A Song in the Night

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 134:1-3

The final song in our series on the Psalms, “Songs for the People of God,” is a song of worship, and blessing.

The 134th Psalm is a song in the night, a brief hymn for the close of evening worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also, as its Hebrew title indicates, one of the “Songs of Ascent.” This description was added to several of the Psalms by Jewish editors at the time the book of Psalms was compiled. Psalm 134 is the last of fifteen songs, beginning with Psalm 120, so marked. The term “Songs of Ascent” was one that long puzzled biblical scholars. The word translated “ascent” means literally to climb, as in climbing up a set of steps. Scholars once thought that it might refer in some way to the composition or internal structure of these Psalms. But now they believe that the word has to do not with the songs themselves as much as with the activity of the people who were singing them. These were climbing songs, travel songs sung by Jewish pilgrims as they walked up the road toward Jerusalem.

SONGS OF ASCENT

Originally, Jewish worship was seasonal, not weekly. The Sabbath was a day of rest each week, but it wasn’t originally a day for organized, corporate worship. That only came later, after Jewish communities had been scattered throughout the world and no longer had easy access to the temple in Jerusalem. But in the Old Testament public worship was intended to take place at the Temple in the city of Jerusalem, primarily during the three great annual festivals. In the spring, sometime in March or April, came Passover, which commemorated the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Then seven weeks later was the feast of Pentecost, marking the giving of God’s Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Finally, in the fall the harvest festival of Tabernacles was held, both to give thanks for the bountiful gifts of God and to recall his provision and guidance during the years of wilderness wandering at the time of the Exodus. So faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem for worship three times a year; at Passover to remember God’s salvation, at Pentecost to give thanks for his Word, and at Tabernacles to celebrate his providential care.

To get to the Temple, the worshipers had to climb. That was a simple fact of geography. The city of Jerusalem is set in the hill country of Judea. Mount Zion, the site of the Temple, is the highest point of the city. So traveling there, especially by the main road that goes up from Jericho in the Jordan river valley, meant a literal ascent, a long uphill climb. Try to picture that road, swollen with pilgrims on the eve of a festival. Imagine them straining to catch the first glimpse of the holy city, singing these songs to make the last weary miles hasten along.

I rejoiced with those who said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is built like a city

That is closely compacted together.

That is where the tribes go up,

the tribes of the Lord,

to praise the name of the Lord.

Psalm 122:1-4

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,

which cannot be shaken but endures forever.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem,

so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.

Psalm 125:1-2

Let us go to his dwelling place;

let us worship at his footstool –

Arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place,

you and the ark of your might.

May your priests be clothed with righteousness;

may your saints sing for joy.

Psalm 132:7-9

A LITURGICAL DIALOGUE

Psalm 134 is the last of these songs of ascent. It’s a brief Psalm, just three short verses.

This song sounds very much like a farewell. The text seems to suggest that it was sung by the pilgrim worshipers as they prepared to leave the temple in the evening, perhaps on the final day of the festival. The 134th Psalm is a dialogue between the departing congregation and the temple priests and Levites who remained behind to carry on the worship of God throughout the night. The congregation speaks first, addressing an exhortation to that temple staff:

“Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.”

And then the temple servants, those priests and Levites and others on duty, reply with a blessing:

“May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.”

All the way back at the time of the Exodus God gave his people instructions about how they were to arrange or order their worship of him. The Lord chose one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi, to be his special servants. Unlike the other tribes, the Levites did not receive any territory of their own in the Promised Land. Instead, they were given a number of towns and villages scattered throughout Palestine. The Levites’ role was to be set apart as God’s own possession. Their unique status served as a constant reminder to all the people of Israel that they belonged to the Lord, and he belonged to them. Israel’s ultimate inheritance wasn’t land or territory; it was God himself.

The various branches of the Levites were also assigned specific roles for worship, particularly for worship in the temple. Aaron and his descendants became the priests, whose main job was to offer the various sacrifices that made this worship possible. There were sin and guilt offerings for the cleansing and forgiveness of sins. There were burnt offerings and incense to accompany the prayers of the people. There were thank offerings to express gratitude to God for his goodness and mercy, or to fulfill promises or vows that had been made to him. The other Levites (the non-priestly ones) assumed the various other responsibilities involved in the worship services and on-going functions of the temple. There were musicians and singers, gate-keepers, craftsmen, caretakers, guards, servants and overseers, not just for the temple but for its many other chambers and treasuries and storehouses as well. The numerous priests and Levites rotated their service. They each took their turn on duty, so that sacrifices and praises and songs could be offered continually to God on behalf of the people.

PRAISE THE LORD, THE LORD BLESS YOU”

So worship in the temple was perpetual, going on day and night. In fact, the parting exhortation of Psalm 134 was explicitly addressed to the night shift.

“Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord

who minister by night in the house of the Lord.

Lift your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.”

Can’t you just picture those temple servants? I can well imagine how they must have needed special encouragement. After all, it was getting late. The crowd of worshipers was heading home. There’s a natural letdown at the end of a great festival. All the celebrating was over. The temple was almost empty again. It must have been difficult at times like that to keep the praises going, especially in the middle of the night, or during the wee hours of the morning when drowsiness was growing. But that didn’t matter. Worship had to continue. Whether they felt like it or not, the priests on duty had to keep singing. Their responsibility was to continue lifting their hearts and voices and their hands (yes, worship involves our bodies too) up in praise to the Lord. You don’t just worship God when you feel like it, when you are happy or when he seems especially close to you. I love the fact that the temple in Jerusalem was open and active all night. Worship there was a round-the-clock business, just like it is in heaven. In a sense, that continues today as Christians all over the world worship God. Somewhere on earth at every moment, there are believers lifting their hands and their voices and their hearts in praise to Jesus. John Ellerton’s hymn expresses that truth wonderfully:

We thank thee that thy church unsleeping,

while earth rolls onward into light,

through all the world her watches keeping,

and rests not now by day or night.

As o’er each continent and island,

the dawn leads on another day,

the voice of prayer is never silent,

nor dies the strain of praise away.

Worship is something we must do all the time, day in and day out, not just because we need it or because it helps us or cheers us up, but most of all because God deserves it.

Just like those ancient Hebrews you and I are on a pilgrim journey, and we must sing our songs of ascent along the way. We don’t know when our pilgrim’s progress will end, when our journey will be finished. But if you are following Jesus Christ, you can know where your journey will end. Christians have been set free from bondage to sin and death. We’ve been delivered by the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Our sins are forgiven, washed away in his blood. And we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God. We’re on our way to heaven – that’s where our steps are pointed – and we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we will get there in the end.

As a Christian, you can also know how your life’s journey will end. It won’t end in tragedy, or grief, or despair. It won’t end in loneliness, or suffering, or disillusionment. It won’t end in the darkness of unending night. It won’t end in nothing. It will end in blessing. Beyond any pain along the way, blessing at the end.

“May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.”

That’s the last word to us. If you know and love Jesus Christ, your life’s journey will end in the joy of seeing his face, and the delight of life with God forever.