The Song of Degrees, Song of Steps, Gradual Psalms, Song of Ascents (Hebrew: שיר המעלות, Shir Hama'aloth) or Hymn of Degrees is a title given to fifteen of the Psalms, that each starts with the words Shir Hama'alot (A Song of Ascents) and which are numbered 120–134. The probable origin of this name is the circumstance that these psalms came to be sung by the people on the ascents or goings up to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16). They were well suited for being sung, by their poetic form and the sentiments they express. "They are characterized by brevity, by a key-word, by repetition, and by their style.... More than half of them are cheerful, and all of them hopeful."
They are sometimes called "Pilgrim Songs." Four of them (122, 124, 131 and 133) are claimed in their ascriptions to have been by David, and one (127) by Solomon, the rest being anonymous.
Traditionally, these psalms were chanted by the kohanim (priests) as they ascended the steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem. These 15 psalms are each titled "A Song of Ascents" [Hebrew: shir hamma‘aloth]. "This term has been explained by some as a ‘Pilgrim Song’ sung by pilgrims sung by the Jews enroute to their annual pilgrimages at Jerusalem, probably in conjunction with other pilgrimage and "Zion" psalms such as 15,24,48, and 87 as they went up to these major feasts year by year.
These "degrees" or "steps" consist in the reiteration of a word or thought occurring in one clause, verse, or stanza, which in the next verse or stanza is used, as it were, as a step (or degree) by which to ascend to another and higher truth.
Mosaic law required adult male Israelites to appear before the Lord (where the ark of the covenant rested) three times a year (Exodus 23:14-17; Exodus 34:18-23; Deuteronomy 16:16). Crowds of pilgrims (Psalms 42:4; Psalms 55:14; Luke 2:44) sang on the way to Jerusalem (Isaiah 30:29). The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 24:1; Psalms 84:1; Psalms 118:1; Psalms 120-134) were likely sung as pilgrims climbed the ascent to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. The prophets condemned the celebration of religious pilgrimages and feasts when not accompanied by genuine devotion to the Lord expressed in righteous lives (Isaiah 1:12-13; Amos 4:4-5; Amos 5:5-6,Amos 5:21-24).
The New Testament witnessed the continuing popularity of pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Matthew 21:8-11; Luke 2:41; John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:2,John 7:10; John 12:12,John 12:20; Acts 2:5-10; Acts 20:16).
All of these hallelujah psalms are hymns of praise. The fifteen Psalms of Ascent, comprised within Psalms 120-134, were sung by the Levites on each of the successive fifteen steps leading to the Court of Israel in the Temple. These psalms were sung at the celebration of Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles. The Hebrew pilgrims also sang them to the accompaniment of the flute as they journeyed up to Jerusalem to worship at the Feasts of the Lord.
Later, these psalms were connected with the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. At the water-drawing ceremony there, the Levites stood "upon the fifteen steps leading down from the court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to The Fifteen Songs of Ascent in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns" (The Mishnah, Sukkah 5.4). The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated Israel’s period of wandering in the wilderness. As part of their observance, families built small booths (Hebrew: sukkoth), in the streets and on the rooftops and shaded them with palm and willow branches and other greenery. The Hebrews lived in these booths during the week of the Feast.
Jerusalem (Zion) is prominently mentioned in these Psalms of Ascent: "Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:2); "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion" (Psalm 125:1); "When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed" (Psalm 126:1); "May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life" (Psalm 128:5); "May all who hate Zion be turned back in shame" (Psalm 129:5); and "The Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling" (Psalm 132:13).
THE LORD OUR PEACE
Psalm 120: 6-7 I have lived too long with the people that hate peace. I want peace, but when I say this they want war.
Peace is an important concept in the Songs of Ascents. Two psalms end with the blessing: "Peace [Hebrew: shalom] be upon Israel" (Psalm 125:5; 128:6). Psalm 122 is a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. The apostle Paul later gave a similar blessing to the church: "Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God" Galatians 6:16).
Many of God's people had to travel from a considerable distance to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Therefore, God’s protection is an important theme of these psalms: "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore" (Psalm 125:2); "The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore" (Psalm 121:8); and "Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain" (Psalm 127:1). The pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festival seasons were important events in the lives of the ancient Hebrews, serving to remind the people of their covenant relationship with God.
A couple of these psalms specifically mention the blessing of children: "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them" (Psalm 127:3-5) and "Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table" (Psalm 128:3).
The Songs of Ascents themselves are not long psalms, but average about seven verses. But for all their brevity, they are profoundly inspirational. The returning exiles sang: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him" (Psalm 126:4-6). The last verse became the basis of the famous Protestant hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves." Similarly, a popular Hebrew folk song is based on Psalm 133:1, which proclaims: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!"
Psalm 134 provides an appropriate conclusion to this collection: "Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion" (verses 1-3).
THE HALLELUJAH PSALMS PSALMS 146-150
The last 5 psalms begin and end with the phrase "Praise the Lord" Hebrew: hallelujah). A number of scholars consider the previous psalm to end in a doxology concluding the fifth book of the Psalms: "Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever" (Psalm 145:21). The last five psalms would then form an epilogue to the Psalter as a whole, corresponding in number to the five books of the Psalms.
Psalm 148 calls upon everything to praise God: "Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars" (verses 2-3). Psalm 149 emphasizes that God’s people have particular reason to praise their Creator: "Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation. Let the saints rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds" (verses 3-5).
Psalm 150 brings to climactic conclusion this fanfare of praise. This last psalm is a doxology for the whole Psalter, for all five books of the Psalms. After the initial "Praise the Lord," it gives 10 commands in climactic parallelism to praise God in different ways and with a variety of musical instruments (verses 1-5). Then comes the majestic finale, in which the congregation sings, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord" (verse 6).