Tag Archives: exile

What is a song of ascent? (the next U2 album?)

18 Dec

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For years the rock band U2 has been hinting that they are going to release an album called Songs of Ascent. What might “Songs of Ascent” refer to?  Why would U2 think of that title?

As the years went by, U2 changed directions a bit, first releasing an album called Songs of Innocence, and just this month, a companion album titled Songs of Experience.  Might there by a trilogy in the works, and Songs of Ascent is forthcoming?  Time will tell.

While there is no U2 album called “Songs of Ascent,” when I first heard they were considering that title, I took interest because there are psalms of ascent in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  I wondered how these psalms might have sparked U2 to consider an album with that title?  So what are these songs of ascent?

During Advent 2017 at Faith Church we are learning to lament, and the psalmists are guiding us.  During this third week of Advent, we are studying Psalm 126.

Here it is.  Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

What do you notice first?

That it is short?  That there is no author named?  Both true.

What I want us to focus on is its subtitle: a song of ascents.  What is that?

An ascent is an upward movement.  We ascend the stairs.  I know, we don’t normally talk like that.  It sounds kind of fancy to talk like that.  We tend to say simply, “go upstairs”.  But that is what the word “ascent” refers to, a moving upward.  In Acts 1 we read about Jesus ascending to heaven, and thus we celebrate his Ascension Day.  On that day, Jesus, we believe, physically ascended, flew through the sky, upwards, to heaven.  His disciples, we are told, looked up and watched him fly higher and higher, apparently, until they could see him no longer.  That is an ascension, a movement upward.

So why is this called a psalm of ascents?

Actually all of Psalms 120-134 have this title, “A song of Ascents”.  The Hebrew word for “ascent” could refer to stairs, and even specifically the stairs leading up to the temple.

So the title could be translated “song of the stairs.”  Scholars tell us that these songs of ascent were used in worship in the temple, maybe sung by priests standing on the stairs.  Maybe even as people were ascending those stairs to enter the temple.  Scan through Psalms 120-134 and what do you notice?  They are all very short, and thus could fit well within the short amount of time it would take for people to walk up stairs.

If that is true, that the psalms of ascent were used in temple worship, then perhaps we could say that songs of ascent are a kind of preparatory songs to help people get ready to worship.  You can envision groups of priests and worshipers singing these songs together.

But scholars also tell us that these songs of ascent were used as pilgrimage songs.  There were a couple feasts each year in which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Scholars believe that the pilgrims would sing together as they journeyed on foot or on the backs of animals, on their way to the city.

Almost certainly, this group of songs of ascent was written after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  That is the same time period as Psalm 85 last week.  In fact, psalm 85 and 126, as I think will be very obvious, are often grouped together because they are so similar.

Take a look at the text of the psalm again.  Read it through a couple times.  What do you notice?

My first thought when reading Psalm 126 was, “Wait…Is this a lament?  The word ‘joy’ is repeated four times.  Laughter is mentioned.  The people proclaim, ‘The Lord has done great things for us.’ How is this lament?”

Just like last week in Psalm 85, what we see in Psalm 126 is an eruption of joy because the Lord has restored their fortunes in returning some of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon back to Palestine.  But right there in the midst of joy is also lament as they realize how far they as a nation have to go in order to keep the restoration going.

So this is a lament.  Starting with our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how this song of ascent is crafted and how we can learn more about lament from this psalmist.

What if America was invaded? A thought project to teach us how to be restored

12 Dec

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Imagine that some nation invaded the USA, defeated us, and started carrying us away back to their land where we worked for them as slaves!  How would that feel?  Horrible, right?  And life in that foreign land would not be like life here.  It would be very, very hard.  And we would cry out in lament to God to restore us.  Perhaps we would rack our brains about why this happened.  We would like conclude that it was really our fault, whether due to complacency or apathy or internal moral decay.  And we would feel the weight of guilt and shame and embarrassment.  But then imagine we had a sudden restoration of fortune, as the foreign nation finally after 70 years allows those of us from Central PA to return.

By then our parents and grandparents had passed away, and we were returning, ourselves in old age now. We are bringing our kids and grandkids to see the wonderful land of Lancaster PA to show them all the places that to this point we had only been able to tell them about in story after story.  Our grandkids are to the point where they say, rolling their eyes, “Grandpa…you’ve told me about the farmland and Central Market and Tastykakes like a million times.”  Now you are actually getting to show them!

When you show up, brimming with excitement, what do you find?

A shock.  The land is trashed and scarred, with buildings burned out.  The Promised Land has become a waste land.  And you fall to your knees and cry out to God.  You remember the glory of what it used to be, and your heart aches, and what is worse you know you will never be able to show your kids and grandkids what you once saw.  Because that is now gone.  But it gets still worse.  You remember that the Promised Land is now a waste land because of you and your people and how poorly you behaved and it was your fault.

You’re restored, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I think something like that is happening in Psalm 85.  I also think something like that happens to all of us in many ways throughout our lives.  Let’s look at the next section of Psalm 85 to discover more about how to respond to the restoration that needs to take place.

In my previous post, I introduced Psalm 85 as our second Psalm of Lament in our sermon series for Advent 2017.  Psalm 85 seems to have been crafted in four sections, and in that previous post we looked at the first section, which talks about how God forgave the sins of the people of Israel, restoring their fortunes in the past.  Which restoration is the psalmist talking about?  Most likely it seems this psalm was written about the time when a small group of Jews was giving permission to return to Israel after having been exiled in Babylon for 70 years.  But when they returned, they were in for a surprise. And that surprise is what we read about in section two, which we are studying in this post.

