Songs of Degrees.

These songs form an interesting group in the last of the five books of Psalms, comprising those from 120 to 134 inclusive. The fifth book is prospective of Israel's blessedness, and that of restored creation during the millennium: it is also retrospective of the trials and exercises through which a preserved company in Israel pass, as detailed in the first four books, preparatory to the coming of their Messiah long rejected, and by which they are morally fitted to enjoy the influence of His benign rule. Their moral state at this juncture is exhaustively expressed in the psalm immediately preceding the songs of degrees, Psalm 119, where every link by which God was pleased to connect Himself with Israel (His word, law, statutes, etc.) is laid hold of with delight by the purged remnant.

It will be noticed that the heading common to the fifteen Psalms constitutes them a group; it is an inspired introduction to each, and is literally "A song of the goings up." The remnant of Israel is in fact looked at here as in immediate view of the long-expected consummation, when their reinstatement in the land, their national aspirations, their social condition, moral state, and spiritual instincts, will all harmonize and accord with God's gracious intentions regarding them. All centre in Zion, to which they are, so to speak, going up. The climax of blessing is not yet reached, as may be seen by the first song of the group; but how unclouded are their anticipations in view of it may be seen by the lovely picture presented in the last two.

Attention is invited to the moral progress which one perceives, especially in the last five songs; and, while not losing sight of the dispensational aspect of this section of Scripture, the intention is to indicate the manner in which the instruction contained in the songs may be regarded as applying to believers of the present day. They naturally arrange themselves into three sub-groups, viz., the first seven (120-126); the next three, and the last five.

The first sub-group depicts the circumstances and privileges of the people of God: surrounded by enemies (Ps. 120), but with assurance of divine protection (Ps. 121), God's centre and interest theirs (Ps. 122), He Himself their unfailing resource (Ps. 123); His response to their cry (Ps. 124), their consequent testimony (Ps. 125), and grateful joy (Ps. 126). The number seven, symbolical of perfection, reminds us that our circumstances, however trying, our spiritual privileges, be they few or many, our soul exercises, and their blessed results, are all of God - all divinely, unerringly, graciously arranged.

The thoughtful mind may discern likewise in the next three Psalms the reward and exercises of a faithful servant, who acts in the consciousness that fruit-bearing and the success and stability of his work are altogether of God. May we not see in the exercises detailed in Psalm 129 something of what the one perfect Servant passed through in His voluntary path of self-sacrificing love? (Isa. 49 and 50.)

The last sub-group comprises five psalms. This number seems symbolical of human weakness, and may indicate the only condition in which a soul may hope to make progress, or to enter into the mind of God. The first verse of Psalm 130 is expressive of this condition. When the voice of God reaches souls they are awakened to the solemn sense of having to do with Him. Sooner or later such must feel their deep need in presence of His holiness; and, though perhaps inaudibly, give utterance in His ear to the cry referred to in that verse, "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord." Well it is to have shared in such an experience; for, as the Psalmist says, "there is forgiveness with Thee." An important distinction is developed in Christian teaching between judicial forgiveness, which is full, complete, and everlasting; and governmental forgiveness, which restores the believer to the enjoyment of the relationship in which he stands with God. This distinction is not manifest here, but attention is called to a not less significant fact, viz., the sanctifying effect of God's forgiveness when truly known. "There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared." "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil."

Dependence on God is now also known (vv. 5, 6), and, with this, His power, not merely on one's own behalf, but for all the people of God: "With Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities."

