pilgrim songs

editor’s note:

I’ve written about songs for the road recently, part of a study on the Psalms of Ascent in Psalms 120-134, songs of the road that comforted the Hebrews as they traveled up through the mountains for the Holy Days three times each year.

Isaiah points to this practice. In Isaiah 30:29, he says “You shall have a song in the night when a holy feast is kept; as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go to the mountains of the Lord, to the Rock of Israel.”

The following is an excerpt from a sermon on this topic.

How did they sing these songs, these broken, fallen pilgrims on the long, difficult climb up Zion?

I don’t mean what key did they sing in and what instruments did they play. I know next to nothing about that. I mean, how did the songs unfold? What ties them together? What are their themes? How do such songs move us from the valley to the mountain top?

A touch of melancholy

First, I think there was a touch of melancholy.

These songs did not celebrate the sorrow and weakness of God’s people. But like the rest of Scripture, they did not cover or hide them either. We read verses like these:

    • In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.

    • Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.

    • Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice!

Listen to this lament by David from Psalm 131, for example:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother.

This humility of spirit is necessary to sing the songs of Zion.

Please understand me. Pilgrim songs are not always songs of triumph. And pilgrim journeys are not always easy ones.

A trace of memory

That’s why in these songs there is also a trace of memory.

They remembered that God had been good to them in the past, and had rescued them from danger.

“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me,” one says.

In Psalm 124 David puts it like this:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

Nothing overcomes our melancholy better than the memory of God’s overwhelming grace. These Psalms are filled with reminders and remembrances. Here is 126:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

A taste of majesty

This touch of memory means little, however, if does not lead us to a taste of God’s majesty.

This taste is all we can handle. We can not yet stand in the presence. But we can see it.

Can’t you see it, there in the distance? Don’t you see the Shekinah glory on God’s own mountain? Do you long for it and seek it? Have you pointed it out to your kids? Do you sing about it on the road, late at night, as everyone drifts off to sleep?

Because we too are going up to Zion.

Remember, in Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian has crossed through Beulah land and is beyond the River of death? Two shining ones meet him and they say,

“There is the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels and the spirits of just men made perfect. You are going now to the Paradise of God, where in you shall see the Tree of Life and eat the never-fading fruits thereof. And when you come there you shall have white robes given you and your walk and talk will be every day with the King, even all the days of eternity.”

This is what godly pilgrims long for. And sing about.

Their melancholy stirs up a memory of God’s work and then they see his majesty with clarity and awe.

Hear or download the entire sermon here.

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