Section Two covers verses 4-7, which is a lament for restoration and revival, for God to show his love and salvation in the present time.  If Israel has been restored to their land, if they have been forgiven, as Section One (verses 1-3) clearly states, then why are they asking once again to be restored?  Didn’t God already do that?

It seems that when the people were restored to the land, after the initial excitement wore off, they realized the immensity of the situation.

They were away from their land for 70 years, during that time working hard to maintain their traditions living in the midst of a foreign power.  So for 70 years they were dreaming of their return to Palestine, and they waited and they waited. Whole generations of them passed away, striving hard not to lose their faith, striving hard to maintain their culture.  And finally, after so many years and so many prayers, a group of them return to the Promised land.

And guess what happened.

It wasn’t what they thought.

The grand capital city of Jerusalem was in ruins.  The temple was destroyed.  The land was ravaged.  Most of them were still in exile.

Israel was a shadow of what they used to be.  And they knew why. It was their fault.  They had sinned against God over and over and over.  You and I have been there, right?  Imagine the guilt and pain that you feel when you know you are dealing with consequences of your bad choices.

Imagine being Israel looking at their holy city in ruins.  Yeah, God brought you back to the land, and that is amazing, but there is so much work to do.

Ever been there?

It’s easy to read verses 4-7 as if the psalmist is making it sound like this restoration is all God’s responsibility.  As if it was God’s fault that Israel was invaded, that the Promised Land was destroyed, that the people were in exile in Babylon for 70 years.  Yes, on the surface, verses 4-7 seem like the lament is a blaming of God.  But remember from our posts on Psalm 80, lament is deep like that.

In fact, in sermon discussion last week we wrestled with this a bit.  Is lament only appropriate when life gets so bad that there is no other option but to cry out to God?  No doubt that is an excellent time to lament.  When things are bad, lament.  But I think we can also practice lament when times are not at the point of no return.  It is not like lament is a kind of prayer we only practice when we have no other choice.  We can and should practice it then.  But we can and should practice lament before things get that bad too.

It seems to me that is what the psalmist is doing here in verses 4-7.  He knows the people have just experienced the kindness and forgiveness and favor of the Lord.  They are actually in a good spot.  They have been allowed to return to the Promised Land after being away from it for 70 years.  And yet the psalmist laments what is yet to be done.  It’s great to be back, but there has been so much loss, much of which will never be recovered.

 

This is not just a fictional story of America.  It’s not just the story of Jewish exiles returning to Palestine.

It’s also your story and mine.  I know you’ve been there.  I’ve been there.  It occurs in many ways in our real lives.

A relationship that is broken, but then it gets patched up.  The thing is that the patching up is just the beginning.  You know there is a lot of work to do yet.  Hard work.  And it seems like too much.

Or maybe you make some bad financial decisions, and now you find yourself in debt.  Maybe you have to declare bankruptcy.  Maybe you get help from a generous family member.  And you are saved.  But you know that is just the beginning.  You have lots of work to do to start making changes with how you handle money.

You’ve been restored, but there is so much work to do.  Too much work, it feels like.  Extra work that is your fault, and you’re hard on yourself, and you ache because it seems like it will be too hard.

And what do you do?  You lament.  Not because life is so bad that all hope is lost.  Sometimes you lament because life is just so dang hard.  Sometimes you lament because you know you need to do a lot of work to keep the restoration going, and you don’t know if you can handle it.  You probably think you can’t handle it. That’s a horrible feeling.

You love the progress that you’ve made.  A relationship that seemed dead has a new spark.  The bill collector that had been calling is paid off.  God has restored your fortunes.

But you know there is so much more to do for the restoration to continue.  That relationship is going to require a lot of time and energy, and you are going to have to stop some bad patterns, and you don’t know if you can.  That bill collector might not be calling today, but unless your income starts to grow larger than your expenses, he’ll be calling again soon.  And you know that you have a tendency to make bad choices with money.

Or maybe at your office, you work through your inbox, and your boss is pleased, but there were the ten previous times when you were lazy, and your work was late, and not only was your boss upset about it being late, but he also found all kinds of errors in your work, and it cost the company a contract.  You know that can’t happen again.  You’ve got a reprieve, but you have very little confidence that you’ll be able to work as fast and as good as your boss is asking you to.

What should you do?  Lament.  Get on your knees and passionately plead for God to intervene.  Ask for him to restore you again.  Ask for him to shower you with his unfailing love. When the work of restoration seems too much, lament.  It is a proper response to the weight of the world.

Lament is not blaming God.  Lament is not a cop-out either, trying to get God to do what it is our responsibility to do.  Lament is a crying out to God for his help and empowerment while we work for the restoration to continue.  Just as God had restored their fortunes and brought them this far, the psalmist now sees the mountain they have to climb, and he knows that they can’t do it alone.  So he laments.  Calling for God to show them his unfailing love and salvation.

He calls for God to revive them again.  Restoration and revival.  They were words in Psalm 80 which we studied last week.  Lament calls out for restoration and revival!  “Bring us back to life again, Lord.”

Whether we are lamenting our own situation or lamenting the state of the church or the state of our country, we are asking for restoration and revival. It might sound like we are saying to God that we are blameless and our situation is not our fault.  That is 100% not true.  And that is not what the psalmist is doing.  That is not what lament is all about.  Lament is not blaming God, acting like we have no part in this.  When we lament, we know our part in it.  And we own up to our part.

How about you? Do you have a situation in your life that has seen the spark of restoration, but the ongoing work seems too hard, too much?  How can you lament to God?