We're in Psalm 120, after completing the lengthy Psalm 119. Psalm 120 is the first of the songs of degrees, or, in Hebrew, the shir ha-ma-aloth. The Psalmist in Psalm 120 is asking God for deliverance from his belligerent persecutors.
What does the Hebrew word ma-aloth
mean, and how does that help us to understand the meaning of the songs
of degrees? There are different ideas about this. Here is a sample:
1. The ma-aloth
are stairs, or steps. Ezekiel 40:26 uses the word to mean stairs.
Rabbinic literature, specifically Mishnah Middoth 2:5 and Babylonian
Talmud Sukkah 51b, note that there are fifteen songs of degrees, and
also fifteen steps of the Temple. Seeing the ma-aloth as steps
to the Temple often coincides with interpreting the songs of degrees in
light of the cult or pilgrimage: going to the Temple and ascending the
Temple steps. One element of worship, as we can tell from many Psalms,
is complaining to God about one's enemies and asking God for justice,
which is the subject of Psalm 120.
2. In Ezra 7:9, the word ma-alah is used within the context of Jews going up from Babylon and journeying to Jerusalem. Ma-alah
here expresses Israel's return from exile, in short. Leslie Allen
seems to interpret Psalm 120 in light of this theme. Allen believes
that Psalm 120 was originally a Psalm complaining about enemies, but
that it was later incorporated into a "manual of processional songs" to
express Israel's sense of alienation that was felt in the Diaspora. V
5, after all, mentions the Psalmist dwelling in other lands, even though
(according to many scholars) those lands probably function symbolically
rather than literally in Psalm 120 (their point being that the Psalmist
was dwelling among warlike people who were like the people of Meshek
and Kedar, not that the Psalmist was actually in those regions). Allen
states that Israel "knew from bitter experience the hostility of
3. E.W. Bullinger interprets the songs of
degrees in light of events during the reign of Hezekiah, for II Kings
20:8-11 and Isaiah 38:20 mention ma-aloth in telling the story
of Hezekiah's recovery from sickness, which coincided with the shadow
going backwards by ten degrees on the sundial of Hezekiah. Bullinger
believes that there is a pattern in the songs of degrees of distress,
trust in Jehovah, and blessing and peace in Zion, and he relates Psalm
120 to the distress that Hezekiah and Jerusalem experienced when the
Assyrians were taunting them and threatening to conquer Jerusalem.
Bullinger does not necessarily hold that these songs were written during
the time of Hezekiah, for he believes that some were written in David's
time, as their ascriptions state. But Bullinger maintains that the
songs of degrees were relevant to what was going on in Hezekiah's day.
Then there are spiritual interpretations. The Hellenistic Jewish
philosopher Philo interpreted the songs of degrees in light of the
soul's ascent to God. Augustine said that the point of Psalm 120 was
that, as the Christian spiritually grows, he get enemies from among
those who are not exactly on a spiritual path of growth.
5. Some believe that ma-aloth
is simply a technical poetic term. I hope it's more than that and
relates somehow to the meaning of the songs, not just their musical