130:3-8
My sins have been forgiven. I’m now a friend of the Maker of heaven and earth, no longer an enemy. God’s pursuing love for me has redeemed me, not because of what I’ve done, but all because of Jesus.
Like the ancient Israelites singing the Psalms of Ascent, we’re pilgrims journeying in a foreign land. One day we’ll reach our heavenly home and be with our precious Savior forever. But, we’re not there yet. We must keep moving, step-by-step, fixing our eyes on the One enthroned in Heaven.
Now praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who stand in the Lord’s house at night! Lift up your hands in the holy place, and praise the Lord! May the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. – Psalm 134
Kali Shephard grew up on a farm in rural North Dakota. She completed her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of North Dakota. Shortly after graduating she moved to Memphis, TN to participate in the Urban Medical Year (UMY) at Christ Community Health Services. The UMY is an internship for college graduates who are pursuing health care careers among the underserved. While she loves being in Memphis, she’s excited to begin medical school in August of 2013.