Psalm 131 introduces a point which cannot be surpassed in importance, corresponding to what Christians know as liberty. "My soul is even as a weaned child." Breaking the human will is what God alone can successfully undertake. Many have, in the various monastic and ascetic systems, attempted the subjugation of their fleshly propensities, only to meet with universal disappointment, and perhaps to end in despair. Some, alas! do not believe how irrevocably the human will is opposed to God, and but few have practically found it to be so. The discovery of this is an immense step. But there is more: that in the quickened soul which delights in the law of God - "the inward man" - is hampered and opposed in its every movement by this depraved will (Rom. 7:21-23), which serves to show its incorrigible nature, and that the believer must flounder in spiritual bondage until deliverance be realized. To plead constitutional weakness, peculiar training, or lack of privilege, etc., or to be satisfied with what one may suppose to be a measure of improvement, only proves deficiency of light as to one's true condition; whilst to shun more light leaves one at a distance from Him who is Love, as well as Light, and from the grace and blessing which He delights to bestow. Light makes manifest that the carnal mind is enmity against God, but it is blessedly possible to become acquiescent in His will. The Psalmist, for Israel, can say, "My soul is even as a weaned child." How is this to be attained? By death! Even the national restoration of Israel, concurrently with their moral state, as expressed in Psalm 131, is on the principle of life out of death. (Isa. 26:13-19; Ezek. 37; Rom. 11:15.) Christ has been in the waters of death, and dried them up for His people, else deliverance could not be known. Do any feel the worthlessness of their best resolutions, their powerlessness to do good, their innate wickedness? Honest self-judgment discovers to them the depths where He, the blessed Son of God - perfect man - once stood alone, bearing the curse, "made sin" for us, as the only way by which our case could be met, and sin removed from before the eye of God. The believer then reckons himself dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ; dead to the law, that he might "be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead." The eye is closed to self and its interests, the heart becomes insensible to its claims, being fixed on, and controlled by, a new object, and life is found in Christ, in a new sphere, of which He is the glorious centre.

Notice again the moral order in Psalm 132. The will being subject, David is introduced as seeking, in this ardent way, something for God - that which God Himself desired - "a place for the Lord, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob." Here is a beautiful example of communion, a privilege which surely the Christian is entitled to enjoy in the highest way; but one which is impossible where self is still the object and has not been displaced.

Christendom in one way or another asserts the false principle of "a right to choose where, and how, we are to worship"; but even the psalm exposes the erroneous nature of this pretension. David seeks, but it is for God to choose, where He would dwell. (Compare verses 5 and 13.) The thought of choosing in these things implies the exercise of will, just what God would set aside in His people. Seeking is wholesome exercise, and a sign of reality in this age of indifference; but finding may cost us much. It was so with David, who had to wade through the deep waters of three days' pestilence on account of his pride of regal power, before he found the site for God's temple, and even then it was only under the hand of mercy which stayed the Lord's sword of destruction, and by the altar of burnt offering, that his eye was divinely opened to perceive it.

How solemn, and yet how gracious! The place of the Lord's choice affords no standing room for the flesh, but it is the place of richest blessing. Note the abounding grace of God's purpose for David's house - "the sure mercies" - which makes David's heart overflow in 1 Chron. 17 and in Psalm 89. He was raised up entirely of God, after Israel had failed in every species of privilege, and sure mercies, based on resurrection (Acts 13:34), were secured to Israel and centred in Zion. (Psalm 132:11-14.) Here nothing could be alienated, and Israel, too, could learn abounding grace. If the Psalmist prays, "Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness," the answer is, "I will also clothe her priests with salvation." If he prays again, "Let thy saints shout for joy," the answer goes forth, "Her saints shall shout aloud for joy." And in addition, "I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread," reminding us of the apostle's words, "Exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think."

Prior to the building of the temple, tabernacle-worship was carried on at Gibeon by the priesthood of the Aaronic order, while the ark was at Zion - God's chosen centre, His "rest for ever" - Asaph and his brethren, the singers, ministering before it. What a deeply significant bearing all this has upon God's highly privileged saints of the present day! Do we know His centre - spiritually, His "rest for ever" - where He dwells, awaiting the establishment in His own time of temple-worship in Israel, a place characterized by divinely ordered and acceptable praise, where the blessed Antitype of the ark abides, the once-rejected King? "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Thrice hallowed spot!

Here unity, according to God, amongst brethren is realized, and its beauty manifested before His appreciative eye, for it is He Himself who extols it. (Psalm 133.) Coming where this psalm does in a group which presents moral order of apprehension, we may say that for a realization of this unity, souls should be laid hold of practically by what precedes. The unity spoken of is the counterpart for Israel in the millennium of the unity of the Spirit amongst Christians now, known when souls are in the power of the truth which characterizes the dispensation. (Eph. 4:1-6.) It is also very significant that it is at this point (Psalm 133 to end) that "life for evermore" is referred to. Eternal life as ministered to Christians supposes a condition of soul in accordance with "the true light" which "now shineth." To "know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" is indeed eternal life, nothing beyond it in glory!

And now unobstructed praise flows forth (134); songs even "in the night" - acceptable praise to God in the sanctuary; blessing flowing forth from God's centre, Zion, according to the prayer of, and thus through, those in communion with Him. (Compare 1 Peter 2:5 and 9.) J. K.