Psalm 119: An Ode of Ascents.
Unto the Lord in mine affliction have I cried, and he heard me.
O Lord, deliver my soul from unrighteous lips and from a crafty tongue.
What shall be given unto thee, and what shall be added unto thee for thy crafty tongue?
The arrows of the mighty one, sharpened with coals of the desert.
Woe is me, for my sojourning is prolonged. I have tented with the tentings of Kedar. My soul hath long been a sojourner.
With them that hate peace, I was peaceable. When I spake unto them, they warred against me without a cause.
Psalm 119, or 120 in the Hebrew numbering, is the first in a collection of 15 psalms known as the psalms or the odes of ascent. The image of journeying upward underlies the progression of this collection of 15 songs. The first thought of upward movement is in the Greek word used in the inscription over each psalm. They are called anabathmoi, meaning a flight of stairs. This upward movement has both a historical and a physical meaning as well as a spiritual sense. It is commonly believed that these 15 odes were sung by the people of Israel as they left their homes throughout the land to make their ways to the main roads leading up to Jerusalem, where they would join their fellow countrymen for the great feasts in the temple of God.
Another image has endured through the years, that these psalms were sung, one on each of the 15 steps leading up to the temple itself. Spiritually, the image of the people literally going up into the hill country that surrounds Jerusalem, speaks of the great cry in the church: “Let us lift up our hearts unto the Lord!” in preparation for the great giving of thanks in the Eucharist. St. Paul sees this upward movement as a deep, personal, spiritual act. In Philippians 3:14: “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This upward walk is seen in the Lord’s own redemptive walk, as he set his face with determination like a flint, to go up to Jerusalem, where he would despise the shame of crucifixion in order to lift us sinful people up to God in the triumph of his resurrection.
This journey to Jerusalem is deeply embedded both in Scripture and in Orthodox hymnography. In the morning service of orthros, the anabathmoi, the songs of ascent, are sung each week as the story of Christ’s offering and resurrection are remembered. These psalms are chanted with interwoven spiritual meanings, from Lord’s day to Lord’s day. The songs of ascent have a particular important place in the lenten Presanctified Liturgy, where all 15 psalms are chanted in each service to draw people to journey with the Lord throughout the lenten season, to go up with him to Jerusalem, where the Lamb of God is offered for the life of the world and for our salvation.
The inner personal life of “rising up to the Lord” is seen in the great image of the Ladder of St. John Climacus, with his 30 ascending steps of personal transformation, each of the 30 steps representing the years of the hidden life of Christ. This is reminiscent of beautiful words of Psalm 83:6: “Blessed is the man whose help is from thee. He hath made ascent in his heart, in the vale of weeping, in the place which he hath appointed.”
With this imagery, then, let’s take up the first of these psalms, 119, where we are immediately confronted by the urgent, even violent, nature of this journey of the soul, this quest for salvation, this desire and pilgrimage for union with God. The psalm begins with affliction and distress, and it ends with war. This intense tone reminds us of the Lord’s word in Matthew 11:12: “The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Violence, affliction, war—clearly, this is not some relaxed journey, as in a tourist’s vacation. This is not a leisurely, comfortable wandering about to find ourselves. No, Psalm 119 recalls the first coming of the Word of Christ: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
The beginning tone of this journey makes clear that there is a compelling reason to begin this upward movement, this pilgrimage. First, as we’ve already seen, the pilgrim is not living in a place of peace. Trouble and war are on every side, both within and without. In other words, this journey begins with a motivation as simple as recognizing: “I have to get out of here! This place is dangerous!” And perhaps when we fail to sense that urgency in our own spiritual life, we begin to understand how we can be so hot and so cold, so casual, so undisciplined, and so leisurely about our own spiritual journey. This is a dangerous place, says the awakening soul: I dare not stay here.
The second reason, while perhaps not as violent, is even stronger, and it’s deeper. It is the sense that this place I’m in now is not my home. It’s not where I belong. This place does not find resonance with the deepest longings and yearnings of my soul. We find this in verse five: “Woe is me, for my sojourning is prolonged. My soul hath long been a sojourner.” That word, “sojourner,” while helpful, doesn’t usually strike an immediate recognition in our modern ears. A sojourner is a person who spends less than a day in any one place. He’s never at home. He’s always having to leave to get on to another place. He has no rest; he has no sense that this is the place that God has made for me. The word that is translated “sojourner” or “sojourn” is the Greek word “paroikia,” and the word itself, “para-oikia,” has the idea of circling around home, but not being able to get there. You can see it, if not physically; you can see it in your mind’s eye: something more, something better, something prepared, something for me, a place where I belong, a place of peace, of comfort, of communion.
I can remember, many years ago, we were traveling as a family, and we were going across the country, and one night we came to a large city, found our hotel, came in with our young children, and my wife needed to go out and just get a few things. So, without any thought that that would be a problem, she left me with our little children and I put them to bed, and she was gone, and gone, and gone—until I became very anxious and frightened. What could have happened to her? It was hours for what should have taken a few minutes. She came back to the room and looked very, very distressed. What had happened: she got on a beltway around this city and for some reason she couldn’t figure out the exit to get to where we were staying, and she said she passed our hotel more times than she could even begin to imagine, until finally the lights shone in a rearview mirror, and a policeman who had seen her do this many times finally stopped her and said, “Lady, can I help you get to where you’re going?” That’s the idea: going on and on and on and not being able to get to the place of rest.
Doesn’t that describe so much of the inner condition of our lives? We just keep moving on and hoping that this might be the way, that this might be the place—and yet, it is not a place of peace, it is not a place where we belong. We just keep circling, circling even with home in our vision of heart, but not being able to get there. It is the experience of our fallen race: cast out of our home in Eden, a place that God had prepared for his children, of abundance and communion with himself. But we are now barred from re-entering, by the flaming sword.
Well, why is the pilgrim in this dilemma? The answer is given again in the psalm: because of unrighteous and deceitful words that turned the heart of God’s child away from hearing and obeying God’s words with love and trust. For when he had been at home, Adam heard the word of the Lord: “In whatever day you eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall die by death.” But in that garden home of Adam and Eve the serpent came with lying and seductive words and assured Eve, “You shall not die by death, for God knows in the day you eat from this tree, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” And that’s why we need the way of ascent.
The traveler, living in the distress and danger of his self-created exile, having wandered far from home, as the poetry of the psalm suggests, from Meshek to Kedar, from Asia to Arabia, dares to hope that God will deliver him from his imprisonment from exile, because the deceiver will be taken with the hottest of flaming coals. For the God whom he had disobeyed and from whom he had cut himself off had declared to the enemy, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall be on guard for his heel.”
This urgency, this sense of exile and danger, this awareness of living under the oppression of the evil deceiver gives the light of hope to the first word of the Gospel, to come up into the forgiveness and the freedom, into the light, into the love of God. It is the word “repent.” Change your mind. Allow God to transform your vision. Move out and move up, into the loving embrace of the forgiving, life-giving, and ever-loving Father. The journey may be long and difficult, but we have to get out of here. In this first song of the journey, every trouble and every danger is met with a promise of hope in the salvation of our God.
So whether it is in the daily struggle of our lives, or as we hear these beautiful psalms chanted in morning orthros, or if it’s during the lenten season when we are called together to journey to Jerusalem, to the tomb and to the joy of Pascha morning, let us pray in the way that our Lord has opened for us, as he himself went up to Jerusalem, to accomplish our way home to the Father’s house: “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”