George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

The Songs of Degrees (Psalms 120-134)

What follows in this and subsequent chapters on Psalms 120 through 134 is in large part reproduced from The Songs of Degrees, by George Booker, published jointly (by the Christadelphian Magazine Publishing Association, Birmingham, U.K.) with Hezekiah the Great, by H.A. Whittaker. For more detail, the reader will want to consult the original work.

1. Introduction

Psalms 120 through 134, numbering fifteen psalms, are entitled “Songs of Degrees” (literally, “Songs of the Degrees”). When the righteous king Hezekiah was “sick unto death” he prayed to the Lord, and the Lord added fifteen years to his life. At that time Hezekiah asked for a sign, and the shadow of Ahaz’s sun-dial was moved backward ten degrees. As J.W. Thirtle has pointed out (Old Testament Problems, pp. 3-70), this Hebrew word ma-alah, translated “degrees”, is quite uncommon in the Old Testament. But it is repeated often in the accounts, of 2 Kings and Isaiah, concerning the healing and recovery of the king. (Practically all the other occurrences of the word “degrees” are in the inspired titles of the psalms just mentioned.)

Of the fifteen psalms: four were apparently composed by David, and one by Solomon — leaving ten by an unnamed author. Thus we have the following points of comparison:

Songs of Degrees
1. Received fifteen extra years (2 Kings 20:6; Isa. 38:5)
1. A total of fifteen psalms
2. Shadow moved backward ten degrees (2 Kings 20:8-11; Isa. 38:8).
2. Ten psalms by an anonymous person (Hezekiah himself?)

At his recovery, Hezekiah praised God in an eloquent song (Isa. 38:9-20) describing his grief at the prospect of death, the unprofitableness of the death state, and his overwhelming joy at being spared by God’s grace. At the end of this song, he makes an interesting pledge which may bear on these “Songs of the Degrees”:

“The Lord was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord” (Isa. 38:20).

The likelihood is so great as almost to be a certainty that “my songs” include the “Songs of Degrees”, of which Hezekiah wrote ten — compiling them in suitable order with five psalms by his forefathers David and Solomon (which he might have also suitably modified, in keeping with his practice elsewhere).

Besides these points of the most general similarity between the psalms and Hezekiah’s experiences, there may also be discerned in the psalms themselves many much more specific allusions to the same experiences (to which reference will be made in their appropriate place).

2. Hezekiah’s recovery

On the third day, after earnest prayer, king Hezekiah was healed of his “sickness unto death”. In his illness and in his miraculous “resurrection” from certain death, the righteous king is typical of Christ. The famous Messianic chapter, Isaiah 53 (actually Isaiah 52:13-53:12), should be read as having its roots in the events of 2 Kings and Isaiah 38. For it was Hezekiah who first bore the griefs of a threatened nation, who was first stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. It was Hezekiah who was first brought to face death at an early age — “cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8; 38:10-12). And it was Hezekiah who first “prolonged his days” (though only for fifteen more years) and “saw his seed” Manasseh, who would succeed him on the throne. By his knowledge and steadfast faith before the twin enemies — death and the Assyrian — Hezekiah mediated for the righteous remnant before the throne of God, bolstered their faith in the promised deliverance, and (in a limited sense) “justified many” (Isa. 53:11) by his worthy example.

An appreciation of such interwoven threads of Scripture lifts the history of Hezekiah and his songs of celebration out of the ordinary; in these accounts we have a glorious insight into the supreme atoning sacrifice of our Savior. On the third day the suffering servant Hezekiah was healed by the hand of the Lord, so that he might go up into His house (2 Kings 20:8). On the third day the Messiah — who had previously suffered as the perfect servant of his Father — was healed by the Father’s hand so that he might ascend to heaven itself, to the throne of God.

3. Five groups

Just as the whole of the Psalms may be divided into five “books”, so the fifteen Songs of Degrees are divisible into five groups or “books”, of three psalms each. Each “book” has the same scheme: The first psalm deals with a hopeless situation, and the threat of enemies. The second has as its subject prayer and trust in God. And the third psalm (like the third day in Scriptural typology) speaks of deliverance from the threat, a “resurrection” from despair to hope, from death to life, from darkness to light, and peace in Zion. More so than almost any other part of the Psalter, the Songs of Degrees are very much “Songs of Zion”! (This division and main outline was first suggested by Thirtle.)

Here is the beautiful pattern that can be traced in rich detail through the whole of these “Songs of Ascents” or “Pilgrim Songs”. We are pilgrims endeavoring by “degrees” to go up to the house of God in Zion, and worship Him in spirit and truth even now. Like Hezekiah and Christ, we experience also the distress of mortality and the fear of the “enemy”. Like them we must pray to our Father for deliverance:

“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice... ” (130:1-4).

The underlying pattern of the Songs of Degrees, and the pattern of the life of faith, is summarized in the very first verse of Psalm 120:

“In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.”

Distress, prayer, and deliverance: Distress makes prayer fervent as does nothing else; here is the key to human suffering. But neither distress nor prayer would be of any eternal consequence if God did not hear us and answer our pleas. There is nothing greater to which man might aspire than an audience with the Almighty! What wonder there is in the concluding thought — what consolation and relief! “And he heard me!”

4. Outline

The following is an outline of the Songs of Degrees, based on the above hypothesis:

The Songs of Degrees
The days of Hezekiah

1. National Israel in Exile (120-122): Captive among a warlike people, Israel yearns for peace and consoles herself with the fact that God will not “sleep” but will bring her back to His Land, to stand within the gates of His holy city.
The prayers of many Jews in captivity by Assyia. At the wondrous overthrow of Sennacherib’s host a remnant return to Judah.

a. Distress: Sojourning in Mesech and Kedar (120)
b. Trust: The Lord preserves us in exile and return (121)
c. Peace: Standing within the gates of Jerusalem (122)

2. Servant Israel under Siege (123-125): The servant nation in the land, filled with the contempt of proud warriors, trusts in the Lord to fight on her behalf and preserve His holy mountain inviolate.
The contempt and blasphemy of Rabshakeh, and the faith of Hezekiah under siege in Jerusalem.

a. Scorn: The lowly and despised servant (123)
b. Trust: The Lord is on our side (124)
c. Immovability: The Rock of mount Zion (125)

3. The Family in Israel (126-128): With no posterity to preserve his name, the righteous man goes forth in tears. The “seed” is sown, he “sleeps” and wakes to behold the harvest. The travail of his soul brings forth “children” and peace upon Israel.
Hezekiah’s prayer for prolonging of days to beget seed to continue David’s line — realized in the birth of Manasseh.

a. Destitution: Sowing in tears (126)
b. Trust: The Lord gives the increase and builds the house (127)
c. Blessing: The harvest in joy, and the “house” of the godly man (128)

4. The Individual in Israel (129-131): The individual feels overwhelmed and “plowed under” by them that “hate Zion”. From the depths of his affliction he cries to the Lord, who brings forgiveness and contentment at last.
Personal wrestlings of Hezekiah with the prospect of an early death, and with his own sins.

a. Affliction: The plowmen upon my back (129)
b. Prayer: O Lord, hear my voice from the depths (130)
c. Contentment: Satisfaction, humility, and rest (131)

5. The Ecclesia in Israel (132-134): The faithful remnant of spiritual “Israel” feels a deep unrest that the Lord has no secure place of habitation upon the earth. They pray that the Lord might grant them unity and blessing in Zion, so that they might be the true embodied ark of God upon the earth.
The unity of northern and southern remnants, joined together by Hezekiah, praising the Lord in His sanctuary after the danger is past.

a. Unrest: No habitation for the ark of the Lord (132)
b. Trust: The Lord gives the brethren unity (133)
c. Blessing: Uplifted hands in the sanctuary (134)

5. Threads of continuity

In addition to the repetitive cycles of the Songs of Degrees, there appears to be a thread of continuity from beginning to end of the whole fifteen psalms. These songs are “degrees” by which the lover of Zion ascends from “exile” among a warlike people (120) to peaceful worship in God’s sanctuary (134). Along the way he finds the scorn of the ungodly at his servant status (123), the seeming hopelessness of his labors (126), the depths of sin’s affliction (129), and a sense of rootlessness upon the earth (132). In this “Pilgrim’s Progress” he follows the path of Christ: a suffering servant, a sower in tears, a “stranger” in a world of sin. But at each new trial the pilgrim strengthens his trust in God with a view of future blessing and the reversing of his distresses, and so continues his journey Zionwards. “Degree” by “degree”, he ascends the fifteen steps (cp. Ezek. 40:6,22,26,31,34,37,49) and finds himself at long last within the Lord’s House of Prayer. For him the struggles of the “night” have been all worthwhile: in the “morning” of a new age he is reborn:

“The Lord that made heaven and earth, bless thee out of Zion” (134:3).

It should be noted that the songs read just as smoothly as a chronicle of the wanderings and trials of national Israel, climaxing in their acceptance of the Messiah, their repentance and faith, the opening of the “fountain for uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1), and the “first dominion” (Mic. 4:8).

And in an interesting parallel, which might be followed through in some detail, both the Songs of Degrees and the Song of Songs begin with exile in Kedar (120:5; Song 1:5) and end with unity upon mount Zion — expressed in the holy anointing oil (133 and 134; Song 8:14). These similarities may offer a clue as to the actual author of the Song of Songs (which “pertains to Solomon”, but was not necessarily written by him!). (For more detail on the authorship of the Song of Songs, see H.A. Whittaker, Bible Studies, pp. 120-126.)
Next Next Next